Interview with Chris Ballew of The Presidents of the United States of America
Amidst all of the sludgy guitar riffs and introspective angst of 90’s alternative music, The Presidents of the United States of America served as somewhat of a palate cleanser thanks to their fuzz pop ditties and their quirky sense of humor. Their explosive self-titled debut album went triple platinum with songs about kitties, peaches, dune buggies and… well, lumps. The eclectic trio was well known for their entertaining live shows and their unique instruments: a two-string “basitar” and a three-string “guitbass.” Never ones to take themselves too seriously, The Presidents always stuck out as a band that was ready to have a good time and put on a great show.
Currently, The Presidents are gearing up for an exciting run of shows on the “PUSA Plays the Good One” tour that starts April 10 in Philadelphia, PA, hits both the East and West coasts, and ends July 7 in Heerlen, Netherlands. To celebrate, they’ve compiled Get Back In The Van, an exclusive sampler for NoiseTrade that features 5 live acoustic tracks and 4 live full-on rock jams as only the Presidents can deliver. Download the sampler to either get your first taste or remind you of their goodness and then head on over to presidentsrock.com for a full listing of tour dates and ticket purchasing links.
Head President Chris Ballew recently took some time to answer my part journalistic/part fanboyistic questions to talk about the impact of the band, what other musical outlets he’s involved in and what’s next for The Presidents.
NoiseTrade: You guys are about to head out on the tongue-in-cheekily titled “PUSA Plays the Goods One” tour where the majority of the setlist is going to be your triple-platinum debut album played in its entirety. What can fans, new and old, expect from this run of shows and what keeps the experience feeling fresh for the band?
Chris Ballew: Fans can expect an amazing, sugarcoated, explosive, pajama party, trampoline machine of happy good time music! Actually, it’s not that tongue-in-cheek. We really do believe that it’s a great record and we will be hard pressed to ever repeat that kind of amazing chemistry that we had at that time. But we will keep trying!
NT: In conjunction with this tour, you guys are trying out VIP package tickets (meet and greet, poster, signed cd, soundcheck, etc.) for the first time. Based on your years of experience with PUSA fans, does the meet and greet portion excite you or scare you?
Chris: The meet and greet portion is interesting. It’s fun to see who is so into us that they're willing to pay extra and meet us. It's often really exciting and surprising for both the fans and the band! It’s a good time.
NT: During the sometimes overly serious alternative music scene of the 1990’s, one of PUSA’s standout calling cards was the humor you guys injected into your songwriting. Was this an intentional strategy from the outset or just a natural overflow of your personality?
Chris: A little bit of both actually. I've been making silly music my whole life. I've also been making serious music as well. I have a lot of different colors in my paint box. But I do remember a distinct feeling that the scene needed to be lightened up a little bit and so it felt like it was time to bring out my silly stuff and see if it would be well received in that environment. I do remember watching the MTV Music Awards in 1992 or 1993 and thinking that the scene needed a little bit of a smile.
NT: Of course, the other major PUSA calling card is your uniquely customized 2-string “basitar” and 3-string “guitbass” instruments. While you have been asked about the logistics of these instruments a million times, could you give us some insight into your actual musical/headspace approach when writing on them?
Chris: By now, I am so used to playing two string instruments that I don't remember the headspace I had when I wrote on regular instruments! It just seems completely natural now. In fact, I wonder why people don't actually just learn on a two string or three string. It’s so much easier! I have also come to learn about the origins of rock and roll music and the African banjo and how they are connected. The idea of using fewer strings connects what we do back in time to the roots of rock n roll in Africa. Not that you will hear that in the music, but it is something that sort of influences how I feel when I play those instruments.
NT: In my personal opinion, one of the coolest “made it” moments a musician can experience is having Weird Al Yankovic parody one of your songs. Can you describe what it was like when you first learned he was going to transform “Lump” into “Gump”?
Chris: I think I learned about it when I saw it on the actual television! I don't remember being aware of it before it happened. But it is an incredible experience to see Weird Al pretend to be me! The best thing that's come out of that is that we are still friends. He's a great guy and a really good listener and storyteller. He actually ended up directing a video for us from our 2008 album These Are The Good Times People. We also have had him as a guest in Los Angeles a few times at our live shows. He's a sweet guy and an incredibly talented human.
