Presidents: Finding the joyful side of grunge

Chris Bieri
Courtesy of the band

For a five-year stretch in the 1990s, the Presidents of United States of America were in high gear -- as sought-after and active as nearly any band in the country.

The Seattle trio appeared on late-night talk shows and presidential fundraisers between mad-dash world tours, producing two gold records and earning a pair of Grammy nominations.

"It all happened incredibly quickly, between '94 and '98," Presidents drummer Jason Finn said. "We went from zero to 1,000. The first couple years, we had our heads down and we were just working. You get on a plane and you don't know where you're going."

In the ensuing years, family life slowly enveloped rock star life, leaving the band working part time instead of overtime.

"It had some great elements and some others we just knew we weren't meant for, long-term," Finn said. "We had to seek out a sort of a middle gear. Now we're taking it into granny gear. We're just too old and have too many kids."

Even as they've geared down, Finn says the Presidents have always stayed active with shows in Alaska, and return on May 1 to play the Bear Tooth Theatrepub.

"I think we probably have as much Alaska history as about anyone you could think of," Finn said. "We started coming up every year in about 2004 and doing these little circuits of Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks. We've done it at all different times of year, including January and February in Fairbanks, which is amazing. We've been up there a lot. I like to think it's a win-win, because we enjoy going up there."

When they rose to popularity in the early '90s, the Presidents did so with a combination of catchy songs with lighthearted, sometimes bizarre themes and a unique sound forged by hybrid instruments.

Founding member and chief songwriter Chris Ballew played a "bassitar," a modified six-string guitar with two bass guitar strings. Dave Dederer, and later Andrew McKeag, who replaced Dederer in 2004, play the "guitbass," which also includes both bass and guitar strings. That instrumentation, along with Finn's aggressive drumming style, gave the band a heavy sound that fit with the grunge movement of the time, but was distinctly more fun than the rest of the bands that made up the brooding Seattle sound.

"The main thing we were trying to get across is joy," Finn said. "Not happiness, but joy -- connecting with the positive. We feel like there's something very primal and elemental in music that has to do with darker elements -- bleakness, alienation, outcast. I'm glad it's there, it's been admirably served. We've been able to build a little niche by skipping over that."

Ballew's songwriting on tunes like "Kitty," about a bad cat that has to spend the night outside, and the Grammy-nominated "Peaches," showed a sly sense of humor that he's carried into a recent children's song project called "Caspar Babypants."

"I suppose by extension, it's in between," Finn said of Ballew's Presidents catalog. "It's more ironic than pop music and less ironic than kids' music -- or maybe just moronic."

Despite leaving full-time status, the band released a new album earlier this year with the help of crowd-sourcing site PledgeMusic.

"We came across a crowd-sourcing thing we felt was a little more optimized for musical groups," Finn said. "We had a great time doing it. It was an easy way to reach out to our global community and do it as a partnership."

Finn said people who pledged received not only a copy of "Kudos To You," but rare items from the band's more than two-decade history, from concert posters and shirts to "stuff that had been in Chris's kitchen drawer for 20 years."

Finn said the band doesn't "have the inclination to put something out every two years," but still connects with fans through shorter tours and PUSAfest, held in Seattle annually on Presidents Day weekend.

"Our secret for continuing to love playing live is that we geared down to part-timers some years ago, neatly avoiding the dreaded burn-out factor that is a hazard for road dogs of our vintage," Finn said.

By Chris Bieri