It may well be that listening to the Presidents of the United States of America and subsequently realizing that their very complex melodic structures are played by THREE people convinced this Singing-Bassist to dare to pick up the bass, to sing and to write songs. So you might well imagine the thrill it was to obtain this interview with the mastermind of the Presidents of the United States of America, Chris Ballew. It was my first interview ever. To talk about his songwriting, his recording, his singing, his band-formations and his bass-playing. Until he informed me that “He really doesn’t play bass!” in his first response!
This interview was recorded on June 4, 2009.
Singing Bassist: When the presidents were performing as a duo in the beginning, what instrument did you play?
Chris Ballew: I played the two-string back then, just like I do now in the band. Two-stringed guitar. I’m technically not really a bass player, although, I play as if I’m playing bass lines, a lot of times I strum like (on a) guitar and make chords. I play a two-stringed instrument, so, yes, I’ve been playing that instrument since then.
SB: (So far so good!) In your view, does it make sense to play bass without a drummer?
CB: Yes, it makes a lot of sense, the way I do it, as its like a strummy instrument, like a guitar almost, or sort of a hybrid between the two, and I can get a lot of rhythm out of that. In fact in the children’s music thing (Caspar Babypants) I’m doing now, I do a three-stringed guitar and I play a lot of bass-lines on it, and it kind of holds down the rhythm section as well, because sometimes I play without a drummer, so yeah, I think it does make sense.
SB: Bass-guitar is not the most intuitive singalong instrument. So when did you decide that bass was the instrument for you?
CB: I really haven’t decided that actually. I’ve decided that bass is one of the instruments I love to play, piano is the other. It’s really the two-string and the three-string that I’ve decided are my instruments. Six-stringed guitar, four-stringed bass, doesn’t really excite me, I find myself doing all sorts of typical things that I’ve done for a long long time and I get bored of those instruments pretty quickly.
SB: Why do you prefer playing bass and singing?
SB: Do you prefer a small band size?
CB: Absolutely! Three is the most, that’s it. No more than three! Too many phone calls, too many personalities. Its difficult to get three people who want to do the same thing, on any given day, at all, let alone be in a band and tour all over the world. So three is it. I have a lot of side-projects that are duos, just two people, and that’s awesome, one phone-call to make practice happen, and all that kind of good stuff. But I love three: its the magic number!
SB: Do you only release songs which are performable live?
CB: Absolutely not! I release a lot of songs which will never see the stage, or might mutate to see the stage in some future version. No, I think it is really important to release yourself from thinking of live and recording as needing to be the same sound. They can be very different…..
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Dennis Alstrand says
I remember being amazed and perplexed when I saw a POTUSA video and saw that he was only using two strings. It just wasn’t done! And then it started making sense. Why should we follow the age old format. Well done, Mr. Ballew.
Guitar Lessons LA says
Awww man this band rock my world. I can’t begin to imagine how they write such great tunes with so few strings. Love em!
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