“I didn’t know that it was just a rock and roll band with some clever, silly lyrics too, but just a rock and roll band and then I started playing with them and they’re just so tight without ever really discussing being tight. It’s not like we practise all the time, it’s just that everybody’s ears are open and you’re just looking around and you don’t want to mess up and you want to hold up your end of the stick…”
From Press Release: In 1995 Seattle outfit Presidents Of The United States of America launched their self-titled debut album and in the process took the world by storm with their unique take on guitar based pop rock. Armed with their uniquely modified electric guitars, an arsenal of perfect infectious pop hooks and super-smart song writing skills the band scored massive hits around the world with the singles Lump, Peaches and Kitty. Whilst there was no doubting the extreme catchiness of POTUSA’s songs it was the undeniable sense of humour and fun with which they were delivered that really won the affection of music lovers of the decade.
We spoke to Andrew McKeag of The Presidents Of The United States Of America before their Australian tour had begun, we had a great chat about the band and his time with them, about touring and all about a case of good timing…
Welcome back to Australia, here for the ‘Australia 13 1st Record WOW!’ tour, it’s been a while since you’ve been here! First thing’s first… What’s taken so long to get you guys back here?
*laughs* Well it partly is that the band while it maintains a heartbeat, it’s not everybody’s first priority thing, I’m always available to play more, but Chris is really in to making kids records, he has an alter ego, when we last put out a record in 2008, he’s made four kids records since then and he does it every year, just puts out a new one. What he does is he takes these public domain songs, stuff that the US library of Congress has deemed public domain and he goes in and he messes with the lyrics, he takes these old melodies, folk songs and stuff and turns them in to new material with a bend towards really young kids, like four year olds, he’s done really well with it. So he’s really busy doing that, but he’s recently kind of gotten back into getting excited about doing Presidents stuff and Jason and I are ready to do it.
The shows have been selling out, you must be happy that we still love you?
Oh of all the places we visit this is our favourite. It’s the best country, it’s like America without all the Americans *laughs* and the weather is way better everywhere.
So, for those that have never been to a Presidents show before, me included, how would you sum up one of your live shows?
Nudity… yeah what we’re doing right now, playing the whole first record is different to what we normally do, normally we put together a set of twenty four songs or something that pull from all the records, a lot from the first record obviously because that’s everybody’s favourite and the most popular but a smattering of stuff from other records. Now we’re doing half a dozen songs from other records then we go into the first record and play that all the way through and then come back for more songs at the end.
So you’ll be playing your debut in full as well as some hits, what’s the idea behind doing it this way?
Let’s be honest, lots of bands are doing that and in our case it was just a thing to do, especially for us, as we don’t have a new record out and everybody wants to hear that record, we love playing all those songs, Chris always says still to this day that he never gets bummed out playing ‘Lump’, he’ll play those hits forever…
Well you have to….
*laughs* and I’ve never understood that either, you’ve got these bands that get upset that they have this one hit or two hits and they have to play them and they play them first and then you don’t know anything they play for the rest of the night, or the play them last begrudgingly. To us, if people know the song and they get into it, and they’re freaking out, awesome, we’re excited that they’re excited. We’re a band that you pretty much leave your weird thing at the door and come and enjoy it, there’s a place for fun in music, you know what I mean?
Do you have a favourite track to play?
It kinda changes all the time, right now we’ve been doing a bunch of stuff off of the record they made while they were broken up called ‘Freaked Out and Small’ and there’s one in particular on there called ‘Tiny Explosions’ it’s just really fun and a ripping song and fun to play, a total rocker so I like playing that one. I like playing ‘Body’ off the first record. I don’t know it’s all fun, they’re weird, it’s three strings on the guitar, so it’s a very, very unique band.
Oh so you still play on the three string guitars?
How hard was that to master?
Hard *laughs* really hard. It was like relearning how to play guitar.
It seems that you don’t take yourselves too seriously, in a good way of course, when the guys were creating music back in 95 for the Presidents, in the midst of the angry grunge era have they ever talked about being worried at all that people wouldn’t get the humour?
