At Irving Plaza in New York City, on day one of the Presidents of the United States of America’s US tour supporting new(ish) album Kudos to You!, lead singer and two-string “basitarist” Chris Ballew bounces around the stage with the abandon of an 18-year-old—but he’ll be 50 next year.
“I pay for it later,” he says. “The next day, my back and knees hurt.”
How does he withstand the wear and tear?
“I do this breathing-exercise stuff called Qigong,” he says. “Very simple: breathing, moving energy around, and getting the kinks out of your energy flow. I do that, meditation, and a lot of stretching. I don’t drink on tour most of the time. I keep myself hydrated, keep my energy flowing and get enough sleep. If I do all of that and don’t hit the party sauce very hard on tour, then the show is the high point of the day. That’s where I can blow off all that steam that’s been building up.”
This commitment to clean living and mindfulness is one of many surprises that come up during a chat with the voice you hear singing 1990s hits “Lump” and “Peaches.”
He’s drawn wisdom from a surprisingly disparate cadre of musician friends like Sir Mix-A-Lot, Weird Al Yankovic, Beck, and Madonna. And, though he has an eighth kids’ album coming out in September as Caspar Babypants, he’s not anxious to get on the road and perform for the tykes once the Presidents tour wraps up.
“I’m not really touring with [the kids’ songs],” he says. “There’s this gear I’ve found in my life, which is doing nothing, and I really like it: going to the park, doing some Qigong, meditating, and just vibing on nature. It’s good, man. Once you start to tune in to the incredible show that is the world, you don’t feel like you need to fill it up with your own sound as much. I learned how to just be a human being and not a human doing, you know?”
Centered though he may be, Ballew comes off as a pragmatic man with an eye on the bottom line when discussing his band’s sense of humor, their cautious embrace of crowd-funding, and why they should not have rejected a big soda payday during their 1990s heyday.
Noisey: Some bands seem haunted by the one or two hits that casual fans want to hear—why have you been able to embrace yours?
Chris Ballew: Early in the band, we had a rule that if any one of us looked at the set list, picked a song, and said: “I’m not super excited to play that one,” we would get rid of it. So the set list we ended up with in the beginning was all songs that we loved.
One of the reasons I did that was that when Beck first got signed, I was in his touring band. He always felt like “Loser” was a total throwaway song, and he hated it. He hated the type of attention he was getting because of that song: that he was king of the slackers and that kind of stuff. It was almost like going to fame school, hanging out with Beck. [Laughs] We had lots of conversations about his transition and the song he was stuck with that he didn’t really like that much.
When I got back [to work with the Presidents of the United States], I was like, “Alright, guys: let’s not release anything that we’re not 100 percent proud of, because it could be a hit. And then we’re stuck.” The result is that I adore that record and am happy to play every song from it every night. I mean, it’s fantastic.
Does meditation fuel your tendency to write songs like “Flea vs. Mite,” which is about a fight between bugs?
I love to anthropomorphize things, and feeling free to do that is part of seeing the world as a place where I can bend the rules and change the script. Some days when I’m doing Qigongand meditation, I feel like Neo in The Matrix—like I can see the code. Seeing the code means you can rewrite the code.
There was a phase a long time ago when I thought all songs had to be about love, or important ideas or concepts. I wrote songs about chickens and monkeys and little animals and stuff, and I thought of them as second-class citizens. Then, [in the 90s], I saw this guy named "Spider" John Koerner perform in Boston. He does amazing interpretations of old folk music, and he’s a big influence. Suddenly, I’m like, “Wow—here’s this music that has integrity and has stood the test of time, and it’s about little animals and frivolous weird scenarios. I guess I can do that, too.”
Do you think there’s snobbery to the idea that if a song makes you laugh, it’s not important?
Yeah—but the thing is, I’m not waiting around for someone else to tell me I’m OK. I could not care less. I care deeply about putting a song out into the world that I feel is tight and well written, and has a visual component that will take you on a little trip, make you see something, and make you feel happy. But how it then reverberates against culture—I’m concerned with the listener, not the culture. We’re sort of culturally invisible, and I see it as an asset.
I have Madonna to thank for this perspective. We had a business meeting with her back in the day. It was down to her label [Maverick] and Columbia as far as signing us back in the 90s. She took me aside in our meeting and said: “whether you sign with me or not, I’m going to tell you something: you are a really good songwriter, but you’re funny. And the world will never give you respect for your craft, because you’re funny. So don’t expect it. Don’t wait around for it. Just do your thing.” We didn’t end up signing with her, but that piece of advice saved me a lot of headache.
