Presidents Of The United States Of America founder Chris Ballew

by Carl Wiser

On "Peaches," "Lump," and the sage advice he received from Madonna.

Photo: Brian KasnyikPhoto: Brian Kasnyik
With the hits "Peaches," "Lump," and "Kitty," The Presidents Of The United States Of America made quite an impact in 1995. A year earlier, they issued an independent debut album that was chum in the waters for record companies looking for the next big band out of Seattle. Courted by Madonna for her Maverick label, they went with Columbia and campaigned with the tagline "Three guys, five strings, one nation under ROK."1 Their signature sound came from stripped-down instruments: a "basitar" with two strings, a "guitbass" with three, and a drum kit with tiny cymbals.

Unlike the weighty Seattle sounds from the likes of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, The Presidents' genre was "funge": grunge-influenced, but undeniably fun. Think Primus mixed with Weezer.

Their frontman and lyricist was2 Chris Ballew, a man of many musical identities, most famously Caspar Babypants, his outlet for kids' music. Chris is a very prolific songwriter with a knack for tunes with a touch of levity that can be unexpectedly profound. To learn about his songwriting process, we had him break down his 2021 single "Tonight" before getting the stories behind his hits with The Presidents, his work with Beck, and his thoughts on the Seattle music scene of the mid-'90s.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): How many songs do you make in a typical week?

Chris Ballew: There have been patches where I've made zero for weeks and weeks and even years in some cases. And then I'm in a patch right now where in the last week, I've created and shepherded about a song a day. So there are times when things are fertile and times when things are barren.

Songfacts: In an effort to understand your process, take me though conception to completion of your song "Tonight."

Ballew: I'm going to open up the session. I'm using an older version of Pro Tools 9 because if I go to Pro Tools 10 or beyond, all my plugins on my previous work will be inactive.

So, one of the things I love to do as I'm writing songs is sift through the thousands and thousands of fragments that I have created over the years, like little riffs, a verse, a melody line, or whatever. I was doing that and I found this old riff of me playing an acoustic guitar. It was on a little handheld microcassette recorder. I probably recorded it in like, 1998 at our beach house on Lopez Island on this very crappy little guitar I had there. So I took that distorted little recording and I put it in a Pro Tools session. I took one measure and looped it, and it was sort of a fifth-based thing, so it didn't have a minor or a major presentation to it. And as I looped it and listened to it, I started to hear both minor and major. I got another acoustic guitar and played a major chord for four bars and then the minor of that chord for four bars. So the whole song "Tonight" is one chord, except for one moment later in the song when I go to the five for just tension and release. But mostly it's one chord going major, then minor, and back and forth.

Lyrically, I didn't really have an idea. I just had a groove going - a little kick and snare pattern. I create the drum patterns in Pro Tools by throwing in single hits and then moving them around against the audio that I'm developing and grow a beat that way. I don't really use beatboxes or drum machines as much. I find that when I build them bit by bit, they end up sounding more unique and customized for the riff I'm trying to expand upon.

So I get a beat going and then I'll open up a bunch of tracks and improvise lyrically, spew the most ridiculous, nonsensical stuff all over the track. It's that Phil Collins "Sussudio" thing. He had a hit with that song and everybody asked him what it means. He's like, "Well, it was filler noise that I was using to try to dislodge an idea for lyrics, and I never came up with anything else." I thought that was genius.

That's become a cornerstone of how I write vocals, unless something presents in the early stages that is clear. If nothing is really clear but I'm loving the groove, I just open it up and sing. Like, "I got a fence post inside my little brain," or whatever. And out of that I'll get a melodic shape and I might stumble onto a chorus or a lyrical combination that sparks my imagination.

So it's really just allowing myself to be messy in the early stages. Then I go back and listen to those improvisations and see what pops out. It's all, of course, dependent on me continuing to be interested in the idea.

Before I found myself in the phase I'm in now, I was much more intense about having a concept before I started recording. Like having a song idea before I sat down to record, and then executing that and making that idea come to life. Now, I'm allowing the music to push and pull me in different directions and inspire me. If something dies on the vine, I don't get rid of it. I throw it into a folder and then later I might pop it open and hear it in a new way.

