Andrew McKeag of The Presidents of the United States of America
During this election year, it’s comforting to know that we Americans have three solid candidates for president. That is, three solid candidates for president of The Presidents of the United States of America.
Yes, Chris Ballew (vocals, basitar), Jason Finn (drums, vocals), and Andrew McKeag (guitbass, vocals) are each campaigning to be declared the official leader of the Seattle-based band — check out www.pusa2008.org to cast your vote. Of course, the election, exciting though it may be, is only the second best development for PUSA fans. That’s because the band is back with a stellar new album, “These Are The Good Times People.”
The record is The Presidents’ first release since 2004’s “Love Everybody,” and features the band’s patented, oh-so-contagious “joy pop” sound first made famous by the dual smashes “Lump” and “Peaches.” With the release of the album, Andrew McKeag officially takes over on guitbass from Presidents’ co-founder Dave Dederer, who was seeking more time with his family.
Recently, I had the chance to talk with McKeag about the new album and other Presidential matters. I have to admit, before I even spoke with him, he had already won my vote with a stirring promise in his online campaign commercial: “I support awesome.” I mean, how can you argue with that?
Interviewed by: Heather Kobrin | May 2008
So, I know you just recently returned from a tour in Europe — how did the shows there go?
They were really good. Lots of nice people who sang along with all the songs, jumped up and down in time, and screamed for an encore. So, no complaints.
Tell me about the mustache contest that you and Jason had while you were over there. I hear he took you down.
Yeah, that didn’t last… I kind of bowed out. Honestly, it wasn’t a long enough trip for me to have any chance at winning, so I sort of forfeited. I took the low road, what can I say (laughs). We did it a couple of years ago and I had a head start — for some reason or another I had gotten away with not shaving for a little while before we left, so I had something a little more substantial (laughs).
Let’s talk about the new album, “These Are The Good Times People.” I understand that the title came from an originally sarcastic statement that Chris realized could be viewed in a positive light.
Well, in its own way it was sarcastic, but it was still positive. Because it was our way of letting the air out in situations where we were feeling (laughs) stressed and overworked and underpaid, but yet at the same time fully realizing that it beats digging ditches.
Can you take me through a few of your favorite tracks from the album?
I really like “Warhead” because it was one of those songs where I think we tracked it completely live, with the exception of the vocals and obviously the mixing process. It was just one of those… plug straight in, count it off… done. And that’s my favorite thing to be a part of sometimes. I like the polished product too, but I really like “Warhead” in that way. It’s pleasing to my ears (laughs). And I really like “Deleter” and “So Lo So Hi.” It’s a fun record, and it was a really low-key process to make it. We weren’t in a hurry to get it done, yet at the same time we didn’t spend stupid amounts of money to finish it either. So it was relaxing… it was a nice way to spend the summer.
It sounds like Chris has a pretty deep backlog of material to draw from when it’s time to go into the studio.
Yeah, when we started picking out songs for this record out of his back catalog — including everything from four-track cassette tapes from 25 years ago to stuff that was fresh off the Chris brain — we went through a lot of different things. And he’s not very precious with all of it, he sort of looks at things as little idea options. Some of them came across pretty much straight as he thought of them, and a lot of them got completely twisted and changed and turned upside down.
How has the new material been received by your live audiences so far?
Pretty good actually, surprisingly well. It’s a band that has a dedicated following. They like the band, so they kind of got on the record as quick as it came out. It’s been really satisfying having people accept it.
“Weird Al” Yankovic, — who honored The Presidents by turning “Lump” into a Forrest Gump tribute — directed your new video for “Mixed Up S.O.B.” What was it like working with him?
It was great. He’s a heck of a nice guy and really smart, quick, organized, and budget-conscious. All the things you would want in a video director. The video was kind of a combination of his ideas and Chris’ ideas, and they put it together really quickly. It was pretty amazing — we got it done in two days of shooting, one day of actual shooting, and then another day of doing the flipbook shots. But the only person truly capable of flipping the books properly was Al, with Chris as a close second. And so Chris and Al did all the flipping of all of those books even though Jason and I were technically scheduled to do it as well (laughs). We had this box of them, and we sat in the hotel room with Al, and we were like, “We can’t do it dude, we suck.” It was truly hard to do it so that it actually looked like real movement that went along with the timing of the video, because it was all done in real time.
Well, the end result was great, it’s a cool video.
I’m glad you like it. It’s too band that MTV doesn’t play videos anymore. Other than sticking them up on YouTube, there isn’t much you can do anymore with videos. But yeah, it was really fun to do.
So, I know that although you’ve been playing with the band since 2004, you became an official member with the release of the new album. Did you have to suffer through any hazing rituals before you were formally welcomed into the PUSA brotherhood?
