Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Presidents of the United States of America: No Strings Attached! (1995)

(As published in B-Side)

They're too young to run, they haven't sworn to uphold the Constitution, and--judging from their music--they've almost certainly inhaled. But Chris Ballew (bass), Dave Dederer (guitar), and Jason Finn (drums) are the Presidents of the United States of America. And if you don't believe us, go to any decent record store and look between "Prefab Sprout" and "Elvis Presley." There you'll find the trio's self-titled debut CD, which Columbia re-issued as soon as they wooed the Presidents from Seattle's PopLlama Productions. And if you look at the photo on the inner-sleeve, you'll see Chris, Dave, and Jason posing with another, somewhat more famous President.

"It was November," recalls Finn.

"The first weekend in November," adds Ballew.

"We opened for Bill," Finn resumes. "He was in Seattle doing a get-out-the-vote rally for the Democratic Party."

"What a success that was!" interjects Ballew.

"Yeah," continues Jason. "We played before all the politicians, met Bill, shook his hand, and got a picture with him. Then the Republicans swept Washington state and the nation."

Mr. Clinton's sagging approval ratings do tend to be contagious. Do the Presidents regret their brush with such tarnished brass?

"Well, luckily enough, he didn't actually endorse us," insists Finn, "but we should avoid that in the future. We should get Bob Dole."

At this point in most articles about groups as jocular as the POTUS, you'd come across the phrase "all joking aside" or something like that. But with the Presidents, all joking is never aside. From the enthusiasm with which they throw themselves into lyrics like "Kitty in my lap and I wanna touch it" and the effrontery with which they butcher a sacred musical cow like MC5's “Kick Out the Jams” to their Zen-like insistence on playing with only partially strung guitars, they embody the self-deprecatingly goofy, by-the-seat-of-the-pants ethic at the heart of the best novelty rock.

And also like the best novelty rock, they rock, as one listen to “Lump,” to name their rockingest and most famous example, will confirm. As for this business of playing with too few strings, Ballew credits Morphine's Mark Sandman for turning him on to the glories of the two-string bass.

"I lived with him for a while," Ballew remembers. "We had a band during the summers in Boston. He handed me a two-string bass, and I said, 'Hallelujah!' It felt so good."

Before long, Dederer was following suit, unstringing his own guitar and transforming it in the process into a "guitbass."

"It's exactly like Chris's two-string basitar except it has one more string that's higher," Dederer explains.

"It's so easy," Ballew continues. "You tune it to an open chord and just use your finger like a bar across the fret board. It's an approach that weeds out the material that's not worth it. And you can jump around when you play. It's total freedom. Actually, Mark [Sandman] does an act called 'One' with just a one-string guitar."

Surely absolute stringlessness cannot be far behind?"I’ve tried that," Ballew admits, "playing into the pickup."

“We've also tried the one-key keyboard," adds Finn.

But lest the growing legion of Morphine and Presidents wanna-bees think they can just waltz into Instruments R Us and request the Sandman-Ballew-Dederer special, they should know that such a time has yet to arrive.

"Someday you will be able to because Dave and I are going to market them," Ballew predicts. "But in the meantime you have to buy a shitty old six-string, take all the strings off, and throw on a couple of bass strings yourself.

"It boils everything down. If a song is good enough to function with two strings, it's definitely a good song."

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