Interview with Chris Ballew

Field Notes Interview #83: Chris Ballew (of Caspar Babypants & Presidents of the United States of America)

We chat with Marmoset artist and frontman of Presidents of the United States of America, Chris Ballew, about this transition to writing children's music (as Caspar Babypants), approaching music like a painter, uncovering the secret history of nursery rhymes, and of course, The Beatles.

Move over, Raffi.

There is no separation between talking with Chris Ballew and listening to his music. His art is conversational to the core, and that's the point -- it's all about connection. Ballew will be the first to tell you that he's much more at ease shedding the life of playing arenas in his past project and trading it with playing in a library. For him, it's all about having an experience with his audience -- who just happen to be between the ages of 0-5.  With 10 albums under his belt and two more already written and waiting to be recorded, Ballew is always creating and weaving together fantastic storylines with stomping bears, or playful ants. The most amazing part is that while the song is playing, the stories feel as real as anything outside your front door. You are transported.

We chatted with Ballew on the phone so you can get to know him in his own words. Enjoy.

Marmoset: When did you start playing music? Why music over any other art form?

Chris Ballew: First, the earth was a ball of molten lava, and then I got Sgt. Pepper's [Lonely Hearts Club Band] when I was two and half. Pretty much everything in between those two events is not a big deal. I just totally went crazy for it. It’s all I listened to basically from when I was two and a half until I was 10 -- I didn’t even know there were other bands in the world.

That record is so visual and vivid. It’s not an ego record, it’s not brooding. Its mission is to entertain and tell stories and paint pictures. As a little kid, that just went off like gangbusters in my brain. I saw the songs, I hallucinated the songs when I listened to the record. I would listen to the record every day at least once -- it just became completely knitted into my sense of how people express themselves. Every adjective I could use to describe Sgt. Peppers is what I want people to use to describe the music I make.

Overall, as I’ve surfed the wide world of musical possibilities, I just kept coming back to the atmosphere of that record. I did the rock band thing, did the Presidents [of the United States of America], which was fantastic and successful, but it didn’t have that wide palette. As a band, you’re locked into the people that you’re performing with. The Beatles managed to expand their palette as a band, but we were not The Beatles. We didn’t have the daring or the vision as a three piece to explore that, so I got frustrated. I’m only painting with primary colors here -- I want the entire spectrum.

I started tinkering around on the side and figured out how to achieve my goals without the rock band. It eventually led me to making music for little kids, and it has completely satisfied every need as an artist. I get to sort of revisit my initial experience -- the doorway into how vivid music can be -- by making music for kids that were my age when I discovered it. I’m trying to be their Sgt. Pepper's.

M: What’s a key songwriting element when you know a song has a visual component to it?

CB: I’ve learned how to be really ruthless with my lyrics. I feel it working when I see it. If I can think of what the song is about, the picture the song’s trying to paint, and everything supports that, then the song is done.

M: Is there an intentionality of keeping everything local?

CB: Quality of life -- it’s a decision, after 20 years as a rock band. We didn’t even tour as much as people think -- we were lightweights. The longest we were on the road was nine weeks.

The music the Presidents became famous for was written during a very simple time of life. All I was doing was hanging out with my friends, smoking a bowl, playing frisbee and jamming. That made things real simple and easy, and out of that ease came all of the joy in the songs. The joy in the songs became the mechanism for our fame, which took us away from the simple life and joy in the songs in the first place. It was a weird catch 22, like being told, “Sorry, you can’t have the simple life anymore... and you have to be on a bus.”

Things for us got really complicated. All of sudden we were in charge of a multinational corporation and had contracts and decisions to make. That stuff is hard, because the cultural attitude about fame is that it’s easy and everybody who says it isn’t is a whiner. Fame is a weird meat grinder where starry-eyed children go in and lumps of depressed meat go out.

