The Ballard Sessions – The Art of Eratosthenes Fackenthall: Original Folk Music Live and Local
When I started to think about what I would write about this month, I kept getting overwhelmed. The amazing experiences and acoustic music performances I was able to be a part of and witness to in June simply abound.
It was then that I took a quiet moment to ask “what do all these events and experiences have in common?” And that’s when an answer immediately plopped down from the sky, as they so often do when one finally takes that quiet moment: Eratosthenes Fackenthall (or “Tos” to his friends). Tos had been at all these events. Then I had to ask why, and what is he doing? And hooray! Here is my story….
I first met Tos outside Conor Byrne open mic, on a very random night which started with me returning home from guitar camp, Golden Gardens and jamming in the street with Sammy Witness and Philip Kobernik (Hey Marseilles). Sammy introduced me to Tos, as we were playing and working out harmonies, and Tos started taking photos of us. A week or so later I was tagged in a very high-quality photo by Tos (that subsequently became my profile picture for the next few months). After that, I kept seeing Tos around Conor Byrne and other events in the music community taking photos and video of musicians. I received an e-mail from Tos at one point, inviting me to participate in something he was calling, “The Ballard Sessions,” in which he invited several of his musician friends to be taped on the streets of Ballard late at night.
Above is a video from one of the first Ballard Sessions of Kevin Long playing his original composition “Goodnight Moon”
Pandi: Can you tell me a little bit about The Ballard Sessions, and how you got the idea and why you do them?
Tos: It was kind of a fluke. I had just spent the weekend with Noah Gundersen up in Bellingham; I’d rented some equipment. At Western Washington University there’s a stairwell where he wanted me to record him because it has really great reverb. At that point I’d been doing a few things around town for a few of my friends. This part’s kind of a long story but I really love the “take away shows.” There’s a guy in France, Vincent Moon, that records artist’s in unusual spaces. There’s one of Arcade Fire in an elevator, and Noah and The Whale on a subway; he does a brilliant job of it. And I wanted to be able to do that but I never had the equipment for it, or I thought I didn’t have the equipment for it because you need a wireless mic system. So I broke down and rented it for this weekend (with Noah Gundersen) but I didn’t give myself time enough to learn it so I ended up not being able to use it with Noah. So when I came back that night to Conor Byrne (Open Mic) I had one more day to use it so I decided I’d take it and record people out in the streets of Ballard with this equipment. I still didn’t get very much use out of the wireless system but I had a Zoom H4N that I could use to get audio. What I ended up finding was the equipment that I had was better then I thought it was; I have a Rode VideoMic for interviews, it’s directional. In the past when I’ve tried to use it it’s been in an amplified place and it doesn’t really work, it’s all maxed out. That’s more of the technical piece. There’s a whole other piece, which is probably more interesting to read about, on why I’m doing this. Specifically why I started doing it that day was because I had some equipment until the next morning, and I hadn’t utilized it for what I’d rented it for and I wanted to get something out of it so I could justify the expense. And then it just happened and was amazing and there’s been all this momentum because everybody wants to do one. It somehow encapsulates what people like about Conor Byrne, there’s a sense of community; you walk in there and everybody knows you. Everybody’s a starving artist so they all support each other, everybody’s in the business in someway. Everyone there has a guitar on their back or they’re a promoter or a photographer. There’s a few fans but most everyone there seems to be “in it” or an artist themselves. It’s a whole different crowd of people then at your normal show. So somehow this Ballard Session idea takes the best of why we’re all there and puts it in a space that you can really appreciate it. Honestly the sound isn’t really great in Conor Byrne, the system, people are chatting, unless you’re Tony Kevin Jr. and you can shut everybody up. It’s like you never really get to hear, especially when people play quieter; it works great when Head and The Heart show up and everybody’s stomping and clamping and participating. But for your average singer-songwriter…
Pandi: Kevin Long and I dealt with that last week when we dual finger-picked a lullaby I wrote and played the night before at the Seattle Living Room 3rd Anniversary Show. I remember feeling like, “why did I even try to finger pick at Conor Byrne?”
Tos: Right. It’s tough for that. And then I’m a little claustrophobic so I’m usually toward the back and it’s like you have to either be up in the front and just not move or just hang in the back and miss the whole show.
Pandi: So what I hear you saying is that part of your intent by doing the Ballard Sessions is to showcase these artists in a way that people can actually hear it; where they might not be able to inside.
Tos: Right, right, and that’s a definite benefit. I want to showcase the music. If you’ve been to a living room show and heard this amazing songwriting and then you can’t hear the artist do the same at Conor Byrne, it just becomes a tragedy.
Pandi: So you’ve been going to living room shows for a while then?