"Tonight" is one where the gibberish landed on that word "tonight." Originally I thought it was going to be about partying, like "tonight is the night." But it quickly, verse-wise, started to take shape and become ridiculous. And I thought, "This is more about dreaming." It's about lucid dreaming, like tonight I'm going to do all this stuff. I'm going to put a tiger in my shoe and lasso the sun. So it ended up being a song about dreaming that also sounds like a party song, like I was going to a party in my dreams.

Once that's happening, I sit down with my laptop and I type like I'm writing a poem. I have the melody and the rhythm and the concept, then I shift over to writing like Bob Dylan on a typewriter, clicking away without playing. I throw that in there. And inevitably there's things that don't work, things that are clunky, and things that do work. I massage that all around. It's really like I'm responding to intuitive messages. If something pops up and demands my attention, I shift gears and do that.

It's like adjusting an engine with nine carburetors. It's adjusting the groove, adjusting the bassline, adjusting the guitars, settling on an energetic level for the song that supports the intention. Is it a rocker or is it a ballad? Sometimes, I'll do a rocker and I realize it's a ballad.

Songfacts: Do you have a specific project in mind when you come up with one of these songs?

Ballew: Yeah. At the moment I am really just writing for my solo project, the Chris Ballew thing. I'm super focused on making at least two records a year. I know the album format is a dinosaur, but I love sequencing a record. It's such a fun challenge and it's so satisfying when things click.

So, yeah, I have really this one project in mind and that's it, but if I do find myself writing a song that doesn't fit, I go ahead and do it anyway and just file it away. I might be seeding a future creative arc, so I save everything.

Songfacts: Let's go back to when you were writing concepts for songs before you recorded them. I'd like to hear about the lyrics to the song "Peaches."

Ballew: The key line, "Moving to the country, going to eat a lot of peaches," I overheard a homeless man who was walking by the bus stop where I was waiting for a bus. He was saying it under his breath over and over again: "I'm moving to the country, I'm gonna eat a lot of peaches." And I thought, "That's interesting. I've never heard a homeless guy talk about his future and peaches and the country like that."

I was on my way to my girlfriend's house and I didn't have a guitar there but the phrase stuck with me. I later got home and put it to a little music. All I had was that, then I was trying to be Nirvana in the verse, gnarly and growly.

So I had a verse and a chorus, and the verses were about how I had taken some hallucinogenic drugs and gone to a girl's house that I had a crush on. I was intending to tell her how I felt but she wasn't home, so I sat in her yard under a peach tree, having a psychedelic experience smashing peaches in my fist, literally like I say in the song, and watching the juice dribble and watching the ants run around. She never showed up, so I never got to tell her, but I bottled it and turned it into that song.

And then Dave Dederer [Presidents guitarist] came up with the end part:

Millions of peaches
Peaches for me
Millions of peaches
Peaches for free


That was Dave's contribution, which is why the song sounds like two different songs. It's got my verse/chorus/verse/chorus, and then Dave's end part.

I love that that song was so popular because it really was a collaborative thing. Dave and I depended on each other to make that song work. Growing up as I did in the shadow of Lennon and McCartney, I thought it was cool that we had that collaboration.

Songfacts: I think Roman Coppola did the video for that song.

Ballew: That is correct. He did all of our videos for the first record, and we had a good time working with him. One time I called him at his dad's house in the country and his dad answered. That was weird, like, "Oh, hi Mr. Coppola. Can Roman come out and play?"

Songfacts: What's up with the ninjas in the video?

Ballew: We had done the "Lump" video and had shot enough footage for two videos. We were a little stumped as to what to do for "Peaches," and all I had in my mind was playing outside, like nature. I wanted us to be associated with being outside, not cool rock guys in a dark place like a rock club. So we wanted to be outside in the woods.

We had a phone conference call with Roman, and that's all I had. There was quiet on the other end of the line, and then Roman slowly said, "How do you feel about getting attacked by ninjas?" And we all went, Yes!

He'd been watching a bunch of old ninja movies, and being the young aspiring filmmaker that he was, he was excited to try his hand at a fight sequence and needed a place to do it. So we did it, and then Roman became the like the stunt video guy after that for a bit. He did a video for The Rentals that had all kinds of stunts: car jumps, bike jumps, explosions.

