Interview with Chris Ballew of PUSA and CBP
Chris Ballew is front man and principal songwriter of The Presidents of the United States of America. He has recorded and toured with Beck and Sir Mix-A-Lot, was nominated for two Grammys, played a gig at Mount Rushmore and has had seven songs chart, five in the top-25. These days, Chris is squarely focused on writing children’s music as Caspar Babypants, playing packed shows around the greater Seattle-area with hundreds of kids running wild, stomping their feet and singing along with him. Chris shared stories about all of these experiences and much, much more. This is a long interview, so grab a coffee, cozy up into your favorite chair and enjoy. Without further ado, Mr. Chris Ballew…
One Louder Magazine: Let’s start with your earliest rock n’ roll memories. Who were you listening to as a child?
Chris Ballew: My earliest rock ‘n roll memory is getting Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band when I was 2½ years old: Christmas 1967. I believe it came out in November and my older brother bought it for my parents as a Christmas present. I quickly inherited it and listened to it exclusively until I was about eight or nine years old. And then I bought Yellow Submarine [laughs]. So it was 100% complete immersion in The Beatles when I was little.
OLM: What prompted you to start playing music on your own? What instrument(s) did you start with and at what age?
CB: I started with the piano when I was four years old, learning basic skills. My mother recognized the love of music in me because of my fascination with Sgt. Pepper’s, so she got me onto the piano track early on. I played piano exclusively until I was about 12 or 13 years old. Then I picked up my dad’s acoustic guitar and figured out chords. When I finally got an electric guitar and plugged that into an amplifier I was like, “that’s what I was looking for!”
OLM: Did you ever take any music classes or have any other formal training in music?
CB: Yes. From the age of four to 14, I was a pretty serious piano player; ragtime, classical, etc. I played recitals and other performances, memorizing long pieces of music.
OLM: Did you try and emulate some of your musical heroes growing up by playing their songs? What bands, what songs?
CB: You know, I didn’t! I loved The Beatles and then I loved Nazareth and Blue Öyster Cult, but as I tried to express my admiration for those bands, I didn’t ever try to play their songs. I tried to write my own songs that fit into the universe of my heroes. I was way more compelled to express myself and make something up than to imitate. Of course, during the making up, I was imitating, but it felt more like I was creating something new.
OLM: Growing up did you ever make the ‘rock star’ pose in front of a mirror? Don’t lie!
CB: I used to take a tennis racket and pretend it was a guitar in the bathroom, yes! The bathroom sounded really good, too, so I could go [imitates high-pitched guitar noise with vibrato] and make other guitar noises and it sounded awesome!
OLM: As a teenager did you envision being a full-time musician or was it still just a hobby at that point?
CB: I’ve never envisioned anything but being a full-time musician. Ever. It never occurred to me to do anything else. Actually, wait. There was one point where I almost gave up and thought about getting a regular job. I was sitting at my parent’s table, filling out job applications to work at a radio station. I looked up suddenly from my work and said “No, I’m not gonna do it. If I have to eat ketchup on cardboard, I will be a musician.” Those were my exact words. I need to write a song called ‘ketchup on cardboard’ [laughs]! So, yeah, it never occurred to me to do anything else.
OLM: You’ve lived in the Seattle area your entire life except for a brief stint on the East coast from the early ‘80s to the early ‘90s. Why did you leave? Why did you return?
CB: I left in 1983 to go to college in New York at SUNY-Purchase which is an awesome school! I did that for four years, then I went to Boston for another four to five years. Why did I leave? I wanted to get to know the East Coast and it’s great because now I feel like New York and Boston are second homes to me. I know where to go, I know how to get around, I have memories and ghosts of my previous life lurking about and I love that feeling.
I returned because I woke up one morning in Boston and realized that I was incapable of laying roots there because it was not my home. When I returned, I had the incredible relief and sheer joy of remembering that I’m actually from the greatest city in the world that produced all the hits for the Presidents. That joy was bottled in those songs as an extra layer of pride I have in that body of work.
OLM: At what point in your life did you know that music was no longer a hobby, but how you earned a living?
CB: It was a very, very specific point. It was a point when the phone rang at my house in Ballard, here in Seattle, and it was Beck asking me if I wanted to go on tour with him as a side-man. I walked out to my back yard, looked at the sky and I said “that’s it, here I go.” And I have never looked back [laughs]. That was February or March of 1994.
OLM: How did that opportunity occur? What was your role in the band? What did you like / dislike about that experience? Was it supposed to be short-lived or were you hoping to be onboard for the long haul?
