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Interview – Chris Ballew, Presidents Of The United States Of America – January 2013

| 6 March 2013 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

Originally published in XPRESS MAGAZINE, here we present the complete interview transcript

Presidents of the USA Xpress Mag 27 Feb 2013

After some cell phone shenanigans, Chris Ballew and I settle in for a cosy chat about all things Presidents Of The United States Of America – primarily, their April 2013 tour of Australia.  Chris is chatty and amusing throughout, though not the zany character that his albums might suggest.

On top of his PUSA work, Ballew also releases children’s albums under the banner Caspar Babypants.  After we finally connect on an alternate number, it’s all go…

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100% ROCK: Okay, well thanks for your time today, man.

Oh yeah, my pleasure.

100% ROCK: So you’re at home at the moment, you’re not on tour or anything like that?

I’m not on tour, just hanging out in Seattle. I’m actually knee deep in the next album I’m working on for kids, I do music for little kids [as Caspar Babypants] as well as the President’s albums, making my, what is it now? Seventh record now, as we speak.

100% ROCK: Yeah I wanted to talk about that a little later actually, so we’ll get to that.

The weather is beautiful here. It’s super clear and it’s sunny, so I’m just trying to enjoy the day in Seattle.

100% ROCK: We just had a heat wave man, so enjoy it while you can.

Oh I will.

100% ROCK: So, you’re coming out to Australia in March. You must be looking forward to it?

Oh yeah definitely. I love Australia. I feel very, very at home there. I love the people, I love everybody’s attitude, I love how people who are friendly and interested, it’s like a hot Moscow.

100% ROCK: Good to know, good to know. And you’re going to play The President’s debut album from start to finish, as well as some other greatest hits. Have you taken that show out on the road yet, or will this be the first time?

We’ve done it a few times actually. We haven’t really officially toured with it, but we’ve done it here in Seattle, a few specific shows, and it’s really fun. I gotta say, it’s kind of fun for me as the singer because those songs are easier to sing. They’re less… there’s less shouting and yelling and sort of sustaining high notes on that first record because we didn’t know we were going to be rock stars, so we weren’t writing songs to make a 5,000 seat venue stand up and take notice, so the later albums have a lot more shouting on them. So doing that whole record from start to finish is kind of a nice dynamic rollercoaster ride for us as performers.

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100% ROCK: Well that’s a good point, about not knowing you were going to be a huge big rock star. I mean it’s a very quirky, and in some ways simple album. You mustn’t have expected it was just going to go ballistic. What was it, six million sold, or something crazy like that?

No, I had no idea it was going to go the way it went. I really thought we were making something to give to our parents!

100% ROCK: So what do put the appeal to those funny little rocking pop songs that you wrote, what do you put that down to?

Well a few things I think. One is people were kind of ready, it was ripe in the atmosphere here in Seattle. Things got pretty heavy and serious and tense for a while, and I guess I never thought about this [before now] but in a funny way it’s a roll on effect. Like when President Kennedy was killed in the 60s and then The Beatles exploded. Everybody was so bummed out and then they saw these lads come from Liverpool and they made everybody feel better. When Kurt Cobain killed himself and then all of a sudden it’s time to shift the party to light and we were the band to cure it I guess. I don’t know, I think there was a need to. I don’t know though.

100% ROCK: Cool, so to quote Frank Zappa, does humour belong in music?

I guess so. I’m not a Zappa fan actually.

Presidents Of The United States Of America - debut album

100% ROCK: Does it bug you that because of the humour in your biggest hits that people might write it off as not being as musically worthy as say U2 or Springsteen or something?

No, and you know what? Who I have to thank for not suffering that burden… MADONNA!  When we were coming up and we all met with her and she saw our band and wanted to sign us, and we actually seriously considered signing with her. She was one of the last two labels we were deciding on, and during that meeting she took me aside and said ‘You will never get respect for your craft because you’re funny’ and she was right. So, I didn’t ever expect it since that. So I kind of short-circuited that potential bummer.

100% ROCK: [Laughter] Well that’s good to know! You’ve worked with a lot of really interesting people, you know, Beck, who you also lived with, Mark Sandman, Sir Mixalot; really diverse. And you’ve done heaps of albums under different names. Do you find it easy to be versatile enough to work musically with all these different disparate people?

Oh definitely, because I’m not a music fan in the sense that I’m a fan of a really good song. I like one song that paints me a picture, takes me on a trip, transports me out of my here and now, and I don’t really care what kind of music it is, you know? It could be anything; it could be Dre, it could be Skrillex, anything at all that is so confident. Anything at all, any song that has its own little world that kind of takes you into it. I am baffled by people who can say ‘I’m only into rockabilly’, or ‘I’m only into gospel music’, I find that incredibly limiting to pick a genre and that’s your thing. My music taste is just good songs. When I say good I mean transportative, you know, songs that take you some place.

