Episode 61: Peek inside the childlike mind of Chris Ballew and meet Caspar Babypants
Part 1: You Don’t Wanna Be a Rock-and-Roll Star
Chris Ballew lived the rock-and-roll life.
As frontman for the late, great Presidents of the United States of America, he wrote infectious, goofy, catchy hits about “Peaches” and a “Dune Buggy” when heavy grunge dominated Seattle’s FM radio waves. He toured all over the world. He played to packed arenas and stadiums. He even won a Grammy award.
But that’s the old Chris Ballew.
Today, Ballew is a genial, funny everyman who now can laugh about his discomfort with his “Presidents” fame. He’s still well-known and beloved in the Seattle music scene. He still makes infectious, goofy, catchy music that his fans love.
And those are fans of Caspar Babypants.
Yes, Chris Ballew has become a children’s musician. He loves it. Little kids love it. And the kids’ parents, who grew up listening to the Presidents of the Unites States of America, they love it, too.
We told a friend about our Check It Out! podcast interview with Ballew.
“Caspar Babypants, you mean the guy from The Presidents of the USA? COOL!!”
Yes, Check It Out! podcast hosts Kurt Batdorf and Paul Pitkin found it very cool to talk about music and creativity with the one and only Caspar Babypants.
When Ballew decided he’d had enough of rock-and-roll and hopped off the “pony that was (making) gold bricks,” it wasn’t a big musical leap for him to change things up. It’s easy to hear similarities between “Peaches” of 25 years ago and the current “Noodles and Butter,” or between “Dune Buggy” and “Butterfly Driving a Truck.”
They’re all goofy and funny and infectious. And as Ballew says, “That’s just the sound I make, and I’ve been making that sound my whole life, really.”
When the Presidents became a thing in Seattle music in the early 1990s, it was a matter of good timing, Ballew said.
“The music scene at the time was ‘heavy,’ and not bad, but it just had a very visceral, kind of heavy, grungy vibe,” he said. “And I think people were really enjoying it, but they also wanted just some candy, you know, something really fun and bouncy.”
The Presidents satisfied that craving at the right time. And now, Caspar Babypants satisfies Ballew’s innate “childlike” nature.
“As Caspar Babypants, people ask me like, ‘How do you make this music for children?’ and I tell them, ‘I really don’t make it for children, I make it for myself, number one,’” Ballew said. “And I am just childlike. I live my life like a child. It happens to resonate with kids, but it’s really pleasing me. So, I think that’s how it kind of works. So, yeah. I was just pleasing myself, and it turned out to please a whole bunch of other people too.”
The Presidents of the United States of America released three studio recordings, but Caspar Babypants has been much more prolific: 18 albums released between 2009 and 2019.
Ballew has “thousands and thousands of little recordings” constantly running through his head as part of his creative process. He’ll play something for a few minutes and sing a little melody.
“You never know what it might grow into,” he said. “So, I record it. In that sense, I’m always kind of allowing myself to just make a little mess, and not try to make sense of it. And then, maybe later, I’ll figure out what it is, after forgetting about the initial, sort of moment of creation. I’m constantly recording tiny little bits.”
It means Ballew has a lot of material to draw from, and a lot of songs ready to go. His laptop is full of songs in various states of the recording process.
“When it’s time to make a record, I listen to all of them, and I just cherry-pick the most developed, the clearest, the most successful 20, and make it into an album,” he said. “I’m always working on a giant amount. And then, as a record comes due, I focus on the ones that just need the extra push, to kind of be perfect.”
It also means some of Ballew’s songs don’t see the light of day for a long time.
“I have this new song that I’m very excited about. I don’t think it will come out until 2022,” he said. “I’ve got three records almost ready for the next three years. It’s called ‘Live Like a Baby.’ And it’s about how I, as an adult, just want to live like a baby.”
Not with the downsides of being a baby though.
“I mean, the freedom, and the way of experiencing the world as a purely energetic playpen. That’s kind of my attitude,” Ballew said.
He usually plays a three-string acoustic guitar as Caspar Babypants, similar to the stripped-down two-string bass he usually played with the Presidents.
“It creates a really interesting sound,” Pitkin said. “It’s unusual, it makes its own sound.”
Ballew said it makes him play guitar more like a bass player.
“It sounds more rhythmic and chunky,” he said. “I kind of think about early Johnny Cash when I’m playing a lot.”
The simpler, rhythmic sound is easier for Ballew to play by himself.
“And kids respond to that,” he said. “They respond to the rhythm. And they want to get up, and dance, and move around.”
That feeds his soul now, and Caspar Babypants has brought Ballew full circle.
“When the President’ started out, we were this goofy little band of dorks that were trying to rock. And in trying to rock, I think we endeared ourselves to our audience. They were like, ‘Oh, those poor little guys on stage. Look at them trying to play a Led Zeppelin song,’” Ballew said.
“I love it, because I’m back to being a dorky little guy, trying to rock. Because I’m by myself, I think the empathetic reaction from the crowd is even more intense. If I ask for call and response, I definitely get it. Because I’m this tiny little guy on stage, trying to pull something off. And the crowd’s like, ‘Yes, we want to help.’”
Part 2: Help with grief from the Self-Help Shelf
If you’re dealing with grief, Sarri Gilman recommends “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief” by David Kessler for the Self-Help Shelf.
“David is considered one of the world’s leading experts on grief,” Gilman said of Kessler. “He’s written several books on the subject. And this book, ‘Finding Meaning,’ is my favorite of his books.”
In this book, Kessler focuses on the traumatic loss of a loved one. Losing loved ones is a journey through many feelings.
“Traumatic grief has some layers of feelings that can be hard to navigate, because we may not have experienced them before,” Gilman said. “And traumatic grief is particularly hard to do alone. This book is truly a helpful companion. It feels like David is in the room with you, reviewing stories of traumatic grief, and how people have carried those losses.”
Kessler’s words and pacing are careful and thoughtful, which makes it easily readable in the grieving process. He writes about his own traumatic grief sensitively, the same way he writes about other people’s traumatic losses. He talks about the feelings we carry when we’re grieving, and it is coupled with a trauma.
“I think if you have experienced this kind of loss, you’re going to feel understood,” Gilman said. “You’ll realize that you are not alone.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, you may feel even more loss and grief unrelated to a death.
“Although this book was written to support people who experienced a death, I think it applies to many losses,” Gilman said.” Traumatic grief can also come up from other kinds of losses like a divorce where there was abuse, loss of a child to addiction. I think this book is actually going to be very helpful, if you have traumatic grief for other kinds of reasons.”
It doesn’t have to be a recent loss. Often with traumatic grief, it could take a few years to process feelings.
“During COVID-19, other losses that you had previously may be brought to the surface,” Gilman said. “And you may be feeling the trauma and grief, all over again, because COVID-19 has brought up a lot of loss and grief.”
If this is your experience, “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief” will be very helpful. It’s available digitally from Sno-Isle Libraries.
Kurt Batdorf is a Communications Specialist for Sno-Isle Libraries. Kurt brings years of journalism experience and perspective to his work, along with an array of interesting life opportunities including barging a house from Seattle to Mount Vernon and an inveterate love for Mazda Miata cars (Miata = Miata Is Always the Answer).
Paul Pitkin is Director of the Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation. He also plays guitar, along with several other instruments, sings and writes music.
The Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation proudly supports the innovative work of Sno-Isle Libraries through private donations.