CB: I was connected to Beck through Mary Lou Lord. Beck and Mary Lou shared a publisher. Mary Lou called me one day and said, “There’s this guy named Beck; he needs musicians and you need to be one of them.” I sort of blew her off. A couple of months later she called back and said, “you really have to meet this guy. He’s coming to Seattle and I’ll introduce you.” So she did and we hit it off right away. I saw him play a show, just he and his acoustic guitar at The Crocodile Café. I loved his visual lyrics. I felt like my mind took a trip to a little movie in his mind. I told him so and we talked about that a lot. He played at The OK Hotel the next night and I went to that show, too. His DAT player that was playing the backing tracks for ‘Loser’ broke, so I hopped up onstage with a bunch of harmonicas and we had a harmonica duel and saved the show [laughs]. He then invited me down to Olympia to play slide guitar on ‘One Foot in the Grave’ because he was looking for a slide guitar player. I went to a store, bought a guitar, bought a slide, faked my way through it, got the job and went on tour with him!
My role in the band was as a multi-instrumentalist. I ran the sampler, I played the bass on some songs, I played the guitar on some songs, back-up singer, percussion…I was the jack-of-all-trades. I loved that experience because it was my first touring experience. We did a van tour, then we did a bus tour. What I really loved about it was The Presidents had already started, but we hadn’t achieved any sort of success yet, beyond Seattle. The nice thing was that I got to witness Beck process his experiences of being thrust into the limelight from the sidelines. I got to hang out with him, drive with him…I lived with him because I was the only band member not from L.A. We drove all over L.A. talking about what was happening to him and I got a lesson in how to deal with it, not knowing that I would need to deal with it myself in a few months after that. I really liked that experience.
I disliked the tone of the band, though. Beck did not like the ‘Loser’ song and he felt like deconstructing any sort of happy-go-lucky image that that song might have produced in the public’s mind. So he kind of did a Sonic Youth junior thing and that just was not my palette. I’m an entertainer. I like to reach out and take care of the audience and Beck was not interested in taking care of the audience at that point. So that didn’t work for me. After two tours, Jason Finn [The President’s drummer] was calling, saying “hey, we’re selling tons of records here at The Comet” [Seattle bar where Jason was a bartender and sold PUSA cassettes over the counter]. So I quit to do The Presidents and it turned out to work out just fine. And then I see Beck playing at Bumbershoot. He’s got this entertaining, almost James Brown on psychedelics kind of show. If that were the kind of band I was in with him, I probably would not have quit and I might lead a very different life than I do right now. Luckily we weren’t on the same page, so I quit and did my own thing.
OLM: You formed The Presidents in 1993 with Dave Dederer who you met and befriended in middle school. The band had a different name at almost every gig, but finally settled on the Presidents of the United States of America. Why the frequent name changes and how did you settle on PUSA?
CB: 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!”
OLM: With PUSA you play the basitar [a 6-string guitar, but with two bass strings]. What’s up with that? Do you know anyone else who plays a basitar? Is this your creation? Have you always played this “instrument”? Do you ever play a standard bass and/or standard guitar?
CB: What’s up with that is that 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.
OLM: In 1995, PUSA was asked to be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live but you couldn’t play due to other obligations. Have you been asked back?
CB: That is true. Of all the days they asked, it was my wedding night, October 21st, 1995. The President of Columbia Records tried to negotiate with me to move the wedding and pay for everything. I just said “You know what? You guys…”[Chris laughs]. There’s a lot of jumping through hoops that artists do that nobody sees or hears about, knows about or wants to know about, because no one wants to hear a rock star complain. But it was a line in the sand: my personal life, my wedding. I was not interested in changing it for any amount of money for any exposure or anything. We’ve never been asked back, but we did get to play on that stage when we were the house band for the Carson Daly show in 2004 [laughs]. Anyway, we’ve been to the studio, played on the stage, but not on Saturday Night Live. It’s ok. Things come, things go.
OLM: In 1996, PUSA played a show at Mount Rushmore. How did that happen and what was that experience like?
CB: That was another request from the label. MTV offered it to us through the label. They called and we totally had to bend over backwards, charter a flight, stay up all night and twist ourselves into little pretzels to get there. It was fun, it was really fun! The whole town showed up. It was very cold and we had hot air vents blowing on us from below. Every time we would get near the hot air vents, our guitars would go out of tune. Every time we stepped away from the vents our guitars would go out of tune [laughs]. It was a little difficult in that we kind of had to stay put. We had to replay four songs because they were so out of tune. It was hectic, cold and out of tune.
