The new century has seen plenty of ’90s rockers transition into new careers as family music artists, with some making the leap more unexpectedly than others. The one that’s made arguably the most sense — and yet been one of the most surprising — is Chris Ballew of Presidents of the United States of America, the power trio that made some of the most off-kilter power pop to grace the airwaves during the grunge/buzz bin era. At the time, PotUSA sounded like the latest flavor of winking, flannel-draped irony, but here’s the most ironic twist of all: they really meant it.
Now reborn for younger generations as Caspar Babypants, Ballew has been cranking out spare, thoughtful, goofy, and wonderfully addictive family music since way back in 2009, when he released his first album under the Babypants moniker. Given that he’s already released two more since then, it’s easy to see (and to hear) how gladly Ballew has taken to his new calling. We spoke with Chris recently to find out more about life as Caspar, talk to him about his artistic process, and get a few hints about what’s next for him. Here’s what we talked about.
Let’s start by talking about your approach to songwriting, especially as a parent. Do you consciously set aside time for writing, or do you just wait for inspiration to strike?
Well, I mostly go with the flow. I do set aside the time to tweak ideas. Right now, I have a song called “My Flea Has Dogs,” which came together because I was sitting in the kitchen playing something on the ukulele, and my wife just started singing those words. A lot of times, songs are born from moments like that — moments of inspiration or silliness.
But then, it becomes about the craft — massaging that moment into something that’s finished, something that people are going to want to listen to over and over again. I set aside time for that, but it’s impossible for me to set aside time for inspiration.
One of the things that’s interesting to me about the Caspar Babypants records is how clearly the music represents an extension of the reductive approach you took with the Presidents. It seems like a big part of your process is stripping away non-essential elements.
Yeah, I like limitations. I feel like it focuses the songwriting to have musical limitations, because if you’re going to make a song sound good on a three-, two-, or even a one-string guitar, you’re creating something good enough to be played on pretty much anything. I guess I like leaning more on the melody and the content than the instruments. But that being said, the whole two- or three-string thing has become very special for me, and I can find voicings within that framework that I can’t do on a regular guitar, and it somehow subtly makes the music unique to the listener, whether they know it or not. I think it helps set it apart.
How quickly do these songs tend to come together for you? You’re obviously very prolific.
All different speeds. For example, “$9.99,” from the More Please! album, literally fell out of the sky into my brain. I was in the kitchen getting a glass of water, and it was finished in the time it took me to get to the studio and record it. But some songs take years — there are songs I’m retooling that I started writing 20 years ago. It’s a thousand different ways. Every song has its own arc and its own story.
Speaking of different stories, my five-year-old daughter insisted that I ask you how you thought of “The Legend of the Bone.” That song makes my kids crack up every time they hear it.
Well, that was an interesting one. It started out of a much simpler song, called “The Dog Chewed the Bone,” which didn’t really have a story — it had a dog chewing on a bone, and a duck chewing on a piece of bread; it was about animals eating, basically. It may have been even less structured than that — it was pretty surreal. And then I decided to give it a storyline, so it’s had two lives, so to speak. Mainly, I just saw it in my head, you know? I find that my best songs come from strong visuals like that. That way, when the listener listens, they get the visual, too. It makes it more engaging.
My kids especially love that background narration you put in there.
Oh yeah, that was a last-minute thing. I had finished the song, and I was playing it back in the studio, just kind of listening to it absent-mindedly, because I like to try and hear it the way other people will hear it, and as I was doing that, I started hearing those little voices — I thought, “I have to add this immediately.” A lot of times, on those final listens, I’ll come up with an additional part — a little frosting — and that one ended up being pretty crucial.
You don’t have any shortage of original songs, but the Caspar albums include a lot of traditional material, and I wanted to talk to you about that.
Yeah, that’s a really intensely important part of why I’m so excited about the Caspar records, is that I finally get to — I’ve been influenced by old folk music and public domain music for a long time, but I didn’t use it in the most direct way. For example, for the Presidents song “Boll Weevil,” I took the title of an old folk song, but I wrote my own words and music. Now, what I’m doing is taking the originals, and either taking the theme, or the theme and the music, and expanding them.
