Call It a Comeback

The Presidents of the United States of America vs. Themselves
by Sean Nelson - September 2004

"It's like we hit all the pages of the Handbook for the Confusing Successful Experience in Rock." Chris Ballew, lead singer and songwriter of the Presidents of the United States of America, is standing in the basement of his beautiful Seattle home, on a beautiful Seattle afternoon, describing his band's career trajectory to date.

"Struggle for years," he begins, "then seemingly get famous overnight. Have giant album that sweeps you off your feet. Be disoriented by not being satisfied by the very thing you thought you wanted. Break up. Have farewell show. Make tiny attempts to get back together. Have big reunion show. Stage comeback. It's just perfect."

Presidents co-founder Dave Dederer offers a deadpan word of caution: "Don't call it a comeback."

But a comeback is precisely what you have to call it. After seven years of under-the-radar activity--which has included playing shows for thousands of people, and selling tens of thousands of records, all while being officially broken up--one of the biggest Seattle bands of the past decade has reunited to make a full-throated new record, Love Everybody, which they are committed to pushing as hard as it can be pushed.

"Oh, and let's not forget the mediocre sophomore effort," Ballew suddenly remembers, laughing.

"It's an essential piece of the puzzle," Dederer adds. "The story doesn't hang together without it."

The Presidents' story is as much cliché as anomaly: Eight years ago, they seemed more or less washed up. Nine years ago they were internationally massive, with a multi-platinum record, three unstoppably catchy top-40 singles ("Lump," "Kitty," "Peaches"), and saturation airplay on MTV. Ten years ago, they were simply a great Seattle band with a well-deserved reputation for putting on the most energetic, fun, and purely joyous shows that anyone had ever seen. If this timeline suggests anything, it's that rock 'n' roll success always indicates both a beginning and an end.

Dederer locates that realization at a precise moment on the Presidents' precipitous rise to glory. "It was a promotional tour exactly nine years ago," he recalls. "August of 1995. Chris and I were in some hotel room, God knows where, and we turned on MTV and 'Lump' was playing, as a Buzz Clip or whatever. The first 30 or 40 seconds was this feeling of 'Oh my God! We actually did it!' And after 45 seconds I had the most profound, depressing, sinking feeling of just, 'It's all over. We're another can of Mountain Dew. We're another tube of Clearasil.' The stuff we'd been doing in Seattle was so organic and homemade, and now I could see that was all gone. And that was the part that was so interesting and sort of spectacular about what we were as a band. And I could see that it wasn't going to exist for 99 percent of the people who came to know us."

But that 99 percent represented millions of people, millions of records, and, presumably, millions of dollars--none of which are easy to refuse.

"It's weird," Ballew muses. "I had definitely set up my brain to be happy without the kind of success that we enjoyed years earlier. But then when it happened, I had the same feeling as Dave: 'Of course it's happening, we're good. Why wouldn't it happen?' But by the time we got to the being on TV part and all that, I kind of felt like we should embrace it.... I wanted to be even more throwaway, more Sex Pistols. I thought the coolest thing would be to break up in the middle of everything. I wanted to be as two-dimensional as possible."

It's been said that the role pop culture hands you is the one you learn to live with, but pop culture wasn't particularly attuned to the grace notes in the Presidents' two-dimensionality. What the masses read as zany novelty contained a rich classic pop sophistication, and Ballew's inspired nonsense lyrics tapped a profound vein of high lowbrow absurdity largely missed by admirers and critics alike.

"But you'll beat yourself silly trying to explain that to everybody," Ballew explains. "To me, the logical thing is to just say yes: We're stupid. We're quirky. Ha, ha, ha. And then when people listen to the record, the music will do the job. Of course, I wish I'd realized it then."

The band's noblest gesture was the one that made them hater fodder from the very outset--no cool factor. They simply shrugged off the self-seriousness that alternative rock had shackled itself to. The Presidents of the United States of America were and are incredibly fun. You know, like rock 'n' roll used to be.

"It's not something that's in pop music anymore," Dederer laments. "We'd be in Germany and hear [adopts German accent], 'You are from Seattle but you are not grunge, how is zis possible?' And we'd be like: the Sonics, the Kingsmen, the Wailers--"

"It's a party scene," interjects Ballew.

Dederer continues: "Young Fresh Fellows.... That's Northwest music. It's like, drunk in a basement, good times. And we're in that line. That's what we're all about."

One listen to Love Everybody, and it's hard to argue. The record is vintage Presidents: infectious exuberance, great hooks, and a renewed sense of pop purpose. The Presidents' trip through the rock 'n' roll handbook has brought them to a chapter not many people expected: the surprisingly good comeback record. If the struggle to keep the faith in the face of bigtime success broke the band up, it seems the desire to "play good music for good people" was too strong to keep them apart. After years of side projects, families, and lingering regrets, Ballew, Dederer, and drummer Jason Finn have finally decided that being the Presidents of the USA is better than not.

"Oh yeah," Ballew smiles. "Every time we played, I had this excellent glowing feeling in my chest like, 'We have this thing--this sound, this attitude, these instruments, and these songs--that is totally us.' I love that feeling. I still feel that way, like we have this little corner that's our own. It's so great."
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