The Presidents of the United States of America were formed by former High School friends Chris Ballew and Dave Dederer with Jason Finn in Seattle in 1992.

Ballew, who shares vocals with Dederer, plays a two string bass which the group has named a bassister, while Dederer plays a three string instrument called a guitabass. Jason Finn meanwhile plays drums.

The band have gained a reputation for writing quirky, short songs that combine ridiculous lyrics with a sparky, riff-laden rock sound. An early single 'Kitty' told of the mood swings of singer Chris Ballew's cat, while another single 'Peaches' told of the group's obsession with picking fruit.

Their debut album 'Presidents of the United States of America' was released initially on indie label Pop Llama in 1995. Later on that year it received a major label release on Columbia and went double platinum. A second album 'II' followed in 1996 and did equally well. As well as having two bestselling albums, the Presidents of the United States of America also had four massive hit singles and were nominated for two Grammy awards. They, however, decided to split up at the height of their fame in December 1997.

The trio got back together permanently in 2004, releasing their third album 'Love Everybody' on their own PUSA label. The band, having bought back the right to 'The Presidents of the United States of America' from Columbia, also re-released that on PUSA earlier this year.

Since getting back together, the Presidents of the United States of America have toured Europe and Britain, as well as America, several times, regularly selling out 3,000 to 5, 000 seat venues. Pennyblackmusic caughts up with the band on their latest European tour and spoke to Jason Finn about their reformation.

PB : The group formed in Seattle in the early 1990’s. Chris Ballew and Dave Dederer have known each other since Junior School and the 1970’s. Why did they leave it so late before forming a band and working together ?

JF : They were at High School together, but they were never in the same city after that. They went to college in different places, and they then lived in different cities The first time they lived in the same city was in 1992 which was the year the Presidents of the United States of America started. They had played a show here and there together before that. They were never sitting there thinking about things to do together besides forming a band (Laughs).

PB : How did you become involved ?

JF : I saw a little band that they were in, and thought that they were hilarious. I asked them if I could join up to which they immediately said “No”. It took a couple of tries, but they finally relented and directly after we formed the Presidents of the United States of America.

PB : Is it true that you had first met Dave Dederer before that in a public toilet ?

JF : (Laughs) There is a good chance that is true, I don’t really remember for sure. I do remember having my hands tied once in a men’s room and talking and saying “How you doing ?” to someone, and I think that it was Dave. That was a brief meeting though, and there was probably a lot of beer involved (Laughs).

PB : The band recorded its first 10 song demo, which I believe that you sold at gigs. Rumour has it that you sold 500 copies in the space of 5 gigs. Is that true and did you really feel after that kind of initial success that you had to make an album ?

JF : It was actually over a period of several months. We sold a chunk over the bar that I was working in at the time and we would sell them at shows. We did several hundred, but it was a good year before we started making our first record.

PB : Chris Ballew plays the two string bass, and Dave Dederer plays the three string guitar. Where did the inspiration for that come from ?

JF : Chris went to college and lived in Boston for a couple of years. When he was there he shared an apartment with a guy named Mark Sandman.

PB : The Morphine guy ?

JF : Yes. The late Mark Sandman from Morphine. Mark played the two string bass with Morphine for a very long time. Chris would pick up and play Mark’s instruments and liked them. I think Mark gave him his first one. Chris has been with them ever since. He’s quite good with a four string, a six string or an eight string also. From that Dave started playing the three string guitar as well.

PB : How does that affect you, playing along with them, as a drummer ? .

JF : I don’t think that the approach is all that different than playing with regular instrumentation. In the early days we were focusing our music on trying to sound like just one big instrument. It was all stripped down. I just had one snare drum and one kick drum, and a tiny little cymbal and the cowbells.

PB : But you have obviously progressed beyond that now.

JF : Yeah ! I am not sure if we have improved (Laughs), but we now use bigger amps and sound more guitar-based than we used to.

PB : ‘The Presidents of the United States of America’was released on initially an indie label called Pop Llama. Was that your own label ?

JF : No, it was a local Seattle label that had been putting out records since the mid 80’s. By the time we had made the record we had become pretty popular in town and had our pick amongst the most of the Seattle indie labels, although Sub Pop did pass on us (Laughs).

PB : Is it true that Madonna offered to put out ‘The Presidents of the United States of America’ on her label. Maverick, and that you turned her down ?

JF : In a manner of speaking, yeah ! We spoke to a bunch of major labels all at once. We were the in-band in 1994 at the South by South West conference in Austin, but quickly nailed it down to Columbia and Maverick. We did have one meeting with her and it was very exciting. She looked great, and it would have probably have been an equally good move, but we just thought that Columbia was a better home. They wanted to put out the record right away. Madonna was more into star building. Maverick would have locked us away for a year, and given us nutritionists and vocal lessons or something like that (Laughs).

