Ask Andrew McKeag, “guitbass” player for The Presidents of the United States of America, about his band’s early success, and he’s just as puzzled as everyone else. After all, he joined the band in 2004, a decade after the bands’ meteoric rise to the top of the charts.
“Initially you had the massive success of Nirvana, and then there were a few years of that,” McKeag says, fishing around for a reasonable explanation. “Then the torchbearer of the movement died, and there was this aftershock where a silly three-piece band comes along with ‘Lump’—which was a song about nothing. There’s nothing that explains now why people listen to us. It’s a mystery that we all are very thankful for.”
Nearly a decade-and-a-half ago, the trio that would form the core of The Presidents (occasionally referred to as PUSA) went from a half-serious Seattle-based party band to major-label-backed mainstream success riding the crest of the post-grunge wave. Their self-titled debut, released in 1994 by Columbia Records, would sell more than 2 million copies, hit No. 6 on the Billboard album charts and receive a pair of Grammy nominations.
Stranger bands have crossed over into the mainstream, but few possessed the smile-inducing pop hooks and catchy enthusiasm that the Presidents presented in 1994. The band’s two biggest hit singles—the aforementioned (and fever-dream-inspired) “Lump” and “Peaches,” a mid-tempo contemplation of fresh versus canned fruit—are nonsensical blasts of pop songwriting filtered through a grunge-era sound. It’s music you can smile to, and even sing with that special fourth grader in your life.
If some people fail to “get” the Presidents, it’s fine with McKeag.
“I think a certain slice of the music-listening public loves their Velvet Undergrounds and their Wilcos, and they can’t imagine someone having as much fun as we do,” he says. “I think that’s OK—I like Wilco. [But] humor has its place in music, because music is fun, and it’s fun if you want it to be fun.”
And what exactly does the newest member of the Presidents think is fun?
“There are bands that have fun, but their music doesn’t sound fun,” McKeag says. “They surely aren’t jumping up and down and screaming ‘meow’ like we do. But that’s what we do. I could never be in Oasis. I could never stand in front of a bunch of people and just play songs and stare at the floor.”
While the band has never matched the commercial success of their debut, the Presidents has churned out a steady stream of albums that have been generally well-received by critics and listeners. Creatively speaking, the band has been moving into new turf, arranging songs on a pair of specially prepared instruments: Lead singer Chris Ballew plays a two-stringed “bassitar,” while McKeag plays the three-string “guitbass.” (Drummer Jason Finn is the relative traditionalist, playing a standard drum setup.)
The band’s latest album, These Are the Good Times People (Fugitive Recordings, 2008), is a catchy and kinetic blast, burning through 14 tracks in a mere 39 minutes. Furious and fun, the album is a great reminder of why listeners found the Presidents’ debut album irresistible all those years ago.
McKeag claims he is as dumbfounded about the longevity of his band as he is about their unlikely initial success.
“A lot of it has to do with that first record,” he says. “It sold a lot of copies, more than your average flash-in-the-pan group.”
Although McKeag is fine thinking about the big question of how his band fits into the greater pop culture picture, he doesn’t appear to be losing sleep over its future. He’s just a music-loving guitbass player, touring the country and having fun. He seems more than happy to leave the bigger issues to those “important” bands.
“It’s great,” he says with a laugh. “I get to go on tour, play rock ‘n’ roll—and I get paid for it.”
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: The Presidents of the United States of America
what: Off-kilter 1990s pop act, revisited
where: Orange Peel
when: Sunday, May 18. 10 p.m. ($18. www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851)