I’m doing it with nursery rhymes, too. Like “Three Blind Mice” or “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” I’m taking them apart and adding new verses. I think it’s a beautiful process, because I think that’s how music should pass through culture. Take songs, personalize them, pass them around, and eventually everybody’s singing different versions of the same thing. What I think is beautiful about that is that it transcends commerce — it unshackles ideas from the recent addition of this limitation of ownership. It makes these great, timeless themes that have been around for a long time because they’re good, and they have integrity, and they somehow hook you into basic human joys.
They’re timeless for a reason, and it’s fun to be able to piggyback onto that energy and add my own. I love it.
That’s true, although I think a lot of times, those traditional songs are used for the wrong reasons. I mean, it’s cheaper and easier to record “Shoo Fly” than to come up with an original statement. But you aren’t just parroting these songs, you’re deconstructing them and adding your own voice.
Yeah, I’m kind of deconstructing them and rebuilding them in my own image — adding a little bit of a groove or something. Nothing too clever; I don’t want to take them out of their place as evocative, gentle melodies. I don’t want to take them out of their world by making them wacky or adding drums or whatever, but I do want to push them into the 21st century a little bit.
Like in “Shoo Fly,” for instance, you’ll notice that in the original version, the only lyric is “I feel like a morning star.” I added “evening lake,” “sunset tree,” and other lines, but I tried to keep that “morning star” feeling. That lyrical relationship. I’m not saying I feel like a supercharged jet or something — I’m very consciously staying away from imagery that’s cool in my songs. Planes, fire trucks, or anything like that. I love keeping it in the world of animals and bugs and nature — that relaxing simplicity.
That’s reflected in the arrangements, too — but they also have a surprising amount of depth. They’re deceptively involved.
Thanks for noticing. What I love to do on an album is have songs that are simple and repetitive, like “Shoo Fly” or “Run Baby Run,” next to a song that’s like “Legend of the Bone,” where it’s a story and a big flashy ending as a trick, or something unexpected. I like for each song to have its own personality. That’s me trying to respect the parents, because they have to listen to it over and over again.
I’m really trying to make this music for the family. Something they can come together with, rather than “Here, kids, here’s your music, now get out of here because I can’t stand it anymore.” Keeping the arrangements and the recordings balanced between simple and involved is a fun kind of chemistry that I’m trying to perfect so parents can get behind the music, because they’re the ones buying the albums. [Laughs]
Well, I’ll tell you, the more I listen to the Caspar albums, the more I want to listen to them. And if someone had told me in the ’90s that I’d be listening to — and enjoying — family music from the guy who wrote “Lump” and “Peaches,” I wouldn’t have believed them.
Yeah, I know what you’re saying. But if you think about it, the Presidents had this thing where we explored the friction between innuendo and innocence. Innocent themes, but with a possibility of sexuality or coolness. I mean, inside every Presidents song, there is a core of innocence — and with Caspar, what I’ve done is strip everything else away, including the loud guitars and drums, until all I’m left with is that core.
It’s really, for me, just a removal of an aspect of songwriting that frankly, I was never all that comfortable with. I never really felt like I had that balance between innocence and innuendo firmly in my toolbelt, and it was always stressful writing those songs, because I had to write hundreds just to get one where the balance was correct. Now I don’t have to do that. I just get to be innocent.
Yes, and listening to the Caspar records helped me understand that. At the time, I thought the Presidents were just being clever for the sake of being clever, but that innocence was genuine.
Oh, totally. The goal here is to take a really relaxing, fun, sunny afternoon and bottle it up into a song, and that was the goal with the Presidents, too. Now, I don’t have to be clever in an ironic way anymore. I can do it in a fun, inventive way, but I don’t have to worry about the other stuff, and I’m really enjoying freedom from irony. [Laughs]
Let’s circle back to talking about songwriting. Specifically, I want to talk about your approach to writing songs for kids and families — how you invest them with these qualities you’re talking about, rather than just making them goofy for goofy’s sake.