PB : The Presidents of the United States of America became successful very quickly after that. Were you surprised at how quickly everything took off ?

JF : We were surprised at first, but it is amazing how quickly you readjust your expectations, Within six months of ‘The Presidents of the United States of America’ coming out on Columbia, it was a rare week when something amazing didn’t happen, and we didn’t get someone phoned from the record company saying “You’ve been nominated for that and that. You’re being flown to this place to do this incredible thing.” What was happening was happening constantly. We became used to that, whereas in the same way before we had got used to playing 500 capacity clubs.

PB : You split up though at the height of your fame in 1997, the year after you released ‘II”. Why did you split up ? Were you just exhausted ?

JF : Fatigue was definitely a part of it. We did, however, misjudge things. We found we were unable to take a break. We felt the only way we could take a break was to break up. It was more Chris, than Dave or I. He gets mad when we talk about it now. He is like “God, I was dumb. Why didn’t you talk me out of that ?”. It wasn’t down to personal problems. It was just that we felt that we had accomplished more than we had wanted to.

PB : Was it always your intention to hopefully get back together again ?

JF : It was a decision that was made long after we split. There never stopped being offers while we were away. We didn’t really plan to come back all the way. We did one show which lead to two shows, which lead to shows out of town. Before we knew it in a succession of small steps we were getting ready to go out on the road again. It was way after we had put ‘Love Everybody’ out in the States that it even occurred to us to go to the UK, but I am glad that we did because we have had some great audiences. We had no idea that anyone would care. It was a very happy surprise. Since February 2005 we have come over to Europe eight times.

PB :What did you all do during the years that the Presidents of the United States of America were apart ?

JF : We all played in a lot of bands all over Seattle. Chris also ran his own recording studio. We raised families as well and did a lot of normal, real life stuff . We were productive during those years, but not always in the pop culture way (Laughs).

PB : ‘Love Everybody’ was recorded with Conrad Uno, who had worked with the Supersuckers, and Martin Peveryear, who had worked with Mudhoney and Mark Lanegan. Why did you choose to work with them and what do you think they brought to the recording ?

JF : Conrad had worked with us when we were on Pop Llama and we recorded about half of ‘The Presidents of the United States of America’ with him, so we knew him and had had success with him before. He is also super low key. When we started recording we didn’t want to throw up a lot of expectations and Conrad was definitely the guy for that. Martin had worked with both Chris and I on other records when we were on our
own. He is a great, great engineer and producer. He should be way out of our price range now. I don’t know why he isn’t, so we were lucky to get him.

PB : “Love Everybody’ was released on your own PUSA label. Why did you decide to put it out on that rather than another major?

JF : We looked around a little bit and did this take on the whole record company thing, but then decided that they were even crappier than they even had been before. What it came down to was that we wanted to remain in control. If we had signed to a major, it would have been “Okay, you need to start your press tour here and then you have this promo tour.” We felt that we would be not doing ourselves many favours. There are obviously advantages from a distribution standpoint, and we would have had more money to help promote the album, but we feel more organic this way. A lot of fans go to our website. They talk to us. We talk to them and then we go to their town and it is great.

PB : Things seems to have gone well since you got back together

JF : They have but this string of UK dates is definitely going to be the last time we come over here for a while. We are going to start working on a new record after that. It will probably not be next year, but the year after before we come to Britain again.

PB : What sort of direction is the new record going to take ?

JF : That is a question which I wish we knew the answer to. It’s been a long time since we have sat down and wrote all new songs. There are some things that have been demoed, but we really haven’t got so far. It could be a disco record. I hope not, but it could be (Laughs).

PB : Your songs are always short and very quirky and funny. Could you see the group extending to doing something longer ?

JF : I can see them being funny and medium length rather than funny and short, but I am quite sure that the apple won’t fall to far from the tree.

PB : You can’t see yourself doing anything more serious ?

JF : We feel that the thing that we do really well is the thing we should stick with.

PB : The band has a tape policy at shows that allows fans to tape and record shows. Why did you decide to do this ? Were you not worried that this might increase the number of Presidents of the United States of America bootlegs on the market ?

JF : I don’t think that you can stop that kind of thing anymore. From our point of view we’re not doing this to sell a million records anymore. We own all our records, so we get a nice return when people do buy stuff and again when they come to shows. I say the more the merrier. Download our songs and, if you can find them for free, that’s great.

PB : What are your plans for the next few months ?

JF : We’ll have finished touring by October which will be most excellent, and then we’ll probably start hibernating for the winter and write the songs for the new album. We think that it will be the fall of ’07 at the earliest before the new record comes out, and then we’ll be back in everyone’s town again some time soon after that.

PB : Thank you.

The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Anna Gudaniec exclusively for Pennyblackmusic.

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