Chris Ballew is one rockin’ dad. Literally. As the lead singer and guitarist of The Presidents of the United States of America, Chris Ballew is used to rocking out in front of millions of fans. Today, Chris is rockin’ to a younger set as Caspar Babypants. Celebrity Parents spoke exclusively with the Grammy-nominated artist about good music, his family, and how he got that super cool name.
For the two people on Earth who don’t know about PUSA, let’s talk a bit about the group.
We started the group in December 1993 without a drummer, bass or amplifier. Eventually we got our drummer, and we began playing. The crowd grew organically. One of the shows we did was full of industry people, and a bidding war started to sign us. We signed with Columbia and toured all over.
As a group, we were having a great time. But then we got really tired; we were working super hard. We tried to make a second record but under all the pressure, we didn’t have the energy to be as creative as we could have been. So we hobbled through the second record, but we had lost track of the joy. I was the only one who spoke up about it. I quit the group in late 1997, and the breakup was amicable. I think, in retrospect, we needed a break, not to break up permanently. The break turned into a five-year break.
What happened after that?
I did other music, and I started a business licensing music to TV shows. I was writing custom music, too. We had requests during that time to get back together. We actually got a request from Krist in Nirvana, and because it was him and enough time had passed, we agreed. We got together to rehearse and we booked the show on our own. It was killer! It was fun to remember all the songs, and we started playing here and there again. We had new songs, so we made another record. Right in the middle of promoting the new record, our original guitar player quit! We got a new guitar player, and with him we made another record. We toured for a while, and we saw that we were facing an uncertain future about where we wanted to go as a group. And in the middle of all that, I started writing songs for little babies.
How did that come to be?
Honestly, the inspiration is my girlfriend, Kate. At the beginning of The Presidents, I got married, and then about 3 years ago, I got divorced. That divorce was killer, but we get along great. I really like my [devancee], my new word for my ex-wife! We communicate really well about the kids, and she and Kate get along great. It’s all nice.
Kate also created the artwork for the Caspar Babypants album cover.
Kate Endle is a children’s book illustrator and collage artist. Her artwork has a great folksy character to it, with bright colors and bold shapes that people respond to. It has a depth that adults respond to, also. It just made sense for her to do the artwork. It uncorked something in me, too. I began writing tons of songs, and realized that some of the songs I had written in the past worked better for kids than for adults.
Can you describe the music that you are creating today?
The character of the most successful songs of The Presidents is similar to what I’m doing in children’s music. One of the most important aspects of it is relationships. I always had songs about animals and chickens; they were like second class citizen songs. I saw it as an old idea alive in old American folk music and nursery rhymes. From that, I could see the connection between how I truly like to write, and how these songs have endured as parables. I feel this connection to something old; it’s sustainable. The Presidents’ songs are similar; they have extra layers of innuendo, mixed with sexuality on top. For the kids’ songs, I’m taking off those layers and enjoying the core. I’ll take an old nursery rhyme, for example, and add verses to it. I’ve also been collaborating with my kids to write songs.
I want my music to be something to chill out to. A lot of kids music tells you what to do. I don’t want to tell; I want to show. The music should have a timeless quality, and it offers a rest from all the clutter and the noise.
How has writing this music affected you personally?
I’m so into this right now– doing this might reset my songwriting palette for the rock band in a positive way. It might take me back to when we first started out. I think the tone of The Presidents is great; it’s all about rock and roll and losing your mind. This music, though, is about giving and simplicity and relaxation. It’s about standing in the grass with no shoes on. What I’m doing now I could do the rest of my life. I could be 80 years-old and still do it.
Okay, now how did you get the name Caspar Babypants?
It’s an old nickname from Boston. I’ve never been that fond of my first name.
What’s wrong with Chris? It’s a nice name.
It’s kind of boring. Like a blank, government-issued name. And I really wanted to have a better first name. One winter I was in Boston, and it was freezing outside. I didn’t have a hat, so I went to this free co-op store and I found this hand knitted pair of baby pants. They were this beautiful creamy brown color. I put them on my head and wore them around. On the way home from the subway to my house, I had to go through a rough neighborhood. There were these gangster types hanging out by a brick wall and they yelled out to me, “Yo Babypants! What’s up?” I put the names together, and I was Caspar Babypants in the early 90’s. Unfortunately, my family wouldn’t call me that, so I dropped the name. As I began doing kids music, though, I thought, “Wait, I already have a cool name!” And that’s how I came to be Caspar Babypants.
That’s such a cool story, but I still have to ask: What would make you put baby pants on your head?
I thought it was an opportunity to have a unique hat that no one else would have! [laughs] They were hand-knitted. Unfortunately, I lost them when I moved back to Seattle. I could always get another pair to wear, but those were the one true pair of baby pants. I like to think that they’re out there having adventures. I wrote a song about them, too, called “The Ballad of the Babypants”.
You have two children, Augie and Josie. Are they into music, too?
Definitely! My son is 12, and he is learning how to play guitar. He’s learning the 6 string because he wanted to learn the traditional style. He’s an amazing inventor, too. He makes these super cool things with his knife and organic materials he finds in the woods and on the beach. He also writes great songs, and we’re working on 3-4 songs together.
My daughter is 9 and she is a little hambone. She definitely got my performing gene! She’s super expressive, and really funny. She’s a non sequitorian, too! I think she was born in the land of Non Sequitor! Recently, the three of us were working on “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. We wanted to take a classic and update it but not make it modern. We just want to take it somewhere else. The kids have been collaborating with me on it.
I think it’s really awesome that you have incorporated your children into your musical life.
They love being involved. Augie has written amazing songs and Josie sang on my first record. They’ve been to a bunch of my shows, too. The kids remind me of my own ideas. They will tell me what works and what doesn’t. Now that I’m making music for kids, kids are part of my creative life. I feel like their team member. That’s always how I thought I’d feel about kids, even before I had my own. It’s not about them taking something away from your life, but adding to it.
As a single dad, how do you find balance?
I do it through intense organization! I have folders for the kids, their schedules, their friends’ info, etc. I’m constantly checking it to see what’s next for them. I also collaborate with their mom all the time. I don’t feel like a single parent at all. I still feel like she’s my partner in raising the kids. Every six months or so, we have a meeting about the kids, to see what challenges they’re facing, what is happening in everyone’s lives. It helps us to connect and to update our own parenting philosophy.
What does Caspar Babypants have coming up in the future?
I’m working on a television show with a friend. People can send in lyrics and we will make a song about them. And I want to keep writing these great songs and putting out lots of recods. The next one will be called MORE PLEASE! and will be out November 17th. I feel like I’ve found my home, and I’m excited to live in this new musical home for a long, long time.