The last time I breathed the same air as Chris Ballew, lead singer and basitar player for The Presidents of the United States of America (PUSA from here on out), there wasn’t much air to share. The year was 1995 — when PUSA was skyrocketing to fame with the MTV earworms ‘Lump’, ‘Peaches’ and ‘Kitty’. The room was Lounge Ax, the legendary Chicago dive that was featured in High Fidelity (a movie where you can see me for 19 glorious frames as a record store customer). The concert was beyond sold out, packed to the rafters and hot as hell — it was our last chance to see the band this big play a venue this small again.
19 years later…
The room is much, much smaller — the diner inside West Seattle’s Easy Street Records. The stellar new PUSA CD, Kudos to You, is not too far from an endcap that displays all seven children’s albums from Ballew’s alter ego, Caspar Babypants. Caspar’s latest, Baby Beatles, also sits on the store’s “Top 20” shelf.
Ballew pops in, checks the store’s rapidly depleting inventory of his music, and shakes my hand. Over the deafening roar of the cash register and diner patrons, we talk fame, family and the fun that comes with being a one-man record label.
Rock star interviews can go two ways. For the up and comers, there is an urgency to have their record click, this is their shot, it’s make or break time. Then there’s the successful icons, riding the wave and doing their best to answer the same old questions as politely and freshly as possible. Ballew is blissfully none of the above. He’s good humored, grounded — and under no pressure at all to reclaim his place at the epicenter of cool.
There’s good reason Kudos to You captures the lightning of PUSA’s 2005 self-titled debut; many of the songs have been around since that time — in one form or another — a note pad lyrical scribble here or a rough demo cassette recording there.
A lot of new stuff on the record is from old fragments — I have a whole bucket of fragments. Whenever its time to make a new Presidents record, I rarely walk in with fully finished songs. While Jason is setting up his drums, I’ll just open up a folder of lyrics and start playing stuff until he goes, “that! what’s that? That’s cool!”
A lot of the song titles on the new record, ‘Crappy Ghost”, “Electric Spider’, ‘Finger Monster’ and ‘Innocent Bird’ sound more appropriate for a Caspar Babypants record. When you write a song, how do you choose which of your alter egos gets it?
Caspar is pure innocence, no innuendo — there’s a little bit of irony, but not much. The best friction in a Presidents song is where it seems innocent but is actually dangerous and a bit sexy.
Caspar has been an insane volcano of creativity. I love the Presidents but the Caspar thing is my real voice. The innocence is super easy, it’s fun and it flows. Today, I recorded vocals for an album that won’t come out until September 2015.
The great thing about being a DIY’er, I don’t have to ask anyone when the record’s coming out, I just decide. The next three Caspar albums will be released September 2014, May 2015 and September 2015.
Do you take Caspar out on the road? Is there a grueling Kiddie Festival Circuit?
Caspar not a big touring machine — I stay plenty busy right here in Washington. To tour, I’d have to franchise myself out, find a bunch of bald guys to do the show.
Like touring versions of Hedwig & the Angry Inch, you could start a Babypants Academy to train em!
Babypants is a nice moneymaker, its big business — I want to expand it but need time to do it right. I’ve reached a ceiling of what I can do as a one-man artist and label. Like the world of punk rock, before you reach the ceiling you can write plenty of songs, perform, sell records and run your own label.
Do you press your own discs and handle distribution?
Burnside out of Portland handles distribution — iTunes and physical CDs. I sell a healthy number of records through Amoeba, Easy Street, and the mom and pops that are left.
Social media wasn’t around in 1994 — how does it help you now?
Jason (Finn), our drummer, is kingpin of the social media scene with the Presidents. I do a bunch with Caspar. The big experiment is to focus on what I can control, which is the music — to make it as good and useful and well crafted as possible and then allow it to do its thing in the world. Social media’s role is for happy parents to tell other parents about it.
