Chris Ballew’s POTUSA

Chris Ballew’s POTUSA
By MATT ASHARE | May 6, 2008

Seattle’s Presidents of the United States of America were the right band from the right place at the right time when their homonymous debut flew up the charts back in 1995. Their playfully hooky songs with lyrics bordering on nonsense (a girl like a bump on the head; a mischievous kitty; a magical peach) felt like the perfect antidote to the overly serious tenor of the grunge that had elevated their home town, and people were just ready to have a bit of fun again. But the good times didn’t last long: by the following year, the trio had rushed out a half-baked follow-up, and the joy of their debut was, with repeated playings, wearing a bit thin. So in ’97, head President Chris Ballew broke up the band and retreated from the rock life to raise a family. And that might have been the end, as he explains over his cellphone from a pool in Arizona in the midst of a tour supporting the band’s new fifth album, These Are the Good Times People (Fugitive), if not for Krist Novoselic . . .

How was it Krist’s fault?
Well, we had made a record in 2000 [Freaked Out and Small], but there was no touring: we played one show and we didn’t do any old songs. But Krist asked us to be his backing band at an awards show, and he wanted us to do some of our old songs with him. And it just felt right, so we slowly started doing more shows, and then we had a booking agent, and then we had new songs, and we did a couple recording sessions, and we gave a song to radio, and radio started playing “Some Postman” in 2004.

But when it came time to do the heavy lifting, [original guitarist] Dave [Dederer] realized that he was done. We respected that, and we had Andrew [McKeag] waiting in the wings as Dave’s replacement. So we’ve been busier than it might seem. In fact, if you go back in time, we’ve put out a record every election year from 1996 on. We didn’t even realize that until someone pointed it out.

Even with the line-up change, you’re still using the three-string guitbass and the two-string bassitar, and you still have a fondness for writing about animals and insects . . .
It’s less a fondness than I’m allowed to do it again. Dave actually forbade me to write about animals. That’s part of the reason we broke up. We were going to do a third album, and he came to me and said that he didn’t want me to write about animals anymore.

I’ve always written songs about animals. For a long time I thought that those songs weren’t worthy. And then I was at the Plough & Stars in Cambridge on a Sunday evening seeing Spider John Koerner, and he was up there with his eyes closed and his 12-string guitar singing “Froggy Went A-Courting” and other old timeless public-domain songs that had this spooky cobweb feeling to them but also a bouncy joyfulness. I was beginning to realize that I had to let my freak flag fly and sing about whatever I wanted to sing about. But Spider John’s music gave me permission to do those animal songs because I could see that there was a thread of this music that I could tap into. It was very enlightening because it gave me permission to tap into something that already existed. “Ladybug” and “Truckstop Butterfly” are meant to tap into that old folk-music thing. They’re really not supposed to be kitschy.

So there was tension between you and Dave? But I also remember your telling me that you’d left the band because you weren’t happy with the people your music was reaching.
Well, I don’t really intend to reach any certain kind of people. I intend to reach all kinds of people. But the audience had become very limited. It was an audience who had learned how to be at shows by watching television, not by going to shows. So it was a limited palette of people, and that’s what bothered me. When we do an all-ages show now, it’s an all-ages show — the kids come, but the ages are 50, 40, 10, 5. I like that. My goal is to write songs that transcend culture and age, so the audience is a big melting pot. That really gets me. I really love looking out there and seeing a Mohawk and a grandmother. And we’d reached the point where all I was looking out and seeing were frat boys and their girlfriends. It was like they’d bullied everyone else out of the way. But it’s hard to generalize. And that time has passed for sure. We’re in a kick-ass spot now: we belong to our crowd and they belong to us. I think we’ve also learned to value what we’ve achieved
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