Hey all, Ernie here with a fresh piece from David Buck, who has a lot of passion for a certain alternative-rock band from Seattle. (No, not that one.) Read on …
Today in Tedium: Every once in a while, a band comes along that eschews the mainstream sensibilities of modern pop and rock music. They embrace the humor and absurdity of the modern world, twisting and molding it into unique sonic experiments. Through tight instrumentation and finely tuned lyrics, they regale listeners with tales from off the beaten path of life. Or sometimes they just sing songs about animals, bugs and fruit. In today’s Tedium, we won’t try to find a deeper meaning in the works of Seattle alt-rockers The Presidents of the United States of America (PUSA), but we’ll explore their unlikely career, their DIY aesthetic and maybe kick out a few jams along the way. — David @ Tedium
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The combined number of strings on the band’s guitars for every song and performance. Frontman Chris Ballew would play the two-string “basitar” while original guitarist Dave Dederer would tackle the three-string “guitbass.” Together, they create unique sound that—according to Ballew back in a mid-90s issue of Bass Player Magazine_—_makes the guitars sound like “one big instrument.”
PUSA, in a ’90s promotional photo.
Inauguration day: The unique musical setup that gave the band its sound
The story of PUSA’s unique sound really begins with bassist/instrument inventor Mark Sandman of the band Morphine. PUSA frontman and creative force Chris Ballew spent some time performing with Mark, spontaneously making up songs live on stage for their audience. Mark—a phenomenal bass innovator and player in his own right—inspired the ideas being the two and three-string guitars PUSA would eventually adopt.
Per guitarist Andrew McKeag on an episode of Rock Talk with Mitch Lafon, the two instruments were both electric guitars. What made the Basitar special was simple—it has a single .60 bass string at the top and a .36 guitar string at the bottom. The guitbass on the other hand had three strings with gauges of .065, .045 and .035 respectively. Each was tuned to C# to create that signature PUSA sound.
The band got together around the early ’90s—amid the hits of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and the other giants of grunge—with Ballew and old friend Dave Dederer forming a duo and playing gigs around Seattle. Eventually, drummer Jason Finn joined the band and The Presidents of the United States of America were born. When their eponymous debut album became a hit, they were touted by The New York Times as an “up and coming talent.” Not bad for a grunge band that played funny songs about animals and food.
“We came after grunge and we put the fun back into the scene. We were funge!”
— Chris Ballew, speaking on the podcast Center Stage Show back in July. Per Ballew, he only came to this genre classification recently and only PUSA would fall under the category.
Approval ratings: Ballew’s lyrics have a sense of humor and mundane appeal to them
He focuses on objects and creatures from everyday life, building a story around them. During a July 2018 interview on the podcast Center Stage Show, he discussed his inspiration for the early PUSA song “Kitty” and his complete disdain for innuendo in rock lyrics:
“About 80 percent of my decisions were in the innocence camp, not in the sexuality part. I really was writing about a cat—a cat named Cheema that I had that when you went down to pet it, it would purr … and look like it really wanted you to pet it … and then it would lash out and scratch your skin! I would tweak a few words here and there to bring in the innuendo, but in the end I really discovered that chemistry between innocence and innuendo wasn’t something I could sustain. I was really trying to write innocent songs about animals and food.”
Blending comedy with grunge and punk rock became the calling card of PUSA, because of something Madonna told Chris Ballew (heavily paraphrased here)—you’re a good songwriter, but you’re funny and that won’t earn the world’s respect, so just do what you want to do and you’ll succeed. This basic idea holds steady through most of PUSA’s work. The freedom and sense of joy are prevalent through their oeuvre, but none more so than in the debut album.
The Presidents of the United States of America is non-stop fun from start to finish. Kicking off with the aforementioned “Kitty” and leading into “Feather Pluckn,” it’s apparent that the band is having a blast singing about animals and insects. “Lump” is super catchy and inspired a “Weird Al” Yankovic parody called “Gump.”
“Peaches”—a song about a guy who loves the eponymous fruit—was quite the radio staple in 1996 and even spawned its own single containing tracks that would later be re-released on the ten year anniversary edition of the album. Tracks like “Boll Weevil” and “Dune Buggy” are innocent fun, with tracks like “Back Porch” showing off PUSA’s chops in singular ’90s fashion.
The first album was certified 3X platinum by the RIAA on Jan. 23, 1997 (it had previously hit platinum status first on Dec. 14, 1995 and again on March 4, 1996). Listeners loved the record and kept on buying the album. It’s difficult not to have a great big grin on one’s face while listening to this album and its legacy had an impact in an interesting place—among the comedy music community.
“My lust for fame is clearly quite evident/That’s why I went and borrowed this riff from the Presidents”
— “Insane Ian” Bonds, from his 2014 Dr. Demento Show/Funny Music Project song “Internet Famous.” The tune features Chris Ballew on guitar and backing vocals. The song is a little bit parody, but mostly original interpolation of the PUSA original “Naked and Famous,” only this time it’s about how everyone wants to be popular online. I asked Ian how he managed to enlist Ballew’s help. As a major fan of the band, Ian and some friends started a mailing list devoted to the PUSA. He kept up with Ballew’s work over time and eventually put together a tribute album for the band. When the band heard about their group, Ian and friends were invited backstage to several shows, building a rapport with the band. Ballew played on one of Ian’s earlier songs about zombies and when it came time for Ian to record “Internet Famous,” he said getting Ballew on board was easy: “I just asked, basically.”
