THE PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Little Blue Dune Buggy, in the Sand
An Interview with Chris Ballew
by Peter Crigler
This is an excerpt from my third book, a current work in progress. It contains almost 100 interviews with members of cool and notable alternative rock bands from the '90's. Itís to be called Teen Spirit/Teen Angst: Alternative Rock in the '90's. It should be out this year and this is one of the most exciting interviews I got to do for the piece. So thank you to singer/bassist Chris Ballew.
One of the most unlikely success stories of the decade, the Presidents offered a respite from the typical Seattle gloom and doom/I hate myself and want to die ethos that had been popular for so long. Bright, relatively happy and lo-fi as hell, the band quickly became a smash thanks to essential novelties like "Lump" and "Peaches." The alternative bubble affected them more than anyone and they disbanded quickly in 1998, only to reunite like eight months later to continue making great music until 2016. The bandís music is still remembered as a nice alternative to what else was on the radio at the time and the fact that music fans like to have fun from time to time.
PSF: When did you become interested in playing music? Chris Ballew: I became interested in playing music definitely when I was super, super tiny, when I was two and a half, I got Sgt. Pepper when it came out in 1967. My brother, my way older brother had gave it to my parents who didn't understand it, and I inherited it, and fell deeply in love with it, and that's when I knew that's what I wanted to do on a deep, deep level. At the age of four, I started piano lessons, and I was actually getting groomed to be a concert pianist that I didn't really like the, what's the word? The regiment. It was kind of intense. So anyway, I really was very, very young. It was very clear that I wanted to swim in those waters that the Beatles were swimming in with that album.
PSF: Before the band started you worked with Beck and Mark Sandman (Morphine). How did that come about?
CB: Well Mark was first. I met Mark in 1990 I think, '89 maybe, and one time we tried to remember how we met and we couldn't, we just seem to have known each other for ever. But he kinda took me under his wing. That relationship was definitely a kind of mentor, mentee type relationship. He let me live with him. I was kind of a penniless vagabond weirdo musician, and somehow he just decided to help me out, and he's a very private person, but he let me live with him. We had a band together called Super Group where we improvised all the songs, and he turned me on to the two string, and he played a two string slide on a bass. He had a guitar version that you could fret with your fingers that he was experimenting with and when I picked that up, everything just fell into place. And I just felt like "this is it, this is what I've been looking for." And I still have that guitar. He cryptically mailed it to me a year before he died. It had shown up unannounced at my house in a big box, and had a note that just said, "You're in charge of this now."
Yeah it was amazing. So yeah, he really allowed me ... That band we had together was very important for me because he was very cool, and centered, and grounded, and I was just this freaky little guy bouncing around being whackadoodle. And he allowed me to ... He didn't tell me to calm down, or to change my thing, or whatever. He just let me be weird. And that's when I discovered that... I mean eventually his aesthetic settled in many years after he passed away even. What he was trying to turn me onto back then took time to settle in to my palette, my musical palette. But it did settle in eventually. He's super important. He's like my musical father in a way.
Beck was a situation where he and a friend of mine shared a publisher, and she, this friend, called me up and said, "Hey, I know this guy Beck and he needs musicians for his band. He's gonna go on tour. He just got signed. You and he are totally cut from the same cloth. You should audition for the band." And I kind of ignored it, and then she called back and insisted, and so I met him when he came to Seattle, and immediately just totally fell head over heels in love with his songs, his voice, his imagery, the surreality of quilts of weirdness that his lyrics would weave, and so he and I just hit if off right of the bat and ...I ended up in his band for the very first two tours that he ever did.
I don't know what they were there to hear because the experience was really interesting. It was like Beck did not like that song ("Loser"). He tossed it off before they went and got burritos one day and it became a hit, so I immediately got lesson number one, which is don't release anything you don't totally love because it might become a hit.
Really, being with Beck was like going to fame school. It was like I got to stand next to the eye of the storm and watch him navigate it. I was the only band member not from LA, so he let me live with him. We wrote a couple songs together, and played around with a four track, and drove all over LA eating food and doing radio shows and little in-stores together. We were a little bit of a duo for a bit there in some capacity.
We just talked about his transformation, what he was going through, and figuring out how to navigate the waters of going from drinking and drugging and sleeping in a box on a hillside above the video store where he worked to dining with record company executives and putting a band together to go on tour. It was a very disorienting time for him.
PSF: How did you come to meet Jason (Finn, drummer) and Dave (Dederer, guitarist)? I know Jason was playing with Love Battery for a long time.
