Presidential Hopefuls

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When you're interviewing the Presidents of
the United States of America (the band, not
the politicians), there are some things you
can expect: wacky comments, bad jokes,
puppets and...a campaign for brown grass?

By Lori Miller

New York

Tuesday, November 5, was an important day for American citizens. They re-elected the President of the United States, and celebrated the inauguration of a new album by The Presidents of the United States of America. In addition, on that day, Bill Maher filmed his last episode of "Politically Incorrect" for cable.

For the lucky TV viewer, all three events came together on Comedy Central. "Politically Incorrect" had a special two-hour election-day show, with guests like Conan O'Brien, Marilu Henner, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Jerry Falwell, and the Presidents of the United States of America. The band, singer and basitar player Chris Ballew, guitbass player Dave Dederer and drummer Jason Finn, played three songs from their new record, II , and the hit single, "Lump," off of their self-titled first album. Conan was going to join the band in singing "Lump," but at the last minute he chickened out.

Though their name conjures up men in navy blue suits pushing a political agenda, the Presidents are not really chief-executive material. They burst on to the college music scene in the summer of 1995, joining a pack of nerdy rockers--like Beck, but with more self-esteem; or Green Day, without the faux-punk edge; or Ween, but higher up on the charts. Their loopy, childlike lyrics and unique five-stringed sound, the combination of a two-stringed basitar and three-stringed guitbass, set them apart from other alternative rockers, particularly those in their hometown, Seattle.

Since the release of PUSA's debut, I've had this theory that the Presidents are kind of the science nerds of rock. The band's second hit, "Peaches," hints at an environmental agenda, since the Peaches they eat come from a can, and "they were put there by a man in a factory downtown." Their first record also includes songs about a boll weevil and one about a salamander driving a dune buggy. On their new album, science and rock meet in "Volcano," which when it blows will be "blowin' speakers ... woofers and tweeters, amplifiers ... melted wires." There's also a song called "Bug City," and one about a supermodel, who's so big, she's "super colossal ... she'll make a fascinating fossil."

Like Dr. Seuss, who illustrates the foolishness of war in a tale of two countries fighting over which side of the toast should be buttered, top or bottom, the Presidents' songs offer a fun-filled and palatable politics. Maybe next time Mr. or Ms. PUSA fan is in the garden and an ugly boll weevil pops out its ugly head, he or she won't be so quick to swat it or spray it. Instead they might want to put all six feet on the ground and dance with the bug, as in the song "Bug City," or try to encourage the boll weevil out of its home to see the sun is shining, as in "Boll Weevil."

C'mon li'l boll weevil! It's lovely out here!

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Photo by Lisa Johnson

I spent a little time with two of the Presidents, Chris and Dave, a couple of days after the election-night taping of "Politically Incorrect." But, unfortunately, I didn't get to meet any of the First Ladies. The band was in New York promoting II, and staying at the posh, post-modern Paramount Hotel (the multicolored stalls in the ladies' room were about the same size as my bedroom). Chris and I sat down at a table in the balcony surrounding the lobby, and were about to delve into some really important rock and roll issues, when the folks-follow-me, folks-I'll-be-right-with-you maitre d' discovered we didn't plan to eat. He shuffled us into a private dining room with a "folks, let me put you somewhere quiet, with a lovely view of the street."

Since it was only two days after the election, and the band's name conjures up images of Air Force One, I felt obliged to ask if they had made time to vote. "We mailed in absentee ballots," says Chris. "Jason voted on a plane, and I actually mailed mine in from Seattle before we left. It made a mess, too; you have to poke out these little holes in the card and it makes a big mess of little debris."

Then Chris assured me that despite their name, no one in the band has ever really aspired to be president. All three of them have always wanted to be "Naked and Famous," as their song says, but not in the political arena. They've always wanted to be musicians. Chris says he started his first band when he was around six years old. But even before that he was addicted to noise, so to speak. He became a Beatles fan at the tender age of two.

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They don't want to be Naked and Famous, but Robed and Famous would be nice.

"My parents always tell this story about how they bought Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band when it came out and apparently I grabbed it and just listened to it all the time, from the time I was two and a half till I was about nine or 10," Chris explains. Then he started to buy other Beatles albums. "The Beatles were just it for me when I was a kid," he says.

(When I heard this I have to admit I was a little skeptical, so I called a friend with a two-year-old boy. Turns out he is a big Beck fan. "If we try to play something he doesn't like he'll definitely let us know," she said. If anyone asks him if he wants to hear music he'll say Beck, or every once in a while Ween or Evan Dando.)


