One night, we were randomly watching old Presidents Of The United States Of America music videos and I was blabbing about how their second album, II, is highly underrated and how the band just dropped off the face of the planet after that. This lead me to the internet where I discovered that the Presidents Of The United States Of America put out many more records, including the excellent self-released album Kudos to You in 2013. And then I ran across singer/bass player Chris Ballew’s website, where he posts his art and has archived every non-Presidents group he has a recording of. It’s thirty-five plus years of music all downloadable for free.
Chris Ballew has been far too busy to drop off the face of the planet. He spent ten years playing under the name Caspar Babypants, performing rambunctious shows for zero- to five-year-olds. In 2020, he hung up his Caspar Babypants hat (which were literal baby pants, by the way) and started doing some ambient pop music under his own name. Soul Unfolded came out in January 2022 and manages to be chill and upbeat at the same time.
I spoke with Chris Ballew about DIY, spirituality, performing for toddlers, his art, new records, and aging gracefully.
Rick: I was trying to get a vibe on what kind of guy you were before I talked to you. The most recent thing I could find with you on it was an episode of Dave & Ethan’s 2000" Weird Al Podcast.
Chris: With Mike Mills (REM), Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), and me doing a roundtable discussion?
Rick: Oh wow, I didn’t hear that one. It was just you. One of the first things that came out of your mouth in the episode was describing yourself as preferring a more “punk and DIY” style. And that’s what I like.
Chris: Absolutely. It’s in my DNA. My DIY DNA.
Rick: I saw you used to put out your own tapes and zine for years, right?
Chris: I used to send tapes to GAJOOB and Factsheet Five back in the day.
Rick: What is Factsheet Five?
Chris: Oh c’mon man! Factsheet Five was the ’80s version of the internet for musicians. It was a newsprint catalogue with little tiny paragraphs about each person’s cassette, PO Box number, and how much it was. It had little bitty reviews of all these people with four-tracks making music in their bedrooms, basically. I used to order stuff and I sold a few cassettes through there. Which felt completely great and I was like, “This is it! I’m done. This is my circuit. I write a song, I record it, I put it in Factsheet Five, somebody sends me five dollars, I mail them the tape, and I am successful!”
Rick: [genuine laughter] I have never heard of that. I was but only a child.
Chris: Oh, okay. How old are you?
Rick: I am thirty-nine.
Chris: You are young. I’m fifty-six so...
Rick: And lookin’ great!
Rick: I was looking at photos of you and thinking, “This guy doesn’t age.” What’s your secret?
Chris: I think the secret is having a bald head. I had this haircut when I was twenty-eight. Just keeping the head the same, I guess. And, you know, I love lotion.
Chris: I really do! I moisturize.
Rick: Maybe it’s the lack of sugar. I read you don’t mess with it.
Chris: Maybe. I didn’t respectfully eat until maybe ten years ago. I figured out a bunch of stuff that wasn’t good for me and stopped. Sugar, wheat, and dairy. Those are the main things.
[There is a long pause as both men self reflect on their dietary choices]
Rick: Hey, let’s talk about real things!
Chris: Sounds good!
Rick: The word is that you consider yourself a minimalist, but I do see a wall of guitars behind you.
Rick: I can see the Presidents Of The United States Of America bass back there.
Chris: [Pointing at two string bass on the wall.] Oh yeah, the Kawai. That’s the one I played on the debut album. [Pointing at another bass.] This is the one that Mark Sandman from Morphine gave me. He turned me onto two-string guitars. I have it set up as a six string right now.
There’s my Caspar Babypants guitar, my bass, my old acoustic from my Boston days, my Beck touring guitar. The thing is with my guitars is I only have... [counts guitars] nine guitars. Ten! Ten guitars. Which is pretty modest, you know? They all do a certain thing. Some of them are set up as two-strings, three-strings, six-strings. They all have different jobs.
Rick: You got all your employees back there.
Chris: Yeah! They’re either super nostalgic, important, or sound unique. Every one does something. I had at one point thirty-five or forty guitars. It was stupid.
Rick: How many two-string basses did you have? Didn’t you game them all away in a contest?
