The Fusion Cafe is a shitty place to see a concert. The "cafe" is actually a conference room located in the downtown YMCA, entered via a lobby that looks like it belongs in a nursing home. There's carpet on the floors and gigantic windows that look out onto Fourth Avenue's office towers—two factors that contribute to the space's muddy sound quality. At one end of the room, there's a fireplace that has probably never held a fire. The place can hold around 300 people. It has no stage. But about twice a month, 15-year-old Ben Funkhouser does his best to make it feel like a real venue, a place kids might actually want to hang out.
Funkhouser, a student at the Northwest School, can only put on shows at the Fusion if he is willing to set up and break down the entire room every time. At the January 11 This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb show, this means hanging vintage Christmas lights above the PA, putting out pitchers of water, setting up merch tables, and arranging a handful of janky stage lights so the overhead fluorescents can be turned off.
About 200 kids turn out for the show, which also includes local bands the Pharmacy and Pleasureboaters. It's a record for Funkhouser, who's been working at the venue since fall of 2007. The place is packed, sweaty, and smelly—like a basement show but aboveground. The crowd-surfing starts early in the night. In between sets, everyone hangs out on the sidewalk outside, even if they aren't smoking.
"I started working at Fusion because I got caught smoking pot at Folklife," Funkhouser explains. As punishment, Funkhouser's parents made him take up the volunteer work of his choosing, as well as an unusual exercise routine—if he wanted to go see any live music, he had to strap a pedometer to his ankle and walk 60,000 steps a week. "That doesn't sound like a lot, but when it's Thursday night and you want to go out on Friday, you find yourself walking around the block, again and again."
As luck would have it, the Fusion Cafe was shifting from staff to volunteer-run programming—to better involve the youth—just as Funkhouser was looking to do community service. Funkhouser's boss at Fusion, McKenzie Zajonc, says they weren't looking to hire someone so young, but that "Ben was a natural candidate" for the position (he shares responsibility at Fusion with 25-year-old Keith Tucker, who becomes show manager in February).
"He can navigate Facebook and MySpace way better than we can," Zajonc says. "He understands the current live-music trends in Seattle." Funkhouser, who previously volunteered at Atlas Clothing, claims to attend four or five all-ages shows a week.
Funkhouser is young, but he's also persistent, and his hard work has not gone unnoticed by local bands. Pleasureboaters describe him as "annoying, but in a charming way." TacocaT say the same thing, but substitute "lovable" for "charming." He's been trying to book one band, the Cute Lepers, for months now, asking them to play on five or six different occasions. "I keep bugging them and bugging them, but nothing's worked out," he says.
"I wasn't doing anything like that when I was 15 years old," says Trent Coahran, who performs as T.v. coahran and played at the Fusion Cafe in November. "He's a lot of fun, and he's kind of got his shit together. But he's also a little cunt. I love him, but I want to smack him half the time." The Pharmacy, Funkhouser's all-time favorite band, nicknamed him "Superfan." Sometimes, being a little annoying is a good thing.
Persistence aside, Funkhouser might just be booking the right venue at the right time. Fusion Cafe and the Vera Project are the only dedicated, alcohol-free, all-ages venues in Seattle right now with capacity for over 100 people. If Vera is already booked, bands like This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb, who only play all-ages venues, have limited options.
Fusion is flexible—Funkhouser can wrangle as many shows as he's willing to take responsibility for booking, promoting, recruiting sound people for, setting up, and tearing down. He says the most difficult thing so far has been retaining volunteer sound engineers, who have to work extra hard to make anything sound passable in the conference room.
The Fusion Cafe has been around since 2001 and has hosted many high-profile local bands before they got big (Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, the Blood Brothers), but in the past few years, it's been quiet. The notable exception was a run of shows booked there through Vera while that organization was between venues.
Funkhouser's enthusiasm could be exactly what the place needs. His shows so far have featured such bands as PWRFL Power, Talbot Tagora, Graf Orlock, Fist Fite, and Team Gina; he has convinced the YMCA to build a more permanent stage; and his spring schedule is just now taking shape (Totally Michael and the Flexxx on March 23 is sure to be another sweaty mess).
At the This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb show, Funkhouser flits around the room, one minute watching the door, the next minute crowd-surfing (which he did approximately six times). By the end of the show, he's shirtless, sweaty, and wearing a giant grin. "I try not to be a fanboy too much," he says. Then he starts picking the broken Christmas lights up off the floor.