A Kid at Heart - The Chris Ballew Interview

POSTED BY Matt Vaughan on Mon Nov 9

Chris Ballew is best known as commander in chief of the court jesters of Seattle rock, the Presidents of the United States of America, but he also has a not-so-secret second identity - Caspar Babypants. Ballew's latest project is all about music for toddlers, and Caspar's debut album, Here I Am, is chock-full of goofy songs about bugs, bears, worms, and bunnies, as well as his take on traditional kids' songs such as "Frere Jacques" and "Three Blind Mice." Kids love it, and parents do too - his appearance at the West Seattle Summer Fest was one of the highlights of the entire weekend. The second album by Caspar Babypants, More Please, will be out November 17.

Mr. Babypants, er, Ballew, chatted recently with Easy Street owner Matt Vaughan.

MV: Hey Chris, we’ve been seeing you around a bit more, hanging out at the shop and bringing the family around, what's been going on?

CB: Well...I MOVED TO WEST SEATTLE!! WOO HOO!! I’m so happy and excited to have found my real place here in Seattle. I’ve experimented with a bunch of different parts of town and the vibe out here and especially the vibe down off of Beach Drive where I live is a dream come true. Back in the day I had a little shack up on Lopez Island and I loved it but I was sad that the laid back feel had to involve such a long trip and a ferry. I really get that same sensation here in W.S. ...what a relief!

MV: We've always been big supporters of you here at the store. It was so nice when the Presidents were breaking out, such a contrast to the dark and intense music blowing up out of this town. What a few smiles in a crowd can do for the soul. Did you and your bandmates counteract the scene consciously? In hindsight it appears super rebellious.

CB: I have always written ALL kinds of music. I have a bunch of depressing or sad songs as well as the happy ones I am known for. I was a huge fan of the intensity of the music coming out of Seattle. I was living in Boston when it really hit and came back on the down slope of the scene here starting in 1992. I do remember seeing the MTV Music Awards one year and it was wall-to-wall Seattle and all that intensity. I did consciously think "I NEED TO INJECT SOME GOOD TIMES INTO THIS SCENE" and I wrote two songs right there that ended up on the PUSA debut. So it was a decision to focus on the FUN. But the fact that it became huge for us was a surprise for sure.

MV: I recall seeing you the first time at the Weathered Wall. You seem to always have been comfortable on stage and bantering with the crowd. Where does that come from? Parents? Upbringing? A crazy science teacher? What gives, Chris?

CB: HA! I just feel good up there! I feel connected to something so much bigger than the boundaries of my body. It’s that old rock and roll thing of the crossroads where the body and mind intersect and you lose yourself. I feel like everyone is pulling for us and the crowd feels like a good friend. We sort of have this "little band that could" thing going on that makes people feel good about being on our side if they like us.

MV: We've been selling a good amount of your Caspar Babypants CD, Here I Am. I mean geez, you've always been a fun guy, but this is super-duper fun. Great for kids I know, but you’re getting into the lil’ kid brain in all of us with this. I found myself thinking of your song "Bug in the Cuff" recently. I was out in Mexico on my honeymoon and, well, something got in my pants. I'd imagine that watching your kids grow up inspires your recent songs, but as a parent, you probably find yourself reflecting on your own childhood as well. Tell us a bit about your childhood and when you started making music?

CB: RIGHT! I am super excited about making kids music. There is an element in there from my own childhood, which was very smooth and creative and loose and fun. I spent entire days playing with my brother and making up songs and rhymes. My life now is kind of an extension of those lazy days. Except now I do it in my studio! Also, that free-flowing creative surreality that kids access with their writing and songwriting is something I just ALWAYS want to be close to and making music for kids keeps me there even more than PUSA. The songwriting in PUSA is a balance between innocent and innuendo that I don’t fully have control over whereas the pure innocence of the Babypants I could do forever and ever.

MV: You know with lyrics like yours, you could also start a psych band. Throw some fuzz bass and some looping falsetto to songs like "Monkey River" - [“Water's only shadow deep / Monkeys dip into the river / Black and blue moon light up the leaves / Cypress branches chuckle and shiver"]. What keeps you from turning that corner?

CB: Well right now I feel so COMPLETE making music for babies and parents that the world of grown-up music seems kind of grey to me! I feel like I am touching a core nerve of being human with the Babypants stuff. It’s strange really...I spent so much time doing freaked out psychedelia (with my band The Feelings Hijackers) and it didn’t get me closer to that molten core of music. It seemed like frosting and no cake. I can’t really explain it but I just feel like this is my HOME and I’m happy being simple and clear with the music!

MV: You worked with Mark Sandman and the Morphine camp before setting off on your own. How did you get involved with them? A new Morphine collection, At Your Service, just came out and it is certainly apparent in listening to this that Morphine was very unique and could go far deeper than maybe we heard in their studio records. This is a very inspiring collection, however, most of it was unfinished work. You contributed to some of the songs. I'd imagine he was a great inspiration to you?

CB: Mark was my musical father. He showed me how to be the freak I became by being the rock on stage. I have no idea how we met and he never could remember either. We just seemed to always know each other. We lived together for a few years and had an improvisational band called Supergroup that played around Boston in the '91-'92 era. A bunch of PUSA tracks were born on stage in that band as well as a bunch of Morphine tracks. Listening to that CD you mentioned is a trip because I am hearing his 8-track studio versions for the first time of songs that we made up together on stage! It’s like seeing part of your life from a new angle when you find a box of forgotten photos. I got the two-string thing (guitar technique) from Mark (although I was already playing a four-string at the time) and a great deal of insight and guidance about songwriting. I really miss him all the time.

MV: Is there any reason to be excited about this year's NBA season?

CB: Not for me! I am blissfully FREE from my previous fascination with sports!! OH MY, THE EXTRA TIME!!! THE PEACE OF MIND! I love it...I still LOVE to attend a game of any sport here and there but I have no idea what’s going on in the big picture with any sport.

MV: When is the next Caspar Babypants record come out?

CB: The new album is coming out November 17 and will be called More Please! because it is more good times. It will be on the website at Babypantsmusic.com and iTunes and of course Easy Street. I am SO proud of it. It was a ton of work because after I discovered my voice with this music I experimented a lot to see how I could push the boundaries a bit. All that experimenting took a whole lot of studio time and patience. I think I ended up with a really great slab o’ wax! (Ooh, I WISH I could do vinyl!!)

MV: Hope you've been enjoying West Seattle; it's a pleasure to have you in God's Country. Thanks a lot for your time Chris, you are one of our favorite luminaries and we have always been big fans here at Easy Street. Any new records coming out you are excited about?

CB: Thanks so much. It is God’s Country isn’t it...and by that I mean EVERY GOD YOU CAN THINK OF! Lets see...lots of kids music really...Elizabeth Mitchell, Harmonica Pocket, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Kimya Dawson, Johnny Cash, Dean Jones and Chris Parsley. All of these are great kids artists. Leadbelly and Johnny Cash made killer kids records with great story songs and that old roots feeling that I love. Only one grown-up sound got my attention lately and that’s the Avett Brothers. LOVE those people. I saw them at the Paramount and it was the best show I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve been a fan for years. My amazing artist girlfriend Kate Endle turned me on to them. She is also a huge reason I am doing kids music. Her art inspired me to try it out! Check it out! Thanks for the great questions and awesome record store!! Woo!

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