As for the Presidents, we made this record for the super fanbase, it’s a love letter for them — they can tell others about it. We’re at a nice point, we don’t have to stress about taking over the world with a record. We just want to serve the people who care and enjoy honest, natural, manageable growth. We want music to be part of our lives — not everything.
What did you do after your run as MTV darlings?
After the peak, I started to build a library of licensable instrumental music. I built an 800-piece library that I license through Getty Images’ Pump Audio. It took about 10 years to build that. I did commercials, licensing, that kind of stuff.
Similar to how Sam Phillips, Liz Phair, Wendy & Lisa are scoring TV shows. You also scored a hit theme song from the Drew Carey Show, does that still ring the register?
I started to see the residuals from that and was like, whoa, I want to do more of that. I partnered with Tad Hutchinson from Young Fresh Fellows. We formed the Chris & Tad Show as a live band and to record music for commercials. We went to LA, glad handed, and had a manager for the theme music. The only show we nailed was The Quintuplets, an Andy Richter show that fizzled. It was a fun time, but I’m not gonna sell my creativity on demand anymore.
But if someone wants to license your existing music…
Of course! Bring it on T-Mobile.
Let’s talk about the new album. It kicks off with the toe-tapper, ‘Good Morning Tycoon’. Now, you were in a band called the Tycoons…
The band was named after that song, the song was inspired by a movie (What a Way To Go). Robert Mitchum is a maple syrup tycoon and he’s dating some woman who calls him on it, “you’re pompous” and he says, ‘yup, every morning I look into the mirror and I say ‘Good Morning Tycoon’” — ding ding ding — I said “that’s a song!” At first, there was a bit of vitriol spitting about fame in there — I wrote a couple of songs about fame but that’s not a great topic. The song’s been around since 1999. I recorded it with the Tycoons and the Giraffes, but it never sounded like the one. Given enough time, I can listen to a song I’ve written and say “it’s not right, doesn’t have that crackle.”
You wire the guitars different for Presidents’ records don’t you?
The other versions were recorded using a more traditional six string — they didn’t have any tooth to them. It’s a little angry and needed some muscle. ‘Stay With Me’ is a song I recorded a bunch of times; it used to be very pretty. With the Presidents, we did it one take. Bruaaah! — a full cathartic release.
I was going to ask you about that, ‘Stay With Me’ is a full throttle mosh pit song. Is that the one you close the live set with while trashing your equipment?
It hasn’t made it in the set yet — live, it feels like a big slab of rock.
‘Stay With Me’ is the high energy peak of the album. Much more easy and breezy is the track that follows, ‘Crown Victoria’, — that one gets lodged in my head every time I drive now.
‘Crown Victoria’ is about renting that car with Tad in LA. Most years, we were thrifty and practical during LA trips, — then one year we said, let’s rent a nice car and stay poolside at the Roosevelt — we loved it — I put all that love into the song.
Did it bring back memories of your celebrity at the height of President’s Mania?
Fame, those spikes of thrill, is hard to maintain — you want to avoid the hills and valleys. There was never a point where I was recognized on the street. I could go into a music store and get recognized — but very seldom. I have friends in high places who can’t go to places like this, its very sad.
At the height, did you attend the VMA’s and hit all the stops on the rock star trip?
Roman Coppola directed ‘Lump’ and ‘Kitty’ but MTV never gave us love for the videos at the VMA’s. They got plenty of play so thank you MTV. We did play the AMA’s though.
Speaking of music videos, you’re a member of a prestigious club, one of the few rock bands to get the Weird Al treatment — and it looks like a friendship blossomed from there.
Weird Al also appears on Caspar — he does an amazing accordion solo on ‘Long Long Dream’. A friendship started, a few years after ‘Gump’. He’s a fantastic human being, a really good listener, smart, so good at his craft — it’s scary. I had dinner at his house in LA. He’s a super cool dude.
He also directed one of your videos…
Weird Al directed ‘Mixed Up SOB’ from 2008. That shoot presented a huge math problem. We turned shots from the first shoot into flipbooks. At a second shoot, flipped flipbooks in time with the music where images in one book would react with another. Unbelievable math — he’s a powerful nerd that man.