Songfacts: What's the story behind your song "Lump"?

Ballew: That's a funny one because it's an early version of this fragment hunting. But this is back when I was more generating fragments than hunting through mine, although I did have stacks of cassettes full of little bits and bobs from my 4-track. This particular song I recorded the fragment of the chorus on a little microcassette recorder, and don't remember the moment of creation. Usually when I hear these fragments I know where they happened, like if it was at the beach house, or in Seattle, or on tour in a hotel room. But when I was cleaning my room and listening back to my cassette full of fragments, I heard, "It's lump, it's lump, it's in my head." And I went, "What's that?"

I used to put on these tapes of fragments and do something else - do the dishes, clean the house, whatever - and then wait for something to stop me in my tracks. And that stopped me in my tracks.

So I started developing it, and Lori Goldston, who was the cello player in the Nirvana MTV Unplugged, was my neighbor. I didn't have a 4-track, so I ran over to Lori's house and said, "I need to use your 4-track." She gave it to me and I brought it over and tracked the demo for "Lump," which I did on a miniature Radio Shack keyboard that I used for the drums and harmony parts and the whole middle part where I'm going, "Yeah, yeah." That whole melodic middle part originally was played on a Realistic keyboard.

So I made a primitive 4-track recording of it, and then showed it to the band. We pumped up the volume and the energy, and it became the song that it is.

Songfacts: Tell me about the character in this song.

Ballew: I don't know where she came from. It was just a visual, an image I had in my head. When I thought of "she's lump, she's lump," I wondered, "What could that be?" and I just wanted to paint a very surreal picture. It's a little bit "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds." I'm just realizing this now as I'm saying this, but growing up with Sgt. Pepper's being such a massive part of the landscape of my imagination, I think it was sort of my "Lucy In The Sky," you know, "Lumpy In The River." I just saw this scene, this weird jungle with this woman in a housecoat, an overweight, 50-something woman with her hair in curlers, smoking a cigarette, sitting in the river and dumbfounding the piranhas who normally would eat her, but they can't make heads or tails of her.

Everyone would always say, "What is 'Lump' about?" I'm like, "Just listen to the lyrics. That's what it's about." It's literally about this vision, a fancy flight of imagination.

The other thing about that song is, I was trying to imitate a Buzzcocks song. Originally the guitar and the bass were in from the very beginning, but I wanted it to sound like a song where the beginning of it could sound like it's already been going on for three minutes, like it just drops and it's on. But Conrad Uno, the guy that helped produce the first record, had the idea of muting the guitar and the bass at the beginning and have it just be drums. So that was a great decision because it's iconic, the way it starts.

Songfacts: Did you ever consider trying to portray Lump in the video?

Ballew: No, never did. Historically, I have a bit of a problem with videos. It's like that old Mitch Hedberg joke:

"Oh, you're a comedian. So can you write and star in a sitcom?"

That's like saying, "Oh, you're a chef. Do you farm?"

Like, "You write songs and record them, do you also make little movies?" It has nothing to do with being a musician.

I used to get dragged kicking and screaming into making videos because it's not my thing, even though I'm a big film fan and I loved hanging out with filmmakers in college, and I love movies. I'm just not good at making them.

So it did not occur to me to make the video a visual representation of the lyrics because I really liked how people were confused by the song but compelled to listen to it. I didn't want to solve the riddle of what I was singing about.

When I was little, I'd listen to these mystery radio shows, and in the beginning there was this door that would creak open, like, "Welcome to the Mystery Show." And I remember I could see a door, and I thought, "Well, if I see a door, somebody else probably sees a different door. Everybody sees a different door when they hear that creak." So in the same way with "Lump" and the confusion about what it's about, I just wanted everybody to have their own experience.

And it was our first video, so we wanted to do, "Here's the band." You know, here's what we look like, here's our energy.

Promotional shot of The Presidents Of The United States Of America, courtesy of Chris Ballew

Songfacts: In listening to the song, I can't tell that you were playing a guitar with just two strings.