OLM: The Presidents were nominated for two Grammy Awards, once in 1996 for Best Alternative Music Performance [PUSA’s self-titled debut] and again in 1997 for Best Pop Performance [for the song ‘Peaches’.] What did it mean to you to be nominated for a Grammy? What would it mean to you to win a Grammy?
CB: 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!
OLM: What was the period like between when PUSA formed in 1993 and when the debut album exploded in 1994?
CB: It was just regular life. We decided to play as often as we could in Seattle, so we played twice every weekend. I didn’t have a job, so I was just writing songs, playing shows, having BBQs in the back yard, going to the beach, having a wonderful, relaxed, happy little life which got completely taken away from me when we got famous [laughs].
OLM: What the heck is ‘Peaches’ even about?
CB: 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!
OLM: What’s your relationship with Mary Lou like now?
CB: 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.
OLM: ‘Peaches’ is considered the band’s biggest single to date, yet the video for ‘Lump’ has nearly three times as many YouTube views and is the band’s favorite. Why?
CB: I have no idea. I am equally proud of both of them as if they were my little children! It’s a real toss-up for me between ‘Peaches’ and ‘Lump’ being the “biggest” song. I personally prefer playing ‘Lump’ live because I never, ever play that song without being completely immersed in it…and happy! I love ‘Lump’!
OLM: How did the idea of filming the band playing ‘Lump’ on a barge out in the middle of Puget Sound transpire?
CB: We worked with Roman Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s son on that video, ‘Peaches’ and a couple others. We wanted to do something that showed where we were from, to really identify us with Seattle. On a barge in the middle of Elliott Bay with the city behind us seemed like a no-brainer. It was really to identify us with our hometown and make sure that people knew we were from Seattle and that we were silly and proud!
OLM: Weird Al Yankovic later parodied ‘Lump’ with his version, ‘Gump’. How did that develop? Is it an honor to be parodied by Weird Al or not so much?
CB: I don’t know how that developed. Al is now a good friend of mine and he has told me how his parodies develop which is that they basically fall out of the sky into his brain and he’s like “ok, here we go…time to make a record!” Beyond that, I don’t know exactly how he developed it. It was an extreme honor to be parodied by Weird Al. I mean, wow…I grew up watching him on MTV doing his thing to Michael Jackson, Madonna…yeah! To be in that world was bigger than a Grammy, I’ll tell you that much! The Grammy nomination didn’t change my life in any way, really, but Weird Al covering the song did because now Al’s a friend of mine and he’s such an awesome human being. He’s a great listener and a brilliant mind and he directed a video for us in 2008 that came out great. So he’s a great friend and an awesome human!
OLM: You’ve now played ‘Peaches’, ‘Lump’, ‘Kitty’, etc, a zillion times. Do you still dig them or would you rather concentrate on other material?
CB: Oh, I absolutely still dig them! I don’t want to play them five nights a week anymore; I’d like to play them five times a year, thereby maintaining their freshness. But yeah, I love those songs! When we broke up [beginning of 1998] and got back together [end of 2002], I had to relearn all the songs because I forgot how to play them. So I had to listen to my own albums. The really fun, experience of doing that was I loved them! I found myself saying, “I love this band! This band is great!” I felt like I was in a Presidents cover band and I still sort of feel that way. Being removed from it for awhile helps me appreciate it. So, I love the songs…love ‘em!
OLM: During the band’s break-up, everyone focused on solo projects and collaborations with others. However, one of the collaborations – SUbSET – featured PUSA and Sir Mix-A-Lot. It was a mix of rock with hip-hop. A small tour ensued, but an album was never released. Why? Any chance it might see the light of day? Was this collaboration due to your interest in rap and hip-hop or were you looking to expand your musical horizons? Or maybe he’s a friend and you guys just wanted to see what you could accomplish with cross-pollinating genres?
CB: That collaboration came about because Mix called us up and said “Hey, I’d like to take you out to dinner and discuss something with you.” He wanted to do a cover of a Hendrix song for some project with a rock band backing him up. We quickly hit it off and it turned to creating original music. We wrote a couple songs together and they were good enough that we decided to continue the collaboration. Then those songs were good enough that we decided to play live. And that was good enough that we decided to do a West Coast tour. That didn’t really pan out. It was fun, but it didn’t really explode.
