Coming Back at Ya Like Grover Cleveland’s Second Term: The Slight Return of
The Presidents of the United States of America
Don’t call it a comeback. In fact, according to Chris Ballew, don’t even call the long-awaited return of the Presidents of the United States of America a reunion. “The perception is, I think, a little bit, that we’ve become a band again,” Ballew says from his home in Seattle, “but we’re really not a band again. My approach to this whole thing is that it’s a recording project with good friends of mine who I was in a band with for years. I just don’t want people to have the misconception that we’re a band again, basically, that we’re playing live, that we’re hanging out writing songs together, all that kind of stuff, ’cause that’s really not the case.”
Be that as it may, the Presidents of the United States of America are back on the scene with a new album, Freaked Out and Small, on the Internet-based label Musicblitz (http://www.musicblitz.com). It’s the first full release Ballew (guitar/bass/keys/vocals), Dave Dederer (guitar/bass/vocals), and Jason Finn (drums/vocals) have done together since releasing the rarities collection, Pure Frosting, in 1997, but not the first work they’d done together since the Presidents resigned. They came back together in 1999, as part of a new band, Subset, formed with Seattle-based rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot. “We had tried to do something with Sir Mix-A-Lot a couple years ago,” reveals Dederer, calling from his cell phone. “He wanted us to do — I think it was for a Jimi Hendrix tribute record, we were gonna do a song with him, and we were too busy, we were still on tour and stuff, and it didn’t happen. Then a couple years ago he called us and said, ‘hey, let’s make some music,’ and we did. We recorded a couple of songs that were just gonna be for his record, and then after we recorded those couple songs, four or five moths later, he had a show, and we played those two songs at his show, and the crowd just went insane! That was a little over, like a year and a half ago, so that’s when we decided, ‘let’s call it a band.’ It’s been fun!”
The Subset project made it easier for the Presidents to work on a new project of their own, as did the easy terms offered them from Musicblitz. “[They] asked us — their original thing that they do is they do deals with artists to do singles. [They] asked us if we wanted to do a single, and we said ‘sure’,” says Dederer. “After we did that, and it was successful, [they] said, ‘hey, you guys wanna do an album?’ And we said, ‘Oh, sure, why not?’ So, that’s how it happened — all that had to happen was that someone had to ask us. [They] made it easy for us, we didn’t have to sign a big record deal or anything, we just did a deal to license one record, and it was very simple.”
While the Presidents “reunion” is by no means a permanent thing, don’t think that these guys haven’t stayed busy, or that they won’t continue to do so. Finn’s played with the Pin-Ups, the Congratulators, and the (now late and much lamented) Nevada Bachelors, and is an investor in a Seattle restaurant. Dederer has spent a lot of time in jazz combos, has done some production and solo work, and has joined a road bike racing team. Busiest of all has been Ballew, juggling not only the Presidents and Subset, but his solo project turned full band, the Giraffes, and the Chris and Tad Show, a project with Tad Hutchinson of Young Fresh Fellows — all on top of raising two kids, including a brand new baby girl. Even if it’s not as the Presidents, you’ll be able to look forward to a lot more from all of these guys.
I was able to speak with both Dave Dederer and Chris Ballew at great length on separate occasions recently.
You’re working with Musicblitz, an Internet-related label, on this new record. How do you feel about using the Internet to distribute your music versus the traditional system?
I think that if we could distribute it effectively on the Internet, that would be great, but nobody’s really doing that yet. I mean, Musicblitz is an online company, but the record’s in stores, and I’m sure that 99% of the records we sell will be through retail outlets. I feel that it would be great to be able to distribute music online, but it’s not there yet.
Can you tell me a little bit behind the concept of the fan edition?
Yeah! The idea was just to try to use some of the tools that Musicblitz has, being an online business, to engage the audience a little more. Using that power, that access, both directions — for access that we have to people who are interested, fans, and that fans have to the band, to try to hook the band and the fans up. I would love to — we did this — I don’t if you’ve seen the clips that we did, these video clips of us in the studio. That’s really fun, to be able to put that up there, because I would love to see that from artists that I really like a lot. I mean, I would love to see five-minute video clips from making Lou Reed’s last album, for example. Just from a fan’s perspective, it’s very appealing. I can see how it would be fun. I like it.
At one point before this album was released, you were just going to go under the shortened name “The Presidents,” but you eventually went with the full name. How come?
We all thought, right before we broke up, we were feeling that our name was getting sort of cumbersome in its length. We just decided, “OK, let’s shorten it,” because it would be shorter and easier. Then we saw it in print a couple of times after shortening it, and we kind of had a Jefferson Starship moment, you know? [laughs] Actually, more like a Starship moment. All three of us independently sort of looked at it, and the next time we talked, we all had had the same reaction, which was, “that’s kind of stupid, that’s not our name, we should just stick with our name.”