Before his career as a presidential band member took off, Chris played with Beck and even lived with him for a while. He says he lived with Beck out of necessity, since he was the only one in the band who wasn't from L.A. And though they haven't talked since Chris left the band, they did have a strange encounter in Norway.

Chris says he'd had a dream three or four times where he would see Beck in a restaurant. In the dream, he says, he'd be finished eating, and just about to leave when Beck would come up and tap him on the shoulder. He'd turn around to look and Beck would be there, framed by a big, open doorway. Then this actually happened in Norway. Chris had just finished eating, and was about to leave when someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was Beck. Framed by a big doorway, no less. When he turned around Beck melodramatically said: "The Homeland." Then they hugged.

Just as I was starting to feel like Dana Scully interviewing the clairvoyant rock star, Dave walked in the room. Chris had been out until three that morning, at a party with the Fugees and Kula Shaker, while Dave had been sleeping. So, like Scully, I was able to put two and two together, and I let Chris sit back for the rest of the interview and directed most of my questions to Dave.


I'd read that before the Presidents were signed to Columbia, Dave worked for some environmental non-profits. But when asked if he's interested in biology or science, Dave says he's not. "I've always chafed against science," he says. "The problem with science is that most scientists sort of position themselves as being keepers of the real answers to how the world works."

Chris, who writes most of the lyrics, also says that he's not particularly interested in biology. He likes writing about little critters, and says that he and his wife would one day like to write and illustrate children's books. For someone who's songwriting has been compared to Dr. Seuss and Raffi, Chris sounds a little intimidated by children as an audience. "I think children's books are about the hardest writing format possible," he says. "Children's books are hard because they have to be entertaining but they can't be stupid. They have to be smart. They have to be about something in the real world and about how things are really related to each other. But then also fantastic and imaginative. That's a hard line to tread successfully."

As a budding city planner, Dave (center) is a proponent of Brown Grass.

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One of the first issues the Presidents have to address in their second term on college music charts, is whether they should make a video for a movie. A single from their new record is scheduled to be released at the same time as an action-adventure movie of the same name. And now the movie producers want to use the song for the movie. "It's happy circumstance we have a song title that's the same as the movie," says Dave. But he's not interested in doing "the whole 'Cocomo,' 'Kiss From a Rose' kind of thing, where 15% of the video at a minimum has to be footage from the movie." "Yeah," says Chris. "The idea of having a video with footage from a movie is so cheesy!"

Say the next single from II were "Volcano." And say Tommy Lee Jones is set to star in a big blockbuster movie about a volcano. I wonder what kind of images would be used in the video during the part of the song where the "happy campers poop in their pampers, when the mountain becomes a fountain?"

PUSA plan to take the next few months off, to spend time with family and perhaps decide about using their single for a movie. Then, starting around February they will tour. The break will give Chris time to enjoy his wife's pregnancy--and maybe on their third album we'll hear the joys of childbirth through songs about food cravings, morning sickness and swollen breasts.


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The Presidents in Tokyo. It's not the birthplace of golf, but it'll do.

And the break might give Dave an opportunity to write his masters' thesis. He quit his master's program in urban planning a few days before the end of his last semester to come to New York and sign a record contract. So, give or take a day of classes, he's finished the course work and now needs to write his thesis. His topic, as you might by now expect, combines play and politics: the environmental impact of golf courses.

He says that if the band were ever to get three to six months off, he'd be able to write it. He'd do research for a month or two and then spend about a month writing. "It would be a good excuse to go to Scotland," he says. It's the birthplace of golf--I had no idea. "The aesthetic of golf is still from a natural perspective there," he explains. They don't water the golf courses, except for the greens and the teeing area. The rest of the golf course is allowed to get yellow in the summer and winter. That's what happens to grass. "But in America, we have this thing where every inch of the course has to be perfectly manicured," he says.

The very serious problem of Golf Courses might be solved by a guy in a robe with a weird stringed instrument. It could happen.

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As Dave sees it, it's actually a social problem. Americans are socialized to expect this perfectly manicured environment, which can make golf political. "It's a reflection of your affluence and social status if you play on a golf course that's nicely manicured," he says. So, "it's really more of a social problem than a resource management problem, to get people to embrace brown grass," Dave says.

Then, in their mock-serious way, they both began to chant: "Embrace Brown Grass!"

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