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This is an interview that was originally published in GAJOOB #9, winter 1993

Chris Ballew Interview

by Bryan Baker

I thank God Chris Ballew sent me his new tape Lint Cake. I would often slip a tape he was involved on with a band called EGG entitled Smell Me Fist and just revel in the infectious melodies and tightknit band chemistry of the songs. When Chris renewed contact from the other side of the continent, I was curious about what was going on. And this is what I found out. . . .

How long have you been involved in independent taping? Give a short history of your activities, i.e., when started, why did you start; bands, solo projects; tape highlights; related events, etc.

I started taping in second grade when my best friend and I began a "radio show" on cassette called The Bear Show. It was a call-in talk show (AM Radio style) we made on a little Sony deck and we even had a little stuffed bear for that authentic feel. Later, I began putting music from my dad's guitar onto one deck and playing that into the mic of another while adding sound with the brother of my "bear" friend on drums. I do mention all of this because the guy I did that first multi-track recording with is still my partner and plays drums in our new band CREEPY STICK. The two of us also back up a hillbilly jazz star named Will Kitchen. (I bet when you asked this question you didn't think you would get a "beginning of time story"!). So, I started just for the thrill of hearing sound I had made come back at me on tape and receiving that sound instead of playing it.

David Thiele, the child drummer, and I started DAVID AND THE OVERTONES when I was 10 and he was 6. We made tapes on drums (Sears Denim) and an upright piano and we even had our own theme song! This was pure fun.

Then there were a couple of punk bands in the 70's in High School with my buddy Dale Peyser (who was later in EGG). Then Ska was in our heads. Then keyboards took me on a new wave odyssey and finally I re-discovered guitar and began a band in New York at school with Dale and two New Yorkers. One was Phil Franklin who would be the drummer in EGG. By this time I was all songs. But they were fantasy songs none written about anything close to me, All from some alien perspective, based in rootsy rock and roll.

Tell me about EGG, both the band and the concept (other media projects you were involved with like the poster). What things did you accomplish? Was there any sort of guiding theme to it all? Fun? Experimentation?

Phil and I moved to Boston and began EGG as a street act. I had a little Sears guitar (we like Sears) and a mouse amp and he played the suitcase. He carried his little trap set in as a bass drum. We had traveled across the country after college, living in a small, brown hatchback and playing on the street. We really flourished on the sidewalk. We got the feeling right away for what would make people listen and what wouldn't. I would recommend a street gig at least once a month for anyone. It's free, no cover charge (unless people wish), grannies to babies can dig it and it's free publicity.

While on the street we were seen by Billy Ruane, who was the ringmaster at the Middle East, a showcase type restaurant and bar with a club in the back. They put on the best shows I ever saw in Boston. So we played there when we weren't in the Subway, adding Dale on bass.

The name EGG came from Mike Dwyer, an artist we worked with. We were all artists' assistants for the same artist and we had access to a wood shop so we started our own collective called EGG. We had a one page double-sided 'zine called EGG so the natural thing to do was to call the band EGG as well.

The guiding theme was definitely FUN. For a long time, songs were pouring out of me that were fun to play over and over. I judged a song by how many laughs it got. We were like a musical stand-up comedy troupe. We would do the same act in clubs and on the street, testing out new material on the street. Unfortunately, we didn't do a lot of experimentation. I wrote the songs and showed them to Phil and Dale, and in retrospect, I was too dictatorial about how I wanted them to be played. Our favorite way to release tension was late night mid-Summer on-the-street drum-jams. We would haul out all kinds of noise makers including Mike's car and huge cardboard tubes and go bananas.

Was EGG's demise an amiacable one? For some reason, I get the impression that the split was done under some sort of duress. . .

We played on for two years, and, as the street gigs became less spontaneous and my ability to write songs began to dry up, we started to stagnate. But we didn't take notice of it at first. We kept getting gigs and playing out, doing the same songs over and over. It was like making the same sculpture over and over and over. We never saw the obvious solution of making the band a democratic scene and giving up gigs so we could relax and approach it a new way. The fun is in creation, not repetition, of the product. But having not realized this yet we continued to play and after frustration became boredom, we broke up.

Did you take a break from recording (or other activities) after the end of EGG?