I had heard a rumor that Columbia Records actually owned the rights to the full name…
Part of our deal with Columbia, when we were released, was that if we did use the name — or any part of it, really — that they would have first right of refusal on the music. So we had to send them the record and talk to them about whether they were interested in putting it out. So they gave us the OK to use the name as long as it’s on an indie name with indie distribution.
Did you consider taking on any other name when you reunited?
Oh, yeah, I don’t know if you remember, when we first posted a song on Musicblitz, the one song thing, we posted it as “The Quitters.” We wanted to use that, but apparently there’s some band in upstate New York, some garage pop band that’s called the Quitters, and they tracked us down and told us that we weren’t to use their name. I think if we could have used that name, we’d probably still be using it. We liked it better. [laughs]
Our publisher did an interview with Chris several years back — it happened to be the same day you guys signed to Columbia…
He said that at the time, you guys were wavering between Columbia and Maverick, that you were being courted by both labels.
How do you think things would have worked out differently if you’d signed to Maverick instead of Columbia?
They probably would have worked out well, but I’m glad we signed to Columbia, because when we signed to Columbia, they wanted to put our record out — remember, we’d already made the record, it was on Pop Llama — and they said they would put it out as is, or if we wanted to remix or remaster it, they would. We ended up remixing half of it and remastering the whole thing. Maverick wanted to do some more work on the record, which we didn’t want to do, and also, I don’t know if you remember, but that summer that our record came out was the same summer that the Alanis [Morissette] record came out, and I think it might have been another year or two before our record even came out. We wanted to capitalize on the momentum we had. Donnie Iner, the President of Columbia, was great. He said, “look, if you sign with us, I will have this record out in two months, on the streets.” And two months later, he did it.
Did working on all the various side projects that you’ve concentrated on since the last Presidents record reinvigorate the band?
It certainly allowed us to have unbridled enthusiasm about playing music together. Although, one of the biggest side projects that any of the three of us have done has been Subset. That was kind of how the Presidents thing, making a new record, happened. We’d been playing together as a trio in Subset, and of course, really enjoying it, because we have some kind of symbiosis, or synergy — I don’t know what you want to call it, but something good happens when we play together. So we recognized that with Subset. I don’t think it changed the way we play together at all, but it’s nice to take a break. It was really fun to play together, having taken a break.
You guys are known as a quirky and offbeat band, and a lot of your lyrics are pretty funny. Do you think you have a problem with people not taking you seriously?
Oh, sure, but what can you do about that? It’s just not acceptable to be tongue-in-cheek or goofy anymore, and the kind of music that we all grew up listening to — if you listen to rock n’ roll music from the ’50s up through the early ’70s, sort of a lighthearted approach was the most common theme. really. I mean, listen to the Beatles catalog. I would say two-thirds of the songs they have are funny or wacky or goofy in some way. It’s just the kind of songs that Chris, in particular, writes, so we just do what we do. The whole “being taken seriously in rock music” is pretty much a joke anyway, because rock music is a joke. Loud noise for kids, basically, so what’s so serious about it? I kind of really rue the period from the late ’60s to the mid-’70s when rock became “legitimate” or “serious,” and all these quote-unquote “serious journalisms” started up around rock music, which Rolling Stone really started. Who cares? I’m not interested in that. I’d rather hear the new Britney Spears single than read Rolling Stone [laughs].
Along the same lines — I guess you’ve probably already kind of answered this, but I’m gonna ask it anyway — was it strange for you to have “Weird Al” Yankovic parody one of your songs, being that you’re already kind of a funny band to begin with?
Well, it’s obviously one of the pinnacles of pop culture, to be parodied by “Weird Al.” Chris was really into it, because he likes “Weird Al,” and he actually had written a song like 15 years ago called “Going To the ‘Weird Al’ Concert.” It was fine, I mean, we made a little money off it, and he made some money off it, and met “Weird Al.” I don’t know, it’s a pretty strange experience. It was very strange to see the video, and see the guy who supposed to look exactly like me. It was very weird.
Well, he’s still doing that live, so you’re probably still making some residuals off it.
We don’t get anything when people play the songs live.
We don’t get jack!
You don’t get publishing or anything?
We get publishing if people buy the record, and you’re supposed to get performance royalties if it’s performed live by another artist, but that doesn’t really happen. Yet another use of music that the artist doesn’t get paid for.
Which brings up an interesting question. I wasn’t going to get into this, ’cause I hate getting into it with everyone, but it’s such a prevalent issue right now. The whole Napster thing — do you think it’s good or bad for musicians?
