In the spring of 1996, Chris Ballew found himself standing in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park surrounded by ninjas and considering just how bizarre his life had become.
Ballew was the lead singer of The Presidents of the United States of America, and his music was suddenly ubiquitous. The band’s major label debut album featured the Billboard Rock Chart-ing “Lump,” and the unavoidable, earwormy ode to canned fruit, “Peaches.” The latter had crept up the charts so quickly that Columbia Music decided to make a post hoc music video.
Hence Griffith Park. Hence the ninjas. Hence Roman Coppola behind the camera.
The spectacle of it all gave Ballew a headache. “I was looking around at this whole operation — airbags so we could fall out of trees, cameras and cranes and walkie-talkies … all this infrastructure and I was thinking, ‘God, all this stuff is for this dumb song’,” Ballew says. “The whole thing was wildly disorienting. Just all of it. There was no aspect that wasn’t weird.”
Presidents eventually fizzled out in the years following their debut; they remained active (albeit with several brief hiatuses) until 2015, but never approached the same level of success. How does Ballew feel about the way things played out? Fine, utterly fine. In fact, he might be the rare former star unburdened by resentments of disappointments. The now-51-year-old sees stardom as part of a longer musical journey, not a destination. The destination is where he is now and it’s a very different place. Because today Ballew is “kindie” star Caspar Babypants and his bliss is making children’s music.
Since 2008, Ballew has self-released 12 bright, poppy albums, including More Please!, This Is Fun! and Hot Dog!, while building a new career entertaining toddlers and appreciative parents. It might seem odd that a man who fronted a band that once turned down playing Saturday Night Live now regularly gigs at libraries, daycares, and doughnut shops, but Chris couldn’t be happier. This, as he sees it, is his calling.
“My whole purpose is to bring the family into the same room and have every age say, ‘I love this song,’” says Ballew who now lives in Seattle with his wife and kids. “Doing that is this constant endless creative challenge.” He pauses. “I just knew that there was something else out there and I’m so glad I finally found it.”
Chris Ballew always wanted to play music, but he never wanted fame. A guitar-loving kid from Seattle, he moved to Boston after high school and made his living busking and playing in a slew of odd experimental bands with names like Egg and Balls. By the early ’90s, he’d moved back to Los Angeles, and was playing in the band of a hot new solo artist by the name of Beck. Ballew remembers going on long walks through the Hollywood Hills with Beck, the two musicians discussing the discomforting and false nature of celebrity and how it all too often impeded on musical creativity.
“I felt like we were at this fancy party, underdressed without invitations, and any second we were going to get a tap on the shoulder.”
So, when Ballew moved back to Seattle and reconnected with childhood friend and former bandmate Dave Dederer and began playing small gigs together as the alternative punk band Presidents of the United States of America — shows Ballew describes as “a cabaret weird broken-down look-at-these-poor-bastards-trying-to-rock kinda thing” — the thought of mainstream success was laughable at best. Presidents were goofy, unstructured, absurd. They were not a radio band.
But soon enough they’d built a reputation for raucous, bizarre live gigs. During one Labor Day weekend show in 1993 several major record labels came to watch them perform. “We just did our usual sloppy weird dorky show,” Ballew says. The next day, the group had seven major label offers. What followed were multiple world tours, performances on The Late Show with David Letterman, and such events as a President’s Day concert at the foot of Mount Rushmore.
“I basically just had to take one step to the right, lose the loud drums, the loud guitars, and the sexual innuendo and retain just the innocent part.”
At the heights of his Presidents’ fame, Ballew says he always had an uneasy feeling. “I felt like we were at this fancy party, underdressed without invitations, and any second we were going to get a tap on the shoulder saying ‘I’m sorry. You have to put down the seafood buffet and leave.’”
The fact that commercial success for the band was unintended also made it difficult for Ballew to repeat the first album’s winning formula. “It was like, ‘Okay, monkey. Do the same dance again.’ Well, I can’t. Because I don’t know how I did the dance in the first place.”
Plus, Ballew was never financially motivated. “I felt totally successful years before I achieved what you’d call traditional success,” he says. “The drive for me was to find that voice where I was in service to people. I knew it had to touch on something old. I knew it had to be simple. I knew it had to be sustainable. Being in a loud rock band is not sustainable. Your ears get destroyed. Your body gets destroyed. You’re never home. It’s not a great option for me. Some people love it and totally thrive in that environment. I’m not one of them.”
After several years and two albums, Presidents broke up amicably in January 1998.
