Chris Ballew is probably most familiar to folks of my generation as one of the guys behind the Presidents of the United States of America, who came out of the Pacific Northwest and had a number of alternative rock hits in the mid-'90s. And while the Presidents are still going strong (Ballew answered these questions in the midst of a European tour with the Presidents), he's turning some of his attention to making music for the younger set via Caspar Babypants.
If the giddiness of his debut Here I Am! album or his series of YouTube videos hasn't convinced you how excited Ballew is by his efforts in the family music genre, this interview will.
Zooglobble: What did you listen to or play instrument-wise growing up?
Chris Ballew: I guess I was a bit of a piano wonder kid. I started with a pro teacher when I was 4 and went until I was 14 and discovered the awesome power and majesty of the ELECTRIC GUITAR! Then it all changed focus but I still have the piano in my bones.
What artists influenced you as a musician in the Presidents?
The Beatles, Boston, Lenny Kravitz, The Stooges, and Weird Al. I wanted to make a Frankenstein’s monster of all those artists and I think I actually did it. So it has the love and peace intent of the Beatles, the arena rock swagger (it's in there!) of Boston, the clean articulate simple production of Lenny Kravitz (the early stuff), the fuzz and scrape of the Stooges, and the oddball lyrics of Weird Al.
You've been making music for kids and families on a more low-key level for a while now -- how did that come about? What artists influenced your work here?
I donated a record to an organization called PEPS in 2002. They get groups of new moms together to share experiences information and fears with a group facilitator. Part of that experience is singing with the babies and I made a record that they could sell to their participants and others to raise money and use for sing alongs in meetings. At the time I was knee deep in DJ culture and sampling and I just forgot about it!
Then in 2008 my girlfriend Kate Endle who is a children’s book illustrator and artist inspired me with her work to write some songs for a potential book project with her and that effort just EXPLODED into song after song after song and research into old nursery rhymes. I felt again the mellow ease of recording and playing music for little babies and it all felt link a NEW home in the way the band did in 1993. I could go on for pages explaining how this music is IN MY SOUL and how I feel at ease in this effort but I better keep it short!
Elizabeth Mitchell is the main influence for me. Her simple playful delivery and respect for the old songs are great. I met her and Daniel Littleton a few months ago and we have exchanged emails and it is my dream to record a song or two with them.
What gave you the final push to record Here I Am! and all the new records you're promising?
Just pure love of the making of the music! I can have days where I write AND record multiple songs in a day. I have touched some nerve, or as I like to imagine it, a river of inspiration that comes along rarely in the life of a creative person. I feel so good in the music that I cant stop making it and I see the songs come alive in a way I havent for years.
How was/is the process of writing and recording Caspar Babypants music different than doing so for adults?
Well in many ways it is still very ME. I still write using bug and animal and fantasy imagery but there is no layer of “grown-up-ness” or irony added. And I gotta say that it is a relief. Its also a reason why I feel like I could go on doing kids music for a LONG time. I all feels more sustainable and having that connection to old songs and rhymes and folk traditions makes it feel timeless and removed from the pop culture machine that I sometimes find myself uncomfortable in with grown up rock.
You've recently started playing Caspar Babypants shows -- what do you like about it and what have you found to be challenging?
Well I have only done ONE show so far and it was too short and I wanted more immediately! I have a ton of ideas for the shows like writing songs live with kids and multiple instruments that I hop around on and lyrics for singing along projected behind me. But I gotta work up to it all.
I am developing a TV show as well that will be a collaborative song writing experience with kids from all over the world. Kids will give me lyrics or key words or stories and each week I will turn 4-5 of them in to songs and perform them and show little movies and cartoons.
I should note that part of me feels that the real PURPOSE of the music I am making is to soothe the frazzled nerves of parents and kids at home and in the car and I see the live thing as a bit of an afterthought so I'm not sure how that will all develop. I love thinking about that hectic environment and how I can add melody and imagery to the day to day life of a new family. It is very inspiring.
What music do you listen to with your family?
MY OWN! The kids are constantly helping with the songs in the background and my son has recently written some excellent songs that we are recording together. They each have iPods and they disappear into that space a lot and come out singing Beatles and Nirvana songs.
From the perspective of making a living as a musician, how do you see making music for families fitting in -- is it a sideline, or do you think it could be a major component of day-to-day work?
My goal is to have the CASPAR BABYPANTS thing be my main gig in a few years. The band still has work to do but I see my passion for the fever pitch of the rock band dwindling over time or settling into a low gear for good. I dream of the day when I have all this music bottled up inside me out into the world!
What's next for you and Caspar Babypants?
BIG QUESTION! First of all more music. I have SO many songs and albums that I am working on at the same time. they include: a new album of traditional and original songs, a Beatles cover record, a record of stories by kids narrated with musical backgrounds, a parody record of classic songs rewritten for babies, a Christmas album that will be half originals and half covers and and and and.... I just want this thing to slowly grow and be a positive loving sound in a cluttered busy world.
Chris Ballew photo by Josie Ballew