Ex-President Chris Ballew starts over.
By Matt Ashare
MAY 11, 1998: In December of last year Columbia Records sent out a press release announcing the break-up of a band who just two years earlier had been on top of the charts, saturating the alterna-rock airwaves with their quirky brand of revved-up guitar pop. In less time than it takes some bands to score a record deal, the Presidents of the United States of America had, in a manner of speaking, crashed and burned. Actually the story isn't quite so sensational: no drugs, booze, or sibling rivalries, just a creeping sense that, after they'd made two CDs, success wasn't all it was cracked up to be. So the group's frontman, Chris Ballew, did the dignified thing -- he pulled the plug on the Presidents, essentially quitting while he was ahead.
Columbia went ahead and released a Presidents rarity comp, Pure Frosting, earlier this year, to milk a few remaining drops from their departing cash cow. And Ballew, who'd gotten his start playing around Boston in the late '80s, often with Morphine's Mark Sandman, retreated with his wife and infant son to his new house in north Seattle. The 32-year-old Ballew hasn't given up music. Although he still owes Columbia a couple albums, he got permission to release a limited number (10,000) of copies of his first post-Presidents CD on a tiny Seattle indie owned by a friend of his. The home-recorded 13 Other Dimensions, by the Giraffes (that's the name of his new group), came out on My Own Planet a little over a month ago. The songs aren't a big departure from Ballew's Presidential fare, with their hook-filled choruses about lonely chickens, slow flies, and poodle mouths, though there are more hints of Beatlesque psychedelia, plus an instrumentation that goes beyond bass-guitar-drums to incorporate piano, organ, strings, horns, and clavinette. But as I found out when I reached Ballew at home one morning, right in the middle of changing his year-old-son Augie's diaper, his attitude toward making music has changed a lot since he launched the Presidents, in 1995:
Q: So what have you been up to lately, aside from changing diapers?
A: Well, let's see, since I left Boston? I was in a band called the Rolling Stones for a while; then I got picked up by the Beatles; and then I was in the Presidents of the United States of America for a bit. We sold a few albums.
Q: Okay, how about since you broke up the Presidents?
A: I've been recording in my basement a lot. I've basically been having a really exciting creative explosion, just trying to keep up with the flow of ideas. I had the first Giraffes record in the can before I decided to break up the band, and now I'm actually sitting down this morning to edit two 90-minute tapes full of potentials for the next one.
I kind of look at this as an opportunity to air the songs that never had a context for live performance. A lot of them are a little psychedelic and dark. They're not the kind of songs that I can take into a rehearsal and show to a couple friends on guitar, which is always how I've dealt with the band experience. These are songs that need some production, some development, or maybe they just need to sit on a shelf for 10 years. It was just time for me to get at this sound that I have in my head -- I can't really describe it, but it's something that treads the line between silly and scary, dark and goofy. I'm trying to let funny and bouncy take a back seat for a minute and have delicate arrangements be more important. My vocabulary is still animals and silly situations, but I'm trying to switch over to something where maybe on the sixth or seventh time you listen to a song you'll hear something you didn't hear before. With the Presidents, especially on the second album, we tried a little too hard to rock because there were all these, you know, jocks showing up at our shows wanting to rock. We tried to be a typical rock band, and we did a decent version of a typical rock album.
Q: Were you comfortable with the make-up of the Presidents' audience?
A: Well, I want to preface anything I say about that by saying that I have a lot of respect for the people who go out to shows to see bands because it's an effort to do that, and because I don't do it nearly as much as I should. I also remember when I first moved to Boston, I wanted to play down in the subway but I didn't know where to go. So I'd stand on the outbound Orange Line with my shaved head singing all these goofy songs. And all these homeboys would look at me like, "What the hell is this guy doing?" I don't know what they were really thinking, but after a while they'd start clapping and get into it. And then I went to Park Street and the audience got even weirder -- it was like business people and kids. And the cool thing about that experience is that I learned not to judge an audience by its cover.
But there was a period in the Presidents when I was just really creeped out because I'd look out and I'd see these frat guys in the front row with their baseball hats on backwards and they'd be yelling 'Yeah, dude, rock on!" and "Kick ass, motherfucker!", and I'd be up there singing "Dune Buggy." I felt like I was in a different universe, and all of a sudden I started to feel really vulnerable, like I might get attacked or shot or killed or something.
Q: In the press release that came along with the Giraffes CD, you wrote that you're through being a rock star . . .
A: I was never comfortable with being a rock star. People would tell me I was one and I'd be like, "What are you talking about?"
Q: Well, what does being a rock star mean to you?
A: I think it means getting up and having a beer in the morning, having very few obligations beyond yourself and your music, watching TV till five in the morning, and smoking pot with your friends all the time. I just wasn't down with that. I mean, I have a child, a wife, and a family that loves me.
But the truth is that being a rock star is full of obligations. I mean, one day you're in a dinky little band that's playing for 50 people, and the next day you have a multinational corporation with trademark searches going on in different countries, and all kinds of lawyers, accountants, managers, and booking agents working for you. And you have to keep track of them all, and they're all taking a piece of your pie, and it's just a very weird scene to be in.
I guess I just wanted to get back to being small. I've done this for years -- I've always made tapes in my basement. That's how the Presidents started: I made a tape, gave it to Dave [Dederer], he liked the songs, and we started a band. It was just time for me to go back to making tapes again. So I think what I'm trying to do now is an experiment. I want to see if over the course of five or six records I can make a little name for myself, a new name, and a new career.
Q: Are you happy with what the Presidents accomplished?
A: Yeah, sure, it was a good experience. I made money, bought a house, and, geez, I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. I mean, I wouldn't know what I know now if the Presidents hadn't happened. I would still want that kind of success. And it's really nice now -- really freeing -- not to want it. It's like, okay, now I can check "be a rock star" off my list and go back to making tapes in my basement. You know, it's funny, back when I was living in Boston, playing with Mark [Sandman], dreaming of stardom, I remember thinking, "Maybe someday I'll get interviewed by the Boston Phoenix." So I guess I can check that one off my list too. "
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