From Presidents to Pants: Rocker reinvents sound for kids
May 3, 2011
By Tim Pfarr
After almost 15 years of rock ‘n’ roll, Grammy-nominated Seattle musician Chris Ballew decided to turn down the gain on his amplifier. In 2009, The Presidents of the United States of America front man formed the children’s band Caspar Babypants, playing shows for parents and toddlers across Western Washington.
The group will make a stop in Issaquah May 7 for a 10:30 a.m. performance at Blakely Hall as part of a literacy event sponsored by a Community Action Grant from the Foundation for Early Learning.
The band’s songs — written by Ballew — are folkie and touch on topics such as centipedes, elephants and frogs. Although the tunes are directed at children younger than 6 or 7, adults might find themselves just as entertained.
“Caspar Babypants isn’t music for just kids,” Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard is quoted saying on Caspar Babypants’ website. “It’s fantastically hooky, cool, authentic pop. Chris Ballew is a master and has proven it in two bands now.”
Ballew played at the Sammamish Library on March 30, where children attempted to turn the knobs on his amplifier while he played and — at one point — even unplug his guitar. Nevertheless, he said he enjoys the unpredictability of children.
The Press caught up with Ballew over the phone in March.
How did you end up going from rock ‘n’ roll to children’s music?
The rock ‘n’ roll band, although I love it dearly, is not my true voice. And I knew that the whole time that it was happening and that it continues to happen.
So I searched and searched the entire time and looked in the background for a sound and a feeling and a place musically in the world that is really who I am. It’s been a long 15- or 20-year search that was over when I found this simple, innocent kind of acoustic, folkie style.
I didn’t know that it was kids’ music until I found it, and then I listened to it and went, ‘Oh, this is kids’ music.’ It was really an artistic need that was followed by the realization that I had found a different genre.
There is a bit of history going back to 2000. I think it was in 2000 that I made an album of traditional kids’ songs in the same style for PEPS, Program for Early Parents Support. They’re an organization that I used when my kids were little.
It’s parents – mostly moms and but some dads, too — getting together and sharing information, and kind of demystifying parenting, getting together in groups so they don’t feel so isolated and alone. The ultimate goal is to reduce abuse, because when you’re tired and frustrated and feel like you’re isolated, then that can happen.
Doing that record, I noticed that I was really relaxed. All of the [rock ‘n’ roll] music was a big struggle, and it was hard, and there were moments when I liked it, and it was mostly kind of annoying. And I did this record for PEPS and I was completely relaxed during the whole thing.
And then I went right back to doing music that was stressful and weird. Later on as I started to go back to this simple sound, I remembered that, and it was another clue that I had been on the right track before but just didn’t know it.
How did you know that children’s music was your voice?
My wife is an artist. Her artwork kind of embodies what I wanted to do with music. It’s simple, it’s funny, it’s well-crafted, it has folk roots and traditions in it. It transcends age.
So I looked at her art, ‘Oh my God, I want to make music that sounds like her art looks.’ And that sort of was the last step in a long, sort of meandering path. She illustrates children’s books, and that’s kind of what also led me to think, ‘Well, maybe this is for children.’
When I decided it was for children, then the floodgates opened even wider. What I love about this music is that it doesn’t go out there and just advertise me as a clever songwriter. It goes out there and actually makes families relax, and them makes them sing together, makes a car ride better and in some cases it makes kids who are doing well do better.
There are a few cases of severely autistic children who have responded miraculously to my music, and they come out of their shells. So I feel like there is a purpose to the music that transcends me. And that is also something I was looking for. With the rock band, I definitely lost track of that, and felt like I couldn’t tell where the song ended and the advertisement for the band began.
I heard you took the name Caspar Babypants in the early 1990s, before The Presidents of the United States of America took off.
I took the name, but it wasn’t to do kids’ music. It was because I got tired of my first name and changed it to Caspar and found a pair of baby’s pants that I wore as a winter hat in Boston, and so I got called Caspar Babypants.
But I was not playing kids music at all. I was playing in bars, getting drunk and making trouble as Caspar Babypants. It turns out I couldn’t tell what the true calling of Caspar Babypants was until much later.
What made you choose “Caspar?”
I’m kind of white and pasty, and I just thought of Casper the friendly ghost, but I wanted to spell it a little differently. I’m white and friendly.
How does your songwriting process change when you write children’s songs?
Writing for the rock ‘n’ roll thing has pretty much stopped. Once I found Caspar, the sensation of relief was kind of interesting, because I think I learned what I didn’t enjoy about writing for a grownup band.
I like innocence, I like anthropomorphizing worms and animals and stuff like that, but then the rock band has to have this layer of irony, or sexuality or coolness attached to it. And that was the part I was not in control of. It is not in my toolbox. I could write 500 songs, and two would be good in that regard.
So there was a lot of stress that I wasn’t aware of involved in that, so the big difference is writing for Caspar I don’t feel stressed at all. I feel a wide-open, anything is possible, an innocent kind of playfulness that I think is like being a kid. I mean, I feel like a kid, which is fantastic. That’s the big difference for me is a loss of stress and feeling relaxed about this pure, innocent thing.
Who are your influences within the children’s music genre?
Most importantly is Elizabeth Mitchell. As I got into kids’ music, she was the first diamond in the rough that I found, and she has a great knack for altering old songs.
