Around 25 years ago, as the Seattle rock scene was emerging from the shadows of a dark period following the death of Kurt Cobain, a humble pop-punk trio that called themselves the Presidents of the United States of America were starting to make waves with their oddly-stringed guitars, a drummer with a tiny kit, and catchy-as-hell tunes about animals, fruit, and dune buggies. Soon enough, people started flocking to their local shows to bathe in their buoyant energy and sugary melodies. A major label deal followed and with the release of their self-titled debut album in 1995 and a flurry of promotion, the rest of the world was singing their praises. Or at least singing along to “Lump” and “Peaches.”
While much has happened between ’95 and now (five more albums, two breakups, a collaboration with Sir Mix-A-Lot), the chatter on the band’s newly minted website and Instagram account has been about the early days. All of it leading to the announcement this morning of a Kickstarter campaign to help them reissue their debut album on vinyl.
The new edition of the LP boasts remastered audio and comes pressed on sickly green colored wax. If you had any doubt about whether the Presidents still had fans out there, just know that within hours of the Kickstarter launch, backers quickly shot past the group’s $25,000 goal. And there’s still 27 days left in the campaign.
In the days leading up to the launch of this Kickstarter, The Stranger spent a little time on the phone with drummer Jason Finn to talk about this reissue and the tornado of activity that the band willingly jumped into as their singles climbed the charts in the ’90s.
THE STRANGER: How did you end up being the member of the group to spearhead this campaign to reissue the first PUSA album?
JASON FINN: Dave [Dederer, guitar] is still full-time employed at a job and Chris [Ballew, bass, lead vocals] is still full-time employed Caspar Babypants-ing. And I am, if anything, chronically underemployed. We have been post-band for several years now. All we really do these days is get together and have lunch a couple of times a year and talk about the various remaining business items. We always end every lunch with, “Oh my god, we should really get vinyl out of that first record.” Because it never happened. We always shake hands on it, and say, “We’ll get this done right away.” Then six months later, we have lunch again, and we’re like, “Huh, we really didn’t move the ball on that, did we?” So now with the nice round 25 year number, we have run out of excuses.
It’s good to hear that the three of you are still hanging out, even if it is just to discuss business stuff.
Well, not just business, but our deep passion and interest in lunch. We’re working our way around all the downtown places. It’s awesome. You know, Dave stopped performing with us in 2004 and we picked up our friend Andrew McKeag who stuck with us that last decade. We’ve never had any acrimony. We kind of organically aged out of the whole thing. It’s a younger person’s game we find. I was just rehearsing for another thing I’m doing and, oh my gosh, my elbows are a little achy. Your ears hurt a bit. The wheels are coming off.
Wasn’t there already a vinyl version of this album from ’95?
PopLlama, our original label, did some sketchy deal with some little Spanish label, and they made 300 copies of the first record. Those are the ones that our fans battle over on eBay. That atrocious package. They found a terrible picture of us and slapped it on the front. It’s not the legacy you want so we’re happy to be doing it properly. The particular Kickstarter we’re doing is for a fancy colored vinyl version that comes with a poster. Then later in the year—or realistically next year—we will put out a baseline version on regular vinyl that will be the one in stores on an ongoing basis.
This is going to be it for you guys, right? No reunion shows planned to celebrate this reissue?
We’re not playing shows. We’re full time doing our other post-Presidents stuff. I mean, never say never. But for now: never. We’ll be out there talking about stuff ’cause, of course, we’re dropping dope Instas left and right.
Let’s talk a little bit about the time that the band got started. The heat around the Seattle music scene was dying down a little bit, and you were already busy playing drums for Love Battery. What was it like for you to join up with the band and get this album off the ground?
It did move very fast. Looking back, it’s easy to say that things were slowing down for Seattle. All the big groups were already big. But we were definitely the lucky beneficiaries. We were the most popular club band in town. We would play in the Crocodile or Neumos every month. It just so happened that every single record label was still sending busloads of people to Seattle. In a sense, we benefited in very real ways from the end of that previous era. On the other hand, it might have bit us on the ass a little bit because people really liked to write about how we were, in some way, a reaction to the previous Seattle bands. Which didn’t feel accurate, but, you know, they’re the ones writing the stories. We just felt like were just a rock band like everyone else.
It was kind of the last time that there was a city that was the center of everything, cool music-wise. I don’t know whether all of us appreciated it or just kind of took it in stride. For us, we don’t remember too much of it. We played the Sit & Spin on “Acoustic Night” and kind of cheated because we had little amps. 25 people came to that. Then there were 40 at the next one. Then there were 200 at the next one and then we’re off to the races. The amplifying effect was profound and probably too fast.
You guys were on the road constantly around that time.
That was a different sort of big machine music industry than what we look at now. Boy... It came out in May of ’95 and we did this one very, very dense promotional tour where we were barging into conference rooms at radio stations and playing on their table and all sort of crazy stuff. Six months later, “Lump” was a pretty big song. “Peaches” kind of followed nicely on that. I don’t think it would have been fun to do it the way that people are doing it now. You can just hit upload on Spotify and go global.
We did our share of the festivals back then. We’d get to go to Europe and do all the fun fests but here we did 25 EdgeFests in a row. There were a lot of Edges. There were maybe three or four The Ends around the country but there were like 20 Edges. It was crazy.
Did it feel like things changed dramatically around the second album?
Possibly. We were convinced by our label that getting another record out there was, in some way, important to us. Hindsight being 20/20, we definitely should have taken a year to catch up on sleep and be on a beach somewhere. Instead, we just let Phase Two meld into the end of Phase One. I don’t know if that was the best strategy. Unfortunately that one we don’t own. I don’t think we’re going to get it back. Part of the reason we’re able to do this vinyl reissue on our own terms is that we were able to get ownership of that record back. We had some leverage because everyone wanted the cool new Seattle band or whatever. So we put a clause in our contract that allowed us to get it back. That will not be happening with the second record. But hey, if anyone from Sony’s listening, and you want to put out a vinyl reissue of the second record, that would be cool. We would help you sell it.
When you think back on that crazy stretch in ’95 and ’96, promoting the first album, what was the strangest thing you guys got asked to do?
Because of the name, there was so much cookie cutter, red white and blue ideas. A lot of morning radio personalities saying, “Which President are you?” That question makes no sense to me! I don’t understand what the joke is there. It was really just endless. We did our best to pre-empt some of it and have our people say, “Hey, maybe you can come up with something than other than just red, white, and blue pictures of Abraham Lincoln” We were pretty good sports about it. Like I said, we’ve played on many a conference table. We played on sandy beaches in bare feet. We’ve played in front of hot dog stands. We did it all.