Chris: Yeah, at one point we were doing a crowd sourcing thing for our last album (Kudos to You, 2014) for the Presidents. And one of the things we did was have Epiphone pony up something like twenty-five basses. Then we sat around one day and set up twenty-five two-strings.
Rick: Oh, so they weren’t yours.
Chris: No, no. It was a flotilla of guitars we customized. I was an Epiphone sort-of-artist for a while.
Rick: During the era of the Presidents Of The United States Of America you missed the lo-fi/more fun non-stadium days. You still feel that way?
Chris: It’s what I’m doing now. I got my website and I’m putting out albums now as me, Chris Ballew. Self-titled and a whole new style. I did the Presidents for a long time and in the middle of that I started doing music for kids. Zero- to five-year-olds specifically. Which was an amazing DIY experience. I ran everything myself. I was the booking agent, the distributor, the sound guy, the driver, and the accountant. [laughs] So that was a really great way to go back to DIY—to do the kids thing. Because it had nothing to do with being cool. It had nothing to do with convincing grownups I was hot shit. It was great because I got to sample my admiration for all kinds of music and not just rock’n’roll or punk.
When I think of punk rock, I think of in encompassing anybody who is not waiting around for the seal of approval from those in power.
When I think of punk rock, I think of in encompassing anybody who is not waiting around for the seal of approval from those in power. And to do whatever they wanna do. So you can be a punk rock chef as far as I’m concerned. It felt very punk rock to do this.
And my shows for kids were super punk rock. If you compare a kids show with zero- to five-year-olds and their bizarre brains, their weird way of moving, interrupting me during the show, swarming around and unplugging my amp. It’s way more punk rock than a lot of shows I’ve been to.
Rick: How many times has your amp been unplugged at these shows?
One time a kid in diapers made his way over to the sound board and turned everything up until the whole system was squealing...
Chris: Several times! One time a kid in diapers made his way over to the sound board and turned everything up until the whole system was squealing. I look up and see this kid with a swirl of blonde hair and just a diaper working the board.
Toward the last third of the Presidents arc, I started the Casper Babypants arc. The Casper arc finished during the pandemic. I did nineteen albums, 1,247 shows, and 352 songs in ten years. As I finished the Casper thing, the pandemic hit, and I just went silent for about nine months. I took my studio apart and was just still. Out of that stillness, I started picking up my guitars, plugging in my long-forgotten distortion pedals, and tapping back into my love of Spacemen 3—loop and heavy, repetitive rock’n’roll. Then filtering it through my own love of classical music, DJ culture, and other musical influences I like and ended up with this new style. I have two records out under my own name on my website. I’ve got a third one I’m working on now that I have coming out in July. I’m putting them out every January and July because I’ve uncorked another creative volcano and I have too many songs. So, I’m doing two a year for the foreseeable future.
Rick: So, it’s not a forced deadline. It’s you have too much and can release two a year.
DIY isn’t haphazard. It can be an organized effort and a striving to be better at your craft.
Chris: Part of DIY for me is setting goals and working to achieve them. DIY isn’t haphazard. It can be an organized effort and a striving to be better at your craft. You can be fully engaged and creatively invested in a project and be DIY. For me, it’s fun. I’m gonna try to beat The Beatles. They put out two records a year for what? Like five years? I’m gonna try to do them for six! And make them good, not just Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed.
Rick: I’m sure there won’t be as much bickering as The Beatles either.
Chris: Oh my god! I love not being in a band. It’s so great.
Rick: I’m in a two-piece, and it’s great. Sometime we will just hang out instead of practicing, and it’s just fine.
Chris: Dave Dederer and I started the Presidents as a two-piece. And Jason (Finn) bullied his way in there. We had been a two-piece for years and were not after a drummer at all. We were called The Dukes of Pop for a while and then we did it under a bunch of weird little names. Jason saw one of our shows and insisted he was our drummer. [laughs]
Rick: Maybe someone will show up to one of our shows with a guitar.
Chris: It’s great to just do it without the people and then wait for the people to come and fill the space.
Rick: Weren’t you two busking a lot in the ’80s?
Chris: Mostly on the East Coast, in Boston and New York. Not a lot in Seattle. A little on the street, Pike Place Market and a lot in subways and Harvard Square.
Rick: Solo, with Dave, or with other folks?