Ballew: Well, it was a guitar through a bass amp and another guitar through a guitar amp, and the bass guitar had two strings, and the guitar had three. We called them a basitar, and a guitbass. The idea was to make them sound like one instrument. I was really into The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and they were two guitars and a drummer. I was really loving that vibe because if you don't have a real bass, then you don't really need full drums. We also took all of Jason's [drummer Jason Finn] cymbals away and gave him a tiny splash cymbal and a tiny hi hat, and a little tree with a wood block and a cowbell on it. So he had to come up with inventive ways to play.

The idea was, we wanted to be this little band that was trying to rock, so that an audience member or somebody watching us on TV would be like, "Look at those little guys trying," versus, "Look at those guys kicking ass." I thought there was no tension in actually rocking.

Having our records sound weird and having a bizarre look - I'm a bald guy in rock and roll, what's that all about? - made it more engaging for the audience by having them have empathy for us and root for us. So making the sound small, but kick ass, that's where we went.

So that's one reason for the two- and the three-string, because it's sonically limited and it leaves a big hole in the soundscape for the vocals and the lyrics and the imagery and what we're singing about to come through, which I feel is a dimension in writing and recording. It's a shame when it's completely obscured, like somebody's singing too quietly and you can't understand anything. That's a dimension of songs that I love, so I'm a little bummed when it's completely obscured, unless it's like a heavy-duty rock song wailing against a tornado of guitars. Then it makes sense.

Songfacts: You talked about how in the video you're giving everybody a look at your band. The whole concept of The Presidents ended up being a brilliant marketing move because it ties into stuff like Presidents' Day and opens up all these possibilities. Can you talk about that?

Ballew: It did end up being fortuitous for marketing opportunities. MTV gave us a half hour of airtime to do a live show from Mount Rushmore for Presidents' Day. We met and opened up for Bill Clinton when he was stumping for Democratic midterms. But then there was also dumb stuff, like we'd show up for an interview and they'd want us to wear stupid, red, white and blue hats or something.

The joke of the name is that we're small and striving and dorky, yet we've chosen this powerful name, so there's friction between who we really are, what we sing about, and this name that says "leader of the free world." In fact, we used to love to have whoever was announcing us put on a big voice bathed in reverb. Like, "Ladies and gentlemen, The Presidents Of The United States Of America!" And then it's like, "dinka dinka dinka... here we are."

So, the conscious decision part of it was the surrealness of it and the ridiculousness of it. I wasn't thinking about marketing opportunities when I suggested that name to Dave and Jason, but it was so dumb that it worked.

Songfacts: Did you have to do a bunch of those hit-and-run radio interviews in the '90s?

Ballew: Oh, tons. I remember our very first one somewhere down in California. The guy was such a tool and so ridiculous. It was like 98.6 The Flash, and he made us pump our fists and say, "The Flash!" We looked at each other like, What have we done? What are we in for?

That was just the first of a billion. We'd get up at the crack of dawn after playing a show the night before to go do morning radio with these shows like "The Maniac and Wolverine" with these ridiculous human beings. We did our fair share of that stuff for sure.

Ballew has released 20 albums as Caspar Babypants, including two of Beatles covers. These do really well: His biggest hit, "Run Baby Run," has over 4 million streams on Spotify and 2 million on YouTube. Chris' Caspar material is kind of a G-rated version of what he did with Presidents. He even reworked a Presidents song, "Loose Balloon," as Caspar.
Songfacts: I'm intrigued by the crossover between Presidents Of The United States Of America and Caspar Babypants. You did versions of a song called "Loose Balloon" with both acts.

Ballew: I recorded that song with The Presidents and I didn't really like how it came out. I wasn't 100% into it. It didn't paint a picture - it was a little more abstract lyrically and I didn't quite like the music. So I threw it in the scrap heap of fragments even though it had been released on a record, and I gave myself permission to re-approach it and reimagine it.

The Caspar version is way more evocative to me and it communicates the picture I was trying to paint, which is of an actual balloon. Because what happened was, I was walking along the shore in West Seattle, and from a distance across the water comes a balloon. It's just floating very intently at the same level toward the shore, and then it approached the shore about 50 yards ahead of me and went up the bulkhead, up onto the path I'm walking, just floating across the street toward the woods, and then just up over the trees and it's gone. This balloon was like on its way to town for a meeting, or it had to go to the dentist - it had a life of its own. It was just a rambling balloon.