(Laughs) I had to put up with Jason Finn for three years on the road. No, one of the nice things about being in this band is that they’re adults, and they act like adults. I mean, we have a lot of fun, but it’s not like a college party. And I don’t think I could do that at my advanced age (laughs).
How do you and the rest of the band balance family and kids with your touring schedule?
It’s hard, but we don’t have nearly the intensive touring schedule that bands that are breaking huge have. Our Europe trip that we just returned from was only two and a half or three weeks, and that’s as long as we’re ever on the road. Other than that, we go out for a week, or four days, or ten days, or even one show. A couple of years ago we flew to Spain for one show, and then flew home. I mean, it has to be enough money to make it worthwhile, to take all those freaking airplanes and get up early and stay up late. We’re not going to get in the van for six weeks. That’s what killed them the first time, that type of schedule. It’s hard for me now — my daughter asked me why I can’t just call in sick and not go to Spain (laughs). She’s like, “Daddy, why can’t you tell them you don’t feel good and just stay home?” But my son is oblivious, he’s four — my daughter is eight so she’s way more on top of it. Chris has two kids as well, so it’s kind of a challenge, but it’s not impossible. You have to have a strong and tolerant partner, which I do.
A lot of your fans enjoy assigning various interpretations to Presidents’ song lyrics. As a relatively new member, do you know the meaning behind all of the songs you’re performing nightly, or are you sometimes left wondering yourself?
Well, over the years, I’ve heard snippets of stories and references to what things are actually about. But I’ve never been the kind of person who wanted to know what a song was about. Lyrics were always secondary to me. I mean, I know some of the stuff… “Kitty” was actually about a cat. But “Lump” was about nothing. Chris just wrote it about nothing. And he’ll still tell you that today — I heard him say it to somebody last week. He’s just like, “Nope, I have no idea what it’s about. It just sounded good to me, so I sang about it.” (laughs) There are some songs that I totally know what they’re about. On the new record, the song “Poor Turtle” is absolutely, totally not about a turtle, but is actually about the guitar that Chris played in the “Lump” video. It was stolen out of a rental truck when they were touring in ‘95 or ‘96, and he basically just talks about all the weird things that happened to that guitar in the song. Some of them are about something and some of them… they just come from the ether.
Tell me about the partnership between the band and EMI — do you think it’s proven to be a more beneficial arrangement than the band running its own indie label?
It was cool when the record was coming out, because it was in the stores in the cities that we went to go play in. That was hard to accomplish, I think, when the band put out its own record the last time. With a label, you’re hiring a marketing machine, and these guys have been just great, especially given that we’re not going to go out on a huge long tour, where they can build up momentum over a long period of time with print advertising and radio. It’s hard to get played on the radio now, and it doesn’t matter as much when you do. So, given all of those things, they’re doing an excellent, excellent job. We’re totally happy about that.
Let’s talk about the hotly contested campaign between you, Jason, and Chris to be elected leader of the band. When I voted the other night, Chris was leading — and you and Jason were neck and neck for second place. Any comments on how the race is going?
Well, look, I’m obviously a better choice. My foreign policy is more succinct. Because you know, I don’t have one. And I’m far less long-winded than either Jason or Chris, so maybe I’m a Republican (laughs). No, that would be bad. It’s a fun thing to do, for the band to embrace the whole Presidents name by associating it with an election year. Because it’s not been something they traditionally ever did — they were like, “Look, we thought it was a funny band name.” That was the extent of the political connection.
Have you been following the other election that’s going on as closely as your own?
Yeah. I’m concerned about the economy, and I’m concerned about the silent moral majority that snuck up and bit us the last time. That’s the part that freaks me out. Everyone’s saying, “Oh, we have to figure out whether it’s going to be Obama or Clinton,” but I’m still worried about whatever’s going on over towards the right. Because they’re being real quiet right now, and it scares me when they’re quiet. I’d rather have Pat Robertson out there just being a freaking weirdo than have this quiet, calm before the storm scariness (laughs).
Being from Boston, I have to ask about the briefly-lived Aerosmith cover band you were in. I understand a Charo impersonator was involved?
This woman in San Diego — Christine was her name — she ran a coffee shop, and she was just a real fan of rock n’ roll. She used to have bands play at her shop, this was probably circa 1990, 1991, and all the local bands hung out there. She decided she wanted to try and sing with some bands, so she started putting together these funny ideas. She did Charo Zeppelin and Charosmith, and I think she did a few others before she moved on to things that actually made money. I think we only did one gig, but the rehearsals were super-fun (laughs). She did the whole thing with a basket of fruit on her head.
You’ve described yourself as “a rapidly aging rock n’ roll maniac.” Are you trying to tell us that this stuff doesn’t keep you young?
Nah, I think it does. I wholeheartedly endorse all people being as rock n’ roll as possible (laughs). I think that by saying that, I just mean that I’m well aware I’m not 22 anymore. Some people shouldn’t do it, but I don’t know, I feel like I’m doing alright.