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Interview with Levi Fuller, “DIY Mayor of Seattle”

Levi Fuller

I recently sat down with Levi Fuller, a Seattle singer/songwriter, to talk about his recently released album Colossal, as well as several other somewhat related topics (ranging from cephalopods to the digitalization of music).

Levi, who originally hails from Boston, has been a fixture in the Seattle music scene for several years now. He is often described as “the DIY mayor of Seattle” and is both a distributor of music (as the editor of the Ball of Wax Audio Quarterly, a quarterly compilation of mostly local artists, and a DJ on Hollow Earth Radio) and an artist.

I asked Levi about his inspiration to create a cohesive music community out of a very fragmented scene. After relocating to Seattle with his then-girlfriend (now wife), Levi…

…saw all this great stuff happening and knew a lot of people who play music because they love to play music. But they didn’t necessarily make much of an effort to get it out into the world. I thought it would be fun to start another form of community around Ball of Wax. We all have similar approaches about doing it yourself and promoting local music…. It seems like Seattle is a little more conducive to this sort of thing.

We talked about the effects of technology on the music industry, as Levi mentioned that “the existence of was instrumental to the early years for Ball of Wax, in terms of making connections.” I asked Levi for his opinion on where the album as an art form was headed. He replied:

I think there are people whose job it should be to make music and tour. For me, I like having a job and not having to rely on music for my income, because then I would be very poor. That works for me, but I certainly wouldn’t want to tell Elvis Costello to get a day job. There is an argument to be made that people should be paid for the work they produce. At the same time you’ve got touring and t-shirts; so are albums just going to become another promotional tool that nobody pays for? I don’t know. And maybe that will make albums more interesting. Maybe people will make them more cheaply because they’re not the main product. I just heard that Mos Def released his most recent album as a t-shirt, with the album art in the front, the track list in the back, and a download code attached. I’ve tended to go the other way and make records, but really making records is another form of making t-shirts because it’s a big cool object that geeks get really excited about.

Levi also wears several other hats within the Seattle music community. He has two solo projects, one under his own name and another under the moniker Passenger Pigeon. Levi also plays bass in bands The Luna Moth and Pufferfish. I asked him if it was challenging transitioning between solo work and more ancillary roles.

I think it’s really fun — I have three perfect scenarios going. For my own stuff, if I’m playing with other people obviously I don’t tell them what to do, but I at least have the last say. In Luna Moth, it’s always been totally democratic. Our writing is mostly improv-based and we hone from there – the three of us consider ourselves equal partners. In Pufferfish, Jonah [Baker] is the singer/songwriter and we think of him as the boss. So I show up and do my hired gun thing – I get to play somebody else’s songs and have a fun time. It would be exhausting being the boss or the leader in every situation. And I also have a jug band where I guess I’m the leader, but it’s more like anarchy.

Levi’s recent release, Colossal, is a reflective album that (in this writer’s opinion) discusses the challenges in expressing oneself, as personified by both humans and animals. Although Levi often writes songs in the voices of animals (his last album, This Murder Is a Peaceful Gathering, was all about crows), some of his strongest songs on Colossal are written from the perspective of humans. The second track, “Mall of America”, is about spending time with an unfamiliar uncle after a family member’s funeral. It speaks to how a particular situation (in this case, waiting for flights at the Mall of America) can sometimes bring two people together that otherwise might never have been able to relate to one another. One of Levi’s most perceptive lines states, Once in a while I treat my family like people/Once in a while I act like a man/I finally see my family as people/I hope they can see me as a man.

While the second track discusses breakthroughs in communication that happen almost accidentally, the third describes an attempt (which perhaps ends as a failure) to communicate in everyday life: I just don’t know how to talk/To members of my species anymore/Every day the mailman comes/I stare at him blankly/Sometimes when I’m lonely/(Lonelier than usual),/I mail myself a package/Just so he can bring it to my door. Although this character’s inability to communicate is crippling, we all have occasional struggles with “members of our species” a problem that Levi captures quite well.

While those two songs deal with communication between humans, there are several other strong songs written from the perspective of animals. “Colossal”, the opening track, is a song written in the voice of a colossal squid (the largest invertebrate species with a maximum size of 46 feet). Levi commented:

I think animals are really interesting in a lot of ways because they’re so different from us. Having a theme makes it a little easier to write songs because at least you know where to start. The first song I wrote on this album was “Colossal”. A friend of mine has an informal group called the Cephalopod Appreciation Society – very nonscientific and artsy and kind of goofy but really fun. She invited me to one of their meetings. I had been reading about colossals, so I wrote a song to play at the meeting.

Whether the medium is an invertebrate or a vertebrate, Levi writes and sings about their troubles with insightfulness and sincerity. Both Pufferfish and Levi Fuller are hosting an album release party at Conor Byrne in Ballard on Saturday, November 21st at 9 p.m.

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