So I bottled that Roger Miller "King Of The Road" feeling for the Caspar version. So I feel like the Caspar version musically has more of a cinematic feel and more of a personality.

The Presidents version, lyrically, is more abstract. It was the story of the child losing the balloon. I wanted it to be about the comedy of this balloon having this idea that it's a rambling soul, and it's got to just ramble on.

Caspar Babypants
Photo: Brian Kasnyik


Songfacts: With Caspar Babypants, you give agency to things like balloons and animals, and you have great story songs, but it seems like your "Baby Shark" is "Run Baby Run," which could not be more simple.

Ballew: I know, it's a little "neener neener neener." It's verging on indigestible. That song is definitely the cornerstone and it has an interesting story. When my son was little, my first wife made this song up to keep him happy in the car. If he was fussy she would sing, "run, baby, run, run run." He would immediately be happy and that was very dramatic and noticeable.

That was in 1998, '99. It wasn't until almost a decade later that I really settled into making music for families, and I absolutely remembered the power of the tool that the song became - it because a useful thing. So the overarching purpose of me making music for families was to expand on that idea of making songs that weren't just funny and clever, but also parents would love them, kids would love them, and they would be useful to alleviate stress for families.

It was a very intense, hard, writing process for that project. It was just revision after revision after revision to make something that sounds like it took me five minutes to make. But "Run Baby Run" was an obvious song for me to go ahead and record for real. And the nice thing about that song for me as a performer is, I can customize it. I can say, "run, jump, spin." In the live version I'll do "poop" - I don't do that on the record because I don't want that stupid stuff to be immortalized. I'll take suggestions from the kids about what we want to do in the song. So it's a real plastic song and I usually end the show with it. It just continued to work as it did for my son and his parents as a tool for alleviating sadness.

Songfacts: Like many wonderful artists, The Beatles had songs that could play on Sesame Street, and those songs are what I expected to hear when I found out you did some Beatles covers. I thought "Rocky Raccoon" and "Octopus's Garden," but you managed to turn "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Rain" into kids' songs.

Ballew: I did choose some of the obvious ones like "Birthday" and "Yellow Submarine," but then I did two of those albums, so on the second one I pushed the boundaries a little more.

I had criteria: It had to be written by Lennon and McCartney. I didn't want to cover songs that they covered like "Twist And Shout." And it had to paint a picture, tell a story, or be about love but be ambiguous enough that it's not about lust.

For "Strawberry Fields," I used a demo that they had done as my touchstone for atmosphere, and I did the same with "I'm Only Sleeping" - I used a short demo on acoustic guitar and vibraphone that they did. So the whole project of recording those albums was a massive deep dive into a band that I was already pretty deep into. I dissected the songs. I read books that would tell me what they did every day and how they recorded the songs, because I wanted to get inside from the moment of inception.

It was fun to push that boundary. The second Beatles cover album I did was maybe a little self-indulgent. I wanted to hear "Rain" done as a Caspar song, so I just did it. And turning "Strawberry Fields" into something a baby could enjoy was really satisfying. Babies' imaginations are so kaleidoscopic and bizarre. There's a lot of correlation between the way John Lennon wrote, with his collage of cultural bits from the world around him pasted together into a new reality. That's what little kids do. I figured they would resonate with it without even knowing it.

Songfacts: Let's go back to another Presidents song. Tell me the story behind "Kitty."

Ballew: Oh, that was a real cat. I was living with my old friend Mark Sandman from the band Morphine, who's the guy that turned me on to the 2-string. We were having a little jam in his living room and his roommate's cat Shima came in. Shima was famous for going up to your leg and rubbing on it, and then when you reach down you get a handful of claw. So Shima was there, we were jamming, and I go into this riff. I just started singing, "Kitty at my foot and I want to touch it." For a long time that's all it was, it was a fragment that just did that over and over again. I recorded it on my 4-track with a banjo, made it a weird, distorted country thing, and as I'm putting songs together for the debut for The Presidents to play live shows and stuff, I heard that fragment and thought I'd develop that a little bit. So it came out of me wanting to touch an actual cat.

