Roll Over, Liberty
The Presidents of the United States of America
have been elected

by Rachel Leibrock Davis

Presidents' drummer Jason Finn is holding court at The Crocodile in Seattle, ever-present beer in hand and twisted grin on his face. "So what the hell is up with that name?" he is asked, quite seriously. (I mean, really.) He thinks for a second. "Say it," he says. Okay, um... The Presidents... of the United States... of America. He smiles. "You can't get any more ridiculous than that."

Attention Department of Redundancy Department, City of Culver City: Got one here for you. Or does the ridiculousness lie more in the reference -- the evil, the corruption, the downright smarminess of this country's foremost politicians? Well, this is one smarmy band. And the handsome Finn, at least according to our sources and various observations, is currently leading the male division of the Seattle club scene in womanizing conquests, not to mention drunken episodes -- and with the likes of Mudhoney and Tad in the same division, that's one hell of an accomplishment.

But underneath that smarm is one serious little combo. Sure, it's easy to get hung up on the goofiness -- especially that of their recent KROQ hit "Lump" -- but if you're not careful you'll overlook the true essence of the band: they're seriously talented.

The Presidents began their administration in 1993 after bassist/vocalist Chris Ballew left another prominent Seattle band, Love Battery. He quickly enlisted his old junior high school buddy Dave Dederer to play guitar, and remembered drummer/vocalist Finn from a gig four years earlier, when he and Dederer were playing in a band called Go, and the Presidents were inaugurated.

But the key to Ballew's vision of the Presidents as endearingly-loose pranksters was not so much Love Battery's ride-the-wave Seattle sound as was his tenure with Morphine's Mark Sandman -- he of the innovative two-string bass, sax and no-guitar vision -- in a temporary improvisatory outfit called Superglory. "For a long time I wouldn't write, but playing with Mark kind of unlocked a Pandora's Box," Ballew explains.

Although the band was short-lived, the effects were long-reaching. "He asked me to play and gave me a two-string guitar," says Ballew. "That freed me up, the simplicity of it. It had nothing to do with chord progressions or the history of rock and roll. People would shout out song titles and we would make up songs on the spot. It shocked me out of not being able to play."

Since then, Ballew has applied an off-handed impromptu style to his music, which fit perfectly in another ragtag improvisational experiment, this time with Beck. Ballew teamed up with him after Ballew's good friend (and famed indie folk singer girl) Mary Lou Lord recommended he check out her favorite new talent. After much prodding, Lord dragged Ballew to a gig, during which Beck's backup tape broke. Perhaps inspired by his freeform days with Sandman, Ballew took the initiative and hopped onstage to join him, and the two clicked instantly. "We felt comfortable going nuts in front of each other," says Ballew.

Now, Ballew continues to animate his music with abandon and ease, and each member of the Presidents carries on the partially-equipped instrument tradition inspired by Sandman (two-stringed bass, three-stringed guitar, one-cymbaled drum set). "Playing on two strings is easy; it looks easy," Ballew explains. "People look at us and think they could be doing what we're doing."

Well, that's partially true. The Presidents' yahoo attack is so user-friendly it's deceptively simple. With Ballew's twangy drawl set against gonzo two-beat rhythms, and the suggestive subject matter that alludes to kitty cats, chickens and nudity, the Presidents' sound could be easily dismissed as snotty frat-rat, booze-infused country punk in the same vein as Mojo Nixon. But a closer listen reveals their major-label debut CD that is packed with thirteen eclectic gems (including a countrified -- albeit crunchy -- spin of the MC5's "Kick out the Jams") that are manic, but never stupid; sexual, yet not lewd; juvenile, but not unsophisticated.

"I judge a song by how many laughs it gets," says Ballew. "At the first level you get goofiness, but I hope the words are good enough [so that] listeners get something else. I write my songs purposefully thick so that you can come back and hear something else." Songs like "Peaches" ("Goin' to the country/Gonna get myself some peaches.") and "Dune Buggy" may seem mindlessly easy, but Ballew's fresh spontaneity belies his craft:

"A little blind spider took the wheel/ Navigating grass blades completely by feel... Spiderwoman in the front seat screamin' `go go go'/He's ridin' the accelerator down to the floor with his fuzzy little toe."

You try writing that. It's smart without being nerdy, funny and sexy at the same time. It takes talent to achieve weirdness without entering the realm of stupidity and yet, despite these lofty accomplishments, the Presidents remain humble. Ballew is soft-spoken yet frank and decidedly enthusiastic about music. Dederer, who holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Urban Planning, intends to fit graduate studies in between albums and touring; overall the Presidents hold little preconceptions about their music or gaining Rock God status.

Ballew, despite his brief success with Love Battery, has spent too much of his life recording his music on a four-track machine and selling tapes through Factsheet 5 to allow a hit single or two to swell his head. "You can't plan to have a successful band, but you can plan to go back to school," says Ballew. "We could be the flavor-of-the-month and Dave will be free to go back to school. We're not assuming at all that we'll be huge.

"We're entertainers, not artists," Ballew insists. He pauses briefly to think over the band's oft-declared philosophy, then allows: "There is an artistry to it when we play with the words. But live, the songs are consciously constructed as entertainment. We don't want to awe people with technique."

Well, that's reassuring. But the Presidents definitely wowed industry folks at an ASCAP benefit they played last year in Seattle. The gig there, which Ballew admits was "really good," sparked major label interest, which led to a high industry demand for their debut indie CD (on Seattle's tiny PopLlama label). The whole hullabaloo peaked at an A&R-packed show at Austin's South By Southwest Conference in March, which eventually led to the band's deal with Columbia Records this past summer. After suggesting the band remix six songs -- which they did -- Columbia re-released the album, and eventually the disc's third track, the rollicking "Lump," began to saturate the airwaves.

"I am really glad we remixed those songs [because] now we know more things about the way a record should sound to hit the radio," says Ballew. "[The CD] wasn't ready for the radio before; it was dull and flat."

Whoaaah, what's this about radio-ready songs? What kind of talk is this for a little pop-punk band? Where's that DiY ethic so paramount to today's alternative rock scene? "We don't think of ourselves as indie," says Ballew, shunning the doctrine that the only good records are underground records. "We make music that anyone could latch onto. I don't have preconceptions about who our music is for."

Ballew, in fact, enjoys being associated with a major. "Being signed is inspirational because I know that the songs I write will see the light of day," he says. "Songs that have been in my room for 15 years."

And as for Finn, he's certainly enjoying the beer money.
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