The '90s alt-rockers are as irreverant and unselfconscious as ever

by Chelsea Bauch April 24, 2009  

Fifteen years after breaking out of the then overflowing Seattle music scene, The Presidents Of The United States Of America are still alive and well. Known for nonsensical lyrics and easy alt-rock hooks, the two-time Grammy-nominated trio has escaped obscurity by continuing to tour and produce albums, like 2008’s These Are The Good Times People. As the band gears up for a two-month tour around the U.S.—including a performance at 9:30 Club this Sunday, April 26—The A.V. Club spoke to drummer Jason Finn about DIY self-promotion, knowing when you’ve “arrived,” and why it's no Dishwalla.

The A.V. Club: With no new album, why go on tour now?

Jason Finn: There’s not really a good reason. We want to take a little break in six months or a year, but before we do that, we want to be assured that we’ve covered everything. We don’t want to get an e-mail from someone saying, “Dude, why haven’t you come to my town?”

AVC: An e-mail? So you guys have taken the new media plunge?

JF: We’re sort of a full-time part-time band, and we haven’t really put it all together with the online presence, new media thing. We’re not sure if it’s even appropriate to go whole hog because I don’t know how much more we’re going to do this. We love doing this, but we can’t do it the way The Rolling Stones do it with a different transfusion every week. That said, it’s all very exciting right now: A year and a half ago, MySpace was big time and now it’s over; Facebook is happening right now, but who knows how it’ll be two years from now. I’m actually having a drink tonight with Jonathan Coulton, who, without ever having a record label, has this enormous fan base online. He’s on the ground, picking it up, and building his Jonathan empire.

AVC: How is that different from when you sold Presidents cassettes from behind the bar where you worked?

JF: That was then. During the mid-’90s in Seattle, they were handing out record labels like candy. But that doesn’t mean that anybody was selling records. We had instant notoriety at first locally, then regionally, and then we put the record out on Columbia and then it was the planet. I don’t know how it happened—I’m still mystified. Back then, you would put out a cassette or a 7-inch and start playing where you could, then get a vehicle to get down the coast, and that was it—band promotion 101. Our meteoric rise was the exception, not the rule. I think it’s a lot more interesting with what’s happening now.

AVC: You came on board after Chris Ballew and Dave Dederer had been together for a while. How was it to bring drums into their preexisting dynamic?

JF: Chris and Dave had played together in basically the same band with a bunch of different names. It wasn’t that big of a stretch for them, but I was very wary of toning my style down. I got rid of my kit except for the drum and the snare—I’d even tape my wallet under the snare because I had nowhere else to keep it.

AVC: Was it a big departure from Love Battery at that point?

JF: Love Battery was my main act, my grunge super-star band. The Presidents started as kind of a funny, dopey side thing to do between Love Battery tours, but it eventually became obvious that something else was happening and I had to choose. It wasn’t that clear of a choice, but I went with the wild card—and it paid off.

AVC: Do you think you’ve achieved a certain iconic status now?

JF: We don’t really get a lot of direct evidence of that other than looking out at an audience every night and seeing that there are younger people and older people. I hope our big legendary time translates into a kind of timelessness. We already feel like we’ve won that battle. I don’t want to knock on anybody, but, for instance, Dishwalla probably couldn’t pull off what we’re doing. Even when we were a really big part of the pop-culture machine—the corporate pop-culture machine—we weren’t really offering something that was in line with other stuff. [Laughs.] It’s weird music. We’ve long since given up on finding Presidents-sounding bands.

AVC: Do people still pester you about what the songs mean?

JF: After 20 years, the questions still sound flat. When people continue to ask us stuff like, “Who is Lump?” I know that they don’t even understand the question. It’s not like we’re alone in having lyrics that are absurd or metaphorical. That goes back to Chuck Berry and to Louis Jordan.

AVC: Speaking of absurdism, what was your reaction when you first heard the Weird Al cover “Gump?”

JF: We all literally jumped for joy and hugged each other. He actually came and played us the track on our tour bus. It was the first time he personally played his parody for a band and apparently he was terrified. When you hear that, you know you’ve arrived. I mean, what surer designator of your pop-culture status could there be?

AVC: You guys have reunited and parted ways during the years. What was behind those breaks?

JF: We don’t consider the word “breakup” a negative thing at all. They were basically very strongly worded mutual hiatuses. We wanted to be sure that there was no “except” or “but” to it. We stayed apart for three years or something, but I barely remember that now. We’ve been playing for five years solid at this point and that’s even longer than our early period.

AVC: How would it be different if you were starting out now?

JF: I don’t think it would have happened for us the same way. We feel blessed, and by that I mean a lot of things broke right for us. We were a killer live band—we still are—and we’re offering something a little different, but it was all random cards then. There’s a lot of cool shit happening out there now, so we’re grateful to have what we have. Phew!
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