Rock's Commander in Chief

by Leah Sottile and Alan Sculley

Eight o'clock is early. Eight o'clock is usually when my cat is pawing at my face begging for food. Its when I hear the first drop of liquid caffeine hit the bottom of the glass carafe, and its when I sit on my couch for 15 minutes thinking about how early eight o'clock truly is.

Eight o'clock is not rock and roll time. So when the Presidents of the United States of America's publicist set up my interview with the band's drummer at eight o'clock — I had to clarify that he meant eight in the am. He did.

When I called Jason Finn at eight, his phone promptly transferred to his voice mail. He called back a few minutes later with a gruff voice that only could have been a result of just waking up. I couldn't help but ask him what rock band functions this early in the morning.

"We are really not on a real rock band schedule," he says, morning breath coming through the phone. " Rock music isn't good before afternoon."

I hear a spoon clanking on a coffee cup, and a refrigerator door close on the other end of the line. Jason drops the phone. I laugh.

He says these early interviews, as well as the band's nine o'clock (yes, in the morning) practices are the result of a five-year break. A lot happens over five years.

"We did this and that. Played golf, wrote a novel, had a bunch of babies, played with other bands, fought with the law — and the law won," Finn says, noting that he left having babies and getting up early to the other guys in the band. "Some of us did more than guys in (their) mid- to late-thirties would do."

Finn says that taking a break from their insta-fame was exactly what the band needed to get interested in getting back together.

"Over time, you just start to think, 'That was fun, we could do it again,'" he says.

When Chris Ballew, Dave Dederer and Jason Finn broke through the gray clouds of the '90s Seattle grunge scene with little ditties about kitties and peaches, fans across the nation gobbled up their light-hearted tunes. Something about their silly songs, their huge name (not "The Presidents" or "PUSA," but "The Presidents of the United States of America") and their boyish onstage antics were a prescription for success in Seattle — where fans and musicians were on the verge of a grunge overdose.

"We don't really have drug problems or anything. It's not really sexy or anything. We are just adults," Finn says.

Ballew and Dederer, who were longtime friends, officially stole Finn from his band, Love Battery, in 1993. The three-piece group was quickly snatched up by Seattle indie label, PopLlama Records, where they recorded their debut album. The record soon grabbed the attention of Columbia Records, and before they knew it, the Presidents' songs were on regular rotation across the country.

But how long can songs about kitties and peaches realistically last?

"Chris' songs have some qualities that make them sound like songs that are really disposable — but they tend to stick around," Finn says. "If you try to come up with something that is ageless, it might not strike a chord with anyone."

Not wanting to waste their popularity, the band waited less than two years to turn out their next album, II.

"Once you kind of crack the big game, it doesn't get any easier," Finn says. "We definitely had some music industry momentum. The second album — it's one of those things we look at and go, 'Wow, we really weren't thinking that through correctly.'"

After II saw significantly less success than their debut album, the band knew they needed a break.

"The only way that we felt that we could stop at all to catch our breath was to burn the whole thing down," Finn says.

Finn says the break couldn't have been better for the band — who revived their efforts in 2000 with an online-only album, Freaked Out and Small.

The Presidents will be in Spokane on Friday for their first stop on a quick four-date tour. While five years have gone by, Finn says that they'll be playing a lot of those songs about kitties and peaches that were popular before.

"We have been playing new songs because we like to do that, but we are not going to show up in Spokane and play all new stuff," he says. "The more things change, they more things stay the same."

Sure, the band might practice at the crack of dawn now — but Finn says the band's dynamic and their songs are following the same path as before their breakup. But this time, the trio won't let the band take over their lives like it did before.

"It's just a rock band, and if you were to take something as silly as a rock band and make it the only thing that defines you — that's retarded. A rock band, while a fine and wonderful thing, is not enough."

Elemental Ani -- Ani DiFranco says she has come to believe she's at her best when she keeps it simple. Her new album, Educated Guess, takes that idea to a new extreme. It's a solo acoustic record, on which DiFranco played all the instruments, sang all the vocals — including harmonies — and handled all of the recording and production.

That's a major change for the Buffalo, New York-based singer-songwriter, who, after touring solo during the early 1990s, had gone on to record and tour with a full band. But then, DiFranco's life has recently taken a major turn, which virtually dictated a return to the solo format she utilized at the start of her career. She is once again flying solo in her personal life, having split with her husband and recording engineer, affectionately referred to as "Goat Boy."

"We sort of had a 30-year relationship in about six years, given that we were 24/7 and touring, making records," DiFranco says. "That intense working and constant togetherness. Yeah, it's a big change for me."

It's no surprise then that Educated Guess (DiFranco's 16th album) is weighted toward material that examines relationships, along with a few tracks — most notably the spoken word piece "Grand Canyon" and the song "Animal" — that deal with the current political climate. That sort of lyrical mix, DiFranco says, is nothing new for her.

"I think that being human, all of my records meditate at length about interpersonal relationships, and then somewhere in there is also a political awareness. But love is what captivates me in the day to day. I guess on this latest record, it's almost love's opposite, the solitude, the loneliness, the sense of loss after a relationship ends, and then a regaining of my sense of self."

While topical material takes up only a small portion of Educated Guess, tracks like "Animal" and "Grand Canyon" are so pointed that it's clear DiFranco has been strongly effected by the war in Iraq, the threat of terrorism and the government policies that have emerged under these circumstances.

The former song focuses on greed and the growing influence of corporate America on government policies — and how the culture of the past two decades has transformed Americans to think of themselves more as consumers than as citizens.

The epic poem "Grand Canyon," meanwhile, opens with a scathing look at how the government — particularly the current administration — has sought to portray patriotism as blind acceptance of policy and dissent as un-American.

"We have a fascist government," DiFranco says. "I don't hesitate at all to use that word at this point because really, I think taken objectively, that's precisely what they are. Dissent is unpatriotic. Dissent must be stopped and that blind obedience is the desired quality in a citizen. That's fascism101."

Musically, Educated Guess makes an equally strong statement. DiFranco may be accompanying herself only on acoustic guitar, but the album proves she is one of the few artists who can create enough tension, contrast and impact in this sparest of musical settings to sustain a listener's attention throughout the course of the entire disc. Her guitar style remains among the most distinctive in music, with its clipped and percussive sound providing a dynamic counterpoint to her vocals.

"In the old days, I used to really get off on playing guitar, having the guitar be the whole band, bass lines and really percussive and you know, sort of trying to keep people interested," she says. "So now that the band has suddenly evaporated, it's almost like 'Oh, there you are again.' I'm listening to the guitar again."

Publication date: 04/08/04
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