You know, that’s a good question, I don’t know if Chris gives a shit to be honest. He’s kind of unique and kind of the most punk rock non punk rock guy I know because he really doesn’t care what anybody thinks, he is a weird guy, but he’s a smart dude and he’s funny and clever and just sort of coming from a different place and that place doesn’t require sanctioning, it doesn’t require anybody to approve of his choices. *laughs* So it was just a naturally goofy band that happened to gain popularity and it happened rapidly and it happened just as Kurt Cobain was about to blow his head off, it just happened at that time, so when they got popular it was just after that and everybody was just letting out a sigh of ‘wow that was a bummer’ awesome music and still a total drag and then there’s this goofy little band that’s also from Seattle and has a history in that scene, Jason was in Love Battery which were on Sub Pop and lots of other bands, and it was a tight knit scene. It was just happenstance really… I mean I’ve talked to Chris and Jason about the height of popularity feelings they’ve had, where they’d be at some Hollywood event and they just felt like somebody was going to kick them out, like ‘You don’t belong here…’ and grab them by the neck and chuck them.
So they don’t feel like stars?
No, and you know what, they don’t act like it, they’re really down to Earth dudes, I mean, we travel simple we travel on the cheap, we bring two guitars each and we hire backline and that’s really cheap and simple.
What do you think it is about Australians specifically that ‘get’ your music?
I don’t know, maybe after the first show I’ll be able to answer the question because it’s been so long since we’ve been here, but I think that in my opinion as a fan of so much Aussie rock and roll, I think there’s just a level of fun and being a kick ass band that translates to people here. There’s a work ethic of bands here that doesn’t exist in other places, to me in my opinion the reason that bands here are so good is that they have to work for it and the audience they like to party and like to have fun. They see us having fun and it’s like a two way mirror you know. That was one of the things that joining the band I didn’t expect and that’s what turned me on to them eventually before I was in the band was sort of seeing them and I went out on the road as a tech for the opening band when they were a pretty popular band and so I was around them every day, and I knew them from Seattle and everything. Until I went out on that tour, I didn’t know that it was just a rock and roll band with some clever, silly lyrics too, but just a rock and roll band and then I started playing with them and they’re just so tight without ever really discussing being tight. It’s not like we practise all the time, it’s just that everybody’s ears are open and you’re just looking around and you don’t want to mess up and you want to hold up your end of the stick, but it’s not like anyone’s cracking the whip over you or fining you $5 for making a mistake. *laughs*
So when you got asked to be involved were you surprised?
Well I knew they’d gotten back together and I knew they had recorded a record and Jason and I were doing a gig with this band we were in called ‘The Black Panties’ and I’d finished the gig and we were at the bar, must’ve been Spring of 2004 and he said ‘Would it turn your stomach to play some Presidents shows?’ and I was like ‘No, do you need another guitar as you’ve made this record and it has overdubs on it or something?’ and he said ‘No, you’d be Dave’ and I just couldn’t even conceive of it, because to me that band was always those three guys and nothing else computed *laughs*. Oh I did ask about the three string thing, I asked if I had to do it and he said ‘Well we’d like you to try it but if you’re not into it we can figure out another way’ because Chris is that kind of musician, he can play any instrument, any tuning, any time, he’s just really, really talented. So I just went home and listened and thought ahh shit I’ve got to learn three string, there’s no other way I can do this and then I went over to Dave Dederer’s house and he showed me how to play all the songs.
So it was a mutual kind of parting?
Yeah, he didn’t want to tour, so the original idea was that I would be the touring guy and he would be the guy that did the big hometown shows or went on Letterman and played and stuff like that, but then over the next six months as we toured that record, it became painfully obvious that having two versions of the band rehearsed was impossible, it just didn’t make sense for Chris and Jason and then I think Dave did a little bit more than he did and he was like ‘I’m over it, cheers Andrew, here you go.’
So they’re all still friends and all is cool?