I wanted to leave right away, I wanted to break up immediately, but couldn’t convince the other guys. We had a good long run, though. I just like things that are a little weirder than a rock band. I’d much rather do what I’m doing now in a fluorescent-lit library meeting room on a Tuesday to 150 children. It’s more challenging, fun and visceral to me than playing grownup shows in rock clubs. There’s a point where you’re playing to 50,000 people and you can’t have an experience with them -- you’re just providing the notes and songs. I need to play something that feels alive. With Caspar Babypants, I don’t even have a set list, and ride the energy of the audience. Playing solo, I get to decide when to change the vibe.

M: Was it an easy transition to go solo? What were some of your first experiences?

CB: Playing solo was very hard and disorienting. It took me hundreds of shows to feel solid. I’ve played 850 Caspar shows, and I probably only got my sea legs after 500 shows. I’ve got it now and feel comfortable at it. For me, writing songs is like being a painter or a sculptor. I’m adding and carving away and constantly shifting and moving pieces. If I get far down the line and I realize a guitar part isn’t helping the overall purpose of the song, I’d like to erase it. In a band setting, you hurt someone’s feelings doing that. I’m so in service to the song coming to life that I’m not afraid of cutting out things like the guitar in the mixing process. I’ll get into what Nancy Wilson from Heart calls a “mute party,” and figure out how little I can get away with and make it work. I find this process more conducive to being alone and work more like a painter. Music has this social component, but that doesn’t really work for me. I work better as a solo painter.

M: What space do you create for yourself to write?

CB: It’s changed over the years. A few albums in, I got more serious about researching old public domain songs and updating them. For this new record, I rewrote and researched “Pop Goes the Weasel” and found that “weasel” was slang for a coat, like a heavy winter coat. This meant that you're losing buttons on your coat and it’s falling apart. It was a hard knock life song about living in London in mid 1800’s. It’s about drinking your pay away and being poor. So I changed it to be about a wonder band in the 60’s who hit a rise to fame and then a crash trying to keep up with The Beatles. I brought back the hard luck story, but kept the fun in it.

Lately, I’ve been into pre-production, keeping a folder of all my songs that aren’t working yet. When I have time on my hands, like when taking my daughter to a sports event where I have to wait for an hour, I bring the folder and I pick a song and I just stare at it for a long time and ask questions about it. Is it an anthem? A lullaby? I give it a lot of consideration before starting it. Some songs just fall from the sky. I try to be in the studio every day, but I try not to force it.


M: Do you find yourself having to be a researcher in a lot of your songs, uncovering weighted history to a lot of these seemingly innocent children’s songs?

CB: They’re all political cartoons. In the late 1700s, it was common for people to make fun of royalty, but it could be a dangerous affair if you stood on a box somewhere criticizing the king and queen. So people made up little rhymes in the form of children songs to make fun of royalty without them knowing it. Which makes me think that I should make a modern song making fun of Trump [laughs]. Mostly what I’m doing is taking out the darkness of the historic intensity and reimagining the songs. I’ve read a lot of great books on the secret history of nursery rhymes.

M: Continuing this tradition of storytelling? In what way do you feel like you’re adding something different to this lineage?

CB: More than something different, I’m thinking of a continuation. Music used to pass through society in a more plastic way than it does now. You’d hear a song, a barn hoe-down, then bring it back and adapt it to play to your community and sing it for them and it kept repeating that process to the next community. I’m fascinated with the songs that we still know from that time -- they have integrity and survived that time when music was passed from hand to hand. It’s just a natural way that music should flow in the world.

There're some people that do traditional songs very reverently, and I think it’s a disservice to the lineage of how traditional music should be flowing, because it’s public domain, and free to translate into your own vision.

I stumbled into a bar in Boston in 1991 and this guy [“Spider” John Koerner] is playing in the back of the bar -- basically being ignored -- but playing these old songs about animals. I used to think songs about animals weren’t as important and deep as what I was trying to write about human relationships. Then I walk in and I’m like “Whoa, he’s playing these old songs with integrity, and they’re about animals?!” When it came time to write kids music, I returned to his interpretations of old songs. He gives them a groove with subtle updates. I use him as a benchmark for quality in my own music.

"Spider" John Koerner

M: So check out “Spider” John Koerner and dust off Sgt. Pepper's. Done.

CB: Yes, there’s your assignment. 

Posted on April 25, 2016 and filed under Field Notes.