Tos: No, the 3-year anniversary show last week was my first one. All of this stuff that’s happening with my project has literally blown-up in the last 3 weeks. I went to Bellingham with Noah Gundersen, which was crazy enough as it was, awesome weekend. Then I did the first Ballard Session which was so positive. And then Seattle Living Room Shows, and it just keeps branching out
Noah Gundersen Video:
Pandi: Why Conor Byrne Open Mic?
Tos: The thing I like about Conor Byrne is that because everyone is a starving artist, they really appreciate any PR they get. I mean even if their video is only seen by my 1,400 facebook friends, they really seem grateful. Also, people who aren’t starving artists don’t understand; they expect you to work for free. Nobody in the Conor Byrne community has ever asked me to do something in a way that wasn’t either extremely appreciative or paid me in beer or food or given me what money they can. It feels different then say, somebody randomly finds you on the internet and tries to hire you. Or some random person you used to work in an office with says, “oh you take pictures, come do this for me for free.”
Pandi: Has that happened to you?
Tos: Oh yeah, it happens all the time. “Oh you’re a photographer.” But they don’t know what it’s like to try and make rent as an artist. They think you’re just doing this on the side. (Then there’s the Conor Byrne scene) St. Paul de Vence invited me to come out and tape them all around Bainbridge Island in a couple weeks. They’re gonna feed and drink me and probably pay me a little bit of cash, maybe. But they’re super appreciative of what I do, and they don’t take it for granted. It’s not a “hey come do this thing.”
St. Paul de Vence Video
Pandi: On a tangent, I’m thinking about putting on a mini-acoustic fest at a cabin later in the summer; for all of us Conor Byrne folk who didn’t get into Doe Bay. Based on our conversation thus far, I’m wondering if you’d be interested in covering it.
Tos: Totally. That’s funny, and it’s kind of part of the reason why I decided to do The Ballard Sessions. Doe Bay sold out in like 3 minutes, and I was like “I don’t need stinking Doe Bay, I’ll just make my own thing.” And there’s gonna be like 20 some photographers at Doe Bay, and amazing videographers that I can’t even begin to compete with. So I’m like let them go and I’ll just make my own little thing. I’m at Conor Byrne every week, I know everyone there; it just makes sense.
Pandi: Can you talk a little about your interest in taping musicians in the first place?
Tos: I just got my Master’s in Psychology, which I probably won’t use. People have always told me there stories so I always thought maybe I should be a therapist because people tell me their stories. But now I’m realizing that I’m interested in the story; I’m fascinated by that place you get to with people once you’ve known them a while. That moment of “how the hell are you still here?” after all the things they’ve been through. I feel that same way about the war of art. “How are you not discouraged by now, why do you do what you do, what do you get from it.” Invariably the answer is always, “I just can’t not do this.” But I’m interested in that same sort of ambivalence of being an artist, the love hate, and yet you’re still doing it this even though you still have to have a day job or like your family says you’re stupid. The everybody telling you you’re great but inside you can’t fully accept it, all this that you deal with as an artist.
For me if I’m supporting an artist, I’m interested as much in the artist as a person as I am in what there doing. When I do a Kickstarter for example, it’s a narrative documentary. I just did one for Goldfinch, the people in that band are almost middle-age, they both have kids, and that’s fascinating to me; they’re still pursuing the dream later in life. The answer I got out of that one was, “Music is the one thing that makes sense to me. Nothing else in life makes sense.”
Pandi: So you never just meet someone and you’re like, “I want to tape you”?
Tos: Yup. Nope. It’s relational. Generally that’s part of the comfort and the feeling that comes out in videos. There’s something else there; and that’s also how I take pictures. Accepting the fact that you as the photographer are presence there and are affecting the situation. Instead of thinking you’re some 3rd party observer. Actually using your presence and the rapport you have with people.To me, my videos look and feel different from some like MTV video…where there’s no connection, that’s like performance and you don’t feel anything. So I use that relational piece in The Ballard Sessions and also, the war of art and those questions draws me to filming. And even as I’m filming, I follow the emotion, that whole piece of why they’re doing what there doing is right there, in that moment. And it is that one place that makes sense, where they push through and get to do what they love, and they wouldn’t do it any other way; no matter if they’re living in their parents basement or whatever. I’m trying to capture that. That’s what I love, that’s what inspires me to get up in the morning; people pushing through.
Pandi: The primary posting of this article is going to be in The Victory Review, which is The North West Acoustic Music Association. Could you expound on why you are recording acoustic music.
