Good Morning Tycoon: An Interview with The Presidents of the U.S.A.

[26 March 2014]

By Colin McGuire

PopMatters Music Reviews Editor

“We’ll be crushed if we fall anywhere short of that.”

This is what the voice on the other end of the phone says in a raspy tone. A tone so raspy, in fact, that it kind of sounds like it’s coming from a love child between Bruce Dern in Nebraska and Nick Notle’s character in the ill-fated HBO series Luck. It’s also sarcastic, of course, because the response comes after this sentence is uttered in its direction: “Good luck with the record—I hope it sells a trillion copies.”

The laugh that accompanies such a noise erupts like a scratchy, unrelenting volcano, oozing with cheerful hot lava and filled with a sincere sense of smoke. It doesn’t sound jaded and despite its menacing qualities, it also doesn’t feel intimidating. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Why? Because the guy from which it emotes just happens to be in one of the most happy-go-lucky acts to ever come from the overtly depressing, it’s-always-raining-here Seattle, Washington, rock scene. It’s an act that writes odes to peaches, covers the Buggles, and tapes MTV specials in front of Mount Rushmore. It’s an act formerly embraced by the mainstream yet universally loved by its extensive, loyal fan base. 

And, maybe most importantly, it’s an act that has absolutely no idea if it will ever put out another record again. 

That act is the Presidents of the United States of America, and the voice representing it is Jason Finn, the band’s longtime drummer and current de facto Press Secretary, as it were. The album that may or may not sell a trillion copies is Kudos to You!, a crowd-sourced accident of a record (his words) that came to life after his band decided to fool around in the studio for a few days. Those sessions inevitably turned into more sessions. That fooling around inevitably turned into a project. And that project was inevitably completed with help from PUSA’s fans who donated to a PledgeMusic campaign the group set up. 

“We decided on PledgeMusic because we were in a hurry,” the drummer said in a recent phone interview, stretching the final word with thought. “We didn’t have ‘make a new record’ on the schedule for 2013. [...] Things went a lot faster and a lot more productively than we thought, so we kind of backed ourselves creatively into a corner where a) it was obvious that we needed to make a whole new record, and b) we should probably get it out in February in time for our annual President’s Day shows. 

“Which left us with a more conventional problem of, ‘Wait a second. We have no record label. We have no management. We have no infrastructure at all, so how do we do this?’” Finn continued. “From there, it became pretty obvious that some sort of, I think the term is ‘direct-to-fan’—that would be the best way. Because we’re not really trying to build a worldwide empire or anything. We really just wanted everyone that appreciates us and our core people to be able to find and buy this stuff.”

Once the green light was established, the band decided that the plan would be to create and release a record in a mere 12 weeks. The result is classic PUSA. From the opening sounds of Finn’s kick-snare-tom pattern that appears on “Slow Slow Fly” to the punk rock ethos of album-ender “She’s A Nurse”, it’s almost unprecedented in the modern day that a set as solid and true as these 13 tracks was birthed and released in barely three months. 

Yet none of it could have been accomplished without the help of their fans. Part of making the formula work, however, was finding stuff to give away with copes of Kudos to You! once pledges were made. In typical Presidents fashion, the options ranged from funny ($3,800 for a full day in Seattle with the band), to neat (300 bucks for the sheet music The Captain from Captain and Tennille wrote out for their song “Volcano”); to practical (a bundle of signed records that includes six of their releases), to odd (a tour laminate still attached to a key that may or may not still open the door to a tour bus they used years ago). 

“It was pretty pain-free,” Finn noted when asked about what it was like to revisit a lot of the items they decided to give away as part of the campaign. “Chris, my singer, he’s a complicated guy, like most singers. On one hand, he’s a little bit of an archivist. He literally has one medium T-shirt of every T-shirt design we’ve ever done. He just likes to have stuff like that. On the other hand, he’s a guy who clears the decks a lot.

“So, for him to have the opportunity to go back through his lyric notebook and have stuff he could dig up and shoot out into the ether was a total win-win for him. And the stuff that he found was wild. So, if it could be said that stuff like this is fun, we actually did have fun with that. The downside is that, while I would love to put out a record every two years through PledgeMusic, I don’t know how many rounds of finding weird junk like that we have in us. I was shocked in how interested people were in the odds and ends.”

But back to that another-record-in-two-years talk.

As it goes, 2008’s These Are The Good Times People was initially supposed to be the final PUSA release. That didn’t mean the band would cease to exist, of course—a sparse touring schedule, along with their aforementioned Presidents Day shows would keep them active—but it was supposed to imply that without a label, without proper management, and without a burning desire to sit down and write a brand new batch of songs, Finn, along with singer/guitarist Chris Ballew and bassist Andrew McKeag, would pursue other interests. Ballew, for instance, is the mind behind Caspar Babypants, one of the most successful kids-music acts in the Pacific Northwest, while the drummer serves as an investor in a handful of restaurants. 

None of this was designed to be particularly revelatory, considering their past flirtations with retirement. Yet when asked if this most recent collection might be the band’s final, no-coming-back-this-time effort, the John Bonham devote sounded resigned and sincere when he off-handedly noted, “I don’t think we have another one in us. But who knows—never say never, right?

