Wednesday, December 9, 2015

the presidents of the united states of america

The Presidents of the United States of America elected to pound out a perfect prescription and got their rubber-band motor purrin' with this feather-pluckin' lump of sun-soaked candy grooves.    Chris Ballew and Dave Dederer had been friends since middle school and played in bands together around Seattle.  Ballew had moved to Boston (after attending college in New York at SUNY-Purchasefor a while, during which time he was a street musician and played with Mary Lou Lord and Mark Sandman.  Ballew and Sandman developed their own instruments with different configurations of strings, which would give them a unique sound in their band Supergroup as well as with their subsequent projects.  Sandman formed Morphine and Ballew went back to Seattle where he hooked back up with Dederer and they played together as a duo under various names ( "The Lo-Fis", "The Dynamic Duo", and "Pure Frosting") before settling upon The Presidents of the United States of America.  Drummer Jason Finn (from the band Love Battery) joined them in December of 1993 and they recorded a demo cassette Froggystyle during the next few months, leading to a deal with local label PopLlama Records.  

Ballew says: "The frequent name changes occurred because we just didn’t like any of the names. So we decided to keep trying different ones, feeling like if we said them from the stage and they ‘clicked’ and made the room come alive, then that would be the right name. The Presidents of the United States of America is the first one that did that, so we stuck with that. Pretty simple. It was a long, hard road to get to that name, though. We had a lot of days of scratching our heads and saying all sorts of names and none of them clicking. So The Presidents of the United States of America was just the first one where we all looked at each other and went “yeah, that’s ridiculous enough to work!”

Their eponymous debut was produced by The Presidents of the United States of America and Conrad Uno at The Laundry Room and Egg Studio in Seattle  with  Chris Ballew on lead vocals and basitar,  Dave Dederer on guitbass and backing vocals,  and  Jason Finn on drums.   Kim Thayil also played guitar on "Naked and Famous".    

Ballew says the basitar is 6-string guitar with two bass strings:   "Mark Sandman from Morphine showed me the 2-string way, basically. He was my mentor. I was already removing strings from my acoustic guitar; I was down to four in my own tuning. But Mark showed me the 2- and 3-string versions; the root-fifth arrangement of the tuning. He played his with a slide on a bass, tuned A and D. My version was to tune it more like C# and G# and play bass with my fingers, but use a guitar so it’s a shorter scale. I could do more stretching and chording with the two strings ... Mark would be the other one who plays basitar, but he has passed away. There’s a band called Disneyland After Dark (D.A.D.) that does a 2-string thing. There are tons of Ethiopian musicians that play 2- and 3-string guitars. So it is not my creation. It is an old African arrangement that Mark became aware of and through him, I discovered it. I rarely play a standard bass or standard guitar. I have two basses and a 6-string, but I broke a string so it’s a 5-string guitar at the moment. I just find that when I play those instruments that what I play is very old-hat, been done a billion times before, not interesting. So I just stick with the 2- and 3-string method."

The Presidents of the United States of America originally came out on PopLlama in March of 1995.  The limited edition non-album blue vinyl 7" single, "Fuck California" was put out on C/Z Records before the band signed to Columbia Records, who re-mixed and re-released The Presidents of the United States of America in July of 1995.  With major distribution The Presidents of the United States of America charted at number forty in France, twenty-five in Finland, eighteen in the Netherlands and Sweden, fourteen in the UK, six in Canada and the US, and number three in Australia and New Zealand.    The Presidents of the United States of America earned two Grammy nominations, in 1996 for Best Alternative Music Performance [for The Presidents of the United States of America] and again in 1997 for Best Pop Performance [for ‘Peaches’.]   Ballew:    "It was extremely thrilling to be nominated for a Grammy, although at the time I was so tired and overworked that I didn’t care [laughs]. This is the thing with The Presidents: back in the day, in the original sort of “bubble” of fame, it was so overwhelming and so giant and so weird, that – and I’m coming firmly from a punk, DIY background – that I didn’t trust any of the success or this whole system. I felt like I was being plugged into a system that was completely irrelevant to me and my values. I wasn’t about taking over the world. I was about taking over my back yard and taking care of the people who I loved and my hometown scene. So I had a hard time accepting and enjoying success like that, which now, in retrospect, I don’t. I understand it and how small those things are to writing a great song on your back porch ... So what did it mean to me to be nominated for a Grammy? It didn’t mean much, frankly. I was too tired to respond. We were worked like little doggies. To win would have been extremely thrilling, of course, because we were there with all the pomp and circumstance. So that would have been an out-of-body experience. But I feel ok that we lost, because the first time we lost to Nirvana and the second time we lost to The Beatles. That’s pretty tough competition, so I don’t feel too bad about that!"