I feel like I can do this because it’s really me. I’m writing songs that make me feel good — I’m not writing songs for kids. My palate is genuinely represented in these songs — you know, the things that make me super happy. That’s how I fell into this, honestly. I was just searching my voice, and I found this, and when I tried to figure out where it fit in the world, the answer was kids’ music.
So that’s the difference. I think if you sit there and ask yourself, “What would a child want to hear?,” that’s a whole different process.
Can you talk at all about the next Caspar Babypants album?
Oh, definitely. It’s got a lot of traditional reworkings on it, and I’ve really gotten into call and response.
I spoke with Ella Jenkins just a few weeks ago…
I just was going to say, I listened to a lot of her music to get inspired for this record. I’ve taken a few traditional songs that she plays and reworked them in my own way, and there are also a few songs that didn’t make the last album that were painful to cut, so I’m putting them here, including one called “Butterfly Driving a Truck,” which was written by a four-year-old friend of mine. I’ve whittled it down to about 26 songs, and I’m trying to figure out what’s staying and what isn’t, and it’s going to be called Away We Go!
When you’re writing songs or new arrangements for old ones, how much of your process is instinctive and how much is intellectual? What influences your choices for chords and keys?
I’d say it’s probably about 50/50. The writing is all instinct — seeing the visual, getting the groove down, and kind of tapping into the collective unconscious to get that vibe going. And then I have to listen to what comes out of that process, and I have to do it objectively, which takes time. Maybe one or two months later, I’ll say, “Oh, okay. This has to be in a different key, or it needs different instrumentation.” Sometimes I don’t get those answers for a couple of years.
When I get to the point I’m at for the next record, where I’m listening to things and trying to decide what’s on and what’s off, I have a gut reaction that happens — a voice that says “That’s not it. It isn’t quite there.” Inevitably, six or eight months later, I’ll listen to that song and have a revelation: That song isn’t supposed to be a lullaby, it needs to be a rocker. Or it needs a different key, or it needs piano instead of guitar. Or the theme will change. So the critical part takes awhile, and it takes trusting my gut instinct, which is another part of this that I like — it requires me to be in touch with my guts. [Laughs]
This is all instructive, I think, for artists as well as listeners, to understand that even music this pared back and simple has so much work behind it.
There really is. There’s a song for the next album called “Baby Cloud,” and oh my God, I’ve recorded at least five different versions. I just recently completely restructured the instrumentation. I don’t even know if it can be on the record, because it’s so volatile and up in the air, but — do you know Gustafer Yellowgold?
I just did an interview with him a few weeks ago.
His wife Rachel sings on it — she’s kind of a specialist when it comes to singing medieval music, and this song has a bit of a medieval feel, although it’s also influenced by an African-American fiddle tune that I heard. And I gave it to Pete Droge to add something, although what he came up with didn’t really connect with the song. So it’s had this long, twisted road, but I promise you that when you hear it, it’ll sound like it took five minutes to make.
Which is pretty much the way it should be, right?
Right — I try to get it to the point where it’s transparent and easy.
So let’s turn things around a little and talk business. How much of the promotion are you handling for the new record?
Can you talk about that? How did you develop your promotional skills? I’m sure you’ve had firsthand experience with the way the music industry’s ability to support artists has eroded…
Yes, and that industry is completely irrelevant to kids’ artists. You know, I’ve just had to develop my own weird rituals and tools, like spreadsheets that no one but me understands. I take do-it-yourself to a new height on the business end, but I do keep track of stuff pretty well. I sell CDs through a distribution company called Burnside, and through toy stores here in Seattle, through CD Baby and so on. I used to sell CDs through my website, but I was spending two hours a day stuffing packages.
That raises the question of how you manage to find a balance between the business and the music.
Well, the number one thing I did was that I stopped playing video games. [Laughter] I decided to treat my life like a video game. My score is “number of albums sold” or whatever. I mean, I look at it like anything I do towards putting my music in the hands of families is worth the effort. The one aspect of the business I really can’t handle, that I’m not interested in, is putting together tours.
