Absorbing Life; An Interview With A Giraffe

Unlike Bill Clinton, Seattle band The Presidents Of The U.S.A. did not finish their four year period. After three long years of being on the road, they gave their farewell show at the Crocodile Club in Seattle on January 31st of this year. After that things went quiet, but not for long. Lead singer Chris Ballew is back with a new project called Giraffes and their debut album is called 13 Other Dimensions. The Giraffes is a fictional band which consists of a giraffe, an earless rabbit, two monkeys, a bear and a duck on wheels.

The official band biography tells this story:

This story is, off course, completely made up and in fact Chris Ballew wrote all the songs, played all the instruments and recorded it all in his basement studio on his 8-track cassette machine. Curious on how that would sound I called up Chris to ask him some questions on the project.

- How did the Giraffes album come about? Have you been working on it for years or is it a "new" project?

It's not a really new project. I had these songs in my head for a long time. Some recordings go back as far as 6 years. It's just how I used to make music before the Presidents got famous. I always used to record songs, put them out on cassette and give them to other musicians, my family and friends..... anyone who was interested really...

- The bio page on the internet site tells the story of a real band..... do you consider the Giraffes to be a real band as well?

It might be a band in the future, but for now it's just my solo project. The whole story... I thought it would be fun to use puppets and create a story around them, but for now the Giraffes will be a solo project. I think I will use the Giraffes as a band name in the future as well, but then it will be clear that I'm behind that name. I like it to have a name, rather than calling it a ?solo record?.

- Here in Holland we have what is called the "Eefje Wentelteefje Roadshow", which is a really creative and exiting mixture between puppeteering and rock and roll. Would you ever consider performing as a puppeteer with the Giraffes?

Actually we are working on something... a TV show which should be very exiting. The Giraffes characters will be in this little movies and Pee Wee Herman will be the host of the show.

- But do you plan to take it all on tour?

I don't think so...I'm not into touring anymore. I just like to be at home and be creative. The one and a half hour on stage is fun, that makes it worth it... but the other twenty-two and a half hours is just..... boring... it's like giving up your life and my life is what inspires me to write songs. Maybe somewhere in the future, when I find the right people to play with, but at this point, no.

- How have Presidents fans reacted to this project?

I really don't know.... I just did some radio shows here in the US and some fans phoned in and were very enthusiastic... so I guess they will be able to get into it. But as I said, I did not get many reactions yet...

- Can it still be recognized as Chris Ballew?

It sounds a lot like me... my voice is very straight on this record and it's almost like a speaking voice so I'm very recognizable there... musically it's not that recognizable as the Presidents because it's a lot more laid back and it has a lot more instrumentation like piano, a different drum sound, more six string guitar and stuff like that... sonically it?s all over the place.

- You are in fact behind all the characters on this project. Did you have certain people in mind while creating them?

Well, that's funny because originally I did not, but in retrospect each character represents a small part of me in a way. I have the tendency to have multiple personalities in songwriting and I think I have a bit of a split personality in a way. My wife actually made up one of the names, he had a dream. When she woke up she said "I had a dream about Yoko Glick", so that name became the keyboard player for the band. The influences came from everywhere and two of the puppets I have since I was a kid, so those already had names. One of them I kept when I was cleaning out all my toys and I kept this one; Chickey, the drummer in the Giraffes and I kept him because he had arms and legs and he looked like a drummer. So his personality's be around for a long time.

- In an interview you once said: "songs are like little silent movies in my head, for which I only had to write the soundtrack". Is this the soundtrack to the story of the Giraffes?

Not really. As I said I had these songs in my head and I used the Giraffes as a vehicle to put them out. But the songs don't tells a story... basically that's still the way I write my songs though. I see them in my head and then I put them on tape. It's all a very spontaneous experience....

- Is the story of the Little Giraffe and the Earless Rabbit as it's told in the bio based on how you used to make up songs with your brother when you were young?

Yeah, it is and I also used to do the same thing with Mark Sandman from Morphine. We had this band in Boston and the idea was that the audience would give us titles and we would make up songs right on the spot, so definitely that part of the Giraffes story came out of the partnership with my brother and Mark Sandman.