The videos for the all four singles released from The Presidents of the United States of America were directed by Roman Coppola.  

"Peaches" had its little way to number twenty-nine on the US pop chart (their only chart single, making them officially a "one hit wonder") and in the Netherlands, twenty-eight in Sweden, twenty-four on the US mainstream rock tracks chart, fifteen in Canada, thirteen in Australia, nine in New Zealand, eight in the UK and on the US modern rock tracks chart, and number one on the Canadian alternative singles chart.    
Ballew:   "It’s about Mary Lou Lord. I had a crush on her and I went to her house to tell her so. I had enjoyed some drugs before I went there…some doobie-ous drugs [laughs]. Her house was this beautiful canary yellow house plopped in the middle of this disgusting brown, dirty, low industrial part of Cambridge, MA. She had a white picket fence and a peach tree in front of this canary yellow house. I sat under the peach tree because she was not home and squished peaches and wished she would arrive. She never did, so I bottled it and put it in a song. Bam! ... Mary Lou and I had a band together called Strumpet, but nothing ever came of that. Nothing ever, ever blossomed from my time under the peach tree [laughs]. I still see Mary Lou every once in awhile, on the road here and there. She’s at SXSW [South By Southwest] almost every year playing on the street. We used to share a spot in Harvard Square, busking. She’d play while I used the bathroom and I’d play while she used the bathroom, took a break, ate some dinner, or whatever. The rule is, whenever we see each other on the street now, I give her a break and take over for a little while."

"Lump" limped along at sub-sonic speeds to linger in line at number twenty-one in Canada and on the US hot airplay chart, fifteen in the UK, eleven in Australia, ten in France, eight in New Zealand, seven on the US mainstream rock tracks chart, and number one on the Canadian alternative and US modern rock tracks charts.  

"Kitty" scratched its way to number thirty in New Zealand, nineteen in Australia, and number thirteen on the US modern rock tracks chart. 

"Dune Buggy" spun up to number sixteen in Australia and fifteen in the UK.  

The Presidents of the United States of America 
full album:

All songs by Chris Ballew unless otherwise noted.

"Kitty" – 3:23
"Feather Pluckn" – 2:57
"Lump" – 2:14
"Stranger" – 3:04
"Boll Weevil" – 3:16
"Peaches" – 2:51
"Dune Buggy" – 2:44
"We Are Not Going to Make It" (Ben Reiser) – 1:52
"Kick Out the Jams" (Michael Davis, Wayne Kramer, Fred "Sonic" Smith, Dennis Thompson, Robin Tyner) – 1:25
"Body" – 4:11
"Back Porch" – 2:59
"Candy" – 3:16
"Naked and Famous" – 3:42

"Confusion" – 2:44
"Candy Cigarette" – 2:02
"Wake Up" – 2:41
"Carolyn's Booty" – 2:17
"Fuck California" – 3:05
"Puffy Little Shoes" – 3:35
"Kitty (Demo)" (Boston, 1992) – 1:26
"Lump (Demo)" (Ballard, WA, 1994) – 2:39
"Stranger (Demo)" (Seattle, 1992) – 2:50
"Boll Weevil (Demo)" (Boston, 1991) – 2:07
"Candy (Demo)" (Boston, 1989) – 3:51
"Naked and Famous (Boston Demo)" (Boston, 1989, by the band Egg) – 2:37
"Naked and Famous (New York Demo)" (New York, 1987) – 2:08

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