It can go both ways. For example, for us, it cuts both ways. Subset, for example, doesn’t have a record out, right? Somebody got ahold of our demos, and a number of people have them on their hard drives, and they’re often accessible through Napster, depending on who’s on, but they’re usually up on the site and accessible. That’s good for us, because we don’t have a record out, and the more people who download it and listen to it, it’s creating a market for music that hopefully, we’ll release on record. On the other hand, you have the flip side, which is 18-year-old college student goes away to school, doesn’t take his record collection, misses having the first Presidents record. He could go out and buy it, but he’s got a T1 hookup, because he’s in a college dorm, and he downloads his five favorite songs off the record and just listens to those for the rest of the year instead of buying the album. I don’t like that at all. That’s stealing. I think if something’s not for sale, if it’s out of print or a bootleg or a live tape, I have much less of a problem with it. If it’s something that’s readily available at the retailer, that’s really a drag to the artist. Hopefully, some day, it’ll be really easy to buy music online, and there will be an effective way to encrypt the files so that the artist gets paid every time. I don’t see why that should be so hard.
I want to ask a few questions about the new album. First of all, what’s the significance of the title, Freaked Out and Small?
It’s actually kind of funny, I can tell you the story of how we came up with the title. We were hanging out at Jason’s, trying to figure out what we were going to do for an album cover, and I think it was Chris was thumbing through the book Screaming Life by Charles Peterson — it’s a collection of his photos from the Sub-Pop years. There’s a picture in there of Kurt Cobain all huddled up in a corner, looking freaked out and small. We were looking at the picture, and somebody said, “oh, there’s our record cover, we should just put that picture of Kurt Cobain on the cover,” and we all had a jolly chuckle about that. Somebody said, “Oh, he looks so freaked out and small,” and we thought that was a good name for the record. If we can’t use the picture, we’ll use the idea,
The sound of the record is a lot more raw than your previous records…
Yeah, I love it!
That’s something you were shooting for, then?
Oh, definitely. Some of the songs were finished in the studio, being written. It’s everything from songs that were basically written thereon the studio floor — at least, the lyrics — to a couple of songs that Chris has had for I don’t know, 15 years. So, we didn’t rehearse any of the songs, we just went into the studio, and learned the songs in the studio, and recorded them as we learned the, which was great. It was really fun! It’s a very guitar-y record, I love the guitar sounds on it, they’re very raw and very rocking. It’s my favorite thing that I’ve ever worked on, as a recording. I’m really excited about it.
I wanted to ask you about the song “Jazz Guy,” because I know that you spent a lot of the off time playing in jazz combos. Was that based on your experiences there?
I wrote that song in the middle of the night a couple of years ago when I was. I was with my best friend and another guy, we have this little jazz trio. I really like to listen to and play jazz on the guitar, and I have since I started playing guitar when I was like 12 or 13, but it is really fuckin’ hard! It’s really hard, and I was a little frustrated, and I was sitting basically practicing some jazz improvisation. The song was very slow and quiet and jazzy, and I gave it to Chris and he’s like [mimicking Chris], “oh, it’s a punk rock song!” It was like [singing] “I wanna be a jazz guy,” and [improvises jazz beat], and he was like, “oh, yeah, that’s just [improvises punk rock thrash].” So, it was just a moment of frustration of trying to learn the chords to some standard jazz tune.
The song “Superstar” kind of puts me in the mind of some of the latter-day Replacements stuff. Was that an inspiration at all?
You know what? I’ve never been into the Replacements, but I think I probably have the same influences as they do. I never thought about it, but it does sound kind of it. I was thinking more the vocal delivery was kind of a Lou Reed thing, and musically I was thinking mid-’60s Who was what I was going for, really.
I guess it is kind of the same source material. I come from a more modern ear, so…
I think that’s where the Replacements are coming from, I think they have a strong Who influence. I asked Jason to play as much like Keith Moon as he could [laughs].
Along the same lines, “Death Star” reminds me a lot of They Might Be Giants, especially some of their earlier stuff, and I was wondering if that was an inspiration.
You know, I’ve never ever listened to a They Might Be Giants record, but Chris may have been into them — I’m sure he was a little bit, especially their early records. We actually opened for them a couple of times, in Seattle and Vancouver. I don’t dislike them, I like the band, they’re great — amazing live — and their records sound good. They’re a little too clever and not visceral enough for me, but they’re really good. Not an influence for me, but I think they probably are for Chris. Chris likes that, and he likes Ween, and all those sort of obvious connections that you would think of.
What made you decide to do a Star Wars-related song?
That was a song Chris wrote like six years ago, when we were getting ready to sign a record deal, there was this guy who worked for ASCAP then, named Michael Badami, and he now works at Dreamworks. We kind of struck up a friendship with him, and he and Chris were both Star Wars geeks, as is Jason, and he wrote that song for Michael Badami. It sort of sat around as a demo for a while, and I actually initially didn’t want to put it on the record, ’cause I thought it was too goofy. I didn’t think it fit in with the rest of the record, but I really like the song. It’s a really great sounding recording, and it’s a beautiful melody, it’s a beautiful song.
