The Presidents of the United States of America . . . go on. Say it out loud. The phrase commands a certain rhythm, as if to instruct you to tighten your lip, swell your chest and bellow it out with a silly grin. If you know anything about mid-90s music (aside from what VH1 tells you), the words will conjure up blissful memories of a surplus of peaches, loved-starved bitter kitties and boggy marshes. You can’t help muse over whether they are indeed serious musicians.
But it is this very staple of jaunty songwriting that they pride themselves on. Conceived in Seattle, most of the criticism surrounding the band’s light-hearted simplicity revolves around a geographical expectation of angst; as if Kurt himself is rolling over in his grave.
Ahh, but this is a misconception-alternative music does not have to involve sorrow. The Presidents have taught us this, while debuting in the heart and peak of the grunge era. Frontman Chris Ballew (vocals, 2-string basitar) asserts, “I just always like to make music that adds positivism to the flow of life. I’ve got my share of problems, that’s for sure, but I’m not compelled to vent them in front of a bunch of people. I think when people get together they want to celebrate, lose themselves and party like it’s 1999. So I just wrote the songs that I thought were the best vehicle to get to that state of mind…good time party rock, West Coast party rock.”
Thus, Generation X did just this; embraced the infectious melodies of “Lump” all the way to #1 on the Billboard charts, bobbed our heads to multiple MTV videos and spat out Ballew’s whimsical lyrics at the most inappropriate times. World tours were launched and invitations to late night TV shows followed Grammy nominations. It was simple, pure but downright raw…punk rock. And in the midst of this intensifying nation-wide success, the band called it quits 12 months after their second release in December 1997. Whereas most American bands would ride the commercial bull, gleefully screaming, one hand up in the air waving a cowboy hat until utter exhaustion, the Presidents described the journey as a grey one. “We had kind of a punk rock attitude about all that stuff, which maybe was a little bit to protect ourselves from the fear of failure at trying to play that game or whatever; to be a big fish in a big pond,” Ballew continues, “My analogy to our experience in the big leagues was I always felt like we were poorly dressed at a fancy party with no invitations, meeting as many boy bands as we could before the maitre d’ came and asked us to leave.” They didn’t want to sell out, if you will, to the insecurities of the business.
“I never felt like I could trust it or lean on that kind of accomplishment for a sense of satisfaction…you may be the flavor of the month and totally a has-been next year. And if you lean on that kind of system for your sense of self worth, you’re setting yourself up for some major disappointment,” states Ballew. Their sophomore effort, II, released on Election Day 1996, can attest to the fickle side of the industry, selling far less copies than the double platinum The Presidents of the United States of America. And even though hard-core fans continued to lend their support, the marketable values of the biz proved too much to stomach for the rock ‘n’ roll purists. “All the extra baggage that came along [with success] just got too heavy and life became all about selling stuff rather than living. And all the traveling away from the very cities that made you successful in the first place; I let it bug me without saying anything for about a year and a half and I just blew up and said I can’t do this anymore.” Consequently, Chris left the band, eliminating an integral force of the trio, forcing Dave Dederer (guitar) and Jason Finn (drums) to venture off unto new paths. Granted, Jason and Dave made the punk-pop outfit possible with fueled syncopated beats and alluring electrified guitar riffs, but as history has shown us (think Van Halen), the public doesn’t respond well to changes in the line-up, particularly lead singers.
Accordingly, there was this three-year stint where critics and fans alike hailed the band as spurious due to their fading impression on the charts and quick dismemberment. Dan McGarry of @Herald retorts, “Their sound was simple and rough; the band took pride in tongue-in-cheek parody of any style they could imitate. Garage-band antics were part of their videos, they looked like they were having fun bouncing around and pretending to play instruments. Their debut featured erratic recording quality, blithe lyrics and self-satisfied references to their lack of professional ability.” And if that wasn’t bitter enough, he later predicted, “The charming musicians of PUSA might end up buried by the mountain of Seattle-grunge mimicry they so effectively exploited.”