Yeah, he’s still a partner in the band because he has a piece of the records he plays on and they own that first record so they license it and in the business version of the first version of the band, he’s a part of it. Often at my sort of suggestion we’ve had him up to play, and we’ve done two guitar versions of the band and stuff once and a while.
Songs like ‘Peaches’ and ‘Kitty’ are lyrically in my opinion perfect, when they found the formula for the songs, how easy was it to keep running with it?
Well in my experience of watching how songs are created in this band, I recorded one record with them, and Chris has an archive of demos that goes back to the 80’s, really… and he’s digitizing it all now, so he sits there with his lap top and digs through stuff looking through one little bit or another little bit and when he finds something he likes, he comes to us. I think with the last record, the two of us sat down a lot at his apartment and just sort of culled through this material and he would say ‘What about this little thing?’ and then I would add something to it, or if I was just playing the guitar while he was messing around, he would say ‘Oh what about this?’ and he would grab lyrics from this and take the middle section from that… so it’s sort of a mosaic of random stuff but mostly it’s from Chris’ brain.
What for you has been the biggest stand out in terms of growth or evolution of the band in your time with them?
I think one of the things about me being in the band vs Dave, is that when Dave was in the band it was much more like there were two front men and to me that Chris is such a dynamo, and I front my own bands and I do other stuff at home where I’m the leader of the band so it’s not like I’m the side guy in the band in my brain. I walked into this thing and went, huh… that’s the singer, and I’m going to support what he does and try to keep this thing as tight as possible and just focus on making the tunes work from my end of things. So really is anything it became more obvious who the leader of the band was or who the front man was. Also, my life is set up and I have a wife and kids just like Dave does and my wife signed off on the rock and roll thing a long time ago and I think for his family it was much more challenging to get away, so I’m the guy that says yes.
So are you currently working on new songs for a new album?
Yeah Chris brought a new tune in that we arranged a couple of weeks ago before we did some Seattle shows and we played that live, and that’s just continuing, he’s given us a CDR a couple of weeks ago of some ideas that he had and to listen to and the thing I like is that he’s positive about getting together to rehearse and he’s excited about doing new stuff and we’ll just see what happens.
No idea on when can we expect something?
No, we’re just going to keep knocking stuff around and we have a lot of sound checks ahead of us, because we’re going to do these shows here and then we go back to The States and do the east coast and west coast and we’ll just fart around with it and see what happens. There’s no rush *laughs* clearly there’s no rush.
The band has been together for 20 years this year, that’s 5 terms as Presidents, so what can we expect in ‘4 more years?’
That’s right, sure. Well I should hope some sort of new record of new material, as well as potentially lots of, we’re trying to get our heads around mixing and mastering and putting together in the digital realm, all of the shows we’ve recorded. We’ve recorded so many live shows and the band has never released a live record, so maybe something like that, maybe a live DVD, the ideas are just kind of floating around there. It’s all about availability time wise, what we actually get done vs what we talk about *laughs*
So, when does the touring cycle end on this run?
Well I hope never, but I think we do April, East Coast, May, West Coast and then we’ve got a smattering of things in the Summer, and English festival, a couple of Dutch dates and then we’ll see what materialises.
Let’s not make it so long before you’re back here though, ok?
I know right! We were here in 2005 and then in 2007 I think, and just did sort of five shows. I think when we first came back on the ‘Love Everybody’ record, we were going to return, these were going to be underplays but then when we were going to come back, the venues they booked were way too big and then there was a money problem with the promoter and it just kind of ended up not working out. So then we came back and we played small venues again, but, anyway…
Well the good thing is the 90’s resurgence is well in effect…
I think it’s starting to kick in, right, they’re tired of digging around in the 80’s *laughs* so it’s what you’ve gotta do.
From: Seattle, USA
Band members: Chris Ballew – Vocals, Bassitar, Jason Finn – Drums, Vocals, Andrew McKeag – Guitbass, Vocals
Catch the POTUSA on their remaining Australian tour dates
Wednesday 14 March Adelaide @ HQ