Chris: I did it solo but it ballooned into a real band for a little minute. My drummer friend Phil Franklin and I moved to Boston together to work for an artist. So we started as a duo and he was an amazing drummer. He was in a punk band called Borscht from New York. He was an unbelievable drummer but he reduced his drum kit to a kick pedal hitting a suitcase, a snare drum, and a flash cymbal. And that’s when I first got a whiff of how much you can do with very little percussion.
You can actually find videos on YouTube of me and this guy playing at the Middle East Cafe. They have documented all these punk rock shows from back in the ’80s. It’s so bizarre watching myself playing these shows I have no memory of.
But the street band ballooned to be guitar, bass, drums, and saxophone. It got a little cumbersome. Generally, that version would set up and get shut down five minutes later. So we tried to keep it as a two-piece mostly.
Rick: Do you feel like playing shows to children is kind of like busking?
Chris: Oh yeah, busking was incredibly informative. Nobody has to stop when you’re busking, so the hooks have to literally be “hook-y.” That’s when you learn to be ruthless with songs that aren’t working.
That’s what we did in the early days the Presidents. I tore a page out of my busking experience and promoted to the guys that we should just jettison any song that isn’t completely exciting all of us and the crowd. Turned out that eighty percent of the songs fit the bill, but there were that twenty percent we just tossed off because they didn’t click.
Playing for little kids felt like a combo of busking and punk rock shows put together.
Playing for little kids felt like a combo of busking and punk rock shows put together. I did have a three-piece for a little bit but it got too noisy and cumbersome so I went back to solo. Which is super fun because if a kid says something bizarre or if I forget my place, I can acknowledge it, stop, and start on a dime. I can expand the song if it’s working or contract it, if not. I never did a set list as Caspar Babypants. I would just look at the room and say, “Ya’ll have a lot of energy. Let’s dance!” or “You all need a story because it’s two in the afternoon. Let’s chill out.” It was great and loved it. I am officially retired from Caspar Babypants at this point.
Chris: Yeah. Not doing any shows. I was very over-booked right when the pandemic started. And pre-pandemic I was looking at my calendar and thinking, man, I need year off. And bam! I got two years off and counting...
Rick: But at what cost, Chris!? At what cost!?
Chris: I had come to dread eighty percent of the dynamics of performing. Twenty percent of it was great when you’re finally up there and it’s clicking. But when you’re DIY, there are so many emails and inquiries. And what if I get sick? I’m gonna let all these kids down. Which happened a lot because when a kid coughs in your face man, you’re done.
Also with the Presidents, it was hard on the nervous system. It was more of a late night thing and hard to eat right on tour. So I realized that eighty percent of it was a burden for me. And I really enjoy not being that guy that everyone is not looking at, asking me to elevate the room. For the time being I’m retired from performing. I’m back to being what I was when I was a teenager with a four-track, a mad scientist in my bedroom making sound. It’s really my natural habitat. So I’m just gonna allow that for awhile and make these records. I’m a big fan of “never say never” so if I come back around to Caspar Babypants or performing in some way, great. But every day I get a couple of inquiries about playing shows and I feel really good about typing “N-O.”
Rick: How do you think a solo show would go with the Soul Unfolded stuff live? Is that thought not even in your brain, yet?
Chris: I would need people. Or I could do it solo with a backing track? At one point I was in a band with one of Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s protégés and we had a backing track. It’s okay but it’s kind of restricting when you have an arrangement to follow. So, I don’t know. I do know when I’m making the stuff, I’m really considering myself a hobbyist. I’m making this music as if I was a dude going into his garage on the weekend and made chairs. I got my little wood shop and I’m just making chairs. So, I’m not trying to pressure myself, but in the process of making these “chairs” (AKA songs), I do close my eyes and try to imagine what these would be like in front of 50,000 people at a race track in Germany at a festival. Would they all be yelling this chorus?
You want it to be the best it can be and pretend it’s important. But it’s really just... fun making sound for the hell of it. Just to make my day better.
It’s funny, I have a couple of friends making records in their fifties as hobbyists now, and we all talk about the idea that it’s fun to pretend like the whole world is waiting for your next record—but also understand and get energy from the fact that nobody cares about your next record. Or like, a few people do. So it’s this funny dichotomy. You want it to be the best it can be and pretend it’s important. But it’s really just... fun making sound for the hell of it. Just to make my day better.