Columbia released an “ex-presidential” farewell record in March 1998, Pure Frosting, a collection of covers, live recordings and a few unreleased tracks. While a few harsh, attention-starved critics were lashing out at the weakened state of the disbanded group, this final material continued to prove their longevity as accomplished musicians. An adaptation of Ian Hunter’s “Cleveland Rocks” adorned the intro to the Emmy-nominated sitcom, The Drew Carrey Show, and the platinum reaching success of Adam Sandler’s The Wedding Singer featured an amped-up version of ’80s band/MTV music video pioneers, The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” To boot, each President undertook various innovative side projects: Drummer Jason Finn collaborated with various weathered Seattle punk bands; The Fastbacks, The Nevada Bachelors and the Gentlemen. Dave Dederer linked up with Velvet Revolver bassist Duff McKagen and his band, Loaded. And Ballew fused an effort with another Seattle punk rocker, the Young Fresh Fellows’ drummer Tad Hutchison to create the quirky duo Chris and Tad.
And even though their separate careers were bearing fruits, at the turn of the millennium, all three Presidents stuttered with the notion of a reunion. Ballew, still apprehensive about commercialism, unofficially reunited the gang to team up with the notorious Sir Mix-A-Lot, dubbing themselves Subset. Chris explains, “It was like getting together to make music, but not being the Presidents, which was kind of liberating.” Eventually, an up-and-coming Internet company entitled MusicBlitz showed interest and proposed a contract to feature a full-length record, Freaked Out and Small, to be available exclusively online. Unfortunately, Ballew’s apprehensions were justified, and the relationship turned sour. He vents, “The company went out and totally changed what they said they were gonna do and started trumpeting that record as the ‘Triumphant Return’ against our wishes…it really fucked us up. Everybody bought it like it was this big reunion thing…we didn’t want to tour or anything. It was just a recording project, an online only, a little nugget for the hard-core fans.” It became about selling again. Distributors had to return the record based on false advertising.
Yes, the Presidents had been violated, but the semi-reunion sparked some energy from the glory days as a full-fledged trio. And after another two-year stretch with their own ventures, the opportunity to host a New Years Eve gig at one of their hometown favorites and old stomping ground clubs, The Crocodile, arose. It was here in the hot and sweaty, champagne-toasting, punk-fueled celebration of the continuation of life where the three formally dubbed as “five strings, three guys, one mission” rekindled their passion and purpose within that big commercial pond of the music community. Chris explains, “We lean on the sensation of standing up in front of people and playing for them, because that doesn’t go away, I mean, that makes my life better. Being nominated for a Grammy really doesn’t make your life better. Being on a cover of a magazine doesn’t make your life better. Being on MTV doesn’t make your life better. But, standing in front of actual people and connecting with them makes your life better immediately; it’s a closed circuit. It’s not dependent on a complicated system. You stand there; they pay money. You get paid. They rock out; you rock out. Good feelings flow, and it’s good.”
A ‘real’ reunion became inevitable. They began playing together on a frequent basis throughout 2003, enlisted a fresh new booking agent, marketing company, and forged their own record label to control the strings of the business. The creation of Love Everybody, the return of the Presidents of the United States of America, launched this past August with ease, coincidently during an election year. In fact, the title of the band has as much to do with politics as “Lump” has to do with symbolism. “We want people to think for themselves. The name is just catchy, it sounds cool with a bunch of reverb over the mic and we’re three white Americans doin’ our thing,” iterates Chris. Regardless, Love Everybody started receiving radio play before the record was even available with the hit single, “Some Postman.” Stylistically, the record stays true to the Presidents of the past; the same happy go-lucky pogo-ing themes but with a tad more instrumentation and complexity this time. You’ll hear some harmonicas, keyboards and even an astonishing six-string guitar! This is strange considering they’d rather strut the stage with an amp in one hand and a guitar in the other. I mean, with a band so focused on the main elements of rock ‘n’ roll their influences surprisingly vary from Outkast and Green Day to Nick Drake and the Jackson Five. Yet, The Beatles being lyricist Ballew’s prime influence, you’ll hear a connection on this new record. Now I’m not talking “Help” or “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” but rather crazy hippie Beatles like “Piggies” and “I Am The Walrus” turned punk.
We’ll be seeing much more of the revamped Presidents trio, solidly reunited with a clear, mature philosophy. Ballew insists that the break-up was necessary. Finding inspiration via Hollywood, he states, “I watched Jerry Maguire right before I quit the band. It’s kind of cheesy and everything, but its got a great message: ‘Don’t fuck around doing something you don’t want to do. And if it means follow your gut, even if it’s the most complicated or wrong move…if it feels right it’s probably right.’ I was like ‘oh goddamn, I’ve gotta get out of here;’ I gotta do the equivalent of standing up and holding the fish and saying who’s with me. I regret the way I did it, but I don’t regret that we broke up. I think we had to do that. I think we had to reset.”