To hear Ballew tell it, Caspar Babypants was always there, lurking beneath the surface. He just didn’t notice him.
After the split, Ballew bounced between several bands and the occasional reunion tour. In 2002, he recorded a children’s album for charity but didn’t pursue the genre. He did continue, however, to compose and perform music for his own kids — silly songs to make them giggle; calm ones to help them fall asleep; love songs to express how he felt about them. It wasn’t until 2008 when he met his second wife, children’s book illustrator Kate Endle, that he decided to pursue children’s music full-time. “When I saw her art I said, ‘That’s it. I want to make music that comes from that universe,” says Ballew.
And that’s when it clicked. As Ballew will say emphatically, Presidents thrived via its ability to incorporate comic absurdity, and playfulness into its music. The music was there; all Ballew had to do was pivot. “I basically just had to take one step to the right, lose the loud drums, the loud guitars, and the sexual innuendo and retain just the innocent part [of my music],” he says. As for the name Caspar Babypants? It harkens back to Ballew’s early punk days when, in a band called Supergroup, he’d often wear a child’s onesie as a hat.
Largely acoustic singer-songwriter tunes with a laid back, beachy cool, Caspar songs detail life’s simple and sweet wonders (like the James Taylor-esque “Just For You,”) or go for straight silliness: On the folky “Banana Bread” he inhabits the point of view of the just-bought bakery item, now lonely, “fruit-fly covered,” and “bummed-out”. For them all, Ballew drew on what he calls “timeless old melodies” and reworked them to his own design. Kids latched on.
Caspar Babypants was always there, lurking beneath the surface. He just didn’t notice him.
Ballew admits his first show as Caspar Babypants, a day gig at an all-ages rock club in Seattle, was shaky. He didn’t have confidence or ease with the crowd built up yet. “But somewhere inside that shakiness felt really good,” he recalls. “I could tell it was going to be a sustainable experience.”
It also gave him a jolt of adrenaline he’d never felt in a loud rock band. “I found that I got more satisfaction from sitting in front of a smaller crowd alone than I did standing in front of larger crowds with a rock band behind me,” says Ballew. “It’s scarier and that makes me feel more alive.”
Ballew admits he long felt disengaged during Presidents’ shows. As Caspar Babypants? He’s fully present. “Sometimes with the Presidents live shows I would find myself daydreaming and sort of wake up to realize I’d played a couple songs without really even knowing it,” he says. “Kind of like driving the same route home every day and sometimes you arrive at home remembering nothing about the drive. That definitely never happens with Caspar.”
For Ballew, the trivialities that once consumed his life as a rock star now seem insignificant. “I rewrote my definition of success many years ago,” Ballew offers. “Write a song, play it live, make people happy. I felt totally successful years before I achieved what you’d call ‘traditional success’.”
Looking back, Ballew says all roads have led him to Caspar.
“I’m going back over all the recordings from my entire life and I’m finding so many breadcrumbs,” he explains. “’Oh, that’s supposed to be a Caspar song!’” He laughs. “I’ve been writing this music my whole life.”
It’s something that brings him great satisfaction. “My whole purpose is to bring the family into the same room and have every age say, ‘I love this song,’” he says. “Doing that is this constant endless creative challenge.”
“Sometimes with the Presidents live shows I would find myself daydreaming and sort of wake up to realize I’d played a couple songs without really even knowing it.”
“I’m trying to make music that’s always made humans feel better when they listened to it,” says Ballew who speaks with a genuine earnestness about the whole thing. “When humans hear it they’re like, ‘I know this. This is inevitable.’ They don’t really know it cognitively; they know it emotionally.” And in doing so, Ballew often feels as if he’s cracking a code. “It’s almost like forensics trying to get the songs to be a little deep and poetic but also simple enough for a kid to latch onto. There’s no end in sight to the thrill.”
And unlike life as a rock star, life as Caspar Babypants is a decidedly more secure proposition. “It’s not like you have to be young and hot to do this,” Ballew says with a laugh. “People grow out of me and grow into me. There’s never going to be a shortage of families discovering my stuff. Even if I stop making it will continue to function in a real useful way for families. That’s what I want to leave behind.”
Following a recent Caspar show, Ballew saw the fruits of his labor firsthand. Two parents, effusive in their gratitude, came up to him at the merchandise table. Caspar Babypants music, they informed him, had saved their recent family vacation. “That’s huge,” Ballew says with a smile. “I’m trying to save souls now by relieving stress for parents. And that goes beyond music to me.”