The Presidents of the United States of America: No, not Abe or George; not JFK or FDR. I’m talking about Chris Ballew, Jason Finn and Andrew McKeag. They’re the guys that sing “Peaches” and “Lump.” Ah, now you remember, right? The band formed in 1993 and has put out 6 albums in 13 years. Their last album, These Are the Good Times, was released last March. Andrew took a few minutes of his time the other day to chat on the phone with me.
HF: Andrew, hey! Is this a good time, do you have a couple minutes to talk?
AM: Absolutely, I’m just driving, so if you hear me cursing then you’ll understand why.
HF: That’s fine, where ya headed?
AM: You know what, it’s really boring. I’m going home and I’m going to mow the lawn.
HF: Ah, lovely! Let’s see here, what are you guys working on right now, anything? You’re on tour aren’t you?
AM: No, we’re at home right now for about a week, and then we go out to the Southeast to do some shows and then we’re kind of not really touring. We’re just going to be doing a couple things here and there throughout the summer.
HF: That’s cool. So, what’s your favorite song to play on stage?
AM: My favorite song to play on stage, it’s probably…I don’t know, I like to play “Body” and I like to play “Kick Out the Jams” a lot.
HF: Nice. Nice.
AM: Actually, they’re all fun to play, you can’t go wrong.
HF: What would you say is the difference between your audiences now, than it was back in the mid-90s?
AM: You know, surprisingly…well actually, it’s probably a bit smaller, but as far as the makeup of the crowd, there’s not much difference. I mean, I’ve only been with the band for around 5 years, but back then, the crowd was a bunch of college kids and kids aged 15-25. It’s kind of the same now with the exception of some 40-year olds that are hanging out towards the back, with a few exceptions; some of them are in the front. But, it somehow carried, somehow our first record, there were 8 year olds that were into it, and now those 8 year olds are 22.
HF: Yeah. (Laughs) That’s pretty cool, though. And I know that you didn’t join the band until around ’04, but I read a little bit about the origins for “Peaches” and for “Lump” and I wanted to ask if there was a story behind the “Kitty” song?
AM: Ah, you know, somebody just asked me that yesterday; not in an interview or anything, I think just like a friend of mine or something. But, Chris talked about it when we were on stage in Boston last week, and he wrote it in Boston when he was like 21 or something like that, I think. And um, I think it was about a girlfriend’s cat. It was just evil. He doesn’t write a lot of totally literal songs, but with this one, it’s pretty straight forward.
HF: Oh, that is funny!
AM: Yeah, that’s what it was. I think he just always tried to be nice to this cat, but this cat just wasn’t having it.
HF: What have you been listening to lately?
AM: Um…let’s see, you know the band Doves?
AM: I really like them, and I’m a total rock guy. I don’t know, late 60s, early 70s, heavy hard rock guy at heart. But, then there’s this other side that I kind of dive into, which is more singer songwriter, sort of poppy, and that band in particular…I got their new record and then started working my way backwards, and it’s kind of a lot better. It’s better than Coldplay I think, you know? And then I went on YouTube and I saw that the singer is the bass player and he plays upside down, he plays left-handed and upside down. It made me like him even more. They have really good songs.
HF: Do you have a favorite song by Doves?
AM: I really like “Winter Hill”, which is a single off their new record.
HF: I like “There Goes the Fear.”
AM: Ahh. Yeah.
HF: Yeah, it’s a good one. So, what’s your craziest tour story with fans?
AM: Um, jeez…I don’t know. We’re such boring old men now. I mean, we’ve had weird times, but they’re so boring to talk about. But, we just played in Moscow and for some reason in Moscow, everything seems like, or just Russia in general, that everything there is a negotiation. So, whatever it is you need to do, at any given time, you have to ask your interpreter and negotiate with your interpreter about something you need. And then, he goes and talks to somebody, then they have to go talk to somebody…so you can imagine, with none of us speaking Russian. There’s no way to communicate. It made us all want to just unscrew our heads. But, as far as crazy tour stories…that’s for Motley Crue.
