The Presidents of the United States of America (Contemporary Musicians)
Image Pop-UpThe Presidents of the United States of America.
The Presidents of the United States of America emerged from the Seattle, Washington, music scene during the 1990s with a new musical perspective. At the time, the city's rock music landscape reflected the angst of grunge. The Presidents arrived with refreshingly light-hearted humor and fun-filled music. Unlike most bands, they did not have high aspirations of rock stardom. They even wrote a song for their self-titled debut called "We Are Not Going to Make It." After releasing two platinum albums, the group announced their breakup in 1997. They reunited three years later with a new album and a new record label.
Chris Ballew and Dave Dederer went to junior and senior high school together in Seattle and teamed up to make music in 1985. Ballew moved to Boston, Massachusetts, after high school, where he played in a band with Mark Sandman from the band Morphine. Ballew had been experimenting with the sound of a four-string acoustic guitar played through a bass guitar amplifier. Sandman expanded on the idea and suggested Ballew play a two-string guitar as a bass or a basitar. Ballew loved it and adopted it.
When Ballew returned to Seattle, he and Dederer began playing together. Dederer complemented Ballew's basitar with a three-string guitbass, giving both musicians a sense of creative freedom. "If a song is good played on an instrument with two strings, it probably is a good song," Dederer told Guitar World. "Also there's no body of two-string guitar work that you have to live up to. You don't have to worry about being as good as Tal Farrow or Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan. You're just you."
In 1991, Ballew and Dederer met drummer Jason Finn. At the time, all three members were playing with different groups, although Ballew and Dederer continued to write together on the side. Ballew was in Supergroup, Dederer was in Beck, and Finn was in Love Battery. Finn began asking to join the duo to form a new group, and after two years, they agreed. The trio just needed to decide on a name. Ballew came up with the band's name at a local party. He was improvising with two other musicians and would shout out different names between songs. When he yelled, 'The Presidents of the United States of America," everyone at the party started laughing, and he knew he had found the right one.
Elected to Major Label Contract
The trio played clubs around the Seattle area and recorded a ten-song demo tape in 1994. The Presidents sold 500 copies of the demo in just five or six shows. In March, the band released the songs as a self-titled CD on the Pop Llama label. They continued to play around the Seattle area, and in November of 1994, played at a Democratic rally for President Bill Clinton. The following year, they signed a record contract with Columbia Records after a bidding war between several labels. Columbia re-released their self-titled debut nationwide in July of 1995.
Despite the success of the band, the Presidents still did not take themselves seriously enough to succumb to rock stardom. "I don't think we're that big of a deal," Finn told Sara Scribner in Rolling Stone. "We're just a good time. I just hope people don't hate us." The Presidents of the United States of America included such hits as "Lump," "Peaches," and "Kitty." By early 1996, the album had moved into Billboard's Top 10 albums chart and reached multiplatinum sales.
On Presidents' Day in 1996, the Presidents performed a concert at Mount Rushmore, which was broadcast live on MTV. That same year, they received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Alternative Music Performance. They toured the United States, Europe, Japan, and Australia. They headed back into the studio after the tour and recorded their second effort, aptly titled II, which was released on November 5, 1996. The CD included the single "Mach 5."
Although they did not receive the same response to II as they did to their debut, the Presidents remained undaunted. "We've achieved so much more than I'd ever imagined that it's irrelevant," Ballew told Keiran Grant in the Toronto Sun. "I wrote songs my whole life without anything akin to traditional success, but was very fulfilled. Even if II sinks and we get dropped, I'll still be a musician." Hardly a failure, their sophomore release sold more than one million copies.
Resigned from Office
In 1997, the Presidents recorded a cover version of the Buggies' hit "Video Killed the Radio Star," which appeared on the soundtrack for the film The Wedding Singer. That same year, Ballew had his first child, and the Presidents began to slow their pace. On December 17, 1997, the Presidents of the United States of America announced their breakup. They were ending their partnership amicably, and said the reason was that Ballew wanted to spend more time with his family. "I wasn't feeling the magic anymore," Ballew told the Seattle Times. "I wanted a different life where I didn't have to go out on the road to make music anymore."
On January 31, 1998, the Presidents of the United States of America performed a final concert at the Paramount Theater in Seattle to say farewell to their fans. The band donated the proceeds from the show to The Chicken Soup Brigade, a Seattle nonprofit organization that provided food, work, and transportation to people living with HIV/AIDS. In March, the band released Pure Frosting, which included live recordings, B-sides and outtakes.
Each of the three members continued to record and periodically perform with various groups. In 1999, the trio teamed with Seattle rap artist Sir Mix-A-Lot on a project called SUbSET. Recognizing that their chemistry and creative energies had not waned, the Presidents decided to reunite for another recording. "We just have some kind of magic when we play together," Dederer commented in the band's MusicBlitz press materials. "I can't describe it, can't define it, and I don't think any of us can take credit for itt's just plain dumb luck to find that kind of synchronicity, and it shouldn't be trifled with."
Returned as the Presidents
In 2000, the trio released a single called "Jupiter," which was only available on the Internet under the alias the Quitters. The band formally resurfaced under the abbreviated name the Presidents and struck a deal with the Internet-based music company MusicBlitz.com. The company formed a partnership with the band in which both parties would assume the risks and the profits of their next record. In the summer of 2000, MusicBlitz.com released Freaked Out and Small over the Internet, then released it in stores on September 12th of that year.
By the time Freaked Out and Small was released, the band had won back the rights from Columbia to return to the name the Presidents of the United States of America. Although the group did not have an aggressive tour schedule planned, they had decided to continue playing and recording music together. In a 1996 interview with Guitar World, Ballew nearly predicted the band's future and summed up their stance: "We're a little band, we make our music, and we can do that no matter what," he said. "Everything else could disappear tomorrow, and we'd still be a band, still making songs. It might even be a blessing to go back to making our little records and playing once or twice a month in Seattle."
The Presidents of the United States of America (includes "Lump," "Peaches," and "Kitty"), Pop Llama, 1994; reissued, Columbia, 1995.
II (includes "Mach 5"), Columbia, 1996.
Pure Frosting, Columbia, 1998.
(Contributor) The Wedding Singer (soundtrack), Warner Bros., 1998.
Freaked Out and Small, MusicBlitz, 2000.
Graff, Gary, and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Guitar World, May 1996.
Pandemonium, July 1995.
Seattle Times, January 8, 1996; January 11, 1996.
The Stranger, October 5, 2001.
Toronto Sun, November 11, 1996.
"Freaked Out and Small, The Presidents Are Back," MusicBlitz.com, http://www.musicblitz.com (June 9, 2001).
"Pop Trio Presidents of the U.S.A. Breaking Up," Yahoo! News, http://www.yahoo.com (June 9, 2001).
"Presidents of the United States of America," MTV News Gallery, http://www.mtv.com/news (June 9, 2001).
"Presidents of the USA Go Out With a Bang," Addict.com, http://www.addict.com (June 9, 2001).
"Presidents of USA Reunite," Jam! Showbiz, http://www.canoe.ca/jam (June 9, 2001).
"The Presidents of the United States of America," MCA Records, (June 9, 2001).
The Presidents of the United States of America (Rolling Stone article), (June 9, 2001).
"The Presidents of the United States of America Biography," RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com (June 9, 2001).