If you think a twinge of agony crosses Chris Ballew’s face in the video for ”Lump” — the clip where he and his fellow Presidents of the United States of America leap up and down on a barge — you’re right. But don’t blame the pain on your standard alterna-rock angst; in Ballew’s case, it’s merely a smashed toe. ”I dropped a huge piano bench on my toe two days before,” the singer and bassist explains. ”My toe was huge and bleeding, with pus running everywhere. But doing the video was so much fun. It was the kind of pleasurable pain that only a rock & roll band can endure.”
Other than that crunched digit, the Presidents don’t have much to moan about. Even though the trio hails from the gloom of Seattle, Ballew’s featherweight anthems tend to zip along like nursery rhymes performed by a jackhammer. Live, the group has been known to scoot and bounce across the stage, sing a trilogy of tunes about bugs, and during ”Kitty” — an ode to a frisky feline — invite members of the audience to meow into the microphones.
It’s just that sense of rec-room hijinks that yielded ”Lump,” a single that recently took a spin at the top of Billboard’s modern-rock chart. Ballew, who retrieved the song’s maddeningly catchy chorus from an old Dictaphone tape, describes the song’s genesis like this: ”It’s just a good-sounding word, and I got a whole bunch of different good-sounding words that had something to do with that good-sounding word, and threw them together and made a song. It doesn’t mean a damn thing.”
Consider that a Presidential oath. The band itself even began as a diversion: ”We really intended not to sound like a rock band when we started,” says guitarist Dave Dederer, 31. While Dederer was going to grad school to study urban planning, Ballew, 30, jammed with other musicians — including Beck and Morphine’s Mark Sandman — and drummer Jason Finn, 28, manned the skins for Love Battery. Then, as Finn puts it, ”things started happening.” Fast. The Presidents cut an album with indie label PopLlama in June, signed with Columbia that same month, re-released the disc in July (with a remix to beef up the rawboned acoustics), and saw it sail toward the top 20 of the pop charts by October. Just like that.
Which doesn’t mean they feel an obligation to get serious. The Presidents write songs about frogs and boll weevils, but they draw the line at Newt. ”I don’t see us ever addressing political issues,” says Dederer, ”except maybe in the most unbelievably oblique way, so that even we wouldn’t know what we’re talking about.”