That's also the way I write songs these days. Just get the music on tape and improvise the vocals on top of that. Then pick out the passages that I like and write the lyrics from there. So there's still a lot of improvisation going on and I think that's very important.

- It keeps the songs fresh...

It keeps it fresh for me and it makes it loose and mysterious in a way like I'm not sure what I was thinking.... You know, it's like I don't know what it means, but I DO know what it means... so I leave it in.

- This way you can work very fast. Are you planning on releasing more in the near future?

I would really like to. I'm working on a second Giraffes album right now and it's coming along really well. I think it's gonna be great. But I have still a lot of business stuff to sort out with Columbia , so I will have this album finished relatively soon, in a couple of months, but then I have to figure out who's gonna put it out.

- Funny you should mention that, because you once said about this project "It's good to be the puppeteer instead of the puppet"......

The reality is that I'm still on Columbia. They let me put out this record on My Own Planet, but I don't know how I'm going to end up relating to them and how they are going to relate to this project. I just want to make records and put them out and would like a career like XTC, just make records. I'm not sure if Columbia will be able to get into what I'm doing; recording at home and making these silly little records. If they can get into it that would be great, because I will make a couple of records for them and then maybe start my own label later. If they can't get into it that's great too. Then I'll start my own label right now. I just have to wait and see what happens. This is kind of a transitional period where the puppeteer and the puppet are intermingling with each other.

- It's not like you are going to do what Beck does at the moment; making records for a major label and putting out other less commercial records on smaller labels?

Well, I would love to do that, but I don't have the contract that Beck has. When he first signed up with Geffen he made a provision, and I was touring with him at that time, where he could release four different releases a year for smaller labels and they accepted that. In retrospect it's a different situation because I was part of a band and then you are a group. I did not want to stand out and make that kind of proclamation or endanger the deal for the whole band by saying something like that. So, anyway, it's o.k. though... I just have to be patient until things sort themselves out and I'll be up and running in no time...

- Are you planning on releasing singles from the album?

Well, not this first one. I kinda like letting this first one just be an album... In a way I'm not into singles that much. I like it more to let an album be a collective... a cohesive work, rather than selecting songs and pulling them out. I really like how an album flows rather than listening to individual tracks. That whole single thing is in a way just designed to sell records anyway, so it's just a commercial thing.

- I really had that feeling with the second Presidents album. I like it as a whole and I hated it when they played one track individually on the radio, while the first record is great as a singles album.

I agree... well the second one... I would almost call it a mistake. Well, it wasn't a mistake. The songs were good, underneath it all were good songs, but what happened was like, we worked on them only to a certain point. We put all sorts of stuff on them, like guitar and keyboard, but we did not take the extra step, which is shaving off the stuff that doesn't work and getting back down to the essence of the song.

This was because we wanted to put the second record out before November and there we were, with two weeks to go and we were listening to the mixes... I knew in my gut that it was wrong, that it was too busy and bombastic and distorted and everything, but we had this deadline. In retrospect we should have just thrown the deadline away , gotten back and work some more on it... oh well, it was a learning experience. I can definitely use that knowledge now to make better records in the future. So without a deadline for the Giraffes I can work on the songs until they are finished.

- Do you have anything else planned for the future exept for the next Giraffes album?

Well, I'm working on the new songs and working on that TV show... basically that's it. It's nice to be able to NOT focus on being creative and hang out with my family, look at the clouds, read a book and kind of having the time to do anything. The luxury is now that I can step back and enjoy life a little more, unlike being in the Presidents on which my energy was focused all the time and I just lost sense of myself really. It's really nice to live and not constantly being focused on working and writing music all the time. It's kinda good to get back to absorbing life a little more.....

For more Giraffes information, check out the official Giraffes website. This article would not be possible without the kind help of Michele Valey at My Own Records and Carl Hanni of Mod Media. Pictures were used with kind permission of My Own Records.

Edgar Kruize
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