Songfacts: How about the song "Mach 5"?

Ballew: That was about the joy of when I was a little kid. I loved building model airplanes or buying Matchbox cars and playing with them for a while, but then devising maniacal ways to destroy them. That was part of the fun. You know, loading up a B-52 model bomber with gunpowder from a brick of fireworks and lighting it on fire. So it was just about the joy of smashing.

Again, the lyrics are exactly what it's about. And then musically, it was me trying to be Kiss. I had just seen Kiss for the first time in 1996 and I was like, "I gotta write a Kiss song." It's totally "Shout It Out Loud."

One of the beautiful things about playing a 2-string is, you can take the Buzzcocks, Kiss, The Beatles, Boston, and Steve Miller and put them all through the 2-string and it sounds fresh. I can wear my my influences on my sleeve and still feel like I'm being original.

This photo of Chris Ballew with some of his string-deficient instruments is courtesy of Mike Hipple from his book Lived Through That: 90s Musicians Today. Other subjects in the book include Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, Mark Pickerel of Screaming Trees, and Tanya Donelly of The Breeders.

Songfacts: One more Presidents song. "Volcano."

Ballew: "Volcano" I love. It's a little bit of a story. I stayed friends with a publicist at Capitol Records, Bobbie Gale. Capitol wanted to sign us and we didn't end up going with them, but this publicist and I became friends and she put me on the Capitol Records mailing list for promotional stuff, just as a nice thing to do. So I got all those Beatles reissues - it was great.

One day a record came from Capitol by a band called Menthol, from Chicago. And I loved this album. I sat and listened to it with the lyrics right in front of me, and they were so dense and visual and literary. There's a three-quarter-time rock song that these guys wrote about Francis Scott Key writing "The Star Spangled Banner," and it's like you're there, but it's inside this rock and roll song. So "Volcano" is me trying to write a Menthol song, where it was lyrically super dense and modulated. It moved around and had interesting chord choices in it.

So it felt like a songwriting challenge. I remember walking around Seattle with a piece of cardboard and a Sharpie and writing the lyrics as I walked. I thought if this guy can smash Francis Scott Key into a rock song, I could smash images about electronics and volcanoes. Let's see if we can push them together. [The video for "Volcano" was made by Mark Kohr, known for his work with Green Day. Get the story in this Behind The Video feature.]

Before forming The Presidents Of The United States Of America, Chris moved to Los Angeles to work with Beck, who was just starting to gain traction.
Songfacts: You were one of the few people who got to witness a Beck performance when he was still a one-man band, and you became one of his touring musicians.

Ballew: Yeah. I got a phone call from a friend who shared a publisher with Beck, and she's the one who thought of me and said, "You have to audition for this guy's band. He's getting signed and he's going on tour." So she made the connection because she thought he and I would really get along musically and personally.

So I met him through her and we did get along. I moved to LA and lived with him.

Beck was phenomenal with his lyrical density and giving the audience visual gifts. He was a master at smashing disparate things together. And listening to him solo, the lyrics are right there.

I saw him at the Crocodile the first night and then the OK Hotel in Seattle - he was here for two nights. And after the first night, I talked to him after the show and I said, "That was like a dream, kaleidoscope movie you set off in my mind." Everything he sang about came crashing into this visual field that was created by his lyrics. I think he appreciated that, and that's the basis of how we started a friendship.

It was like what I was talking about with The Presidents. I watched him and I was like, "That little guy is trying. Look at him." There's something so wonderful about trying rather than doing, and he embodied the trying because he's such a little waif up there playing "Satan Gave Me A Taco" or whatever. He's playing heavy stuff but alone on an acoustic guitar, and that really impressed me.

Songfacts: Did you go to the Grammy Awards when you were nominated?

Ballew: Yeah, we went twice. That was quite quite an experience. I brought some of my family members down, including my mom, who was very supportive of everything I did musically my whole life. That was super satisfying, and I don't feel too bad about losing. We lost to Nirvana, and the second time we lost to The Beatles. So I'm okay with that.3

Songfacts: Did you ever open for Soundgarden?

