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High Water Mark: The Rise and Fall of the Pants

Film poster for High Water Mark

Maine Public TV Air Times:
Thur., Feb. 15 at 10:00 pm
Sat., Feb. 17 at 11:00 am

In the last days before the internet changed the music industry forever, one small-town band’s will to succeed became the stuff of legend.

The Pants ruled the Burlington, Vermont music scene in the 1990s, combining the lo-fi underground aesthetic of bands like Guided By Voices and Pavement with songwriting chops reminiscent of The Pixies and Weezer’s River Cuomo. The Pants played “indie rock” before it had a name. They could tear the roof off with crunching post-punk noise suffused with jazzy chords and rhythms. They could just as easily leave ladies swooning and guys crying in their beers with their bittersweet ballads. Their singular sound garnered the attention of music labels as well as the enduring admiration of Vermont contemporaries such as Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz, James Kochalka Superstar, and Trey Anastasio of Phish.

But as the ‘90s came to a close, this buzz band from Burlington seemed to burn out as quickly as it had blown up, leaving many to wonder what happened. In 2006, nearly a decade after calling it quits, The Pants reunited for one triumphant, sold-out show at the Higher Ground Ballroom, the city’s largest rock venue.

Now, as the band members have moved on to new bands, new careers, families, and lives, the songs of The Pants still live on through dedicated network (cult?) of fans and artists inspired by a band that few outside of northern Vermont have ever heard of.

The film explores the band’s lasting footprint on Burlington’s vibrant music scene and the intense, devoted fandom they’ve enjoyed. It chronicles their struggle to “make it” in the 1990s, in the last days before the Internet era would forever change the music industry. The film also asks hard questions about the personal toll of ambition and what can happen when a big fish tries to swim upstream to a larger pond. High Water Mark is a story that happened in Vermont, but it’s a tale that no doubt rings familiar in countless music scenes around the country.

Ten years in the making, High Water Mark was directed by Vermont filmmaker, Bill Simmon, who compiled interviews with the band and fans, photos, documents, and hundreds of hours of audio and video of old shows in order to tell the band’s story.

“It was a labor of love,” says Simmon. “I tell my filmmaking students ‘don’t start down the path of making a documentary unless you are willing to eat, live, and breathe the film’s subject matter for years.’ I’m a huge Pants fan and I just made the film that I would want to see as a fan.”

Are the Pants ”the best band you’ve never heard” or one of thousands of talented acts that got caught up in the tumultuous shifting tides of the music biz? The answer might be both. Experience the story and music of The Pants, then you decide.

Produced by Bill Simmon of Candleboy Films