The two songs on the record that made me laugh out loud were “Jazz Guy” and “Death Star,” I thought the lyrics were very clever on both.
Yeah, I don’t know where the whole funny… That particular batch of songs — it’s weird to be a musician who has a hit record, because of course you’ve been writing songs and playing songs and recording songs and working on music for years, and you will continue to for years after, and for some reason, whatever timing, luck happens around a certain period of your work, people latch onto it, and then they eternally think that that’s what you are. It’s very hard. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “there are no second acts in American life.” It’s hard to wean the public to change their focus.
Well, not even just the public, I think the industry and media are guilty of it, too. I know I’ve been guilty of it, as a writer, and I’m sure you’ll run into it with other writers, too.
It makes your job so much easier [laughs]! It’s like “Presidents equals wacky, OK, I’ve got that covered” [laughs].
By coincidence, this interview will appear in Ink 19‘s Politics issue, which makes sense because of your band’s name, but you’ve never seemed to be an overtly political band.
We’re not, at all.
Do you have any aspirations, or any heartfelt political beliefs?
I’ve been involved as an individual in a lot of issues. I don’t really have any aspirations for public office [laughs]. I get involved in issues, and I’m civic minded — I went to graduate school for urban planning before the Presidents signed their record deal, so I’m aware of social, environmental, and other issues.
Who gets the Presidents’ endorsement for President?
Oh, Al Gore. I cannot believe, I’m totally flabbergasted that George Bush has pulled ahead in the polls. I don’t understand, even for die-hard conservatives — I don’t know how they can look at their bank balance in the last eight years, even, if they were just going on that standard alone, and think of changing the administration. That’s just crazy. I don’t trust George W. Bush. He’s a rich kid, he lies, don’t trust him.
OK, one last question. In another strange coincidence, a couple of months after your interview runs, we have an interview with Ian Hunter scheduled.
So I was wondering what was the impetus to cover “Cleveland Rocks,” and how did that end up as the theme song for The Drew Carey Show?
Drew Carey asked us to cover it! We were doing The Rosie O’Donnell Show some time in ’96 or ’97, and he was a guest that day. It wasn’t in New York, she was doing a week in L.A., so we all had these trailers outside the soundstage, and he came and knocked on our door. He was a fan, we didn’t know, but he came and said, “I really like your band! What’s up?,” and he came in and hung out for a couple of hours. He was a really nice guy. We never saw him after that, but we had a nice time, and he called us and said, “I want to do ‘Cleveland Rocks’ as the theme song for the show, and I want to know if you guys will do it.” So we recorded that version expressly for The Drew Carey Show. It was really fun. I would say that that recording of that song is my favorite Presidents recording. I just love it, it’s very exciting sounding.
It’s probably the one you get the most airplay on, at this point, too.
It is these days! It’s on daily in syndication. I really like that version of the song, it just crackles with energy. It’s really exciting.
Anything else to say?
Thank you to anyone who ever bought any of our records or came to see us play. Please buy our new record, ’cause I think it’s the best yet. I totally think it’s the best record we’ve made, by a long shot.
Why did you decide to do this new record?
I really decided to do it because it was so casual and because I had the songs that needed the kind of treatment that Dave and Jason are good at giving songs. Like we wanted to do some loud, full-on rockathons, and some kind of mellow numbers. The songs were appropriate, and it seemed easy, and I had a whole bunch of stuff I needed to get off my plate, like songs I wanted to get out into the universe instead of having in a folder in my basement. It was really just a matter of convenience, ease, and you know, we were already working in Subset, and the offer came along to do this, and it seemed like something that would be fun to do.
So you don’t have any plans to tour, or even definitive plans for another album?
No. It’s very much a one-off thing for me. I really look at it as a recording project. Mostly, that’s because I have a band called the Giraffes that I’m very into. Right as we were recording this record, the Presidents record, I sort of got an idea for a band and put it together while we were recording, and started right after we finished the recording process, and the band has just turned out to be fantastic. I’m totally having a great time.
Are you still doing the project with Tad from Young Fresh Fellows, as well?
Yeah! We’re gonna put out a record on[sigma] there’s this label in Chicago called Orange Recordings that I put out one Giraffes record with already, a solo kind of thing. So that’s gonna come out, the Chris and Tad Show is going to come out on that label, eventually, when we get it done. It’s slowly sort of hobbling toward the finish line.
You mentioned Subset. How did that come together?
That was just a phone call from Sir Mix-A-Lot, basically saying, “do you guys want to make a song?” and us saying “yes.” It came from the Mix-A-Lot camp, the idea, and I guess it started out as a concept for us to get together and cover a song and try to get it on a movie soundtrack or something, cover a Hendrix song or something, but we all agreed that it would be more fun to make up our own song. Then one song turned into two, which turned into a show where we opened up Mix’s set by playing the two songs, and that felt so good that we kind of put more effort into it and wrote[sigma]0 we probably wrote a good 15 songs.
