New interim professor Brian Ballard sang at The Magic Shop
One cold day this past February, Brian Ballard became one of the last people to sing into the same microphone David Bowie used to record his final album, Blackstar. “It was intense,” Ballard recalled over coffee at a café not far from his South Slope apartment. “It felt like inhabiting a sacred space ... it was overwhelming.”
That “sacred space” Ballard refers to is "The Magic Shop," a small but mighty recording studio run by Steve Rosenthal on SoHo’s Crosby Street. Over the past 28 years, the studio has been responsible for recording the work artists like The Ramones, Foo Fighters, and Kurt Vile. It closed last March, no longer able to keep up with increasing rent prices.
Ballard, who joins King's this semester as an interim Philosophy Professor, is the leader of Babylon Tom, a small, Brooklyn-based “orchestral indie rock” band. He said recording an album had been on their radar for a few months. When they received a large anonymous donation earlier this year, that idea became more of a concrete plan. He picked up the phone and called the same studio that recorded his favorite artist, Arcade Fire.
“They said, ‘Sure, come in,’” he chuckled. There were some hiccups along the way, including Brian getting sick from Chipotle. But there were also some successes, including working with the drummer from MGMT, the saxophone player from Arcade Fire, a trumpeter from Canadian Brass and Kanene Pipkin from from the Lone Bellow.
“A bunch of completely undeserved awesome things have happened to this band that has almost no fans ... it’s like a gift,” Ballard said.
The doors to The Magic Shop closed for good. Since then, Ballard and his band have been recording out of a studio in Brooklyn. The studio is cozy; dimly lit with wood panels lining the walls and velvet curtains draping from the ceiling. In the kitchen sit half-finished cartons of Chinese food and a pot of strong coffee. Decked out in a blue button up and khaki shorts, Ballard is hardly able to sit down for longer than three minutes, before he’s up again, pointing at a large Macintosh screen on the wall or trotting barefoot between the recording studio and the production room.
When he talks, he’s either cracking jokes or handing out serious instructions in music jargon: “Don’t let it escalate if you can,” he says at one point. He opens the door, to the recording studio where band member Tori is sitting in a bright green t-shirt at a Calesa: “Again!” She nods, the door closes, and the track starts rolling. I’ve never heard of a Calesa -- when Tori plays, the studio fills with the high-pitched notes, similar to those that come out of childhood wind-up ballerina boxes.
The album will cover a variety of themes like family and growing up. “I’m trying to tell the story of God’s redemption in my life,” Ballard said.
Influenced by artists like Damien Rice and Sufjan Stevens, the songs are lyrically and musically complex. There’s saxophone, there are loud, meaty drums. There are electric sounds, soft sounds; familiar sounds and sounds you won’t be able to name at all, like the one we dubbed a “galactic organ” because it sounded like a galactic organ.
In a way, the album is a culmination of Ballard’s 20 year fascination with music. The California native first picked up a guitar when he was 11, mostly to keep up with the interests of his sisters’ boyfriends who listened to lots of heavy metal. But there were personal reasons too.
The dark, angsty sounds of Slayer and Testament gave young Ballard a sense of identity, an outlet for the anger he associated with parts of his childhood. Parts like being born to his mother, a woman trapped in the sex trafficking industry, parts like floating in foster care for five years, and then then watching his adoptive father abandon his family, all before he was 12.
“My actual world was one where the path [constantly] disappeared...I had no control over my surroundings,” Ballard explained. “That music ... I could listen to it over and over again. It was a [world] I could explore, walk around in, live in.”
His life changed when a friend suggested he read Ecclesiastes one summer. The book piqued his interest, first in, “a life of wisdom,” then in Christ, “I felt God’s love instantly...it was like my heart of stone was being cracked open.”
Back at school, instead of bullying kids like he did before, he bought them lunch and told them the story of Christ. Conversations with friends steered him towards Apologetics, which led him to Philosophy. At 17 he left high school, enrolled in community college and registered for a Philosophy class. 12 years later, Ballard is set to receive his Ph.D. in Philosophy from University of Pittsburgh by next spring.
At King’s, Ballard will be responsible for teaching Dr. Joshua Blander’s introductory philosophy classes. Blander, who received a Fellowship from Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought, will spend four months in California researching humility.
“It’s something lacking in our culture,” Blander said. “It’s not taken seriously.”
When he returns to King’s, Blander hopes to use his research to design classes and teaching methods that focus on helping students build character. After all, he says, that’s the whole point of philosophy in the first place:
“[It] shouldn’t just be an abstract discipline...it should be the basis of our character formation," Blander noted.
That connection between philosophy and spiritual, character formation is something Blander affirmed about Ballard.
“What we see in Brian is someone who has the heart to minister, encourage, and challenge [students],” Blander said.
Faculty Dean Dr. Mark Hijleh echoed that, saying the choice to hire Ballard came naturally after hearing Ballard speak on campus.
“When the opportunity for this interim appointment emerged, the Philosophy faculty strongly recommended him to me and President Thornbury,” Hijleh said via email. “The President and I are in full agreement and look forward to having Professor Ballard with us at King's in the fall.”
Babylon Tom's recording continues, a workload that Ballard admitted is bittersweet: The days are long (usually ten hours) and the creative process fatiguing. “I can’t do art for art’s sake,” Ballard said. “I have to do art for a more ultimate purpose.”
He quoted Thomas Merton who wrote that art should point people back to its Divine source. “I’m trying to make a prism that catches a little divine light,” Ballard said. “That’s the ultimate thing.”
Editor's Note: Tiffany Owens is a 2016 Spring alumna of King's.