The band, shown performing in 2010 with latter-day member Andrew McKeag. (David Lee/Flickr)
The midterms: What came for the band after that massive first album
The Presidents of the United States of America album was a phenomenal success. The follow-up album, II arrived in 1996 to substantially less fanfare. The album is almost as fun as the debut, but perhaps the public was growing tired of innocent, punk songs about insects. It didn’t perform quite as well as the debut. Despite this, songs like “Mach 5” and “Volcano” would become staples in the band’s live shows and other songs like “Puffy Little Shoes” and “Froggy” harken back to the sound of their first album. II isn’t an extension of PUSA, but it is a logical evolution of the band, with harder rock and a tighter sound.
Then, in 1997, the band broke up … for a little while, anyway. (Their downtime was filled with an offbeat collaboration with rapper Sir-Mix-a-Lot that has yet to be officially released.) They returned with 2000’s Freaked Out and Small which took the band in a mellower direction (on top of having a song about the Death Star from Star Wars).
A few more albums—Love Everybody and These are the Good Times People—followed in 2004 and 2008 respectively, with Andrew McKeag replacing Dave Dederer (who left the band to pursue other projects) on the latter record. The stories become more human with songs like “Jennifer’s Jacket,” about the real life former roommate of Chris Ballew, who had a jacket that she kept held together with safety pins and thread.
PUSA dipped their toes into the pool of crowdfunding with what turned out to be their final album, Kudos to You. Reaching 194 percent of its goal on PledgeMusic, the album would become not only a labor of love to the fans, but a testament to the love the fans hold for the band itself.
“Our favorite way to cover songs back in the day was to cut 50 percent of the song out.”
— Chris Ballew, discussing cover songs in an interview on the Center Stage Show Podcast in July 2018.
Bipartisanship: Under the covers with PUSA
Although they were well-known for their hilarious, irreverent original songs, PUSA made a few remarkable cover versions that popped up in interesting places. Some of them were compiled on the band’s Pure Frosting album, while others are from all over the discography. Here are the four best-known PUSA covers and a bonus:
1. “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Originally a new wave hit for The Buggles, this song was famously covered by PUSA for the feature film The Wedding Singer. It manages to maintain the spirit of the original song while adding the unique flavor of Ballew’s nasally vocals and eschewing the synthesizers of the original to create a uniquely ’90s take on an ’80s classic.
2. “More Bad Times.” Feeling like the song should be heard by more people, the band rearranged this Ed’s Redeeming Qualities song in their own style. The original is much more laid back, but both versions exude a sense of poignancy while telling a tongue-in-cheek story about how a lovely relationship that ended far too soon.
3. “Cleveland Rocks.” This Ian Hunter track became the theme song for Cleveland-based sitcom The Drew Carey Show. PUSA expands upon the original, transforming it into straight ahead raucous punk. Winfred Louder never saw them coming.
4. “Kick Out the Jams.” Technically more of a re-write/tribute than a cover, I’m including this one on the list because not only does it pay tribute to the fantastic rock & roll royalty, MC5. its lyrics are interesting, the song is energetic and fun, and Ballew’s vocal performance brings the tune to a glorious punk crescendo. It’s one minute and forty seconds of pure energy.
5. “More than a Feeling.” We found this one on YouTube. It’s “Weird Al” Yankovic and PUSA covering everyone’s favorite Boston song. Enough said.
End of the term: The band’s broken up these days, but its members are keeping busy
In 2015, The Presidents of the United States of America amicably disbanded. 21 years after releasing their multi-platinum selling debut album, the band decided to ride their career off into the sunset. Remaining quiet for the majority of that year, frontman Chris Ballew finally announced the end PUSA on their Facebook page:
“Dear PUSA fans …
You may have noticed that PUSA has been quiet since the summer of 2015 and here is why … we are no longer functioning as a band. Call it what you will but we have quietly retired from the PUSA business since we are OLD PEOPLE NOW! ;) “Never say never” is a good motto in these cases however we wanted to let you all officially know what is up so you don’t have to fret or wonder. Thanks for all the singing and clapping and happy times and WE LOVE YOU!”
Ballew went on to a successful career as children’s entertainer Caspar Babypants—a fact that is well documented online. He also maintains a large archive of his new and old music at his website, along with his recent career path as children’s entertainer Caspar Babypants.
The other members of the group—Jason Finn and Andrew McKeag—continue to work in the music industry today. Finn continues to drum with a variety of bands, performing with Paul & Storm occasionally at W00tstock. He was even on an episode of Wil Wheaton’s _Tabletop playing Forbidden Island_ with Wil and author Jon Scalzi. McKeag is a hard-working musician, performing with his Andrew McKeag Band, who recently released their debut album.
The amount that Hewlett-Packard acquired Seattle-based Melodio for in 2010. The company, at which PUSA founder Dave Dederer was an executive, developed a program that Dederer worked on called Nutsie. Nutsie allowed users to upload an XML file of metadata from their iTunes library and stream their music from their phones or Nutsie’s website. During a Reddit AMA from 2009, he talks at length about his desire to do more than be in a rock band, but expresses nothing but positivity at his involvement with The Presidents. These days, Dederer is a pretty big deal at another Seattle company you may have heard about—Amazon. Per his LinkedIn profile, Dederer has spent most of the past decade in charge of music licensing, music programming and more recently the musical side of Alexa’s development. Turns out they were going to make it after all.
While there may not be deep philosophical or existential meaning behind the lyrics of most PUSA songs, I find they do possess a deeper meaning and purpose, at least for me. Here is a group that celebrates the DIY spirit, throw their hearts into their performances and forego ego in favor of fun.
The music is engaging and resonates with a sense of joy and humor. For whatever reason, humor in music isn’t always accepted in the mainstream, but PUSA managed to bring it to the public’s consciousness in a massively successful way.
I tried to make my own guitbass, but ended up completely wrecking the intonation on my Harmony acoustic. I suppose I’ll have to get it fixed. Until then, I’ll just load up my CD player with PUSA albums, sit on my back porch and kick out a few jams of my own.