So, is there a full album being planned?
Well, that project is sort of on the back burner at the moment. We did a tour of the West Coast and the western part of the country just to kind of try stuff out, and that went really well musically. It was kind of, business-wise, not the smartest thing to do. Since then, we haven’t really had any forward motion, because we’ve all sort of been occupied with other things. That one’s been sort of just a back burner, simmering status.
That’s one thing I wanted to ask you about. You guys obviously are very busy with other projects. Do you think doing all these other things makes it more interesting to come back to the Presidents and do something with them?
Well, yeah, it has been good. The last couple years of saying yes to everything and doing everything that came my way was very productive. I learned a lot — especially with Subset, I learned about all the stuff Mix-A-Lot does with loops and samples and the gear he uses. The whole approach to making that kind of music was really enlightening. The whole thing’s been great. I personally am definitely seeing the end to a long, diverse period, an end to this period of diversity. I want to be in one band. I’ve got two kids, so I’m tired [laughs].
I know exactly what you mean!
So, I want to have one band that I put all of these sensibilities that I’ve acquired from the last couple of years of playing with a lot of different people, and playing with Dave and Jason again — I want to put it all into one package and make it really solid, and just do a good job with one thing. I sort of found that the diversifying thing is OK, but nothing ever really gets done completely, and it’s all kind of in limbo all the time. It’s like that state of mind where you’re always thinking, “well, next month everything’s gonna be better. It’s all gonna come together.” I just found that to be kind of an ultimately unhealthy place to be for too long. Basically, I’m putting everything that I’ve got creatively into the Giraffes.
The Presidents are known to a lot of people for having a very quirky sound and funny lyrics. Do you think that people don’t take you seriously as a result, and is that a problem for you?
No, not at all. I just try to write what makes me excited, and when the Presidents first exploded, the batch of songs that I had written were from a period of life where I was extremely uninhibited and happy, so I ended up with all this silly stuff, and I’m really not into editing or censoring myself. If it’s gonna be a batch of silly songs, then it is. If it’s a batch of darker songs, then that’s fine. The last two Giraffes albums I put out, I made in my basement on my little eight-track, and they’re a little darker — not completely, I mean, I can’t make a completely depressing record, but a good friend of mine died, Mark Sandman, and the last record I made, the Giraffes record, I kind of was sort of overshadowed by that, and let that be the sort of feeling for that record. So, I’m just gonna keep on kind of translating whatever life’s about into music, and if it’s silly, then it’s silly, and if it’s a little darker, it’s darker, and just let the chips fall where they may. I don’t care what people think beyond the fact that I’m very concerned with entertaining the people that show up to a show, but as far as critics, I really try to keep perspective on that.
You mentioned Mark Sandman, and I know that you did some performances with the surviving members of Morphine after he passed away. What was that like for you? Was it hard?
The performances? Yeah, it was pretty hard, it was surprisingly hard. They took that Orchestra Morphine thing out on the road, and by the time they reached Seattle, they’d kind of gotten over the first few performances, which apparently were very emotional, because a lot of people showed up to the shows, and they were pretty successful shows. The sort of floodgate of emotions was very high for them. By the time they reached Seattle, they were a little more settled in, but I didn’t know what to expect. I got up to sing one of Mark’s songs, and then I made up a song on the spot in the spirit of the Supergroup thing that Mark and I did, where we improvised songs onstage. The song I sang of Mark’s, which was “In Spite of Me” from Cure For Pain, really choked me up, I could barely get through it. Luckily, I got to do two nights with them, so the second night, I was a little more together, but it was really intense. It was really intense to stand there and hear the songs coming off the stage and Mark was gone. The absence, the void, was really obvious. It was pretty intense.
I can only imagine that going through something like that was very difficult.
Yeah, it was. He was a very close person in my life, definitely. Like a mentor, like a kind of musical father figure, that kind of person. Before I hit the big time, or whatever, he had been through the wringer a little bit, and he kind of showed me the ropes, especially in a musical way, like in the sense of how to perform and how to speak to the audience. The band that we had together was just amazing, one of the most fluid performance experiences of my life.
Backtracking a bit, going back to the whole “quirky and funny” thing, was it strange to you to, seeing as “Lump” was already a pretty funny song to begin with, to have “Weird Al” Yankovic do it?
Yeah, that was kind of funny, because I think he’s better when he does something a little more serious, but I’m extremely flattered, I thought it was great. I mean, man, hell yeah! That’s like a milestone. That’s like a notch on your gun barrel.
Yeah, I saw him not too long ago, and he’s still doing it live.