I really think, though, that with the Internet, anyone who’s interested can find me. And I really do rely on people telling their friends about the music — word of mouth is my number one source of publicity. I did do a publicist with the last record, and that was great, but I can’t afford it with this one. I’m depending on the kindness of strangers.
Well, the music deserves it. Thank you for taking the time to talk today, and for doing what you’re doing.
I appreciate that. You’re so welcome, and it makes me feel really good when people tell me they get it, and that the music is connecting to them. I’m not doing this to be famous, or even really to be successful. I mean, I’m doing it to be successful in the sense that I’m getting music to families so their five-hour car rides aren’t stressful.
In the end, I feel like anything I can do to reduce stress is worthwhile, because families with young kids — and that’s who this music is aimed at — they can be nervous, they can not get enough sleep, and at their worst, they can lash out and get angry with their kids. Verbally, or even physically, possibly. Even the people with the best intentions can succumb to evil reactions when they’re sleepless. I feel like I’m trying to be a piece of the puzzle in terms of making parents feel taken care of.
That’s a really beautiful sentiment, and I think that purity of intent has a lot to do with why people respond to the music the way they do. It’s obvious there’s a big spiritual component to your creative process.
Absolutely. I do Qigong, I do this breathing tai chi stuff, and it gets me to the point where I can’t tell the boundary between my body and the rest of reality, and I think that’s how children feel. At a certain age — zero to six months — they don’t understand the boundaries of their bodies. They’re just an energetic presence in their own brains, and I think that state of mind is going to be a component toward ultimate human enlightenment that we’re going to value. We won’t value getting more than the other guy, but we’ll value that interconnected sensation. So I think there’s a sort of core righteousness to little children. They’re connected to what we’re hopefully going to figure out.
And I think there’s something wonderfully subversive about that running through an album with a cartoon octopus on the cover.
Yeah! [Laughs] I feel like the Presidents had some of that, too, because that music wasn’t designed to be huge. I remember distinctly having a conversation early in our career about the possibility of some record company giving us a bunch of money, and I didn’t even think it was possible. We were just doing it for ourselves.
I always thought you guys seemed to have an admirably down-to-earth response to your success.
That’s because success is, pardon my French, total bullshit. [Laughter] It really is. It’s worse than that — it’s evil, man. It wrecks your day. It ruins your life. It took me out of my town that I loved, it took me away from my friends, my family, it wrecked my nervous system, it plagued me with self-doubt and feelings of worthlessness. It sets you up with all kinds of opportunities to fail.
And nobody wants to hear that story! Everybody wants to hear that it’s awesome. Nobody cares! Nobody wants to hear a successful person whine, because everyone thinks it’s this golden ticket to an amazing room where everything is beautiful — but it’s really a room with fluorescent lights, warm ham, and old bread. And you’re tired and you want to go to sleep, but you have to play another show. But I won’t go any further than that, because again, nobody wants to hear that story.
Well, here’s to a different kind of success, then.
Yeah. I don’t want to wreck Caspar Babypants. I don’t ever want it to become something I resent. I want to protect it and make sure it stays something that’s complementary to my life now, instead of taking over my life.
I think it’s a really beautiful journey you’ve taken, back into the core of what you feel like your creativity is for.
Exactly. I feel like I have found my voice, after years and years and years of searching, and starting bands, and stopping bands, and success, and failure. I’m at this point where it’s not even about success and failure anymore, it’s just about me doing what I was meant to do, and it’s really connecting with people in a peaceful, productive way. I feel like I’m helping people see the world through innocent eyes, and to feel simple, relaxed, and taken care of. In this cluttered world full of garbage and crap and anger, I feel like I’m doing the right thing.
- Caspar Babypants goes to City Hall (but not for politics) (westseattleblog.com)
- A Conversation with the Okee Dokee Brothers (dadnabbit.com)
- A Conversation with Brady Rymer (dadnabbit.com)