Presidents: Good-time rock

Published: 08:00 p.m., Thursday, March 13, 2008

That's the impression he gives through his music -- both as frontman for alternative rockers The Presidents of the United States of America and in his numerous side projects.

So even when he penned songs for the Presidents' latest album, "These Are The Good Times People" -- after his marriage dissolved -- Ballew managed to keep his music and lyrics upbeat for the fans.

The Presidents' new CD came out Tuesday on Fugitive Recordings/EMI. The band headlines March 24 at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City.

"I don't feel like making a career out of sharing bad times on stage," Ballew said in a March 5 interview from his home in Seattle. "The closest I'll come is like the song 'Loose Balloon' on the record. It's about me being out of sorts. And 'More Bad Times' is sort of my tongue-in-cheek way of shedding light on that feeling of loss. But I go to shows to feel uplifted and I want to do that as well at shows.

"I write sad songs, but I don't really broadcast them; I just do them for therapy for my own satisfaction," added Ballew, who has a son, 10, and a daughter, 7. "And I also just have this inability to remember bad things. I just don't remember the bad times. I have a filter in my brain, naturally, that alters my own memories to be good. My divorce was tough in some ways, but it also was extremely positive. She and I get along great now, so it's a beautiful thing."

Born May 28, 1965, Ballew grew up in Seattle. His father was a banker, while his mother was a homemaker.
Chris Ballew began playing in bands when he was 10 and has been in roughly 20 acts since. After going to school in New York City, Ballew moved to Boston, where he formed the band Egg and began writing what would later become some of the Presidents' earliest songs.

Ballew counts ragtime composer Scott Joplin, as well as classical, techno, pop and DJ music among his influences.

He formed the Presidents in late 1993, playing basitar to Dave Dederer's guitbass. The unique instruments feature a three-string guitar and a two-string bass -- rather than the traditional six-string setup.

"(Morphine's Mark Sandman) shepherded me in that direction," Ballew recalled. "I was already taking strings off of my guitars, but I had it down to four and he showed me the two and how simple that can be and how much harmony can be made out of two strings.

"I was (also) breaking strings and I didn't have any money to buy new ones," Ballew said. "So I just started reinventing how to tune it. I liked being loose and feeling free enough to not be constricted to what everybody else does."

With drummer Jason Finn rounding out the lineup in 1994, the Presidents recorded their self-titled debut for $8,000. Soon, it was reissued on Columbia. The album included the No. 1 hit "Lump" and the Top 10 hits "Peaches" and "Kitty." It sold more than 4 million copies.

From there, the band issued "II," its second album, featuring the Top 10 hit "Mach 5." The guys recorded a cover of Ian Hunter's "Cleveland Rocks" -- the theme song for "The Drew Carey Show." And their version of The Buggles' "Video Killed The Radio Star" was featured in the film "The Wedding Singer."

But in order to spend time with their families, they took a much-needed break in 1997.

Ballew, who had been in Beck's band for about five months and played on the alt-rocker's 1994 album, "One Foot in the Grave," quickly hit the studio to record as The Giraffes. He released two albums under that band name, another with musician Tad Hutchison and two solo CDs.

After the band got back together to release its "Love Everybody" LP in 2004, Dederer's involvement waned in terms of touring. In concert, the band now features Andrew McKeag on guitbass. The Seattle musician is an ex-member of The Black Panties, Shuggie and Uncle Joe's Big Ol' Driver.

"Dave was a more careful player in general and had a cleaner sound that was more about precision," Ballew said. "Andrew's a lot more guttural and rock 'n' roll. If 1 to 10 is the range -- 1 being classical guitar and 10 being the craziest distortion you ever heard -- Dave goes somewhere between 1 and 6 or 7, and Andrew goes between 4 and 10. So he just slides the whole energy level to slightly more insane. But then he has the ability to play precision as well. Dave thrived on precision, whereas Andrew thrives on chaos."

Ballew thrives on, among other things, humor and having a good time. The first single from the latest Presidents album, "Mixed Up S.O.B.," is a song dating back to 1989. Ballew was in Boston and placed an ad seeking singer-songwriters to record on his four-track.

"I got one call and it was this crazy woman, crazy girl talking about all sorts of crazy (stuff) and her songs," Ballew said. "She was super-fairy-dust and pixie-(like). And she had all sorts of ideas about delusions of grandeur. I never did record her, but she became the inspiration for the song."
Rocker Tom Petty considered covering "Mixed Up S.O.B." several years ago. Meanwhile, another song from the album, "Ladybug," was written in the mid-'90s. Like several other Presidents songs over the years, it involves an insect or animal of one kind or another.

"Do you know Spider John Koerner by any chance?" Ballew asked. "Koerner, Ray and Glover were a folk trio back in the '60s. And they did all public domain folk songs -- stuff that would get passed around in barns, at hoe-downs. He used to play at the bar in Boston that I played at a lot and he was great. He inspired that song.

"He did a lot of songs like, 'This is How the Bat Got Its Wings' and 'This is Why the Raven Was Black' and those Grimm's Fairytales kind of things. I just wanted to write my own version of that. ... He really inspired the animals thing. I was like, 'If I could take Spider John and combine him with Lenny Kravitz and a little Nirvana, I'd have something.' "

Next on the horizon for Ballew is a children's album that may also involve collage work from his girlfriend, artist Kate Endle.

For now, though, he enjoys being on the road and performing the Presidents' self-described "joy-pop."

Each night, he hopes fans walk away with the same thing.

"Loud joy," said Ballew, whose music is in national ads for Visa and NAPA Auto Parts, as well as in countless major TV shows. "You know, the Chinese philosopher, Loud Joy?! Yeah, lots of joy. We have so much fun playing. We just want to have it feel like a big hoe-down."
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