Presidents' Daze

By Steven Almond -Published on May 09, 1996

They chose their name as a joke, but the trio of rock and roll goofballs known as the Presidents of the United States of America has been the object of intense media questioning about their intentions in Campaign '96. Therefore the band has released the following statement through press secretary and drummer Jason Finn: "We do plan to vote this year, but we are not endorsing anybody. Rock is just not that important. If anybody is looking to be influenced, rock is the last fucking place they should look, because there is no information. Rock is a release, an outlet, and we think that's pretty much where it should stay. We see our role just like Little Richard or Chuck Berry did: to make ass-kicking music. And we refuse to be belittled because we don't have an agenda."

The Presidents may not have an agenda, but they do have one hell of a grassroots platform: They make deceptively simple pop music that aims to please the ear and shake the hips, not assault the conscience. They write songs about boll weevils, dune buggies, and kitty cats. They sew irreverence to musical invention without a seam showing.

The result has generated approval ratings that would have any Oval Office orifice crowing. The Presidents' self-titled debut album from last fall snagged a Grammy nomination for best alternative music performance and has achieved double-platinum status. MTV airs the video for the infectious single "Peaches" every ten minutes or so. And more recently the Presidents were sent to Japan.

Trade mission? Foreign relations? Belated apologies for that whole Bush barfing fiasco? No, just gigs. "A great tour," declares Finn during a phone interview from his home in Seattle. "The fans are super excited you're there. They give you presents all the time and everyone has a good time at the shows. Nobody's hurting each other or doing beer bongs. Even the stage divers were polite. They all waited their turn."

So inspired were the Presidents that they composed a ditty titled, appropriately enough, "Japan."

"It goes like this," Finn says, tapping out a drumbeat on a nearby table: "'When we hit Japan, something, something, something!'" Finn pauses. "Actually, after the 'We hit Japan' part everything was kind of ad-libbed."

So it goes with the Presidents, who stress improv over micromanagement. "Ideas for our songs come together really quickly, once we know that an idea is a keeper," Finn explains. "It's not rocket science. It's just verse/chorus/verse. Or maybe verse/chorus/something else/verse."

For all their reflexive self-depreciation, the Presidents are meticulous sonic craftsmen. Chief songwriter Chris Ballew builds his songs around basic blues and country riffs plucked on his two-string bass. Guitarist Dave Dederer fattens the melody with thick chops at his three-string guitar, while Finn lays down a beat that can jump from punky thump to jazzy syncopation in the crash of an undersize cymbal. Imagine the Beatles mind-melding with Frank Zappa, or better yet, imagine Chuck Berry jamming with the Buzzcocks.

"We play feel-good rock," Finn notes without apology. "We're trying to communicate joy. We have problems, like anyone else. But we play music to make ourselves feel good."

A refreshing outlook, and a somewhat surprising one, considering the Presidents hail from Seattle, the capital of angst-rock. "We know all the guys in all those bands," Finn allows. "And they're all nice guys. There's been this idea in some newspaper stories that we're some kind of backlash against grunge. But we don't make music in response to Soundgarden. We make music to entertain. Period."

If the Presidents are lighthearted, they aren't pea-brained. "Naked and Famous" is a mordant commentary on the superficiality of Los Angeles. "Kitty" is a savagely funny tribute to feline codependency. And the oddly haunting "Stranger" is a poetic pastiche of classified personal ads from the Seattle weekly newspaper the Stranger.

The genesis of the Presidents also has been the source of much inaccurate reporting, particularly as it relates to Finn, the former drummer for Love Battery. The story, as told by Rolling Stone and other publications, is that Finn "begged" for months to join Ballew and Dederer. "Not true," Finn sighs. "I'd seen Chris and Dave play in various little bands and knew what they did was fun. And I did insist at one poker game at my house that they let me join. But it wasn't really begging at that point, because there wasn't a band to join. I was just trying to get in on this little thing. And now it's become this large thing. This very large thing."

Indeed, the meteoric ascent of the Presidents continues to astound and bemuse all three Chief Executives. "We'd all been in bands, but nothing prepared us for what's happened," Finn confesses. "This is just a totally different scene: radio, MTV, asses that have to be kissed. We try to spend as much time as possible just rocking out, but you've got to attend to some of this stuff or it gets done for you."

Because the band's star machine has grown to become so large and ominous, Finn points out that he and his mates have kept a tight rein on the recording of their sophomore effort, tentatively titled II. "It's more of the same, stylistically, but we're a lot happier with what's hitting the tape," Finn reports. "With the first record, we were making do with all our crappy little bass rigs and stuff. This time we've got the same spirit with less hassle."

Still, Finn concedes that the band's wild performance style has been crimped by fame. "When we played smaller places, the important thing was interacting with the crowd and getting the lyrics across," he states. "With big places you've got to use grand gestures. We're all high up on this stage, and the audience is far away and we've all got bigger amps. We're basically a rock band now. We can't deny that."

Nor can Finn deny that the fan demographic has downshifted dramatically: "In Seattle we played bars mostly, so our crowds were late-twenties people. We didn't even think kids would buy our record, because when you're in the tenth grade being cool is the biggest thing in the world. We figured kids would think, 'There's no way I'm gonna get laid if I own this record.' But then MTV started playing us all the time, so I guess that made us cool."

The result is a rabid following among kids who are too young to remember Cheap Trick, let alone the Beatles -- both prime Presidential influences. "All these kids must think we're cool, but we're really not. We're not even a very good interview in the end, because our entire story is on-stage," Finn concludes, with typical humility. "People always want us to tell some kind of wacky tour story about us hanging our dicks out hotel windows or something. We just don't do that. The truth is we're fairly boring."

The Presidents of the United States of America perform Wednesday, May 15, at the Edge, 200 W Broward Blvd, Fort Lauderdale; 525-9333. Showtime is 9:00 p.m. Tickets are $15.

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