Rick: I think the new stuff is good. I was shocked at first because it was not what I expected with a Chris Ballew band. I was listening to it today while doing some VHS tape repair (the copy of the Speed Wheels skate video, Risk It, did not survive the surgery). The album is not something I would usually be listening to, but I do like electronic music and it’s damn good! It’s not as silly as I would expect it. But it doesn’t need to be.
Chris: Well thank you! I’ve had a spiritual awakening of sorts. I get what George Harrison was trying to do. I’m a big fan of Ram Dass. He’s an amazing lecturer and spiritual guru guy: consciousness, oneness, ego management, and tampering down your inner discouragers, judgment, or critical thought. Finding bliss in breathing and being in nature and all that good stuff. All the lyrics for these songs are poems about those topics, like losing consciousness, quantum physics, existence, and all that shit. And my relationship to it. So it’s a whole different vocabulary from Caspar Babypants or the Presidents.
Rick: You do somehow still manage to mention a bug in one of the songs.
Chris: [laughs] Did I?
Rick: Yes. The Cadillac song. First track? (Dear reader, in retrospect, I think I was wrong. I can’t find the lyric I think I heard.)
Chris: Oh! 1969 Camaro!
Rick: Yes, Camaro! Not Cadillac. I don’t know anything about cars. But there’s a bug in there. What’s with you and bugs!?
Chris: Oh, I don’t know. I’ve always loved nature. Growing up in Seattle and the sky, the clouds, the rain, the trees, the dirt. I like imagining I’m going on a walk, looking under ferns, and looking under dirt and logs. Imagining the world that’s going on in the forest that you’re not privy to is comforting to me for some reason. And I love to anthropomorphize things, especially in the Presidents and Caspar worlds. So I like giving those bugs life and a whole complex system. Maybe it’s from reading Richard Scarry books when I was a kid. All the animals were alive and had back stories. The one thing about Richard Scarry that bugged me was that the butcher was a pig!
Rick: Oh! No.
Chris: The butcher is selling pork chops. I would like to hear Richard Scarry explain that one.
Rick: Well, I got him right here! [Signals off camera Richard Scarry to the screen.] [applause] Tell me more about ego management. I did some Google-ing about it yesterday and I could not find a proper meaning. I even ran across a bank that sports the term “Ego management.” What is your perception of ego management?
Chris: In the past, I’ve done this talk therapy called Hakomi therapy that’s also called Parts Work. The idea is that you’re not one thing, you’re a whole bunch of things. A whole bunch of echoes of previous trauma or triumphs. Your timeline gets the little characters that are like, “I’m the scared little kid while my parents fight.” Or “I’m the guy who hears music for the first time and it feels really good.” Or possibly, “I’m the guy who gets heartbroken for the first time,” including judgmental and critical voices and stuff like that. So, the therapy is all about being connected to them in an empathetic, neutral way and not fight them, get rid of them, or silence them. But to disarm them through acceptance and empathy and detachment.
You get to a point where some event in your past may have settled in your mind as this voice of discouragement. Rather than being discouraged by that voice, you say, “Ah, there’s my discouragement voice. Hello, how are you? It’s wonderful to see you. Thank you for stopping in.” They’re all here to protect you and they’re all well meaning, but at the same time very destructive and limiting. So you go to therapy for a little bit and you understand how to engage the trick where you can visualize them and that was really fast for me because I’m a songwriter and an abstract thinker. The woman doing the therapy was like, “Wow! Nobody has ever made contact with their parts on the first try.” [laughs] So I was like, “Oh, I see all you guys.” It’s a matter of picking one you want to negotiate with or reassign. Like, if “judgment” comes up, you can say, “Ah, I see you. I can see myself being judgmental. And I am not judgmental but I can see that mechanism. Maybe I can reassign you to be a warning system. You warn me when I’m being judgmental rather than being judgmental.” And then they’re relaxed and say “Ah great. Because it was so stressful being judgmental. I’d be much happier with this other job.”