CB: Yeah, he was playing in Love Battery. Dave and I went to high school together. He was a grade above me, and he was always the cool kid with the guitar playing songs. Super popular, and I was a bit more of a bowl-haircut dork. But eventually, he and I started hanging out and playing songs together, and we started an acoustic duo called The Dukes of Pop. We played at open mics just kind of for fun, but we had good songs, and we had a good chemistry going on. Then I went off to college, and he went off to college, and we didn't see each other for a long time. Finally, I ended up back in Seattle after living in Boston and New York in the early '90ís, like '93. I called Dave up, and we started goofing around with this new two- and three-string guitar thing that I learned from Mark Sandman. Dave was willing to play three strings, so that was cool. We used to have no drummer, and we played through the same amplifier when we started out.
The thing that made that fun was it was like ... I think from an audience perspective, we played as if we were a giant rock band, in some ways. We had all the attitude of a band that was huge, but we were two guys on a Tuesday night opening up for some other band at a club where there were only 50 people or something. I think the audience empathized with us. They're like, "Oh, look at those two little dorks up there trying to rock. I want to put them in my pocket. They're so cute."
Then Jason saw us eventually. We plodded along as a duo for a bit, and then we added a drummer, a friend of mine, Dave Thiele.
Yeah, we added Dave, but then Jason saw us with Dave and was like, "Oh, you guys need a real drummer." Because Dave's not a real drummer, or he wasn't then. Jason joined up, and we maintained that kind of dorky, three guys trying to rock thing because we made Jason play a tiny drum kit with no cymbals, just a little hi-hat and maybe a tiny splash, you know, a little thing.
We maintained that dinky-ness, and that was my favorite time of the band, right after Jason joined until we signed and got huge, because I found it compelling to be that dorky little trio trying to rock. I think that chemistry is really interesting, and funny, and fun. Then once we got signed, we got new amps, and we got a bigger drum kit, and we got a real sound guy. Pretty soon, we were just ... I'm not saying we were just a regular rock band because we were singing very unusual songs, and we still had dynamics and stuff.
I could see the writing on the wall. We were just turning into ... If you stand up in front 50 people, it's way more fun than if you stand up in front of 50,000 because in front of 50,000 you can't really goof around.
PSF: This is like the common question, what was the scene like in Seattle? Did you think it helped the band in terms of getting signed and things like that?
CB: Absolutely. When Soundgarden got signed, really, because they were the first ones, and then Nirvana was blowing up...They were the pioneers. Clubs were full of people because everybody was like "what's next?"
Anyway, it was cool because there was a built-in crowd, and we pushed that to the limit. That's kind of how we tipped over into success was we were like, "Well, we're playing on a Tuesday night and the place is full, and Saturday night the place is full. Wednesday night, the place is full. Let's just see how many times we can play and see if people stop coming."
We tried that, and people just kept coming and kept coming and kept coming. It was great. It was very fertile soil.
PSF: What was it like making the early seven inches? Were those before Jason came into the picture?
CB: No, he was in the picture. We went and recorded at a place called Laundry Room where Dave Grohl made the first Foo Fighters record, and Barrett recorded us. We made a little cassette tape out of that, and we had extra songs, and we decided to do some seven-inch deals with little labels. Those were the old days when you had to wait around for a major label to really make a record that would go anywhere. Plus, that really wasn't our intention. I distinctly have a really vivid memory of Dave and I getting into his car, he's getting in the driver's side and I'm getting in the passenger side, and over the top of the car, he says to me, "You know, if some major label wanted to come along and pay us a whole bunch of money to play these songs all over the world, I'd go, I'd do it. I'd sign up."
And I said, "me too," while thinking in my mind and not saying it out loud, "are you nuts? Have you heard our songs? Nobody's going to want to ... We're not doing this for that. We're doing this for fun just to make life interesting."
My attitude about the whole thing was always like I just want an accessory to my already awesome life, which was not successful in the traditional sense but definitely successful in that I just had friends, and we had beers, and we smoked pot, and we played Frisbee, and we ran around, and we played music in the evenings. It was pretty damned good.
PSF: What was it like making that first record with Conrad Uno? He was already legendary at that point.
CB: Yeah. That was great. He was real sparse with comments. Really, it was just like is Conrad dancing around in the control room or bobbing his head and smiling or not. If he wasn't, we were like, oh, this isn't right. And if he was, then we're like, "Oh, that's cool. He likes it so it must be good."
It was funny. He was like a barometer for whether we were hitting the mark or not. I realize now with perspective, I think what made The Presidents work was that we had an innocence and we had innuendo, and we mixed the two together.
We had very innocent imagery, and we also had sexuality and stuff like that. We put those two in the blender, so when that chemistry was firing, Conrad was smiling, basically.
Then four of the songs from the Laundry Room demo tape made it onto the record, and then we did another nine with Conrad. Kim Thayil from Soundgarden was an early adopter of The Presidents, and he would come to our shows and was super into it. I ended up hanging out with him a lot, and he played guitar on Naked and Famous. He's like, "I want to be on the record. Let me be on the record, though."
