Joseph Ballent has a bright future in music, if he chooses to stick with it, because he really knows how to hustle. "A typical week is filled with work, music, volunteering at the VA, gearing up for physician's assistant school applications, some kind of outdoor adventure and some acting on the side," he says.
Ballent first contacted City Weekly last October. "I'm a local musician," he wrote in an email. "I build custom electric guitars out of old skis (ski-tars) and have performed up at Sundance. I just finished a full album, recorded with Camden Chamberlain of Suicycles and Zodiac Empire. I'm continuing to slog away at the underground with hopes for exposure."
"Slogging" conjures images of serfs pulling wagons of manure uphill toward the king's castle. That's not the word for what Ballent does. He has the energy and enthusiasm of someone half his age, and he's only 27. He needs to be that tireless because, as I learned in a series of interviews—some via text—that his typical week is much fuller.
"Work," for example, is a full-time job at a treatment center for teens suffering from addiction and abuse. In addition to his main duties, Ballent founded a music program at the center. They have a full PA and stockpile of instruments that they use in weekly jams and monthly performances. Ballent also gives each student a spirit rocker based on their taste, and has them sign their name on the center's kick drum head. The program is a success; Ballent often hears students say it's a highlight of their week. "It's one for me, for sure."
Interestingly, Ballent didn't play seriously until five years ago. His prior experience consisted of guitar lessons that didn't take. "I'm now convinced that part of my brain just hadn't yet wired itself." That changed when a coworker, also a musician, encouraged Ballent to go for it. Ballent spent his tax return on the cheapest electric guitar and amp he could find and "it finally clicked," says the self-described "unabashed alt-rocker and Seattle-sound junkie."
Those sonic predilections are evident on Burn Atlas's eponymous first album, which is full of guitar riffs, loops, beats and vocal cadences straight from the alt-rock playbook. On "Trigger Finger," Ballent talk-sings playful lyrics, evoking Soul Coughing. Sing-songy and beat-driven, "Lemonade" smacks of the Butthole Surfers' 1996 hit, "Pepper." The acoustic "Fury in Follywood" sounds like the Meat Puppets (post-MTV Unplugged) with vocals that are a surprisingly palatable blend of Third Eye Blind's Stephan Jenkins and Dinosaur Jr.'s J. Mascis—with Ballent aping Eddie Vedder in the background.
Of course, Ballent plays every instrument on every song. Burn Atlas, he says, was intended as a solo project, with a second band on the side. He's since reconsidered the second project, inviting bassist Matthew Lemieux and drummer Leo Schlosnagle into Burn Atlas. "It became clear," Ballent says, "that I could only realistically pour myself into one musical project to a satisfactory outcome." The band has since played more Sundance gigs and an acoustic set for X96's "Live and Local." They're also about to record the first Burn Atlas song to feature the full band. You know, in between all the other stuff.
How does Ballent find the energy for this level of activity? He quotes Heath Ledger, portraying The Joker: "I Just. Do. Things." More seriously, though, his scorched-earth policy is simple: "I thrive on the hustle and the pursuit."
But once again, there's more to it than that. "One day at work, a student came up and showed me they had downloaded my album from iTunes," Ballent says. The teen told him it had pulled him out of a horrific depression. "In that moment," Ballent says, "I knew beyond a doubt I had done something worthwhile."