That thing got crushed under the weight of its own expectations, basically. We expected it to be huge. There was little common ground between all of us as far as creative happiness. I was with Mix-A-Lot, in that I wanted to be radical and drastic and not just be a band with a rapper in front of it, but cut the songs up, loop them and put effects on them. There was a contingent that wanted to remain traditional and a contingent that wanted to go off in weirdness-land. It was a super-fun thing to do for awhile, but it didn’t have the legs we hoped that it would have.
Is there any chance that it might see the light of day? Yeah, there’s a chance. Sure. You never know in this world of songs and commerce. I listened to the stuff just recently because I sent some to a friend of mine in L.A. and I was pleasantly rocked by most of it.
OLM: PUSA reformed in 2004 with the album Love Everybody, but your longtime friend, Dave, was replaced by Andrew McKeag after 11 years in the band. What happened to Dave?
CB: Dave made Love Everybody with us; played on the album, played a bunch of shows and tours and…he just didn’t want to do it anymore. So he bowed out. For awhile we had two versions of the band. We had one with Dave and one with Andrew and that was a lot of rehearsing and a lot of confusion [laughs]. Dave would play some local shows, Andrew would go on tour. Eventually Dave stepped aside and Andrew took over. So Dave just needed to figure out what he wanted to do for the next chunk of his life and it was not being in a touring rock band. And I respect that because I am at the same exact point now in my life. We all get along great and Dave is still involved in our business and everything to do with the first version of the Presidents.
OLM: These are the Good Times People was released in 2008. When can we expect another PUSA release and what can we expect it to sound like?
CB: You can expect the next Presidents release to sound like this: [eight seconds of silence follows]. A long stretch of silence [laughs]! There will be no new Presidents album. Well, maybe I shouldn’t be so absolute. Never say never and all that stuff. But my extreme relaxing, overwhelming, sustainable joy that I receive by making music for small children as Caspar Babypants is the end of a long search for my musical home. And beyond financial rewards – The Presidents will never be topped by anything else I do – the creative reward of doing Caspar is insane. It’s gigantic. So I want to devote all my time to that because I’m happy! And I will never, ever – ok, we might make another record – but I’ll never, ever fly to Europe and sit in a cold, weird van for weeks at a time. I’m 45 and that ship has sailed.
OLM: There is quite a bit of PUSA rock memorabilia at the Experience Music Project. That must be pretty cool to be placed next to such luminaries as The Sonics, The Kingsmen, The Wailers and that one guy…oh yeah, Jimi Hendrix! Did Paul Allen just give you a call one day and ask for PUSA-related stuff for the EMP or…?
CB: Someone from the museum gave me a call. They came and bought all my Presidents stuff: my amp, my boots – original lyric sheets were loaned to them – and my smashed guitar from our last show at The Paramount. That’s great! I love being included in the lineage of Seattle history. That makes me extremely proud. I mean, way more proud than a Grammy. I’m going to compare everything to a Grammy nomination now [laughs]. So, way more proud of that than I was to be nominated for a Grammy just to be part of my hometown’s personality and landscape musically is extremely awesome [laughs]!
OLM: You’ve had seven songs chart, five in the top-25. Did you ever predict that?
CB: Oh yeah, I predicted that. In fact, when we got together for our first rehearsal, that’s all we talked about and then we wrote a song. So, yeah…totally predicted. No, not [laughs]! I will never forget Dave Dederer looking over the hood of his car as we get into the car and he said “If somebody wants to pay us a bunch of money to tour and make records, I’d do it.” And I said, “Oh yeah, I would, too” while internally I thought, “You’re insane! Have you heard our songs? They’re about lumps and peaches and kitties and nobody’s going to want to give us any money. You’re crazy!” So I predicted the opposite.
OLM: What would you change (if anything) song-wise and/or album-wise, etc? Production, song order, a bridge, a vocal melody, a lyric, something else, none of the above?
CB: I would take our second record and not release it until we had written more fresh, new material. We were way too tired when we made that record. I like to call that record a good EP. Somewhere in that record is a really good EP. So that’s my only regret. Everything else was awesome!
OLM: How much PUSA material is in the vaults and will it ever see the light of day?
CB: We pretty much scoured the vaults. That’s why we’re not going to make another record [laughs]. Because I always go to the vaults when we make a record. The vaults are clean. There’s a little piece of lint in the vaults at this point, so that’s it. Enjoy it!
OLM: What is your favorite PUSA song? Album? Why?
CB: My favorite PUSA song is ‘Lump’. Album? The debut. Like I mentioned earlier, I am never, ever bored playing that song. It’s basically me trying to write a Buzzcocks song [laughs]. There’s nothing boring about The Buzzcocks.