(Laughs from both of us)
AM: Ya know? (Laughs)
HF: (Laughing) Good answer, good answer.
HF: What would you say is your worst habit?
AM: Oh man. There’s so many to choose from. I’m just gonna be honest here, I have a bad tendency to say exactly how I feel about something, without any sort of advance consideration. It’s just, in the heat of the moment, and then immediately I go, “Oh no, that wasn’t good,” and then I have to do a bunch of backtracking. You know, like my own retractions.
HF: Yeah, yeah, just rewind a little bit.
AM: Yeah, exactly. Other than that, actually, now that I think about it, I don’t have any flaws.
HF: Oh! Well, great!
HF: I aspire to be like that.
AM: Oh well, you know, you may get there someday, too.
HF: I hope so. So, what do you do on the weekends or on your down time?
AM: I have a couple kids and family that I devote time and energy to, and at home I have other bands that I play with, as well. I have Humble Pie cover band that’s periodically active. It’s a lot of fun; I just go out there and play full-on hard rock. And I have a band I’m in called The Black Panties that’s been really dormant for the last 3-4 years. But, we just kind of got it back up again. And other than cover bands, I also race old dirt bikes…sooo…there ya go!
HF: Oooooh. Have you ever gotten hurt?
AM: Yeah, it’s really fun.
HF: How old are your kids?
AM: They are 5 and 9.
HF: Oh, wow. What do they think about your music?
AM: They actually love it. Right now, in fact, my son, he’s going to be in a talent show at school coming up, and he really wants Jason and I to back him up. He wants to sing “Lump” which I can’t decide if that’s a really good idea or just a terrible idea.
HF: That’s awesome, I know what you mean, but that would be really cool…probably.
AM: He wants to, but the teacher sent us an e-mail the other day and says now that no adults or supporting players can be on the stage with the child during the show, so that kind of screws up our whole band idea. I don’t know, we’re going back to the drawing board tonight, see if we can come up with some other ideas. I suggested that I have him make fake balloon animals and I’ll make the sounds of the fake balloons being turned into animals. All you have to do is move your hand and say “dog.”
HF: That is talent.
AM: Yeah, Chris has ideas like that all day long, ‘cuz he actually is a child.
HF: That sounds really fun.
AM: It would be fun. (Makes balloon noises) Something like that.
HF: What is one word that you would use to describe each one of you?
AM: Well, uh…let me see…a word to describe Jason…I have to use his nickname which is Goldmember. And then, for Chris…uh….would child-like be a word?
HF: Yeah, that works.
AM: Yeah, alright! Not meant in a bad way at all, but in a very positive way.
AM: And, to describe myself, I don’t know, man! Um… (Laughs) I don’t know how to describe myself; you’d have to ask one of those guys! They could nail it, but I don’t know…enthusiastic?
HF: Oh! That’s a good one!
HF: Here’s one that’s off the beaten path, but what kind of stuff do you think about before you fall asleep? I know me; I just lay there and think about random stuff.
AM: Usually, I’ll lay there for awhile and I’ll find myself thinking about the weirdest stuff in the world, you know? Like, how do you make brownies and make all of the edges crunchy? Or, I’ll find myself somehow thinking about rebuilding a motorcycle in my mind. Then, I’ll be like, “Okay, what was I thinking about before that? Shit, I was falling asleep!” And then I just start the process all over again.
HF: Well, at least you’re not thinking about stressful things before you go to sleep.
AM: No, I might start with those things, and then successfully ignore them to the point where I’m thinking about bunny rabbits. Chris is a really good one to ask about that stuff because he’s well-versed and practiced in the art of relaxation. So he can take himself on these little journeys, he can almost control his dreams. He’s a gifted, strange man.
HF: Wow that sounds interesting.
AM: Yeah, I think he exists in the semi-conscious as often as possible. I think “Lump” came to him that way, he woke up and it was almost like that feeling in the Stones’ song “Satisfaction” with Keith Richards. He didn’t even remember recording the riff and woke up with the recorder next to the bed. That was kinda the “Lump” moment for him.
