At Home in Seattle, Cheerfully Singing Against the Current

By NATASHA STOVALL Published: April 21, 1996

THE ALTERNATIVE-ROCK band the Presidents of the United States of America hails from Seattle, the capital of grunge, coffee bars and twentysomething angst. But you'd never know it from the happy-go-lucky songs that pepper the band's debut album.

The album, named after the three-man group and released by Columbia in November, has so far yielded two top-10 singles: "Lump," a sendup of a traditional love song that reached No. 1, and "Peaches," an ode to fresh fruit (No. 8). The success of those two songs recently pushed the album into the top 10, with two million copies sold.

The Presidents' instruments are as playfully eccentric as their lyrics. The group's 31-year-old singer and main songwriter, Chris Ballew, plays a two-string bass that he calls a basitar; Dave Dederer, also 31, plays a three-string hybrid he calls a guitbass. Only Jason Finn, 28, sticks to the conventional: a drum set.

Mr. Ballew and Mr. Dederer have known each other since they went to junior high school together in Seattle. Later, over 10 years, they teamed up in several bands, discovering their musical sensibilities along the way. "I realized that I needed to have a really entertaining element in the music," Mr. Dederer said, "an immediately enjoyable, tactile rush."

Mr. Finn, who had knocked around Seattle in several bands, found the formula compelling. He knew he wanted to join the Presidents after seeing an early incarnation of the band in 1991 but had to wait, and plead, for two years before he was taken on.

In the beginning the group performed without an official name, calling itself whatever came to mind during concerts. But when Mr. Ballew came on stage one night and introduced the band as the Presidents of the United States of America, the crowd's response was so ecstatic that the group decided to keep the name.

Mr. Ballew sees his Seattle childhood as the inspiration for his upbeat music. (He wrote all but two of the 13 songs on the album.) He recalls hazy Seattle afternoons when he and his brother would try to make the ultimate race car from Legos. "While we were doing that, we'd exchange lines and make up rhymes," he said. "We always made up songs about frogs and c'ickens and worms." The album "Presidents" includes songs about a blind spider, a hermit boll weevil and 1,500 musical monkeys.

To Mr. Ballew, animals are simply part of his everyday world; not until reporters questioned him about them did he began to ponder the animals' meaning in his music. "I've attached metaphorical meaning to each animal," he said, "like maybe monkeys are mischievous people, frogs are partyers, cats are people with attitude and dogs are curious people."

Mr. Ballew hopes that the Presidents' music reflects his own carefree attitude. "I'm a happy person with a good family, and I love Seattle, and I love riding my bike," he said. "I hope the music translates that joy of simplicity."

Though the group's hard-pop sound evokes 1970's artists like MC5 more than it does grunge icons like Nirvana and Soundgarden, the Presidents see their music as an authentic Seattle product.

"Musically, Seattle is about good time rock-and-roll, like the Fastbacks and the Young Fresh Fellows and, long ago, Paul Revere and the Raiders," Mr. Ballew said in a telephone interview from O'Hare airport in Chi'ago, where the band was changing planes en route to Stockholm for the start of a European tour. (So busy is the band's schedule and such is the demand for interviews that it's difficult to get the members to sit down and talk.)

NILS BERNSTEIN, spokesman fop Sub Pop, the Seattle record company that first signed Nirvana, says local fans accustomed to grunge were at first thrown by the Presidents' cheerful songs but soon saw them as an antidote to grunge's gloom. "People from Seattle are glad to hav' a popular band that's not another grunge clone like all the other post-Nirvana success stories," Mr. Bernstein said. And the Presidents' sound has clearly caught on elsewhere: a recent three-month American tour was virtually sold out.

Can the Presidents continue to attract an audience producing albums that celebrate the silly? The answer may be as simple as the song "Back Porch," in which Mr. Ballew imagines himself as a 70-year-old man, "sipping everything through a straw," sitting on his back porch playing music with his critter friends.

"We ll just keep doing what we do," he said. "We can't foist ourselves on people. They have to want it. That's what makes it fun."
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