Not as much as I do — I listen to her stuff and I thought, ‘You know, I love where she’s pushing old, traditional music just a little bit.’ She’s kind of just nudging it out of the corral. I wanted to get on it and ride into the sunset. I took a cue from her, and I took it further, and that’s why a lot of the songs I have sound the way they do.
And also just her gentleness. Her music sounds like it’s wrapping you in a warm blanket, and I kind of wanted that to happen. But I also wanted to push it a little more and have a little higher energy, but really draw from her in that way.
I’ve performed with her live since then, and her ability to slow down and talk to the audience and introduce each song in an interesting way is something I definitely draw on. She’s like the No. 1 sort of gate opening for me.
Your touring schedule is quite extensive in Western Washington. Have you thought about touring on a wider scale?
It’s crossed my mind, but I’m a do-it-yourself operation right now, and booking the shows around here are enough to about max me out. I’ve got to be a booking agent, I’ve got to run the label, I’ve got to run the studio, write and record the songs, do promotion, manage everything, albums coming in and out. I manage relationships with all these retail stores.
It’s a total DIY, one-man thing, which I like. DIY is also my roots. That’s where I come from. I love that. I love that about Seattle. Just one of the things that I adore about Seattle, that people don’t sit around and wait for permission — they just do it. That’s always been that way, pre-Internet and everything.
I kind of don’t want to [tour on a wide scale] also because my family is a two-household family. I like to give my kids a back and forth between their mom’s house and my house. I don’t want to rely on traveling to make my living. I also do commercial work for a bunch of agencies around town, online stuff and television commercials and stuff like that.
One of the things I learned from the rock band is I don’t want my life to depend on being uprooted. But, I think if I get to the point where the phone rings and somebody wants to help me out, run my label and book my band and set up tours, then I think it would be fun because it would be so different.
I could play at 10:30 and 2, and then have the evening to drive to the next town. I think it could be a very relaxing experience.
You have a couple kids of your own who help sing along at times, right?
They haven’t as much in the last six months or so, but they have been known to get up and sing live with me. My son’s a forming guitar genius. And my daughter is an amazing songwriter, as is my son. We write songs together.
And my daughter’s other big forte is helping design some of the videos I have done. She’ll design the characters, and we’ll work out what’s going to happen together, she and I. She’s a good designer, producer and editor, actually. And she’s only 10 years old. She’s a very thoughtful designer.
Do you play with The Presidents of the United States of America anymore?
We will never break up. We did that once, and now we know that’s pointless. We’re just taking a break. We’ve learned the difference between a break and a break-up.
Although back then we kind of had to break up to get off the major label. It had to happen that way. We value what we’ve achieved in a new way, which we didn’t before. It was such a chaotic experience before. We kind of didn’t feel like we earned it. Now we feel like we’ve earned it and we respect it. To that end, we’re trying not to kill it.
We’re going to play the Showbox every year on President’s Day weekend every year until we’re in wheelchairs. That’ll just happen. That will never not happen.
Never say never and all that, but I really cannot imagine another Presidents’ album. I just feel like we have enough songs. I mean, how many more ways can you sing about a bug? I’ve pretty much covered every bug I can find. When you add up all the bug songs with The Presidents and Caspar, I’m surprised I have any more bugs left.
Do you ever get fans of The Presidents of the United States of America turning their young children onto Caspar Babypants?
Absolutely. I get parents coming up to me after Caspar shows saying, ‘Your record was the first record I ever bought, and now I’m here with my 2-month-old, and we’re just keeping it going.’ I love it. You can listen to Caspar Babypants until you’re 6 or 7 and then switch right to The Presidents. There might be a gap between 6 and 10 that I’m not covering.
What is the best part about writing and performing with Caspar Babypants?
There are a couple. My top two favorite parts, are No. 1, writing and recording songs by myself like a sculptor or a painter in the studio. It’s fantastic. I went to art school, and I thought I was going to be an artist, and I like applying that kind of aesthetic to the creation of a song.
Then I like to collaborate with Fred [Northup] and Ron [Hippe] on performance version and get it out in front of the actual kids and feel how it changes and morphs and how it connects to the audience.
The second thing I love is how the kids are like little drunk adults. They’re so random and weird. They’ll just walk up and start touching my guitar or turning the pages of my songbook, or talking to me in the middle of a song. Or asking me to play a song that has a title that isn’t any of our songs, and then we’ll make up an entire song, and I’ll say, ‘Is that the song you wanted?’ And they’ll say, ‘No.’ They just are free. Being around that freedom, it’s relaxing.
We did a show at the opening of the Seattle International Children’s Film Festival at the Northwest Film Forum. It was in one of the small theaters.
I do a thing at the end of the show where I go out into the crowd and jump like a frog and end the show with long jumps and stuff, and I couldn’t do it because the crowd grabbed me and started pulling me down. I felt like Davy Jones from The Monkees for a second.
I felt like seriously they could rip my shirt off or something. I thought I have to get out of there. It was dangerous. An adult crowd you jump into and they support you, but this crowd was going to devour me.
If you go
Eastside Public Health Benefit Show
‘Read All About It!’
- Blakely Hall
- 2250 N.E. Park Drive
- May 7
- Set starts at 10:30 a.m.