HF: Yeah, I read about that. The idea was from a dream he had or something.
AM: Yeah, exactly.
HF: So, people that aren’t really very familiar with your music…do they mistakenly think that you’re a huge politically-focused band?
AM: No, no…all you have to do is hear half of a song or you can look at one of our pictures of the band to know that’s not the case. I think it’s been an easy subject to kind of…approach early on. Now, it might just be one question out of many, like this. So, you run that risk. If you name your band Orange Balloons, people are going to ask you why. So, it’s okay, but we’ve done stuff before and have been asked to do things because of the name of the band. I think when the band was really popular back in the 90s there were some people in the government that really liked the band and I think it was these secret service guys that recognized them at dinner one time and invited them back to the White House. It was like, “Oh, look how cute, they named their band that. Let’s bring ‘em to the White House!”
HF: What about Sir Mix-a-Lot, I was surprised to hear that the band collaborated with him a little bit?
AM: Well, he’s a Seattle guy, too, for one. They knew one another and started collaborating after the band had sort of broken up in ’98. They started doing their thing called Subset, and there was some recording done, but nothing ever was released. And they toured. So they did stuff on the West Coast, mostly went back and forth playing Portland and Seattle and stuff. But, I don’t think it ever really went beyond that. It was cool though, they’d do a super rockin’ version of “Baby Got Back.”
HF: What about Weird Al? He must really like you guys. He did a parody of “Lump” in ’96 and directed your music video last year for “Mixed up S.O.B.” So, are you good friends with him?
AM: Yeah, we started off, well, the band started off in the 90s. Al always asks permission from artists before he does parodies of their songs. Chris and those guys were psyched. It was an honor. And so, they just really hit it off, they’re both wacky, but they’re really serious and super talented guys. They hit it off and stayed friends over the years. Three, maybe four years ago, we were on tour and we were gonna play in L.A. and I said “Chris, we should see if Al will get up and do “Gump” with us.” (Laughs) Then, they looked at Jason and then looked at each other and said, “Whoa! That never would have been suggested, but okay!” So, we did it! And it went awesome. Al was just out of his head on stage, he’s like doing these massive high kicks and floppin’ his hair all over the place, just completely went ballistic. I mean, it was really fun, and the crowd just loved it. ‘Cuz if you like the Presidents, you’re gonna be into Weird Al. It just…
HF: It just goes hand in hand.
AM: Yeah! So, then we finished this record and were coming up with some new ideas, and Chris was going to L.A. for vacation. Again, I was just like, “Hey, you know, Al directs videos for other bands, and we need to make a video. Why don’t we see, you know, go out to dinner and hang out and stuff and see if he’s interested.” So, sure as shit he was. But now we’re running out of ideas of what to do with Al so the last time we went to L.A., he got on stage and we did Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” all the way through, and he played a solo on the accordion. It’s on YouTube! You’ve got to check it out. He’s a really good guy.
HF: Have you ever played any of your songs on Rock Band 2?
AM: Poorly! Very poorly. Chris is really good at it, Jason’s pretty good, but I stunk it up big time. We were at some party all playing “Lump” and Chris got like, a 98%. Jason got an 85%. And I got a 42%.
HF: Oh, man!
AM: Don’t feel bad, my daughter is better than me at Guitar Hero, so it’s alright.
HF: Yeah, I’ve played it, it is pretty hard. Well, I think that’s about it, I won’t keep you.
AM: Yeah, I’d better get off the phone. I’m about to go through the cell phone black-out area. There’s only one place in Seattle where I drop calls and its right by my house.
HF: Well have fun mowing the lawn!
AM: I will, I’ll even do some weed-eating!
HF: Ooooh! Well, thanks for taking the time out to talk for a couple minutes.
AM: No problem, thanks so much. That was fun, lots of new and interesting questions, I like that.
HF: Good! I’m glad!
AM: Right on, take care!