So it’s a funny dialogue you can have with your parts. And once you understand how to do it, you don’t go to therapy. You just do it. It’s like learning how to fix a car instead of taking it to a shop. That’s the long answer. That’s the first time I got connected to this idea and then it expanded into reading about universe and quantum physics. That’s when I discovered spirituality and Ram Dass. So it’s a big part of the scene for me—trying to age gracefully and not get stuck in patterns. Especially when you become successful or famous, like I guess I was. There are so many ego traps and so many exits from the highway of health that can take you off into the desert of destruction.
Rick: Did you get a sense of imposter syndrome? Like any of that fame was not intended for you?
Chris: Now what is imposter syndrome?
Rick: Apparently, Paul McCartney has it. He has said of it something like, “I don’t know why anybody likes me. To me, I’m just granddad with guitar.” You don’t really think you deserve any success they give you.
Chris: I think I’ve heard about a mechanism Paul McCartney uses where he is not “Paul McCartney,” the Beatle. He is “Paul McCartney,” the guy. I think The Beatles have talked about that way back in the day. Like when John said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, he wasn’t talking about a place of pride or ego. He was saying “The Beatles” as a phenomenon. I think early on, they learned to detach themselves from the phenomenon and be the people, which is why they got into spirituality and went to India and all that. I think the key to avoid imposter syndrome is to separate the two selves.
Rick: I honestly think of imposter syndrome as a buddy. Like “Yeah, you suck! Maybe you should work better at what you’re doing!”
Chris: [laughs] Well there is that! Like I said, they are there to protect you and sometimes they do it very clumsily and you end up addicted to heroin.
Rick: Changing subjects completely! The Presidents Of The United States Of America were a silly wild band back in the day. Did you ever get any notes from the suits telling you that you should or shouldn’t do certain things?
Chris: No. But we could have used a few more notes from the suits. [laughs] We made our first record with our friend Conrad in his basement and it was great. But it didn’t sound great so we remixed it to be released on Columbia. That was our idea, not Columbia’s. In fact, we bleeped the “fuck” in the song “Kitty.” We said “fuck you” three times in the song. Our indie release had it bleeped because we thought it would be funny to censor it ourselves. But Columbia, the major label, said we have to get those bleeps out of there because you guys need just a little bit of edge. And saying “fuck” in the first song on the record is how you’re going to get it. So that was their idea.
Beyond that, we licensed that record to Columbia for seven years and then we got it back. They didn’t own it. We own that record.
Rick: Oh, that’s cool.
Chris: We traded in an advance so we didn’t have that. We were very low to the ground financially. We always came home from tour with money because we only did vans. We only did a bus once or twice. We looked at the bill and were like, fuck that! It was a very svelte operation. From what I understand, we kinda saved Columbia’s bottom line. We were sort of cocks for the walk for a little while and they left us alone. We got to do the records we wanted to make and you just sit back. They had some other bands who were doing well, and then we broke up so they never really got the chance to screw with us.
Rick: That’s cool you never got messed with. But let’s talk about your art! Whatchu doin’ with that art?
Chris: You know what!? I’m doing it on this! [Pulls up an Ipad.] I’m working on the cover for my new album which is called Primitive God. What do you think of that?
Rick: I like it. And that’s all digital?
Chris: It’s fantastic because I can take a lot of risks. I can be like, “What would this look like if it had no arms? Oh! I don’t like that.” Undo, undo, undo. So digital really offers this freedom but it’s still my hand. But lately, I’ve been branching out to this super loose-y style.
Rick: Ah, not so much black and white. You got some mix in there.
Chris: Yeah, the other stuff you’ve seen on the website is pretty tight. So I’m trying to be a little looser and not as precise.
Rick: Lots of eyes and beaks.
Chris: It’s based on stuff I used to draw in my journal back in the ’80s. I used to draw these fucked-up characters in art school too. They were these Henri Matisse wobbly line things. I didn’t know what they really were. decades later, I was in a bookstore in Michigan and my wife handed me a calendar of Inuit printmaking. There was one artist in there, Kenojuak Ashevak, who just blew my mind. It looks like what I intended back in art school but I had no vocabulary for these shapes. She was doing this stuff with an owl with energy lines coming off of it. She was drawing the energy of nature rather than just the pictorial aspect and it just shot right through me. And I was already getting into meditation and Parts Work stuff. It was like I figured out what I was trying to do back then and I created this flurry of art. I chose black and white because I can barely manage the symbolism stuff, and can’t manage color. It’s overwhelming to me. I tried doing some in color and I couldn’t get a handle on the intention. If you can’t master something, don’t do it, I guess! [laughs] Maybe mastering means sloppy.