OLM: The answer everyone is dying to know…do you like peaches?
CB: The actual fruit? Oh, I love ‘em! But it wasn’t my love for the actual fruit and ingesting the fruit that inspired the song at all. It was the shapely tenderness of the fruit as it consoled me as I waited for the object of my affection to never arrive home.
OLM: Let’s switch gears. Earlier you mentioned something about Caspar Babypants. Who (or what) is Caspar Babypants?
CB: Well…I am Caspar Babypants. Caspar Babypants is me taking The Presidents and removing the loud guitars, the giant drum sounds and all of the irony and innuendo. It’s still the same core. It just has layers removed to reveal the innocent core. And that’s Caspar Babypants. It’s music for zero to 5-year olds. That’s who I think about when I write the music. I’m trying to get the family unit to enjoy simple, high-quality, timeless music together instead of having the music sequestered away because the parents can’t stand it.
OLM: What are your goals with Caspar Babypants?
CB: My goals with Caspar Babypants are to help families relax. It’s definitely not to help further my career. I want the music to go out into the world and have a genuine purpose that helps parents relax and be available to be more empathetic with their kids as they raise them so that the family unit will be stronger. I want to be a piece of the puzzle that solves stress-related issues for new families.
OLM: Caspar released two albums in 2009 [Here I Am! And More Please!] and a third album was just released on November 2nd, 2010 [This is Fun!]. Three albums in two years and multiple shows booked months in advance – is this now your main musical focus?
CB: Caspar Babypants is absolutely, 100% my main musical focus, yes. I am completely satisfied by it. Every single itch I have is scratched. From the punk rock DIY itch, which I run my own record label, book my own shows, do my own distribution, write and record my own songs in my own studio that I run myself [laughs]. Everything from that kind of stuff to the actual music itself…I get to listen to old American folk music and African American spiritual music and nursery rhymes. Out of respect for the timeless sort of DNA of those pieces of music, I sort of make my own or adapt old music to fit my style which is sort of an acknowledgement of history that I never got to experience before or never experienced so clearly as I am experiencing it now. I get to go out in the world and help people and make the world a more relaxing place for people. I get to work with non-profit groups and raise money for child and parent-related issues. So I get to be socially responsible with it. I mean, I could go on and on and on…[laughs]. I get to hang out with little kids who are perfect human beings who can’t lie and are having the time of their lives. Their energy is amazing and I will always want it in my life because I want to live like them.
OLM: You have two kids, Josie [age 10] and Augie [age 13]. Did their births sway your songwriting to be more oriented towards toddlers? Was this an attempt to lead a more “normal” life? In other words, no more tours, stay home to help raise the kids?
CB: Yeah, their births did sway me towards songwriting for little kids. I used to lay them out on a blanket when they were little and just sing and improvise music about how much I love them. Some of those songs are becoming Caspar Babypants songs now. Our family was involved in a parent education group called PEPS [Program for Early Parent Support]. I donated a record of nursery rhymes and other traditional kid’s songs to PEPS so they could raise money. The experience of making that record is memorable. It was very relaxing. I didn’t think much of it at the time, like it was an option. As I now make music like that again, I now realize that that was my first glimpse at Caspar Babypants.
Attempt to lead a more “normal” life? Yeah. I mean, I never, ever enjoyed touring. Again, my life was great before success came along and removed me from my great life. When I was younger, I didn’t sit around and dream about being on tour. I dreamt about hanging out with my friends, going to the beach, having a fire in the evening, eating good food, sleeping in the same bed. The dream is not touring. It’s just not [laughs]. But “normal” is different for everybody. Some people dream of that. That’s what they want, but I never did. It was an attempt to lead a more sustainable life.
OLM: Caspar Babypants’ live shows have recently had some PUSA songs added to the set list. Is this your chance to try the songs out in a non-rock band format? Did you add them for the adults who come to the shows or is there some other reason?
CB: I thought for a minute that I wanted to make a Caspar Does The Presidents album and that might still happen as an afterthought once I’ve established a nice body of work as Caspar. What I am thinking about doing is taking some Presidents songs and drastically altering them. On the debut Caspar Babypants album there’s a version of ‘Monkey River’ with all new music and edited lyrics. If I do it, I’d like to do it that way. ‘Kittie’ when I do it, I change some words, of course, because there’s some bad words in the original and I changed the arrangement and I changed the feel to be a little more country-fied. The Presidents are currently messing around with changing the feel of some of our old songs and how we present them. Sometimes a parent will yell out ‘Dune Buggy’ and we’ll just play it. What the heck, it’s a great song and it fits! I’m the same guy writing the same kind of music, really. I’m just removing all the noise, irony and coolness. Some of The Presidents material definitely is working for Caspar because it’s not that far off. It’s just a step to the left.
