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Presidential pardon

Former hit band, The Presidents of the United States of America, no longer has the devil on its shoulders

Posted: Thursday, October 16, 2003

With a song about a girl named Lump and another about a tree full of Peaches, The Presidents of the United States of America were one of the biggest bands in the world in the mid-1990s.

The Seattle trio sold more than 5 million albums, earned a Grammy nomination in 1996 and - in as clear a sign of omnipresence as any - hailed in 1997 as the featured band on "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve."

Then came the pressure, the burnout and finally the "farewell show," a benefit appearance at Seattle's Paramount Theatre in January 1998.

Bassist Chris Ballew, guitarist Dave Dederer and drummer Jason Finn have jammed together since then and reunited at least twice - once to collaborate with Sir Mix-A-Lot and once for 10 days in 2000 to pound out an album for a now-defunct startup indie label.

But they've tried to put the major label headaches behind them. Ten months after reuniting and regaining the rights to their mutli-platinum debut from a seven-year license to Sony Music, the Presidents know what they want, should they ever be as famous as they were.

"I wouldn't go on tour again, just because it's no fun," Dederer said.

The Presidents play their first Juneau show at 8:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, at Marlintini's Lounge. Tickets for the 21 and over concert are $25 in advance, $30 at the door.

"Right now, we're playing one or two shows at a time and the longest we leave home is for three days," he said. "We have yet to play in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami or any primary market, because it's not fun. People there are jaded, they don't go to shows to have a good time.

"In Alaska, people go to shows to get drunk and crazy and that's the whole point of rock and roll. Plus, if I have to leave my wife and children for a couple days, I'd rather fly to Southeast Alaska than to Indianapolis. It's just more inspiring."

They're a little bit older, but stylistically, the Presidents are the same band they've always been. Ballew and Dederer plug into small amps and don't use all their strings. Finn whales on a tiny kit. They set up their gear as close together and as close to the front of the stage as possible. And they still like to play "Lump," "Peaches," "Kitty," "Candy," and all the songs that once helped sell 20,000-30,000 albums a week.

"We were way different from anything else back then, and I realize now, going out and playing again, that we're still way different than anything else out there," Dederer said.

"When we first started, one guy said we were like the Cars, but we're most like Van Halen. We're a band that likes to play rock and roll party music, and we're going to have a good time while we play it. You just show up and play for who's there, if there are three people in a bar or 30,000 people in a football stadium."

The Presidents were token goofballs, and thus a curiosity, in Seattle's flannel-clad, cookie-cutter, grunge scene in the mid-1990s. They've often been credited with some variation of "changing the face of the grunge scene," but that's not entirely true.

In the middle to late 1980s, Finn was the drummer for Seattle-based Skin Yard, one of the bands credited with pioneering the sludgy, heavy-bass, heavy-guitar, heavy-drum grunge sound. The group included Jack Endino, who later produced Nirvana's "Bleach." Finn also played drums in Love Battery, one of the other big bands on Sub Pop Records when the Seattle label started making millions off Nirvana.

"We like to say Jason invented grunge," Dederer said.

Dederer was a graduate student in Seattle in the early 1990s, and Ballew was splitting his time between Seattle and Boston, where he busked on the subway and near Boston Commons. Both were into Chuck Berry and the Beatles more than any part of the grunge scene. They had been playing music together since the mid-1980s, getting together whenever Ballew was in town to write 15 songs and play shows.

In 1993, they started what would become the Presidents. Finn saw them play and joined the band.

"We certainly were conscious of being inclusive," Dederer said. "Grunge is the opposite of that: this is my private hell and maybe you can relate to that. We certainly were different. Chris is this bald goofy guy with gold boots. I was kind of a preppy guy in a gingham shirt with saddle shoes. We'd show up with two $40 guitars and paper bags and we'd start playing Stooges songs."

By mid-1994, with Nirvana's "Nevermind" at the top of the charts, the Presidents were one of the most popular bands in Seattle. A year later, they were stars. The first album was filled with Ballew's songs about bugs, creatures and easy icons of childhood. But with success came doubts.

"Chris was revisiting childhood songwriting themes and not censoring himself at all and just writing dumbass songs about critters," Dederer said.

"They were great songs, and we tried to keep it uncensored, but then we started to think about who's going to hear the songs. Is the radio format going to like it? It was just horrible and debilitating. It was like a little, nasty devil sitting on one shoulder," he said. "It took three years for that voice to go away, but now it's gone and it's never coming back."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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