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100% ROCK: I know you’ve been Down Under a few times before, but is there anything specifically you’re looking forward to doing or seeing whilst you’re in the country?

Yes, I came down to Sydney actually, last January, to do a couple of Casper Babypants shows, and there was a Thai restaurant in Sydney that was amazing.  I can’t remember the name of it but I kind of remember where it is, it’s a really tiny little hole in the wall you’ve got to wait for a long time to get into, so I want to eat there.  And I want to eat some funny little animals. I had a plate one time in a restaurant in Sydney that had crocodile and kangaroo and I want to eat that kind of stuff. I want to eat some funny little animals. I want to see those animals and then I want to eat them.

100% ROCK: Oh well you should look me up when you get to Perth man, I’m a chef by trade, so I could hook you up.

Cool! I love my food. I love good food. So for me travelling to other countries on tour it’s about music, botanical gardens, walking and food. I love to walk in nature when I’m not on a rock stage.

100% ROCK: So you’re not a late-night-snorting-cocaine-off-stripper’s-butts-Jack-Daniels-swilling kind of party guy then…?

Well, I like to do cocaine off stripper’s butts down at a botanical garden [laughs]

100% ROCK: I think they have laws about that over here. You might need to Google it.

[Laughs] Yeah!

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100% ROCK: I have a five year old daughter, so I’m really interested in your Caspar Baby Pants alter ego. From what I can tell you recorded under the name Caspar before The President’s albums. Is that where this kid’s music character came from?

Oh well, [back then] it was just a band name, a sort of alter-ego that I made up when I lived in Boston when I was playing with Mark Sandman. We had a band and I would wear this pair of baby pants as a winter hat one year and it sort of mutated into me being Caspar Babypants. I was Casper Babypants in this band and then I did a little single with Beck as Casper and I made little cassettes and weird kind of collections of songs as Casper, and then I forgot about the nickname and sort of 18 years later, or whenever it was, I was making the kids music and kind of wondering what I was going to call it, and I remembered the old nickname and of course, there it is, it was already there. So I just used my own nickname from years gone by.

100% ROCK: So what’s the biggest difference between writing for kids and writing for grown ups?

Well writing for kids, the thing I’m enjoying about it is its pure innocence. The President’s really successful, best songs have that tension between innocence and sexuality, or innuendo you know. And so I kinda just removed the innuendo and I’m the same guy writing the same kind of music about the same kind of things, because there’s no double entendre. It’s all just innocent and there’s no drums, no rock guitars, lots of little three string acoustics and tiny pianos.  But I make it aesthetically satisfying enough for the parents so they don’t have to suffer. I’m really trying to make parent’s music and the kids happen to like it too.

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100% ROCK: If you could go magically back in time and be part of the recording of any one album in history, what would you chose?

Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

100% ROCK: Fantastic choice. What does that album mean to you?

It means everything, man. I got that record when it came out. It came out in June or July, I think, of 1967, and I got it in December of 1967 when I was two and a half years old and latched on to it for the next, man, eight years. I don’t think I bought another record until I was ten. So I just wore that thing out. You talk about a transportative experience, wow. I mean that record, I seriously feel like as a toddler I hallucinated to that record. So that kind of, I mean, those songs tell stories.

There’s all these different instruments, they take you on a journey, on a trip, it’s a whole experience. So yeah, then I read books about those sessions and I kind of geek out on The Beatles every once in a while, I’ve got a couple of friends I get together with and we listen to all kinds of crazy demos and stuff. And the next Caspar Babypants album, which will come out in September, will be an all Beatles cover album.

100% ROCK: Cool!

Yeah, I’m kind of rebuilding the songs from scratch and making them my own, and changing the arrangements and changing the tempos and messing with them a bit, making them relevant to little kids and dads and things like that. It’s going to be great. I would definitely like to be a fly on the wall during the making of that record because that was an exciting time to be a Beatle.

100% ROCK: Cool man, well thanks very much for your time and we’re really looking forward to seeing you when you get to Perth.

Yeah, I’m super excited we’re coming to Perth. I don’t think we’ve been to Perth since the old days, since the 90s.

100% ROCK: Awesome, well it will be great. Good luck with the tour.

Okay, thanks a lot. Thanks for taking time to talk.

The Presidents Of The United States Of America tour Australia in April 2013:

Fri 8 Mar   The Hi-Fi, Brisbane

Sat 9 Mar   Coolangatta Hotel, Gold Coast

Sun 10 Mar  Palace Theatre, Melbourne

Thu 14 Mar  HQ Adelaide, Adelaide

Fri 15 Mar  UNSW Roundhouse, Sydney

Sat 16 Mar  Metropolis Fremantle, Perth

Category: Interviews

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Editor, 100% ROCK MAGAZINE

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