OLM: You had a solo project from 1991 – 1996 titled Caspar. Additionally, Cosmic Records released a 7” vinyl EP that you recorded on Beck’s 4-track in 1995 titled Caspar and Mollüsk. Furthermore, the cover artwork of that EP is black and yellow, the same colors Caspar Babypants wears. Coincidence or do Caspar Babypants’ origins really go back this far?
CB: Caspar Babypants origins do go back that far, yeah. Caspar Babypants is a nickname I had back in the early ‘90s in Boston. It held over to when I was with Beck in L.A. I used to borrow his 4-track back when I was living with him. One day I was recording a song about him called ‘Twig in the Wind’ when he walked in the room and we ended up creating this huge, bizarre, explosive soundscape [laughs]. We put it out as a 7” vinyl record and Deborah Klein – who was Morphine’s manager – put that out for me. Beck couldn’t use his real name, so he was Mollüsk and I was Caspar. So, yes, I have been Caspar since 1991, but I didn’t know what the name was for until I started doing the kid’s stuff. It’s an old name for me.
Black and yellow has always been my favorite color combination. It’s the most visible color combination in the world…it’s the ‘Caution’ tape colors! I like it for that reason and it turns out that I probably like it because it related to babies brains and their need for high contrast to see things when they’re extremely little. It’s just another crumb along the little path leading me to my ultimate destination.
OLM: You’ve played a kazillion shows with PUSA, Caspar Babypants and others. Do you ever get the pre-show butterflies anymore?
CB: Oh yeah, every day! Actually, I stopped getting the pre-show butterflies in 1996 or 1997 and that’s why I quit The Presidents. If you don’t get the pre-show butterflies, something is wrong with you or with what you’re doing. You should care enough to get nervous. It means you’re fully focused and present, so I hope those butterflies never leave. I love those butterflies! Maybe I should write a song about getting the butterflies. ‘Get the Butterflies’, I like that!
OLM: Is it easier (and/or more fun) to write songs for PUSA or Caspar Babypants?
CB: Oh my God. It is 357,000 times easier to write for Caspar Babypants than The Presidents. A successful Presidents song, to me, requires a vibration between innocence and innuendo. Is it about peaches or is it about something else? Is it about the kitty or is it about something else? What is lump about? There’s this metaphorical vagueness that I need to hit with the lyrics to really make a Presidents song explode and I do not have that tool in my tool belt, if you will. I have to stab at that goal over and over and over in order to hit it. As a result, I think only 30% of The Presidents songs hit it and it’s just not me [laughs]. Being ironic is not comfortable for me. Caspar Babypants is innocent, purely innocent. The imagery is fantastical and metaphorical and timeless anthropomorphizing animals and spiders. It’s still what I did with The Presidents, but there’s no double-entendre. It’s just a spider [laughs]. There’s nothing else. I could do that all day long and maybe that’s what The Presidents need, too, at this point; just pure innocence. I think I got caught up in the innuendo a little too much and forgot about the innocence. For now, I’m just super-happy putting energy into Caspar and really making that strong.
OLM: Nirvana’s ‘Sliver’ is covered on This Is Fun! What prompted you to cover this song? What was your relationship with Kurt like?
CB: What prompted me to cover the song is that Caspar Babypants played at a Seattle Art Museum family day event and it was the same day as the opening of the Kurt Cobain exhibit. The other band I did the show with was The Harmonica Pocket. Keith from that band called me up and said, “Hey, I’m gonna do a cover of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ instrumental for the kids and maybe you should think of doing something Nirvana-like, too”. I looked at my Nirvana records and that song immediately leapt out. That song’s been cycling in the back of my brain, anyway. Every so often I’ll write a song and it turns out that I’m writing that song, so I’ll stop and just say “I can’t write that song again!” We covered it and did an innocent little version of it. It turns out that it’s a song about being a kid and being forgotten or left at your grandparent’s house. It’s a really poignant song and it’s autobiographical, clearly, for him. It has this extra layer of meaning once you strip away the screaming. The crowd loved it, they loved singing along, it’s very simple, the kids can sing it immediately and stomp their feet. It was successful live, so we decided to put it on the record.
