Beneath an old two-story house in Fremont, Clyde Petersen’s basement bedroom is a construction-paper kingdom, a cozy monument to the transcendent power of creativity.
A cardboard castle borders two sides of Petersen’s patchwork-quilted bed, leftover ramparts from the mini-movie theatre he hosted at this year’s Short Run Comix & Art Festival. On a desk, a multiplane (tiers of glass plates in a metal frame used for shooting stop-motion animation) rise almost to the ceiling. One wall is all vinyl records. A pedal steel guitar sits on the floor, purchased earlier this year from one of the nation’s only dedicated pedal-steel dealers with money from Petersen’s Neddy at Cornish award. Next to the door—which is shingled with pornographic playing cards—hangs a blackboard chalk-scribbled with ideas for projects and pipe dreams.
“I don’t sleep a lot,” Petersen says. “But I sleep in my studio, so when I wake up I’m instantly thinking about stuff. Basically all I wanna do is animate and play pedal steel. I’m really working toward living the dream!”
Petersen speaks with enthusiasm and sincerity spiked with a wee sliver of self-aware irony: This is a person who’s arrived at success on his own terms, albeit a definition of success modest enough to fit inside a well-stocked bedroom workshop. Despite Petersen’s achievements over the past year—an Artist Trust Innovator Award, a 4Culture grant, gallery exhibitions at Bumbershoot and the Henry—his self-realization is forever in progress.
Petersen grew up in the queer DIY scene of Seattle and Bellingham, playing in bands since he was 16 and later producing and promoting all-ages shows. After studying documentary filmmaking at Western Washington University he immediately took off on 10 years of touring as manager for musician Laura Veirs and the band Earth and with his own musical project called Your Heart Breaks, pausing to settle intermittently in unheralded punk towns in Florida, Arkansas and Indiana.
For Your Heart Breaks, Petersen recruited friends from his travels—a rotating cast of about 50—to play lo-fi rock over plain-sung story-songs about poignantly weird/mundane life scenarios. The band has played across the United States and Europe and recorded seven albums for a slew of labels.
“Ten years later I was like, ‘I should do something with my film degree,’” Petersen says. He’d made some animated videos on tour and, after returning to Seattle in 2006, finagled his way into a salaried job at Portland record label Kill Rock Stars making videos for bands like Thao & the Get Down Stay Down and the Thermals. Over the years he’s made more than 30 videos, mostly stop-motion animated. His latest came out earlier this year: paper cutouts of Seattle psych-rockers Low Hums swimming alongside salmon through a kaleidoscopic oceanscape.
“A lot of bands don’t wanna think about their music video, don’t wanna deal with it,” Petersen says. “I’m the person they hire. Gimme the song, see you in three months.”
In 2009, Petersen was recording a song he wrote at K Records in Olympia. “Torrey Pines” was about road-tripping across the country with his mom, an undiagnosed schizophrenic obsessed with Hillary Clinton and Deanna Troi of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He passed the song along to Kimya Dawson through the label, hoping Dawson might contribute a verse. “She was like, ‘I just listened to your song for three hours in my car!’” Petersen says.
This was right after Dawson’s breakout turn on the Juno soundtrack; Petersen joined her on tour and the duo performed “Torrey Pines” together for years. After shows, fans would often approach Petersen and relate their own stories of familial mental illness.
“People were having so many emotional responses to that song, so that kept grinding away in my head,” Petersen says. “It would be really good to, like, unpack that.”
As of Jan. 1, with $30,000 of Kickstarter cash, Petersen has begun producing Torrey Pines, the feature-length animated film version of the song. The whole thing will be shot in this Fremont bedroom with Petersen’s multiplane and an SLR camera. He employs a pair of assistants and anticipates enlisting members of SEAT—the Seattle Experimental Animation Team, some 40 members strong—during the next year of filming.
In the meantime Petersen is working on his “long-term plan for Seattle”—establishing an all-ages gallery and concert venue in Ballard.
Not much time for sleep, which is exactly how Petersen wants to live.
“I hope people will work as hard as they possibly can to make the most amazing art and tell their own stories,” Petersen says. “This is your life we’re talking about! This is serious business! I would like it to be as fucking awesome as possible every moment of the day.”
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