High Water Mark: The Rise & Fall of The Pants

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 had 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 a dedicated network (cult?) of fans and artists inspired by a band that few outside of northern Vermont have ever heard of.

High Water Mark: The Rise & Fall of The Pants 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 late 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’re 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.

  • Bill Simmon
    Wood & Wire: The Hand-Crafted Guitars of Creston Lea, Digital Pamphleteer, Ambassador Brother Mister
  • Bill Simmon
  • Bill Simmon
  • Jeff Lawson
  • Project Type:
  • Genres:
    Music, rock, rock doc
  • Runtime:
    1 hour
  • Completion Date:
    March 1, 2016
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
    Black & White and Color
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
  • Independent Film Festival Boston
    Boston, MA
    United States
    April 29, 2016
    Massachusetts premiere
  • World premiere party
    Burlington, VT
    United States
    March 26, 2016
    World premiere
  • Vermont International Film Festival
    Burlington, VT
    United States
    October 22, 2016
Director Biography - Bill Simmon

Bill Simmon is a filmmaker, writer, and media educator in northern Vermont. His award-winning short documentaries include Wood & Wire: The Hand-Crafted Guitars of Creston Lea, and Digital Pamphleteer, about political writer and blogger, Steve Benen.

Bill teaches digital media and storytelling at a nonprofit community media center in Vermont and he teaches film and digital editing at local colleges.

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Director Statement

All media is storytelling. When you combine images and sounds you are telling a story, whether you intend to or not. It's just how human brains work—trying to make sense of disparate ideas in some form of coherent narrative. This fact about our nature is both a feature and a bug. Its means we are all natural-born creators and consumers of stories, which is great, but it also means that many of the stories we tell are digressive, absurd, pointless, or all of the above. The thing that separates good filmmakers from bad ones is not technical know-how or visual flare. It's eloquence.

Tell stories. Be eloquent.