I got Krist Novoselic from Nirvana to play bass on it and he was super-happy to be asked. Jack Endino went out to Krist’s house in the boondocks in Washington state and recorded the bass parts. It was awesome to have those guys involved, too. I had no relationship with Kurt Cobain, except musically. Felt like a brother from another mother as far as his chord choices and melodies. I felt like I was a few years away from arriving at the same sound that he arrived at. That was very exciting and exhilarating to hear. That’s that. I didn’t know him at all.
OLM: Is being a full-time musician what you envisioned it to be? Better? Worse? Explain.
CB: At this point, where I am now, it is exactly what I envisioned. That’s what’s so satisfying about where I’ve arrived now is that this is it! I get to be at home, I get to have relationships with my family and friends, I get to make a fire in the evening and walk by the water because I live by the little ocean. I get to hang out with little kids and make albums on my own and do it myself. It’s exactly it…it’s perfect! I’m there, I’m good!
OLM: What do you think is the best part of working in the music industry? How about the worst part?
CB: The best part of working in the music industry…there’s no good part about the music industry [laughs]. There’s great stuff about creating songs. That’s the best part! The moment of a song flowing through me and coming out my pen and coming to life. That’s the best part, although you could say that’s not the music industry. But it is the music creative portion. The worst part is paperwork. Administration. Contracts. All that noise which is just so the opposite of making music happen.
OLM: Are your parents accepting of your job as a full-time musician or were they hoping you would work in a different field?
CB: They are very accepting. My mom was extremely supportive and helped me out a lot with musical equipment when I needed it. She bought me my first 4-track, helped me buy a guitar. My dad let me have his old guitar that he was still using, but he let me have it [laughs]. I still have it and I write a lot of songs on that guitar. It was my sister’s in the ‘60s, then my dad inherited it and then I inherited it. It’s a family guitar that is my number one magic songwriting machine. My mom encouraged me to have a back-up plan and that’s why I was sitting at their table filling out job applications. She understood when I burned them all and put some ketchup on some cardboard and had lunch [laughs].
OLM: Have you taken time to sit back and reflect on all that you’ve accomplished as a musician?
CB: Yeah, I have! Now that I’ve arrived at my home, I feel like I can do that and I feel a great deal of pride. I really do. I feel like I put some happy vibes out into this messy, dangerous world. I’m trying to keep the entropy up as the human race toddles toward enlightenment. I feel like I’m participating in that in a very positive way and that feels good.
OLM: Do you worry about running out of ideas musically and/or lyrically? What do you do when you’re in a rut?
CB: I do not worry about that currently at all. I have a stack of papers about three inches high of songs that have been written and demoed and are on their way to being recorded for future Caspar Babypants records. That included reinterpreting old classics and originals, as well. No lack of songs there. So what do I do when I’m in a rut? I can’t remember! The last time I was in a rut was probably during the making of the second Presidents record. I didn’t really have any new ideas and we dipped back into some old stuff. Generally when I’m in a rut, I stop trying and live life. I look out at the world, have experiences, hang out with people and don’t try. You have to absorb in order to regurgitate.
OLM: What gig(s) or other event(s) have been the most memorable (good or bad)? Why?
CB: We did a gig in some northern European country in 1995. I don’t remember where and I don’t remember why, but I remember every single song coming to life in almost a cartoon way as I sang them. They were perfectly performed, perfectly executed and alive. That was the best gig we ever did and I was so proud that night of that band. I don’t remember where it was [laughs], but that was it! That was the best one.
Another amazing memory was being in Supergroup with Mark Sandman in the early ‘90s in Boston. We would have a different drummer every time we played, a rotating drum throne. We did a show with this guy, Larry Dersch, and he sat out for a little bit and our friend Mickey Bones sat in on drums. Then Mark got tired, so he sat out. So Mickey and I just dug in to this groove, me on the two-string, Mickey on the drums. Mickey’s this little bald cat with a New Orleans background, so he’s playing this jazzy beat and I’m playing this hard-driving funky thing. I had my eyes closed and didn’t see this, but a friend of ours named Joe who had a peg leg joined us on stage. He put his peg leg up near Mickey, so Mickey could play it like a ride cymbal. The jam went into high gear, Mickey was playing Joe’s leg and musically it was so awesome that I had to open my eyes and see what was going on. I saw this guy with a peg leg and a beard and this little bald jazzy drummer and me on the two-string and I shot out of body and floated to the ceiling and I had an out-of-body experience! That has never been achieved again. That was the high point.