Tos: For me, acoustic music is the truer form of music. When there’s amplification and a microphone, to me that’s a barrier between the artist and the audience. Living Room Shows and Take-Away Shows (The Ballard Sessions) have kind of ruined me for any sort of big “Show Box” sort of experience. I can’t hear the lyrics, there’s too much bass, I didn’t bring my earplugs, maybe I’m just getting old but…I hate it. I’m like can’t I just go hang out at Conor Byrne or go to a living room show? So as a viewer, I vastly prefer an acoustic, none amplified experience. There is an intimacy that’s missing from “the big show”; it’s like the MTV video. There’s a barrier, and lights and all this stuff. You get a crowd experience, which can be fun, especially when everyone knows the music (getting back to The Head and the Heart stomping and clapping sort of thing). But otherwise I want to hear the lyrics. And then there’s the default that my camera equipment can’t handle amplified music anyway so it’s a happy coincidence.
Pandi: How did you get into video in the first place?
Tos: I have no idea. It’s funny though when I look back, it was all kind of adding up to this. I met my friend Tim and he’s a musician and he was talking about going home and video taping himself playing his music with a camera he borrowed. And I had a camera, and he was going to just videotape himself with a tripod and I remember thinking, “well that’s boring.” That day I met him he told me about The Take-Away Shows so that day I went home and watched like 50 of them; felt so inspired, “there’s so many cool locations all over Seattle!” So after my O.C.D. kicked in and I’d taped him at 10 different locations all over Seattle, we made this first video. In time I started researching the kind of technology they actually used to do the Take Away Shows, and getting the equipment I needed. I began taping things for The Fremont Abbey like The Round and the Abbey’s 5th Anniversary and through some of the artists I worked with there ended up at Conor Byrne, first just taking photographs, and now here we are.
Pandi: I was inspired to write this month about your project because I see you as a common thread at all these amazing shows I’ve been to this month. Can you talk about the highlights of some of these events for you?
Seattle Living Room Shows 3rd Anniversary Show?
Tos: Well there’s the infamous video on the Ballard Sessions with Allen Stone, Kris Orlowski, Mike for Hannalee, and Daniel Blue from Motopony at “The Pool Ballard Session (you might not want to put the link to that one)” That really showed Daniel’s mischievous side. But at the Living Room Show he played this heart-breaking song, that he dedicated to you (Pandi), about his mother dying, and just totally showing another side of him, which was so intriguing.
Daniel Blue (Motopony)’s Seattle Living Room Appearance:
Another great video from that same epic night is Allen Stone:
Pandi: What about The Local Stranger’s CD Release Show? I saw you with a camera but you weren’t taping…
Tos: There were a lot of photographer’s there and I hadn’t pushed it, so I wasn’t on the list. So it was like, if I’ve paid my way into the show, I’m not going to be working. But I can’t really go and not bring my camera. It’s nice to feel like you don’t have to capture it all. It was so loud in there for my camera anyway.
Here’s The Ballard Session for The Local Strangers:
Pandi: I didn’t see you at Katie Costello’s show and at that point had already decided that I’d write my article about you this month. I was a little bummed you weren’t there because Katie’s Show at Conor Byrne was so amazing, I really wanted to write about it. I told that to Katie and she said, “No, Tos IS a part of my show! Even though he wasn’t there, The Ballard Session he did for me was a total catalyst for the turnout that night. Conor Byrne told me that’s the best turnout they’ve had on a Wednesday night ever.”
Here’s Katie Costello’s Ballard Session:
In the process of writing this article and getting to know Eratosthenes “Tos” Fackenthall; I have become so much more appreciative of his vision and what he’s doing for as he calls us the “starving artists” in this community. Tos is truly an artist among artist’s; inspiring and encouraging the very people that he says do the same for him. In writing about Tos this month, I feel truly blessed to reflect on and appreciate this vibrant emerging acoustic community I have the privilege to be a part of.
I’m going to end with two full-circle moments that I’ve been given in the past week care of Tos.
The first is a Ballard Session Tos did of my great old Folklife friend (behind many of my songs and catalyst for me playing mountain dulcimer) M.D. Elsworth the Appalachian. This video also features members of The Conjugal Visitors, The Doc Brown Experiment.
The last is a video Tos did of Kindergarten Graduation; at the school I’ve taught Kindergarten at for the last 6 years. It’s a song, “Stumble,” from The Gloria Darlings new album that I wrote about the struggle to leave that very job, and those very children to pursue music full-time.
Artists Mentioned in this Article:
Tos: I would highly recommend subscribing to Tos’s Youtube channel: Eratosthenesvideo and also the Ballard Sessions Facebook Group
Kevin Long’s CD, Small Town Talk, July 2011 (available on itunes August 2011)
Daniel Blue writes and sings lead in Motopony
Pandi (The Gloria Darlings) wrote the song in this article “Stumble”, which is on The Gloria Darlings album, May 2011 available on itunes
Pandi is one third of Seattle’s female indie folk grass trio, The Gloria Darlings
And writes a monthly column call
ed, “Escapades: The Emerging Northwest Acoustic Scene in Victory Review Magazine