Presidential Precis

A rock resume with about as much fat on it as a PUSA tune (and that ain't much)

By David Holthouse (phoenix new times)

Published on February 22, 1996

Name: Jason Finn
Current occupation: A President of the United States of America ("I play drums").

Previous employment: Percussionist for grunge combo of note Love Battery; booking agent; bartender in Seattle, Washington. ("I'd still tend bar if I had the time. I can't think of another job--except maybe the one I have now--that's fun, pays well and centers on girls and beer.")

Most recent professional accomplishment: Hooked up with fellow Seattle musicians Chris Ballew and Dave Dederer in 1993 to form the Presidents of the United States of America. Self-titled 1995 debut LP sold more than a million copies, had three hit singles and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Alternative Music. The Presidents were subsequently booked to perform at the Grammy Awards ceremony (scheduled for Wednesday).

"I don't think we have a legitimate shot at winning, but it'll be fun to be there," says Finn. "I'd say the Foo Fighters are the favorite. We're not even a dark horse--more like a pitch-black horse with three legs."

The hits/songs to make you say, "Oh, that Presidents of the United States of America": "Lump" ("She's lump! She's lump! She's lump! She's in my head); "Kitty" ("Kitty at my foot and I want to touch it"); and "Peaches" ("Movin' to the country, gonna eat a lot of peaches").

Presidential history: Childhood friends Ballew and Dederer had played together on and off in Seattle since high school and, in 1992, reincarnated as a minimalist rock two-piece with no name. Dederer played a three-string "guitbass," while Ballew's weapon of choice was a two-string "basitar."

The inspiration for the duo's eccentric instrumentation can be traced to Ballew's stint with Supergroup, a Boston band founded by Mark Sandman, the two-string-bass guru behind Morphine (Ballew also played with Beck on his "One Foot in the Grave" tour). Finn came across his future bandmates at one of their first club gigs, introduced himself after the show and told them, "If you guys ever decide you want a drummer to go with this thing, give me a call."

About a year later, they did.
Things to know about PUSA if you ever want to sound like a rock critic: The party line on Prez rock is that it's the very antithesis of the music that made Seattle famous.

Thematically, the Presidents invert grunge's disaffected frown into a goofy smile with pajama-party lyrics that simply don't make a hell of a lot of sense. No "negative creeps" here--just a lot of furry animals and fresh fruit.

"We aim to be accessible," says Finn. "We aim to make our songs entertaining, not something you have to really sit and brood over."

It's not the lyrics to the Presidents of the United States' songs, however, that has put the band on the charts. It's the hooks, stupid. Crunchy, caffeinated melodies, stark-naked guitar/bass riffs and choruses affix toyour short-term recall like peanut butter to white bread. Ballew and Dederer share vocals, but it doesn't really matter what they're singing--it just sounds good (the lyrics for "Stranger" were composed entirely of random snippets from singles ads in a Seattle alternative weekly of the same name). If you manage to pick out the odd line here or there and cop a smile, so much the better. But what the Presidents truly excel at is the same kind of rhythmic, catchy clatter generated by the better New York City washtub-and-pawn-store-guitar subway-station bands. Which is no coincidence.

Here's Finn: "Chris [Ballew] used to play in the subways in Boston when he lived out there. And in that sort of situation, people are walking by and you kind of have to grab them right away or they're going to be gone. And in order to make enough money to drink on that night, you've gotta be able to grab the suits, grab the punk rocker and grab the little old ladies with the same tune.

"Basically, we apply the same principle on a larger scale."
One final critic's note on the Presidents: The band has some truly odd arrows in itsfat quiver of cover songs. The debut album carries a foot-stomping version of theMC5'squintessential party anthem "Kick Out the Jams" and a cover of the Traci Lords' ExLovers song "We're Not Going to Make It" (refrain: "'Cause there's a million better bands, with a million better songs"), which has turned into the group's signature live tune.

The Presidents' cover repertoire is in constant flux, but current favorites include Bad Company's "Feel Like Makin' Love," the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" and several warp-nine versions of Willie Nelson songs (Nelson is Dederer's favorite songwriter).

Where the hell did the name come from? Depends on whom you ask. Dederer recently told Musician magazine, "It's the longest title we could think of, and it's the highest office in the land, occupied by the dorkiest guy." However, Finn says it "kind of just sort of happened" at a private party back in '93 where Ballew called out gag names between songs. One time it was "the Electric Blueberries." Another was "the Presidents of the United States of America." That one really cracked 'em up, and it stuck. "It's just another instance of us putting absolutely no forethought into something and having it work out for the best," says Finn. "That's the story of our success."

The Presidents of the United States of America are scheduled to perform on Monday, February 26, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with Love Jones. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).
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