I don’t really have any bad memories. I can take even the most awkward show and make it fun, so I’ve got no bad ones.
OLM: What would you consider your greatest musical accomplishment to date?
CB: The creation of my Caspar Babypants albums is my greatest musical accomplishment. It just makes me breathe deep and relax. I love it!
OLM: What musical accomplishment could top that? What steps are you taking to achieve that goal?
CB: What could top that is to keep on doing it. What I eventually would like to do is make 10 records, put them in a little cardboard box and sell it as the Caspar Babypants musical library. Make a Caspar Babypants box set, basically. I would like a couple of unique CDs in there, like an album of all cover songs and an album of all lullabies; just the sleepy songs. I’m taking steps by writing a ridiculous volume of music so that I can pick nothing but the best for that eventual amazing box set.
OLM: As mentioned earlier, you’ve collaborated with Beck, Sir Mix-a-Lot and others. Are there any other collaborations on tap? If you had your chance to collaborate with any musician(s) live or dead (besides me, haha) who would it be?
CB: Yeah, lots of collaborations are on tap for the next record. I’m going to try and get Stone Gossard [Pearl Jam] to play bongos on a song [laughs]; I’d like to get Kim Thayil [Soundgarden] to play guitar. I’ve got Ringo Starr on my short-list of people to play percussion, although he doesn’t know that; that’s just something I put on the list so that the universe would make it happen [laughs]. Yeah, there’s a whole bunch. I’d like to get Wayne Kramer from the MC5 to take a little rockin’ guitar solo, I want to write and record a song with my buddy Johnny Bregar who’s an amazing kid’s musician. Other kid’s musicians I’d like to get on there are Renee & Jeremy and Enzo Garcia. I would love to get Mike Watt [The Minutemen, FIREHOSE] who I met this Summer at a Stooges show The Presidents played on. I’d love to have him play little bass lines somewhere. Of course I’d love to co-write a song with Paul McCartney…just putting that out there.
I’d love to do a song with Pete Seeger. I’d love to do a song with Ella Jenkins who is an amazing family and kind of blues artist on Smithsonian Folkways that I just love. So, yeah, those two. I’d like to get together with John Lennon and write a song that isn’t political, but that is political because it expresses simple joy. I think that’s what Paul McCartney does; he’s as edgy as John, but he just avoids telling people what to do. He shows them how to be happy by just being happy. In that way, I think he is more politicized, songwriting-wise, than John was.
OLM: What are some of your hobbies? What do you do when not working on music?
CB: Wow, I don’t have any [laughs]! My hobbies are advancing shows, updating my website, contacting stores for more CDs, doing interviews. I do a little writing. I’m trying to write something now for Rainn Wilson’s site, Soul Pancake. Ooh, and reading! I love to read books, reading like crazy!
OLM: Who are you listening to these days?
CB: I’m listening to a lot of mellow stuff. Alexi Murdoch is this guy that I’m into. I’m listening to some other kid’s music: Enzo Garcia, Justin Roberts, The Harmonica Pocket, Frances England’s new record is awesome, Keller Williams, Dean Jones is amazing, myself [laughs]. I’m so busy writing songs all the time that I really listen to me more than anything else which is kind of solipsistic, but what are you going to do? And I listen to a lot of classical music: Vivaldi, I love violin concertos.
OLM: Are there any local acts that you interest you?
CB: They are all kid’s acts. The Harmonica Pocket, The Not-Its, Recess Monkey, Johnny Bregar, The Board of Education. Those are all bands that I’m sort of in a collective with called ‘kindiependent’.
OLM: The desert island question: if you could take the collected works of five artists, who would the five be?
CB: The Beatles, Mike Seeger (who made incredible records of animal folk songs), Ella Jenkins, Leadbelly and me [laughs]! I love my own songs, they’re just so funny!
OLM: Who is your guilty listening pleasure?
CB: Me! It’s me! I like to listen to me guiltily! Actually, it’s Boston and Journey. My wife, Kate and I have a song, as most couples do, and it is ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey which is awesome because you get to hear it a lot because it’s everywhere!
OLM: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Chris…last question! How can people check out PUSA/CBP audio/video clips, find a list of upcoming gigs, or read the latest PUSA/CBP news?
OLM: Are there any questions you would have liked to been asked? If so, what are the questions and what are the answers?
CB: No, I think you’ve asked pretty much all the questions that I would like to be asked. However, you didn’t ask what a good use is for frozen bananas. A good use for frozen bananas is to make smoothies [laughs]! Ok, that’s all!