Big Sights
Big Sounds
Big Mele

'President' Ballew
admits the band
name's dorky, but
there's nothing
dorky about their
isle debut

By John Berger
Special to the Star-Bulletin

The name is Presidents of the United States; what's with that?

"It soars, but it's kind of dorky at the same time," says Chris Ballew. "The highest office in the land but it's also kind of dopey as a name for a rock band."

Ballew is vocalist, composer and "two-string basitarist" of the Seattle-based trio. He and his fellow Presidents Dave Dederer ("three-string guitbass") and Jason Finn ("no-strings drums" were mixing the tracks for their upcoming album when he stopped for a phone interview.

"I think our name had a lot to do with our success because you say it and people laugh and drop their defenses. It's really functional in that way just as songs are a function of being entertaining on stage," Ballew says.

The Presidents makes its island debut Saturday at the 4th Annual Big Mele with Cypress Hill, No Doubt, Mighty Mighty BossTones, Dishwalla and Dance Hall Crashers.

The band has been on the road for more than a year, and since then has been working nonstop on a new album; so once he gets to Hawaii, Ballew says, "I just want to sit around and relax in the water."

He and his wife honeymooned on Kauai and will return there for several days, too.

Ballew is as eclectic and free-wheeling as the music he wrote for the Presidents' debut album songs like "Naked And Famous," "Dune Buggy," "Kitty" and their break-through hit, "Lump."

Walking around the Belltown district of Seattle is one of his favorite forms of relaxation at home. Writing songs, playing video games and reading history, biography and fiction fill the travel time between cities.

"I've read more books in the last year than I've read in the last 10 years. I just read a great book of ghost stories of the Pacific Northwest that was so scary that I couldn't read it alone. It was totally creepy."

Ballew's musical interest extends far beyond rock. He admires the ability of classical composers to have conceptualized symphonies "without the resources of multi-tracking."

"Salvador Dali wrote that music is an inferior form of expression and visual imagery so much more effective because it can elicit a much wider range of emotions. I think music has more impact because it draws masses of people together, creating a massive experience as well as an individual response."

If he wasn't with the Presidents, he'd likely be playing the music of ragtime master Scott Joplin.

"I played piano pretty intensely from the time I was 5 to about 16, and it's amazing to me to have a single instrument so completely fill up the space and rock out so hard. I've been listening to a lot of (ragtime) lately. It's beautiful, and it grooves, and it's simple, and it's happy and it's really great stuff."

Ballew and Dederer were high school friends but played in different bands; their first gig together was at a school reunion. They formed the Presidents as a duo. Finn joined shortly after. A debut album for Seattle indie label PopLlama was superceded by a major-label bidding war in which Columbia emerged the winner. With radio play and heavy support from MTV, their self-titled album went double-platinum, with sales in excess of 2 million copies.

"To me, a successful song leaves part of the picture unpainted so a person can be steered into a scene but have to finish it up themselves with their personal vocabulary of imagery. Everybody should have their own image of what the 'Dune Buggy' looks like and what 'Boll Weevil' is all about."

Although he sets no time limit on the Presidents' term on the charts, Ballew doesn't see the band as an oldies act 20 years from now.

"I've been performing on stage for 10 years pretty consistently, and I can't imagine being an older person and being challenged by that prospect. I still really like to perform with this band, but I'm much more interested in what can be accomplished in the recording studio and in songwriting."

Ballew is building an eight-track cassette studio in the basement of the home he bought in January. "I love cassettes because they're so cheap and easy to deal with and they have limitations in the sound that I like. They can't sound too hi-fi; you can only push them so much."

He's also working on expanding his skills as a composer.

"There are a lot of things about music that I find kind of mysterious. As I get older and experiment more and write more songs I seem to unlock these secrets of how to do certain things, but it's fun to still have many things I still don't understand about music awaiting me if i choose to keep doing it."

The group's new album will be out Nov. 5."Our next album is a lot more rock and roll. I got back into listening to what I was listening to when I was 15 cheap white boy rock and roll. I love that stuff because it makes you feel it."

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