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Monday, July 24, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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It's in their heads to get back together again

The Associated Press

It's easy to laugh about it now, but Chris Ballew of the Presidents of the United States of America wasn't laughing when he decided that he'd had it with the rock 'n' roll lifestyle.

"I definitely could've handled it better," Ballew, the Seattle band's lead singer and guitarist, recalled. "We met up for a band meeting, and I started by saying, `Hey, before we get started, there's something I need to bring up. I quit.' "

Bassist Dave Dederer and drummer Jason Finn said they were surprised only by the timing of the October 1997 announcement, not the idea.

Dederer gave Ballew a nudge in the Seattle restaurant booth where the band noshed on fried calamari and French fries during a recent interview.

"He's a quitter," Dederer said, leaning toward a tape recorder. "Did you get that? Quit-ter. We should've renamed ourselves The Quitters."

Instead, the one-time top-10 band has shortened its name - now just The Presidents - and reunited for a fourth album, due in stores in September.

The new album may surprise those who attended the band's farewell concert in January 1998 at Seattle's Paramount Theatre. Band members swore it was the last time anyone would hear from them.

It was a defining moment in Seattle music history. Photos, smashed guitars and a pair of Ballew's shoes from the show - along with Ballew's original handwritten lyrics that became the hit "Lump" - are enshrined at the new Experience Music Project museum.

For a while, The Presidents were willing to let the band and its songs collect dust in the annals of rock 'n' roll. Even the name was getting old.

"It was a one-note gag," Finn said. "We're now gag-less."

That's hard to believe from a band that made its reputation on the playful punk-tinged songs "Peaches," "Boil Weevil," "Kitty" and "Lump." The band's first album, produced in 1995, went triple platinum, though the second, appropriately called "II," barely made it to gold status.

The Presidents tried to capitalize on their success and ran themselves ragged. They worked nonstop for nearly three years: touring, recording and touring again.

"It was such an adjustment, just going home and being with my wife," Ballew said. "I was so exhausted I'd just zone out. And I couldn't trash the bathroom and just leave it for housekeeping to clean up. There was no housekeeping."

So the band quit. A third album of B-sides, live cuts, outtakes and covers, called "Pure Frosting," was released just before the Paramount show. And that was it.

After the breakup and some down time at home, Ballew started working with other Seattle-area musicians, going back to playing in local clubs and bars. Dederer played with others as well but took some additional time to be with his wife and kids.

Finn became a partner in the Asteroid Cafe, an Italian restaurant in Seattle. He also joined a number of local bands and still plays with many of them, both in recording sessions and at gigs.

Last year the three teamed up with Seattle-based rap star Sir Mix-A-Lot for a new project, which they called Subset. It was both creatively satisfying and a local success. Subset was featured at the grand-opening concerts for Experience Music Project, where Dederer volunteers his time for educational outreach.

During their work on Subset, the former Presidents found they were enjoying themselves. When the independent label MusicBlitz approached the band, they decided to take another trip to the studio.

"I like working with Dave and Jason, don't get me wrong. We work well together," Ballew said.

Their newest album, "Freaked Out and Small," is the result of just 10 days of what the band calls "banker's hours." But during those sessions, The Presidents discovered a fuller sound, adding piano and Hammond organ.

The band's maturity and experience comes to the fore on some tracks. "Heading Out," one of Ballew's favorites, highlights the band's frustrations and fatigue from its previous incarnation.

It's that lingering frustration that Ballew says makes a reunion tour unlikely.

"I just don't want to go back to that again," Ballew said. "Call me a quitter, great. I'm really proud of this album, and I'm glad I did it. Let it stand on its own. It's a great piece of work."

Dederer and Finn nodded, but after the interview, at least one President hinted there might be more to come.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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