Kudos to You! was your first crowd-funded album.
I’m not 100 percent sure how I feel about that whole crowd-funding thing.
What gives you pause about it?
We can afford to make our own record. It’s not like we needed a handout. And it might, on one side, seem a little chintzy. Like, “Come on, man. Just write a check.” If you can’t afford to make the record, maybe you shouldn’t make a record that way. That’s what I think when I see people contacting me about [donating to their projects]. I’m like, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t make a movie. Just take it easy.” [Laughs]
On the other hand, a lot of fans love to feel like they’re part of an album.
That’s the other side of the coin. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for fans to touch the process, be involved, and feel ownership, and that was what swayed me. We [auctioned off] custom-made two- and three-string guitars, and did lessons via Skype with the people that wanted them. That was a nice face-to-face connection with people that I never would have otherwise met.
Weird Al’s been in the news. Do you still sing “and that’s all I have to say about that” at the end of “Lump?”
That’s pretty much stuck there forever. We love Weird Al as a person. He’s a good man—a nice guy, a great listener, and a very intelligent, intuitive, and creative person. He made a video for us, for the song “Mixed Up S.O.B.” It was a really crazy, intricate video. We had a day of shooting where we made flipbooks, and then did another day where we shot the flipbooks in the scenes. It was very mathematical and scientific, but Al can handle that kind of stuff.
You and Sir Mix-A-Lot collaborated years ago on the rap-rock project Subset, whose album still hasn’t seen an official release. Are you trying to get that music out there?
Yeah. In fact, Mix and the Presidents did a show together about six weeks ago in Seattle. It was the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon. We hung out afterwards for a while, and we talked in kind of serious terms about what it would take to [release the Subset album]. So we’ll see—we’re talking about it.
Sir Mix-A-Lot said in an old interview that the album got tied up when you had different ideas about the sound. He said he wanted to do more Nine Inch Nails–esque drum-machine stuff, as opposed to live music. Has that been sorted out?
That hasn’t been sorted out—but it is true. Mix and I wanted to take things in kind of a daring direction, and I think Dave and Jason wanted to keep them more band-oriented and organic sounding. In the end, Mix turned me on to the possibilities of computers and got me set up with a Pro Tools rig.
One of the reasons we called the band Subset was because our common creative ground was pretty small. That territory, as we went on, just shrank and shrank—and eventually disappeared. It’s like a marriage among four people. What are the odds that it’s going to work out?
Between the Subset album and your set lists, it seems you make it a priority to have everyone on board with every decision.
That’s one of the reasons Caspar is a solo venture. I got a little tired of finding that common ground. After awhile, it’s like, I want to be more like a sculptor or a painter. A painter doesn’t say: “I want to make a painting. I’d better get three more people.”
It’s been a few years, but I have to ask how the Presidents ended up making the Pokémon song “Can’t Stop Catching ’Em All.”
In 1998 or 99, I started scoring for television shows and writing songs for commercials. I’ve kind of wrapped that up now, but [the Pokémon song] was one of the last ones I did. I wrote the song, I brought [the band] in, and they basically got compensated to be performers on my song.
[At the time,] I decided I wanted to make performing assets. If I make songs that get put into a library and then get used in commercials or TV shows, I can be at the park doing Qigong, and I’m making money. Touring in a band is almost the equivalent of digging a ditch, or being a baker who shows up every day to bake bread. I’d rather be the guy who wrote the bread recipe.
Have you ever refused a commercial?
As a band, we said no to a Sprite commercial and the movie Independence Day when we were on top of the charts and felt invincible. We were like, “No, we don’t want to do this stupid movie! We don’t want to support sugary soda!” I look back now and realize all the money we could have made, and think that was so dumb. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I started doing commercial work—there’s all this money, and it’s easy. Well, it’s not easy, but it’s a way to make money that’s not breaking your back on stage every night. I regret saying no to those first two [opportunities]. After that, I’d say yes to anything.
So if you could go back, you’d give those kids cavities?
Yeah! It didn’t slow down the soda-pop production at all for us to say no.
Jonathan Zeller couldn’t find a place in this interview for the moment when Chris Ballew briefly got a cereal bar stuck in his throat, but wants to mention that Chris recovered quite nicely.
The Presidents of the United States are touring their namesake country right now. Check out their website for the dates.
Want more interviews with your favorite artists of the 90s and today? Sure you do: