Music News

HAIL TO THE CHIEFS

Some musicians become successful despite themselves. Take the members of the Presidents of the United States of America, for example. The trio's self-titled debut for Columbia Records includes the announcement "We're not going to make it!" while another lyric admits, "There are a million better bands/With a million better songs." But only two months after its release, The Presidents of the United States of America has reached number 50 on Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart, and "Lump," the album's first single, is an MTV Buzz Clip. Obviously, the fates are conspiring to make these gifted, garage-pop wisenheimers famous whether they want to be or not.

Nevertheless, Presidents guitarist/vocalist Dave Dederer says he isn't about to become a cliche. "I definitely don't see myself as a rock star," he notes. "If I were a rock star, I'd be out playing golf every day instead of talking on the phone and doing radio spots and practicing my guitar and all that. Believe me, we really didn't expect any of this. We didn't have any expectations for this record whatsoever."

Obviously, Dederer and his bandmates--vocalist/bassist Chris Ballew and drummer Jason Finn--haven't listened to their handiwork lately. Otherwise, they'd know that Presidents is easily one of the most infectious long-players to hit record stores in recent memory. Teaming with groove-happy guitar chops and hyperkinetic rhythms, the combo's ultragoofy odes to spiders ("Dune Buggy"), kitties ("Kitty") and peaches ("Peaches") come as a welcome relief from the dreary, doomy music dominating the alternative-music charts. "Lump," in particular, has all the earmarks of a quirky, alterna-pop classic. Sporting a jittery, Knacklike riff and Ballew's vintage, Dr. Seuss-on-acid lyrics--"Lump lingered last in line for brains/And the one she got/Was sort of rotten and insane"--the song demands repeated listenings. After all, it's not every day that you get a chance to hear a grown man rhyme the words "pajamas" and "piranhas."

The thirteen songs on Presidents qualify as some of liveliest ditties to appear since the Ramones taught the world to "Blitzkrieg Bop" two decades ago. It comes as no surprise, then, that Dederer sees the band's antics as nothing more than good old-fashioned show business. "We're entertainers, not artists," he insists. "Rock and roll is a form of entertainment. I mean, before kids were hanging on Eddie Vedder's every word, he was out there crowd surfing and hanging from the ceiling by one hand and that sort of thing. He was being an entertainer--because that's what gets people's attention. You have to be entertaining if you want people to notice."

The Presidents needn't worry about achieving this goal; their rough-and-tumble live performances have become the stuff of legend in the Pacific Northwest region that spawned them. Sloppy, spontaneous and just plain crazy, the players pull out all the stops on stage. Mistakes are transformed into "new songs," and audience members are frequently invited to take the mike while Dederer and Ballew thrash about them with merry abandon.

Just as out of the ordinary are the dynamic duo's instruments, which together share only five strings--three on Dederers "guitbass" and two on Ballew's "bassitar." Dederer says the idea to pare down their instruments came from Mark Sandman, frontman for Boston's Morphine. "Chris roomed with Mark for a while when he was living in Boston," he recounts. "Mark was playing his two-string slide bass at the time. One day Mark handed Chris this two-string bass, and he just started going with it. He wrote a bunch of songs using the two-string method. Then I decided to try it out, and I really enjoyed it, too. It's very liberating. I had to completely rethink the way I play the guitar.

"Plus it's an open tuning," he adds, laughing. "So it's a lot easier for me to jump around on stage and not have to worry about making mistakes."

Thus far, the band seems to have done everything right; the Presidents' first European tour (they opened for Foo Fighters) went well, and expectations are high concerning their upcoming American club trek. Furthermore, in the next several months, several compilation discs to which they contributed are set for release. Included among them: Come All Ye Faithful, a Rock for Choice Christmas album, and Saturday Morning, a collection of cartoon music (the outfit chose to perform the Road Runner theme). With such a tight schedule, it won't be easy for Dederer--a scratch golfer--to find time to hit the links. But that won't stop him from trying. "I've played with a few industry muckety-mucks, and they've offered to let me play some of the more exclusive courses," he reveals. "I'm hoping I'll get a chance to do that sometime soon."

Success does have its privileges.
The Presidents of the United States of America, with Dag. 9:30 p.m. Saturday, October 7, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $7, 1-800-444-SEAT or 294-9281.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Brad Jones