The Making of ‘Mixed Up S.O.B.’
Is there a video for the new album?
The first video is for “Poor Little Me” — we’re leading with a country-ish number this time. Every album, we lead with a different sound. ‘Love Everybody’ had a riffy MC5’-ish sound; we led with pop song last time and this is now.
Country is one of the few genres where people still buy CDs; like Darius Rucker, perhaps this could be your new thing.
Who knows? My family includes farmers from Missouri — country is in my blood, so it shows up in Presidents and Caspar songs.
Let’s talk about the new song, ‘Ohio’ — my home state!
That’s an old song I wrote with my buddy Dave. He went to school there. I used to go visit him and was struck by how beautiful it was. Years go by, my new wife Kate is from Ohio. Dave teaches 45 minutes from where she’s from — Chagrin Falls.
Holy crap — that’s where I’m from. Well, from Moreland Hills which is Chagrin Falls adjacent.
We hear that a lot — Chagrin Falls! We go there all the time, the town is perfectly preserved. So it’s a love song for Ohio. I started it in 1992, but the words weren’t great — The countryside inspired me to make it more of a love song and less creepy. It was gonna be a Caspar song, but that’s too educational for my kids music. Caspar is all about fantasy and antho-morphizing things.
Caspar’s latest is Baby Beatles — how did you manage to secure the rights to those songs?
Pretty simple. 18 songs are controlled by Harry Fox, a clearing house for mechanical rights. Half of ‘Love Me Do’ is by one company. ‘Here Comes The Sun’ is owned by George Harrison — so three companies, not hard. Well disorienting — but that’s part of running a record label.
Caspar is a one-man show — Kate does the cover art. Her art is my inspiration for making music for kids. The whole time the Presidents were going on, I was thinking, this is great, but not it — tried a bunch of things, and kept getting smaller and simpler. More innocent. Then I saw her art, it has every character the music should have — inviting, funny, well made — a lightbulb went off. Caspar has nothing to do with the culture of cool. We’re far apart from cool with this record, I just love it.
What’s on tap for the Presidents this Summer?
We’re making another Europe trip in July. Playing Rock & Roll Marathon in Seattle. There’s an undefined trip in June, probably Ohio and the Midwest. A Northeast and West Coast trip in August; then September through December is all Caspar.
Editor Update: the new Midwest tour dates were just announced, click here.
We’ll, we’re in one of the nation’s last great record stores — let’s do some shopping!
And so we head upstairs to pour through Easy Street’s massive vinyl collection…
When you’re touring and hit local record stores, what are you looking for?
When I was a kid, finding a 45 with 4 songs was the holy grail. I was super excited to find those — no matter who the artist was.
I collect old folk, spiritual, gospel, hillbilly music, blues; the vinyl curating at Easy Street is very good. I love reissues — old folkways albums, cardboard covers with the graphics glued on — 180 gram, fat albums that sound great. I also hit thrift stores to find originals. — those musical themes and rhythms often trickle into the kids music.
Are you doing anything for Record Store Day?
There’ll be a new Caspar record on vinyl, a 7-song, 7-inch platter of bonus material from the Baby Beatles record — we’re pressing 300 it, that’s it — no CD or digital release.
And with that, we discovered the true holy grail in the store — freshly pressed copies of Kudos to You on vinyl. I left Chris to talk shop with the Easy Street buyer and headed back downstairs to load up on some new releases — and a cupcake.
Kudos to You (POPDOSE rating: 4/5 stars) is available now online and at great record stores everywhere. If you’re new to the Presidents, this album is a great jumping in point. Typically albums that are as instantly catchy as Kudos tend to lose their flavor faster than a pack of Juicy Fruit gum; this one holds up to massive repeat listens.
Visit the Presidents’ official website to download Kudos to You and their brand new live album, Thanks For The Feedback.