“I’ll say this,” he explained, “every time we do a five-year plan, it’s our last five-year plan, and I think we’re on our third, perhaps our fourth last five-year plan. When we broke up in 1999 ... we did that because we felt like that’s what you were supposed to do. We were still thinking in old music industry terms. In reality, you don’t have to break up; just stop workin’ for a while. Just take a break. And I think we’re not the only ones who got back together. I think just about everybody has. I mean, Jesus. If Soundgarden does ... you know it’s ... it’s an out-of-date term, breaking up.

“I see us now—we’re sort of skating into the sunset,” Finn continued. “We’re at a gentle glide. Unassisted by engines. But we’ve got a nice draft, should we choose to use it.”

It’s been a fairly successful ride so far, despite bumps that included the departure of founding member Dave Dederer in 2003. The move was a truly amicable one—as the trio was getting ready to ramp up again, the “guitbass” player simply didn’t have much desire to keep a career in music and eventually landed at Amazon, where he does “something interesting and top secret there that he can’t talk about” as Finn playfully noted. Yet even though such a reality could have marked the end of the band as they knew it, McKeag has appeared to fit into the PUSA family seamlessly.  

Another moment of turbulence during that trip, however, was the group’s relationship with their early record label, Columbia Records. On the heels of a particularly successful appearance at South By Southwest, the trio rode the wave of popularity that the music scene in Seattle was enjoying during the early 1990s and landed a contract, which, in turn, led to a self-titled debut album that achieved platinum status while spawning two of the decade’s most endearing hits, “Lump” and “Peaches”. These days, the drummer continues to refer to that set as “The Popular Record” in such a sincerely humble and gracious, self-aware manner that you almost have to believe every single other thing the guy says, even if he tries to tell you the sky is green (which, it should be noted, he doesn’t). It’s the perfect combination of knowing how lucky he was to land success in the music industry and having no discernible interest in dwelling on a time that is nearly two decades gone.

But that doesn’t mean his band’s relationship with their former record label wasn’t always ... well ... peachy (sorry). 

“It was kind of a tussle getting released,” Finn said. “We were able to convince them that we were breaking up for good and that they should release us completely. And looking back ...”

Pause.

“I guess we were lying to them,” he added with a small laugh. “We didn’t know it at the time, of course, but is it something I’m going to apologize for? Nooooo. Because these guys—they’re evil and I think we were kind of able to ... ahhh ... I don’t know ... ahhh ... put one over on them.”

None of this is said without at least the tinniest bit of innocence best found on the face of an adorable toddler who just spilled milk. Or, in other words, PUSA weren’t deliberately trying to put the screws to Columbia. It just so happened that history will forever let the record show that at the end of the day, the good guys, if only for this one time, walked away with the victory. No Big Machine bullshit. No greedy executives still getting rich off a band’s yesteryear success (the rights to “The Popular Record” eventually reverted back to the band after so long). 

“Overall, our relationship with Sony, Columbia, Whatever We’re Calling It This Week, I’d say overall, it was positive,” Finn eventually pointed out. “I can’t get anyone on the phone when I have a question, but I don’t think anyone in any of the other bands can either. Who needs the headache? They’ve circled the wagons. They put all their money into their four or five things and that works for them and God bless ‘em. I do know that what they spend even on their biggest artists now—what they spend on full campaigns is less than what they used to spend for lunch every day.”

As for the current day, the drummer said he couldn’t be happier with where the band is at. Working at any pace they ultimately choose, the Presidents of the United States of America essentially control their own destiny now. In addition to Kudos, the band simultaneously put out Thanks for the Feedback, a live album taken from their 2011 PUSAFEST performance. It’s something Finn says he’d like to do again—maybe once every year—even if another studio set isn’t the cards. 

Recently back from a quick, mini European tour, he maintained the position that long stretches of being on The Road simply aren’t going to happen anymore. It’s for the best, he says, and who can blame him? With more than 20 years of existence behind them, the group has earned the right to dictate how they want to operate their tiny business, and if that entails personally sending out old sheet music to die-hard fans on a Wednesday in March while “accidentally” penning records every now and then ... well, to use the drummer’s well-parsed phrase, “God bless ‘em.”

“We have three little windows during the summer where we’re going to do U.S. dates, and we’ll also be back to Europe to do some festivals in July, but that will probably be it,” Finn answered when asked about what’s next for his band. “We’re not doing a bunch of extra touring because there’s a record. We deny that part of the paradigm, that when you have a new record out, you must promote it.

“These are not big numbers were are talking about here,” the drummer added after relaying a story about sending out his final shipment of orders for Kudos. “But I’m encouraged that people all over the world who are into us were able to sort of hear about it and find an advance if they want or wait. ... I think we’re doing a pretty good job of impersonating a younger, newer band.”

Or, well, unless your name is One Direction, that is.

“This is the way it’s going to work from now on, right?” he asked rhetorically before possibly hinting at his age in a more subliminal manner. “I mean unless you’re New Direction, who needs all that extra infrastructure, middle-men, other people taking the money, etcetera, what-have-you.”

A moment of silence before one last self-deprecating reminder of who again is on the other end of the line.

“We’re very lucky,” the drummer notes, “to have a smattering of folks all over the planet who have kind of stuck with us through the years.”

Colin McGuire is a columnist and a Music Reviews Editor here at PopMatters, as well as an award-winning blogger and copy editor for the Frederick News-Post in Frederick, Maryland. He has worked in newspapers for five years, writing columns, editing stories and trying to make sure the medium doesn't completely fall off the Earth anytime soon. You can follow him on Twitter @colinpadraic.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/180057-good-morning-tycoon-an-interview-with-the-presidents-of-the-u.s.a/