We had this section in Naked and Famous where it was supposed to be like a really crazy noodle-y, heavy metal guitar solo, so we're like, "Well, perfect. That's you."
PSF: When did Columbia come around? How do you feel about signing to them now?
CB: Oh, fine. It was great. Late in the summer of, what was it, '94 I guess? We played ... Oh, gosh. Dave is better with dates, but I think it was the summer of '94, we played an ASCAP showcase. I didn't know this, but the place was full of major label people because there was a big festival in town called Bumbershoot.
They were there to check out bands and stuff, and it was a hotbed of the next big thing. We had seven major labels at least at the show, and I didn't know that, thank goodness, because I would have probably been nervous. But I just went up, and we did our usual dorky, shamble-y performance. Then the next day, literally the next day, we had seven major label offers, and we had to quickly put on business hats and figure out what the hell was going on.
Dave became our business guy. He read Donald Passman's book about the music industry, which is like the bible. Jason became late night PR. He would take label people and party with them until they fell down. And I was creative. I would come up with more songs that those guys would help me arrange. We really early identified our strengths and were like, "Okay, team. We were a three-headed monster, like let's all get strong at what we're best at."
When it came time to finally sign with Columbia ... We got down to Columbia and Maverick, which was Madonna's label. And we had a very awesome business meeting with Madonna in her L.A. offices, and she was great. She totally understood the balance of us caring about our craft but not appearing to care at all. She has lots of insight, and she actually saved me a lot of future heartache by taking me aside after the meeting and saying, "You know, if you sign with me or not, I'm going to tell you something. You guys are fun and funny, so you're not ever going to get any respect for your craft, for the work you put into your songs out there in the world, so don't wait around for it. Just do your thing and don't pay attention to anything else."
It turned out to be true, and she saved me a lot of grief, so that was nice. We took that away from the Maverick meeting, but then we ended up signing with Columbia. They had this guy, Mark Ghuneim. I remember him as being like Denis Leary on crack, jumping up ...
He was their internet guy, and the internet was new, right? He was like, "We're going to pioneer this amazing internet space," and blah blah blah, so we were really wowed by him and signed with Columbia. We ended up licensing our record to them for seven years, so they didn't get the record, because we made it without them. It existed, and we knew it was good. We knew it made people happy. We're like, "We won't take a big advance or anything." Nothing, actually. We had very little, enough to pay our rent and stuff like that, but in exchange, we said to them, "we will license you the album and then we'll get it back, so we own that record now and have for a long time."
Really, we lost nothing by signing with Columbia.
We only gained a foothold in the bitter stage of music, so it was great. That was, I think, a lot of Dave and Jason's smarts and acumen got us into that favorable position, so kudos to them.
PSF: Here's the obligatory question. What were the inspirations for stuff like "Mach 5," "Peaches," "Lump"- your "hits"?
CB: Yeah, all kind of different... "Lump" was a fragment on a little micro cassette recorder that I had. I used to, back in those days, fill up a little micro cassettes with ideas, fragments. Anything I thought of, I would record it, and then I would listen to them while I cleaned my room or did the dishes and kind of wait for something that grabbed my attention. "Lump" was on there, and I do not remember making it up at all. But that's definitely my voice singing that song. It was just the chorus, and then I slapped the verses on, ran across the street, and borrowed a four-track from my neighbor, coincidentally, who was Lori Goldston who played cello with Nirvana, which is weird. Anyway, she lent me a four-track, and I quickly recorded that song, a demo. It was real mellow and kind of lounge-y, and then the band rocked it out. That was a classic, almost like That Thing You Do, that song. "It's too slow. Play it faster. It's a hit!"
Then "Peaches" is a little tricky to talk about because there were drugs involved. I was on LSD, and I was waiting for a girl I had a crush on, actually the girl that ended up introducing me to Beck, to come home to her house, and this is the weirdest scene. She lived in an industrial part of Cambridge, Boston, low, gray, machine shops and stuff. Except her house had a picket fence, and a yard, and it was canary yellow, Victorian house with a peach tree in the yard. And so, to extenuate the drug experience, I was sitting in this, you know, Tweety Bird-yellow house yard smashing peaches in my hands, waiting for this girl to come home. And she never showed up. So I put all my frustration in the song, all my desperate needs in the song. So that's kind of that one. And Dave came along. I had verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and Dave came along and did the ending part. That's all Dave.
And "Mach 5" was the true story of just sort of describing how when I was a kid, I used to love to create elaborate situations for my Matchbox cars, where I would take them outside, and I'd take a hammer and smash them, and light them on fire, and pretend there was just a giant accident.
Yeah. And I don't know why it went ... I think I went with "Mach 5" because it wasn't the Mach 5 from Speed Racer, but I had a car that had a 5 on it and said the word "Mach" on the door. And I actually kept it. All those years, I had this one car.
