Levi Fuller: The Man Behind the Mixtape

The Seattle music nerd’s audio quarterly, Ball of Wax, is a treasure trove of new and obscure music.

There are plenty of ways to find out about new or otherwise obscure music in Seattle and beyond, but it’s a select, wise few who know to pick up Levi Fuller’s unassuming compilation CD, Ball of Wax Audio Quarterly, when a new edition comes out every three months. “I can go from a handful of raw songs to the release show in about two weeks,” Fuller, a towheaded 33-year-old, says as he munches some frites from Gainsbourg (the Greenwood bar, not the French musician).

Obviously we’re not talking about a huge production here—the case is made of chipboard and silk-screened with a minimalist design of circles (a play on the Ball of Wax theme), and the songs come in CD-R format. But this humble yet visually appealing homemade packaging contains one of the best ways for interested Seattleites to discover new or unsung local and national bands. You can order the compilations online (out-of-print back issues are available for free download), but the best way to get a copy is at the Ball of Wax CD release shows; these take place at the Sunset Tavern, and the cover charge, $7, includes a copy of the CD. The live lineup usually features whichever contributors can make it; for Ball of Wax 17, it’ll be Daniel G. Harmann, Solvents, Happy Birthday Secret Weapon, Brian Baillie, Seth Howard, Jack Shriner, Chris Wise, and Black Math. Many of Ball of Wax‘s contributors go on to successful solo careers: the Pica Beats, Sleepy Eyes of Death, Open Choir Fire, Jeremy Burk, and acoustic songwriter Joshua Morrison are all alums. Morrison also played at the second Ball of Wax release show, which took place at Fuller’s house. Now he’s a local scene fixture. “It’s been great to see him go from playing in my basement to selling out the Triple Door and getting all this great hype on KEXP,” Fuller says.

The idea for Ball of Wax came to Fuller five years ago, while he was watching one of his bandmates in The Luna Moth, Mark Schlipper, perform. “I was thinking, ‘I know so many people who are making really amazing sounds, and it would be really cool to collect them all in one place,'” he explains. “At the time, I was thinking of more of a themed thing, like solo guitar guys.” He soon eschewed that somewhat restrictive idea for something more free-form, without geographic or genre boundaries. Each copy of Ball of Wax contains 16 to 19 songs, and while Fuller doesn’t receive many submissions—perhaps 20 to 40 for each edition, with a few late stragglers—the song quality tends to remain strong, and most of the submissions (usually about half from local artists) make the cut. At first Fuller solicited bands for submissions, but after creating a MySpace page he began to receive friend requests and submissions from artists all over the world.

Occasionally Fuller puts out special themed editions, for which he solicits particular types of songs. Ball of Wax 13 is an homage to George Carlin, who died not long before its release; all its songs contain at least one of the seven words you can’t say on television. Issue 11 used a format invented by folks from local DIY label Beep Repaired (with which Fuller and his solo music is associated): “We [have] 30 or 40 musicians divided into 11 groups, pick names out of a hat, [and] get into those groups to make and record a song by the end of the day,” Fuller says. Most of the time, though, Ball of Wax‘s only theme is high-quality songwriting. But Fuller’s taste leans toward unorthodox, experimental interpretations of genres, whether folk music or rock and roll. Straight-ahead strumming interests him less than do musicians who manage to put a new twist on that old song-and-dance.

“Sometimes I’ll get submissions from indie rock band X, or whatever, and it’s like…well, that’s fine, you guys are definitely doing what you’re trying to do, and it’s good, but there’s already a Death Cab,” he explains. Not to say there aren’t any good rock bands who’ve contributed to Ball of Wax—Open Choir Fire and Lake of Falcons, Fuller says, are two examples. Plus, Fuller likes The Luna Moth, a somewhat experimental post-rock band, for “the big, massive rock aspect of it, not just the noodly, quiet, subtle bits, you know. I like playing bass with three levels of distortion on it. I’m a huge fan of loud guitars and big, rockin’ music.”

Fuller also plays in local alt-country band Pufferfish—you’ll hear him on banjo, lap steel, guitar, and bass—and in a jug band called the Dexter Street Stompers. In addition, he has a biweekly DJ gig at Hollow Earth Radio and organizes a monthly quiet-music night called Softly Now (every first Wednesday, previously at the McLeod Residence, now at the Jewelbox). And as if that weren’t enough to keep the guy busy, he’s also a competent songwriter. Each Ball of Wax always contains one of his own songs, and he’s about to release his third album. And that’s all while holding down a full-time job.

Still, Fuller seems content to let Ball of Wax grow organically, by word of mouth. Unfortunately, he says, “I feel like it’s more of a hit with the musicians than the listeners. It’s like the word spreads faster among musicians than among music consumers.” Thing is, he’s never claimed to be a great publicist. “I’ve always had a really weird relationship with growth, whether it’s your favorite band you saw playing in someone’s basement winding up on Saturday Night Live or your favorite small company becoming a huge nationwide chain,” he says. “If people start catching on and if [the CDs] start selling like hotcakes, great, but I’m not gonna make a huge effort to make that happen, or give up if that doesn’t happen.”