I have never taken a break from recording for more than one month. It's amazing to me. As surely as I eat and breathe, I record. There was a time after EGG when I was recording too much. I like the sensation of recording so much that I would do it even when I have nothing to say. I've learned to hold off and develop an idea somewhat before I put it on tape now. The result is a sense of accomplishing a goal and achieving a successful recording. But with no goal in mind I could fiddle with the same two tracks of improvisation for weeks without any satisfaction.

After EGG, I thought of myself as a "solo artist" and recorded demos of my old songs that never made it into EGG. That never went any farther than my bedroom. I went through the "dark side of the force" period for a year where my songs were depressing and ugly both musically and subject wise. Rape and torture were the themes along with suicide and distrust of hippies.

All this time I was able to get together with Dave Thiele for a week or two each year to record. These sessions saved my music. It was my only chance to bounce off of someone else. Later, I got a house with a basement and that was the best move ever. We would invite people from other bands in Boston over and spew out whatever was on our minds. Dave from the VOLCANO SUNS came a lot, Andy from SORRY, Greg from THE SKIADELICS lived there (a single-stringed ski instrument that change my life) Phil from EGG was over a lot and Mark Brooks, a jazz bass and piano player who showed me all kinds of new music I never knew existed came too. Mark Sandman from MORPHINE also came and showed me the wonders of the "tritar" and African pop. So all this exchange was great for all involved. We played out as DOWN and LOUD SUE and Mark B released two jams on a record called BALLS. This jamming was a very freeing experience for me. No expectations meant concentrating on the doing of music and drew attention away from the results.

Tell me about the "Lint" project.

LINT CAKE is a collage of 30-second to 2-minute ideas. I was still recording after I moved home to Seattle, two years after EGG and losing the satisfaction the basement brought when I realized that all along, no matter if I was writing songs or screaming my head off on a shitty basement P.A., there were these small, short, windey, little instrumentals coming out of me. So I paid attention to them and started developing them as an identity. I focused on something I had always done, but classified as second class to songs. Putting Lint Cake together was a celebration of recognizing those little jams and the pure fun of spontaneous splicing of tape.

All the music on Lint Cake is new made since I got back to Seattle. The fun took over and I just let the final product have a life of its own. I wasnt in total control of Lint Cake. Even though I released the second draft, it still sort of made itself. But I trust what I did because it was effortless and free. I want to work more on this format so that eventually the fun will accompany a well conceived and infectious series of instrumentals. Lint Cake makes me very happy.

Above all, I think that music should speak about who you are. Music, and cassettes in particular, are like little time capusles to me. You shoot them out all over the place and speak to many more people than you could with one mouth. In that way the sound must be individual to be received by someone else. If the music shows thought, choice and personality that is unique (not necessarily original) then I like it. That is someone talking to me with music, and if there is care in what is being said, there will be a message for the listener.

So far Lint Cake is just me. I wanted to do it alone so I was totally free to construct it. Collaborating requires slowing down and accepting the input of others. That is the way to work that I enjoy, but this way was more personal.

What are you doing now?

And now there is CREEPY STICK! David Thiele, the lad I grew up with, is on drums; and I have developed a 3-string basitar modeled after Mark Sandmans tritar. I modified an old Truetone that Mark sold me so it sounds like a bass and plays like a guitar (see illustration). And David is becoming a great drummer too. Without an idea of how he should be playing, he has developed his own unique mastery of the skins. He plays them like a lead instrument or a voice talking sometimes.

Improvisation leads to songs, and freedom is the key ingredient in this cake. We want to round out the sound with a clarinet or trumpet or sax or all three later when we find the right person. For now, I play clarinet on tape. We are releasing a tape soon of older material as a starting point. We improvise all the time into a dictaphone recorder (sounds a lot like 1975) then develop what we like into jams to be played on stage and street.

Dave and I are also backing up a friend of mine from Boston named Will Kitchen. We dont have a name yet, but we got some swingin Texas happy cactus music that you will hear soon.

Any future plans?

The future is excellent! Dave and I are finding the sounds that hung in the air when we were 10 and 6 are our identity. We are finding our unique sound quality. The satisfaction in being able to wear the sound you make like an individual coat of arms is very exciting. And being able to realize this with the same person I began making music with is like coming full circle. A complete feeling. Im not totally down on what I did in EGG, but the music we are making now is truly who we are and being close to that creativity is electric.

Chris Ballew is currently singer/basitarist for The Presidents of the United States.

 

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