Rick: I’m down with sloppy.
Do art, people see, people like, and done!
Chris: I just do the drawings for fun. I did a few art shows where I print them out, frame them, and do stuff with restaurants or a gallery here and there. Talk about DIY and cumbersome—hanging an art show and getting all that stuff prepped... blech. It’s not for me, man. I’m too much of a minimalist. I can write a thousand songs and they can still fit on a thumb drive. My wife (Kate Endle) is the actual artist, so I’ve retreated to not doing shows and just putting them up on my website and Instagram for people to look at. And just like when I made the cassettes and sent them to Factsheet Five. Do art, people see, people like, and done!
Rick: Are you ever going to put any of these solo albums on a physical format?
Chris: I think I am. I think every fourth record I am going to do a vinyl compilation of the three singles from each record. I can’t do the individual records because they clock in at forty-eight minutes. And for the wide sonic dynamic I’m trying to achieve you need twenty-two minutes on the outside for vinyl. So, I can’t fit the albums on vinyl one at a time. The problem is, where am I going to put a thousand records?
Rick: That’s the joke. Everybody has a closet full of unsold 7”s. You know, the kids are really into the cassette tapes these days.
Chris: I know! Which is remarkable. I was all about cassettes for decades.
Rick: You can’t sell a CD to save your life. I still purchase CDs all the time.
Chris: I like to use Spotify and YouTube and that. I don’t subscribe to Spotify anymore but I use them as research tools and then I go buy the music from the artist.
Rick: Do you mess with Bandcamp at all?
Chris: A little bit. Bands have stuff on Bandcamp and they send me links. But I haven’t explored it.
Rick: It’s cool. If somebody wants to give you money for a download, they can.
Chris: I should put my stuff up there. I’ve settled on giving away these Chris Ballew albums for free on my website.
Rick: That’s what I love about your website. Everything on there is for free. You could be making some hot cents off this stuff!
Chris: It’s fair for it to be free. I’ve had my time. The Presidents and Caspar keep the lights on without me doing anything. So, free is the fair price.
Rick: I think that covers all my questions. But I should let you know that I was in the eighth grade when the first Presidents Of The United States album came out and it was the first album I ever purchased with my own money.
Chris: Wow! My first physical purchase was Yellow Submarine by The Beatles. So, the first record purchase is a big deal to me. That’s nice.
We’ve always said irrelevance is our power.
You know, we’ve always said irrelevance is our power. If there was a list of a hundred of the hottest bands of the ’90s, we’re not on it. That is such a great position to be in. Because the people who love us, love us because they found us. It’s like this diamond in a dog shit.
Rick: I’m assuming you saw that Sparks documentary (The Sparks Brothers) and Weird Al says something like, “Why don’t people treat bands with silly lyrics like real bands?” and that’s a bummer. And of course, you guys have a huge following. I ran across some fan sites.
Chris: Yeah, PUSAbase.com is an interesting thing. I go there to remember things like, “Where were we playing in 1998?” I can find set lists, show posters, and all that stuff.
Rick: I was super bummed in the eighth grade when you guys played at the Bomb Factory in Dallas, Texas and I didn’t know about it until my friend Jeff told me about it the next day. We noticed it was also the cheapest show listed and all-ages in our weekly entertainment guide. So I probably could have afforded it.
We liked doing all-ages shows because nobody was smoking.
Chris: We liked to take a page out of Fugazi’s playbook whenever we could to keep the cost down. We liked doing all-ages shows because nobody was smoking.
Rick: [laughs] That’s a great argument for all-ages shows.
Chris: Yeah, we don’t have to hack our way through the night after an all-ages show. And, clearly, all the Caspar Babypants shows were all-ages. [laughs]
Rick: Well thanks for talking, being alive, and rocking!
Chris: My pleasure, believe me.