NT: For those that may be unaware, your involvement and impact in the 90’s alternative movement actually stretches outside of PUSA. How did you come to be involved in projects with folks like Mark Sandman of Morphine, Mary Lou Lord and Beck and how did those experiences shape you as a musician?
Chris: Wow, that is a big question. I'll take them one at a time. The importance of my collaboration with Mark Sandman cannot ever be underestimated. The experience of being in a band with him where we made up songs live in front of an audience formed who I am as a songwriter. He showed me the two string and three string idea and he also allowed me to be super weird and freaky while he stood there very stoic and confident. Mary Lou and I use to vial together in Harvard Square and we formed a band called Strumpet in the early 90's. Although we only played a handful of gigs it was a really fun experience for me to play the two string in a regular band as the actual bass player. We had an agreement back them that if I walked by and saw her busking I would take over her spot so she could use the restroom. That agreement still stands to this day and if I ever see her on the street, I have to take over and allow her to go use the bathroom. My experience with Beck was insane. It seems like it was preordained that he and I would find each other. He is a raging genius and I must say that hanging out with him was both instructive and terrifying. I ended up needing to quit the band and move back to Seattle because his incredible songwriting power was shutting me down. But I had a great time hanging out with him driving around LA and talking about the transformation he was going through from “bedroom four- track guy” to “being on MTV guy.” All of that happened right before my time with The Presidents and our skyrocketing to success and so I look at my time with Beck as an educational experience; as far as how to deal with that sort of transformation.
NT: You’ve released a handful of children’s album under the Caspar Babypants moniker. What birthed this musical persona and what continues to motivate the DIY ethic behind the releases? Chris: The Caspar Babypants experience has been the most fulfilling musical experience of my life. I love The Presidents and what we achieved, but there is an innocent, sustainable, happy place I have found for myself in making music for very small children and their parents. I don't ever wanna leave it. I have been feeling for years that I wanted to make quieter, simpler, more innocent music. I met my wife Kate and looked at her artwork - which is childlike, bright, well made, folksy, and funny - and I realized that I wanted to make music that had all of those attributes. So I made music to go with her art and when I listened back to it, I realized it was children's music. That set me on a path developing in writing music specifically for very young kids age 0 to 5 and their parents who need high quality music in order to relieve stress in their daily lives. With this project I also got to go back in time and listen to very old music from the 1880s through to the 1920s and incorporate those vibes and feels into my own stuff. That link back to history was something I was longing for. The Caspar Babypants music has a purpose in the world and is very clear to me and I really, really enjoy that. Relieving stress for families is super important as I feel the parent-child empathetic connection is the most important dynamic that will help shape the future of human beings and the planet. Wow, I just got really cosmic!
NT: Is there a song for you that no matter how many times you play it, night after night it transports you and reminds you why you are doing what you’re doing?
Chris: Yes there is! And that song is.... ”Lump”! No matter how many times we play it (and we have played it at almost every single show we've ever played), it is as fresh and as alive as if I just wrote it that afternoon. I am not sure what it is, but I am never bored playing that song. In the beginning, it was me trying to write a Buzzcocks song. I guess I still channel them a little bit whenever I play it.
NT: With an active summer tour schedule hitting the Northeast, the West Coast and a few international dates, are you guys using soundcheck and downtime to work on some new PUSA songs? What’s ahead for the band?
Chris: We don't really use soundcheck to do that kind of stuff, but we are playing around with some new ideas in the practice space in Seattle. We have a new song called “Finger Monster” that we are playing live and it’s super fun! Actually, that is a song that Jason and I started writing in 1996! We are planning to do some recording sessions and put out some new material. It probably won’t be in album form, but in little bundles of digital happiness. This is an exciting time to be creative because we don't have the pressure of trying to get the music on the radio to color our creativity. We get to be self-indulgent and ridiculous again. Just like the old days!
NT: Finally, you’ve always had a knack for picking killer cover songs to record or just play live. What’s been your favorite one and are there any new ones for the upcoming shows?
Chris: Oh, just you wait! You will have to come to the shows to find out! There will be a ton of fragmentary covers sprinkled in the set. I always feel that doing a cover is a challenge. You have to bring your own personality to the song and have a reason to do it. I think my favorite cover of ours is “Video Killed the Radio Star” because I loved that song when it came out, but I always felt like it needed to rock harder. Plus, we got to make that our last video ever in which I quit the band during the video!