The Presidents’ Chris Ballew Got Advice From Madonna
Chris Ballew, frontman for The Presidents of The United States of America, has just released the band’s forthcoming 6th album, is kicking off a tour in support of that in Seattle and then heading off to entertain many more cities in Northern Europe.
If you have a kid, you also know Chris as Caspar Babypants, who also has a ton of albums out and a huge following among the toddler set.
Chris is a great guy. Very generous and real. He told great stories throughout our conversation, including one about almost signing with Madonna’s label.
Chris and I started off by listening to the song, Poor Little Me, off the President’s new album, Kudos To You. Available for free here!
LC: Poor Little Me has that Presidents’ hit all over it.
CB: I know, it’s a weird song, it has no real discernible chorus. And we’ve never led with a country or rootsy number like that. It’s an old old song I wrote long ago with Dave Thiely. Brought it in and the other lads in the band chopped it up and we got a brand new song.
LC: Tell us about the lads in the band.
CB: In 2004, Dave, our original guitar player, decided to move on. Andrew McKeag came on board and we still call him the new guy even though he’s done more shows than Dave.
LC: The first place I saw the Presidents was in 1997 in Seattle at a benefit show. You all looked beautiful dressed in drag.
CB: Yes, we had professional drag queens dress us up that night. It was quite an experience.
LC: You were stunning.
CB: I had a big green wig on. I remember it well.
LC: Tell me about the upcoming tour.
CB: Just the usual stomping grounds. Netherlands, UK. The Northeast…
LC: Are you especially big in Europe?
CB: We are! We get along really well in the UK and The Netherlands. We just click with those people. And every summer we can be guaranteed a pretty decent festival offer, or 4 or 5. Lots of love, lots of love, over there.
LC: And Caspar Babypants?
CB: Caspar-PUSA-Pants? They’re kind of interchangeable. The creative core of both of them is kind of the same. Just with Caspar I don’t have loud guitars, loud drums, and sexual innuendo.
LC: When on tour with the Presidents, you play the hits, right?
CB: Of course! We never deny the hits. We love our hits. We’re not a band who shies away from our hits. I have never performed Lump and not been excited. It’s so weird. Every time we play that song, it’s like we’re playing it for the first time. It’s a very unique song for me. I dig it.
LC: Who’d you go with when you signed with a major label in the beginning?
CB: Columbia Records and Tapes. Because they had tapes back then. It was either going to be them or Maverick, Madonna’s label. And we had a very insightful business meeting with Madonna. And she totally got us in every way you needed to get us to sign us. But we went with Columbia because of this guy Mark, who was totally into the internet. This was 1994, and, ‘the internet is just going to be this huge thing!’ and he was so infectious and amazing, we went with Columbia. But then he disappeared and we had a terrible website.
But when we met with Madonna, they’d just signed a Canadian artist named Alanis Morrissette. And if we’d signed with Maverick, we would have been second fiddle to Alanis.
But Madonna said something in our meeting that I still refer to. Don’t expect to get critical acclaim for what you do because you’re funny. Nobody respects the craft of making fun music. That doesn’t mean there isn’t craft in it, but you’ll depart this earth before you get respect for your craft.
LC: What do you think of that?
CB: I think it’s true. In the world of alternative music. A lot of the time music is deemed important if it’s heavy or sad or emotional. But it’s seen as less important if it makes you smile and dance around. And in that respect, she was right. And it was important to me at that time because we were being fed a bunch of lines that we were important songwriters and getting told all kinds of things to get us to do crazy stunts, never sleep, and play six nights a week. So I would refer to her (Madonna) in times like that. Sort of a reference point.
LC: I do have a question from a big fan of yours, Jackson, in Kentucky, wants to know if the “millions of peaches” have been adversely affected by the economy?
CB: HA! No, the idea of millions of peaches has stayed steady throughout all the economic fluctuations.
-Lee Callahan, Jack FM