Ballew: We were the surprise opener for Soundgarden when they played the Mercer Arena, which ended up being their last two North American shows. They went to Australia after that and broke up, but their opener, Rocket From The Crypt, cancelled so they asked us to open.4

Songfacts: How do The Presidents fit into the grunge narrative?

Ballew: Well, we were "funge." We put a little fun in the grunge. I wish I'd come up with "funge" back in the day, but we only came up with that like five years ago.

But I loved grunge music. I loved the heaviness. I loved Nirvana because Nirvana added melodic complexity and pop sensibility to the heaviness. I was really trying to write songs like Kurt Cobain. When Nirvana came out, I really dug into the record and I remember thinking, "I don't have to write these songs. They're already written and they're way better than what I was trying to do, so I'll just listen to this record."

I felt a kinship with the harmonic relationships and the heaviness. I was writing really distorted, weird, heavy music at the time, but I was living in Boston. I was having my own Seattle scene, but it was just me. So there were seeds and vibrations inside The Presidents' stuff, which paid homage to that stuff. I had already been appreciating the harmonic richness of that style of music, so I just wanted to up the fun factor. I just wanted to turn one of the knobs, I didn't want to turn all the knobs.

And let's not forget that Seattle was formed by Paul Revere And The Raiders, and The Kingsmen, and The Young Fresh Fellows. There's a party rock history here that we don't need to forget about.

Songfacts: When you release your first album and it's big and everybody's reviewing it, suddenly you're getting written about in Rolling Stone and all these big places and you're finding out how music critics describe you and think of you. What was that like?

Ballew: It was just like Madonna said it would be. I had a really great conversation with Madonna. She wanted to sign the band, and after the meeting we talked as an aside and she offered me some advice. The advice was: Don't be discouraged if you are never given any respect for the craft of what you're doing, because you're very good at your craft, but it's fun music and it's funny, and nobody respects the fact that it takes craft to make something that is fun, so people will just pigeonhole you and put you in a very one-dimensional context.

She ended up being right and she saved me a lot of grief because our record company was telling us, "You're an important songwriter and you're like the voice of a generation." Back then, the whole thing was the "voice of a generation." Beck went through that too. I remember hanging out with him and talking about how frustrating that whole "voice of a slacker generation" was to him.

So I just took it all with a grain of salt. In some degree I believe the adage that good press and bad press are both destructive, really. They either make you complacent or bum you out. I just became a little numb to it.

Of course, I don't get as much press now as I did then. I remember doing 15-minute phoners back-to-back for six hours and wanting to just shoot my head off because I could not tell the same story again.

Songfacts: So The Presidents were considered by Maverick Records?

Ballew: Yeah, we actually whittled it down to Maverick and Columbia. We had to decide, and we were staying at The Farmer's Daughter hotel in LA on Fairfax across from the farmers market. We went to a room and we had to sit there and decide and walk out of the room with a decision, and we chose Columbia.

We chose correctly, because while we were waiting for Madonna to show up, her assistant, Guy Oseary, played us a cassette tape of one of their new artists that they had just signed from Canada named Alanis Morissette. So if we had signed with Maverick, we would have been completely overshadowed by the story of the female-owned label with strong female artists. We would not have fit into that story, and as it was with Columbia, they had nothing else going on. We saved their bottom line for a couple years and were the big shots.

January 4, 2022
More at chrisballew.org

Further reading:

Robert DeLeo of Stone Temple Pilots
Chris O'Connor of Primitive Radio Gods
Lisa Loeb

Footnotes:

  • 1] Chris says: "I used to misspell ROCK as a joke to make it seem more elemental." (back)
  • 2] In 2016, Chris announced that Presidents have "quietly retired," but with this caveat: "Never say never." (back)
  • 3] At the Grammy Awards in 1996, The Presidents Of The United States Of America were nominated for Best Alternative Music Performance for their debut album, losing to Nirvana's MTV Unplugged In New York. At the 1997 ceremony, their song "Peaches" lost Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal to "Free As A Bird" by The Beatles. (back)
  • 4] These shows took place December 17 and 18, 1996. (back)

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