Yeah, he opens the show with it. I saw him too, in L.A., when Subset played in L.A. we hung out for quite a while, actually. I’d seen the VH-1 special about his live show. He’s a stand up person, definitely. I still call him every once in a while, just out of the blue. We’re planning to write a song together, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m going to probably… it’s on my deep, deep to do list, when I make some time for myself, is to put together a bunch of ideas and send it to him.
Our publisher happened to interview you the same day you guys signed to Columbia, and he mentioned that you were also talking to Maverick at the time, so he suggested that I ask if you think you made the right decision.
Oh, yeah, I think we absolutely made the right decision, because we would’ve been in the shadow of Alanis Morissette at Maverick. I think we would’ve been just basically sort of back burner material, whereas at Columbia, if I remember correctly, for the year that we really were active at Columbia, we were pretty much one of their most active bands. That’s what I remember being told at the time — I would want to verify that as a fact, but our impression was that we were appreciated and made to feel like we were important to the company at the time. I felt good. My only complaint with Columbia was that they were so enamoured with sending us to Europe that they yanked us off a US momentum-builder tour to do it, and we’ve always kind of felt that we lost momentum in the United States because of their kind of wanting to make us this like world presence. It ended up working in some territories, like in Australia and Japan it was a good idea, in Europe it was a little less successful.
You’re doing this new record through Musicblitz.com. What do you think of working with Internet promotion and distribution as opposed to the traditional methods?
Well, not being a person that runs a label, I don’t know the ins and outs of exactly what the difference is. I do know that the couple experiences I’ve had working with Internet-related labels have been really good, because in the case of Musicblitz, with the single we did, “Jupiter,” we finished it, and 12 hours later, people were [hearing] it, which is the ultimate thrill for a musician or a songwriter. Like this morning, I actually wrote a really good song, and the first thing I want is, “OK, I want this song out! I want people to hear it right now!” The coolest thing about the Internet is that people can hear it “right now,” it can be distributed in the blink of an eye. That’s so cool!
It’s also really cool to hear you so enthusiastic about your work. So many people just have the attitude of, “oh, yeah, this is what I do, and I’m making money, and that’s great.” I think a lot of people do love the “art” side of it, but it’s rare that I’ll talk to someone and they’ll say something like, “oh, yeah, I wrote this really great song this morning, and I’m really excited about it!”
It should happen more often. Right now I’m in the middle of a really good creative explosion. The Giraffes band, the line-up, I’ve got Hammond organ, and the guy plays bass with his left hand, a small drum set, and I play this old Sears acoustic through an old Sears amp — I’m all Sears now [laughs]. This combination of sounds that I’ve found has just lit a fire in my creative cortex, and I’m just exploding with ideas. I’ve already got the next Giraffes record… I just went and recorded with Conrad Uno at Egg, who did the first Presidents record, we just finished the Giraffes record there with the band, and I’ve already gone on and practically completely demoed the next album. So, this combination of sounds and these new people I’ve found are just extremely satisfying.
I’m really excited to hear that you’re working with Conrad Uno again. Any time we get a record in at the Ink 19 office with his name on it, we take that as a symbol of quality.
Oh, yeah, he’s great! He’s producing the record, and I just want to keep working with him forever now. I don’t know what we were thinking, the Presidents, I don’t know what we were thinking going anywhere else, it was foolery.
Yeah, we got Jason’s Nevada Bachelors record a few months ago, and I think it was all we listened to in the office for the better part of a month. The review of the record was a form letter to all the other bands that sent in records that month saying “sorry we haven’t reviewed your record yet, we’re too busy listening to the Nevada Bachelors!”
That’s a good record. I don’t know if you know, but I believe the official word is they broke up. You might want to confirm that, but that’s what I hear from Jason, and I did actually play a show with Rob, Rob and Ben from the Bachelors have split up, and I remember Conrad talking about the frustration of having just put out a record of a band that has just broken up, so…
That’s too bad. Anyway, I only brought it up is because if we see Conrad Uno’s name, we know it’s gonna be good, and if we see your name, we know it’s going to be good, so the two of you working together is always exciting, I think.
Yeah, this record we just finished is just great. These are songs that, for the last couple of years, I’ve taken this one batch of songs, and I’ve tried to set out to find the next combination of songwriting and performance and musical instruments, the combination that was gonna click and make something like what the Presidents have, which was like a whole picture, a whole thing that you get when you listen to the record. In the meantime, I put about a couple of Giraffes records, some solo stuff, just to keep the juices flowing, to have the experience of making records, but this is definitely something I’ve hit upon that’s like, finally, something that I don’t feel like I’m putting on a guise or I’m putting on an act or anything, it just feels really like me. Like I’ve finally got back to the root of why I like to write songs and play, which is invitational music, friendly, invitational. come on get happy, let’s kick it out kind of stuff.
What excites you about doing a project like the Fan Edition?