PSF: What was success like? How did everyone react to it?
CB: All good. All good. Yeah. It was really nice to ... you know, having had the experience with Beck that I had, and the time I logged in with Mark Sandman, and Madonna's advice. And you know, some perspective and some age, you know, I was 29, 30 years old.
I didn't put all my eggs in the basket, in that basket, as far as depending on it for a sense of well-being and happiness. I immediately knew that when we got signed, it was like metaphorically walking through that doorway into the room where you think all the cool shit's going down, and all the cool people are, right?
And so we get led into that room, and immediately, the first thing I see is another door to another smaller room. So, in my mind, I'm like, "Oh, this is never gonna end." Trying to get into the next room, and the next door, it's like a MC Escher design, never gonna stop. I will always be striving. And my first impulse was, "No. I don't want that. I don't want to have my potential sense of self and success and well-being connected to unforeseen circumstances like getting airplay on a radio station, or people liking our new hit, or whatever, our new single."
So I really recoiled, but I kind of kept going because I'm in a band, and it's democratic, and also, you know, we were riding a pony that was pooping gold bricks. So you don't really get off of gold brick pooping pony until the pony stops pooping gold bricks. And then you're like, "Pony. I'm gonna kill you."
So yeah, I rode the pony. And then, you know, we eventually ... Yeah, well, anyway. We'll get to that. But that's kind of like the feeling of that was outwardly, everything's great. Inwardly, I definitely had a big red flag up. Like, "Okay. I'm gonna proceed with extreme caution."
PSF: What was it like being nominated for Grammys?
CB: Oh, super thrilling. Yeah, my phone lit up that day. It was all these, you know, friends and family, and then press calling and stuff like that. So, yeah. We were nominated for two, album of the year and song of the year or something. And two years in a row. And we lost to The Beatles and Nirvana. I don't feel too bad about losing to those people. That's okay. But to be in a category with The Beatles and Nirvana, that was great.
PSF: Did you guys feel any sort of backlash?
CB: Mm-mm. No. Because we weren't trying to prove anything. You know? We were just three guys having fun playing silly songs. I mean, what kind of backlash could there be? It's like, we kind of exploded so fast that I don't think the scene had time to feel like they owned, you know, or anything. It wasn't like The Beatles leading the cavern and everybody crying.
It was like, you know, we still played in Seattle, and we just played everywhere else, too. So yeah, no. I didn't detect any backlash. I mean, we were made fun of and discounted and written off, but again, Madonna warned me about that, so that wasn't a big deal.
PSF: Well, was there any pressure when it came to recording II? Because I know it came out really quick.
CB: Yeah, too quick. Lots of pressure from the record label. Our manager Staci Slater, to her credit, told us to slow down, take some time off, recharge, and get back to our lives for a bit. And we didn't. We bent under the pressure from the record label.
And that was hard. We were tired. And I always call that record a really great EP, you know. Somewhere in there is a really great record. Yeah, and the sound is not great. You know, it's like the sound of a real rock band, not the themes of a traditional rock band. But you know, it sounds bigger, and it just, again, it's not as interesting to me. You know, dinky is way more interesting to me, taking lofty chord progressions and writing a song to sound like KISS, which is what "Mach 5" was- I was just trying to write a KISS song about my habit of destroying Matchbox cars.
But if you play it and it sounds like KISS, then there's no joke, you know? But if you play it and it sounds like Violent Femmes, or our first record, then the joke is intact. You know, it's just dinky production of this lost track.
Anyway, so that's why I think that record falls flat, because we didn't have the self-awareness to understand what made us work in the first place. We didn't understand this chemistry of innocence and innuendo, that that's was what was happening. Plus, I wrote all those songs out of a real dark period in Boston, but I was also a happy guy. I was a happy guy who had gone through a dark time with romance and girls and stuff.
And so that first record was born out of that chemistry. And then the second record comes along and it's like if a monkey paints a painting with its eyes closed, everyone's like, "That was brilliant, monkey. Now paint 1000 more of those." And the monkey's like, "I don't know what I did. I just sloshed some paint around. I can't do it again."
So, for me, as a songwriter, there was a lot of weird pressure where I was like, "I don't understand what I just did. And now I have to do it again. And I can't."
PSF: That answers the next question, if you felt that you've succumbed to the sophomore slump, which it clearly shows that you were.
CB: Yeah, I mean, we were just following the handbook, man. I mean, we got the brochure. It's like, "Have a lot of success. Sell millions of records. Have a sophomore slump." You know, "Break up. Do other projects. Reunite. Lose a guitar player. Replace him." You know. We were handed a brochure, and we're like, "Okay. We'll just do all the steps."
See part II of the Chris B/Presidents interview
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