Presidents haven't lost their sense of punk-rock fun

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Presidents of the United States of America - the band, not the statesmen - are back in office.

"We get a lot of young people at our gigs who had our record when they were 10 years old and now they can go out and drink and party which is excellent," says frontman Chris Ballew, triumphantly.

On Sunday the Seattle rockers play Auckland not only to promote their new album Love Everybody but the fact that they're back in action after a four-year hiatus - almost a decade since Lump, Peaches and Kitty stormed the charts.

Back then it seemed perfectly normal to sing along to the words, "She's lump, she's lump, she's lump," or to bask in the absurd joys of free fruit. The band were also famous for their cover of Ian Hunter's Cleveland Rocks, the theme song for The Drew Carey Show.

But in the space of just two years, Ballew says the band went from being "the No 1 thing I've ever done in my life" to a drag.

Burnt out from the constant touring, they split in 1997. Ballew formed a new band and started writing music for ads, film and TV.

Guitarist Dave Dederer went on to work with Duff McKagan (Guns N' Roses, Velvet Revolver) and drummer Jason Finn turned to session work in various Seattle outfits.

For years they ignored requests from fans to get back together but when Nirvana's Chris Novoselic asked them to back him up at an awards show - and let's face it, who could turn him down? - they caved.

Next thing Presidents were planning their reunion gig for New Year's Eve, 2002, then an album and tour.

"I kinda felt like I was in a Presidents cover band when we got back together at the beginning," says Ballew.

"I had to break out the record, get online and get the lyrics and figure out how to play them again. The pleasant surprise was that I liked them a lot. They're strong songs and even after four years away they were a pleasure to play."

Keen to keep the onus on pleasure, Presidents snubbed offers from record labels and set up their own. They also decided to limit their touring schedule.

Ballew says he'd rather spend time with his 8 and 5-year-old kids who play with him in a band called the Lightbulb Fantastic.

And you can forget rock'n'roll antics when the band returns to New Zealand - he hopes to take a stroll through the botanical gardens.

"We appreciate what we have now in a way we didn't before," he says. "We had a very punk-rock attitude about it before. I always felt like it was a mistake, that we were accidentally invited to the party of successful bands, and that any second the maitre'd would ask us for our invitations and we wouldn't have them and we'd have to leave.

"Now I don't feel that way. I feel like we've done the hard work and we've earned it so we're enjoying it more."

Love Everything suggests the band never really left us in the first place. Catchy songs, slightly goofy and anchored by buzzing guitars, Presidents haven't lost their sense of punk-rock fun.

That surreal wordplay is still there - monkeys are a favourite topic - and as if to transport us back to their pre-glory days, Ballew cries "1993!" in first single Some Postman. In Poke and Destroy he lets out a series of low doggie barks; in Drool at You he hollers, "Drooling drooling!" If Presidents are older and wiser, they're not exactly showing it.

"We really didn't want to make a record that was difficult to play. We didn't want to have to stop the set and set up acoustic guitars or something, that's just not our style.

"It felt so good to strap on those instruments again that we wanted it to be an easy and logical continuum of what we used to do.

"Staying young is what I'm doing. I met a guy a couple of weeks ago who had a baby every 10 years of his life. He'd been divorced and married a couple of times and had a baby at 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60. And he was like, 'This is the life, man. You are constantly young when you have a kid'. So the band is my version of keeping my mental age at 24 for as long as I can."

* The Presidents of the United States of America play Sunday at Transmission Room, Auckland. Opening act the Sneaks.

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