Well, I like it — when we first talked about doing it, that was one of the elements that made me feel good about it was that it was like a direct thank you, getting the record to people who really want it. If we were gonna get back together to do a record, I liked that aspect because from the very beginning, I didn’t really want to like “reunite,” be “a band” again. I’ve moved on. I may play a couple of those songs in the Giraffes, eventually, because I like them still, but ultimately, I’ve just moved on from that personality. So, the idea that this thing was focused on the fans that really want to hear us was appealing. It’s just a good concept.
I’m curious — you mentioned how you were really looking to move on and not really “reunite” the Presidents. Is that why you were initially going with the name “the Quitters”?
Yeah, yeah. ‘Cause we’re really not the Presidents again, we’re just the same three guys and we made a record. I mean, I like the idea of a different name, because again, I don’t want to create the illusion for the fan that we’re “reunited.” I just don’t want people to operate under that illusion and be disappointed. I want them to understand the boundary. I’m not trying to be negative about it, at all, I really love the record, and I had a great time making it — I’m super proud of it, and the songs that are on the record, I couldn’t be happier with the way they came out, they’re just great. But they’re definitely not songs that I want to play live over and over again, they’re songs that I wanted to record well and release, but they’re not what I’m doing now. I just want to make sure people understand that I have a great deal of love for the record, and love for Dave and Jason, but my imagination is excited elsewhere.
The record sounds a lot more raw and stripped down than previous Presidents records. Is that something you were going for?
Yeah, yeah, when we were making the record, when I was tracking the vocals, the headphone mix that I had when I was making the vocals was like, amazing! It was just like exploding, and all the instruments are like crammed into each other, you could barely discern drums from guitar, it was just like, “man“! I made the producer, Martin, listen to the headphones, and I was like, “make the record sound like that! That is the shit!” Make it sound like everything’s just cramming into each other and exploding, because the songs demanded it, a lot of the songs are explosive.
One of the songs I really like is “Jazz Guy,” and Dave kind of intimated that a lot of the inspiration for that came from his work with jazz combos, and how difficult that was. He said the song had a completely different feel, and you said, “oh, no, this is a punk rock song,” and it turned into a punk rock song.
What about it said “this is a punk rock song” to you?
I just thought there had to be some sort of tension between the music and the content of the lyrics. I just like tension in songs, like where the melody line is sweet and the lyrics are nice, and then the music is explosive, you know? Just something to offset so that it’s not all one thing. He had kind of a quiet, lilting jazz progression to it, and I just thought it would be funnier if the person singing the song was like a punk rocker, so that it’s obvious that they can’t be a jazz guy, ’cause they’re just playing [improvises punk rock thrash, then sings] “I wanna be a jazz guy,” you know? It just seemed to make more sense from an imagery or storytelling perspective. It just seemed funnier [laughs].
Well, there are two songs on the album that made me laugh out loud. “Jazz Guy” was one, and the other is “Death Star.” I have a two-part question on that: first of all, are you a major Star Wars geek, or what inspired you to go with that subject matter?
I wrote that for a guy who worked at ASCAP when we signed up with ASCAP, this guy Michael Badami, who’s a really, really sweet guy, and he sat down when we were young and dumb and explained the music business to us, so that we wouldn’t get screwed. He’s a huge Star Wars fanatic, so it’s dedicated to him. I just wanted to write him a song. I actually didn’t put that on the liner notes, which I should have. So anyway, it’s just sort of a little jazz number about space.
Musically, it reminds me a lot of They Might Be Giants, and I was wondering if they were an inspiration for you.
Oh, yeah, totally! I remember when their [first]record came out, and I was in college. I bought it and went home and sat down and listened to it, and my immediate thought was, “there’s somebody else doing this!” That was very validating, when I heard it, because I was writing similar type songs at the time. Years later, we got to play with them. We did a show in Seattle and a show in Vancouver.
You know, very coincidentally, I happen to have interviewed John Flansburgh yesterday [it’s true! See next month’s Ink 19!]…
Oh, really? I have kind of a funny memory of him, man [laughs]. I don’t know if I should tell the story…
How about if I promise not to print it?
No, you can print it. I don’t care. It’s just one of the ten most embarrassing moments of my life. We opened up for them in Seattle, and I was standing on the side of the stage watching the show, and they put on a really good show — they had the crowd in the palm of their hand. I got excited at the end, and [then] they left the stage before the encore. For some reason, sometimes, in my mind, I dare myself to do things, and I have to do it — it’s just this thing I do — so I dared myself to run out and grab the mic and yell something. So I went out and grabbed the mic and yelled something, like “They Might Be Giants! Rock n’ roll!” or something, and John Flansburgh came barreling from the side of the stage and tackled me, and threw me on the ground, and like dragged me off stage, and was just like, “we don’t need that shit, man! We don’t need that shit! This is our show! Our fuckin’ show!” And then he was yelling at the stage manager, “From now on, no more opening acts on the side of the stage!” He just freaked out!
So, the next day — I could barely sleep that night, I was so mortified I’d messed up my relationship with one of my influences, and everything — then, the next day, we were playing Vancouver together, and we were all border crossing at the same time, so I went out and bought them all Frisbees [laughs], hoping that would maybe smooth the relations. The other John [Linnell] sort of confided in me and said that everybody else thought it was kind of funny that I went out there, and appreciated the enthusiasm, and that they were kind of confused by the other John’s anger.
That’s funny. Maybe you just caught him on a bad night, or something.
Well, I think he’s just a control guy. You know, I’ve met other people I was influenced by, like Stan Ridgway I met not too long ago. I played with him, and that ended up being like a bad dream.
Oh, no! What happened!
[Laughs] Well, he was headlining, and he wanted to switch sets with me, because he was afraid his crowd would fall asleep before he got on. I said OK and everything, and I was [originally] supposed to be on at 11, and the way we worked it out, I was gonna go on at 11:15, so I figured that wouldn’t be too bad. My pregnant wife was there, and my parents were there, in this little, smoky bar. He says, “I’ll be off by 11.” So he gets on stage late, around 10:15, and he plays until 11:45! I was just standing there aghast, like, “I can’t believe it,” especially because before, when we first met, he was talking about how he hates it when the opening band goes on and on and on. He ended up being kind of very ungracious about the whole thing.
Oh, no! So I guess the moral of the story, maybe, is “it’s not always a good idea to play with your influences!”
Exactly [laughs]! I’ve had multiple experiences with screwing up my relationship with my influences! With Stan Ridgway, too, somebody wrote in the bathroom, “Stan Ridgway is an asshole,” or something, and he was back in town like two days later and went to this place and ate food, used the bathroom, saw that, and thought I wrote it. Somebody else told me this through the grapevine. So now Stan Ridgway thinks I hate him, and I don’t hate him, I just was confused by his actions. His actions definitely didn’t connect with his words, but I just thought he was just being kind of ungracious and a bit quirky about his spot, but I certainly wouldn’t write that in a stall.
I guess stuff like that happens. I need to write a song about it, something about how you meet your idols, and they all turn out to be twerps or something. [laughs]
Well, this may end up being a bad question, then, but another song I really enjoy on the album is “Tiger Bomb,” and that song kind of puts me in the mind of the Pixies, so I was wondering if that was an influence for you.
Oh, yeah, totally. [Laughs] And I actually did meet Kim Deal one time. It was a long time ago, and I thought she was in another band in Boston — I was living in Boston. I came up to her and said, “hey, I love your band,” this and that, and she said, “actually, no, I’m in a band called the Pixies,” and I just melted, because of course I knew who the Pixies were, I just didn’t recognize her.
Yeah [laughs]! The Pixies [were a] great, great band, and that’s good. I hadn’t thought of that for “Tiger Bomb,” but the harmonies, I guess, are a tight fit.
For me it’s mostly before the chorus kicks in, it reminds me of the song “Hey” on the Doolittle album.
Something about the structure seems kind of similar — not so much that it’s like a clone or anything, just evocative.
I definitely listened to my fair share of the Pixies, so they’re firmly lodged in my deep songwriting brain stem.
To wrap things up: you guys are going to be the cover story in our October issue, and coincidentally, the issue’s theme is politics. Despite there being an obvious connection with your band’s name, you guys have never gotten into a lot of political themes. Is that something you have an interest in at all?
Not really. To me, politics is like a frustrating vortex, where you can do as much research as you want, but you don’t really know who you’re electing when you elect them. So I tend to select the guy that looks the best [laughs]. I mean, you could boil it down to that sort of approach, because you don’t know what you’re getting. I mean, it’s like buying a car you’ve never driven, or a TV you’ve never turned on, or a guitar you’ve never played. It’s just the weirdest thing. I don’t know, actually, now that I’m talking about it, that might be an interesting theme for a song. We did actually write a song early on as the Presidents with Roisin [Dunne] from 7 Year Bitch called “She’s the First Woman President.” It was a really cool song, and it had a really bizarre little rhythmical twist that Roisin remembers and I don’t remember, but it never got recorded or anything. It was pretty fun. We shared a practice space with them, so…
So who would get your endorsement for President, then? Who’s the best looking, I guess, is the question…
I don’t know. I have no idea, at this point. I’m doing a little reading about it, though, because obviously, when you have children, and you have a family, you have to pay more attention, but I haven’t made a decision yet. I’m still in the research phase, but my tendency is to go Democratic, so…
No interest in following Pat DiNizio’s lead and going into politics yourself?
No, no way, no way [laughs]! Being in a band and being married has enough politics in it. Or being in five bands, I should say.