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An interview with Chris Ballew and the other members of SUbSET.

Pain in the Grass-Subset Arrives

 

(Appeared in The Rocket #303, 6/9/99)

Sir Mix-A-Lot's and the Presidents of the U.S.A.'s Shocking Creation
By Kevan Roberts

Everyone is doing it, it seems. Barely a month passes without details of a new collaboration between a monster of rock and a demon of rap surfacing. Since the earliest meshing of the styles--courtesy of Run DMC and Aerosmith, Anthrax and Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys' entire License to Ill LP--there's been countless attempts to mix rock and rap together. The past year alone has wrought high profile partnerships between Korn and Ice Cube, Limp Bizkit and Method Man, and the ubiquitous and opportunistic Puff Daddy with both System of a Down and Jimmy Page. Heck, the cross-pollination of the genres was sufficiently common enough for MTV--hardly renowned for its speed out of the blocks--to declare 1999 the year rock and rap would finally come together.

The hipsters will tell you that once the mainstream media has discovered any "scene" or "movement," it's already over. Boisterous Black Diamond rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot would agree. He's already been there, done that and bought the T-shirt, courtesy of his late-'80s collaboration with local crunchers Metal Church on Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" and a 1993 pairing with Mudhoney for the soundtrack to Judgement Night.

Yet for his first release since 1996's Return of the Bumpasaurus, Mix has joined forces with the artists formerly known as the Presidents of the United States of America in a new band, Subset. It's a move which could, perhaps, be interpreted as an attempt by two past-their-prime (and currently label-less) acts to clamber aboard a bandwagon that is already trundling out of town. Except there's one notable and significant difference that sets Subset apart: Where others merely rock, they groove. More Muscle Shoals than Metallica--and magnificently so--Subset's funky, frugging formula has re-awakened all four members' interest in the music business and brought the Presidents back to life less than a year-and-a-half after their heady farewell show at Seattle's Paramount Theatre. Gathered together at drummer Jason Finn's Capitol Hill home, messrs. Chris Ballew (bass), Dave Dederer (guitar) and Sir Mix-A-Lot ("Call me Anthony," vocals) can hardly contain their excitement as they listen to playbacks of four tracks from their still-in-progress debut LP and chat enthusiastically about the future. The groovers are back on maneuvers.

The Rocket: So tell us how Subset came together.
Sir Mix-A-Lot: It was first talked about a couple of years ago but neither of us had the time back then. Then last year, somebody suggested we do a Hendrix song together but I wanted to do something original.
Dave Dederer: So we recorded a couple of "grooves" that we just had lying around.
Jason Finn: And then Mix had a gig at the Showbox and we thought it would be fun to go and play the two songs, "Addicted to the Fame" and "Beach Rats."
Chris Ballew: And playing those songs live was really exciting. The whole place just went up so we thought, "There must be something in this!"

Rocket: How did you collaborate on those first songs?
Ballew: We'd been making instrumental versions of lots of little ideas that we'd had for a long time. We arranged them so they were exciting as instrumentals, then gave them to Mix and he put lyrics on.
Finn: With "Beach Rats," Mix took the instrumental track, cut it up on his computer, rearranged it, then rapped over it. We then took that version back with us and re-recorded it.

Rocket: How many songs have you completed and recorded at present?
Dederer: There's six songs that we've got finished and five more which will be done by the time we play live again.

Rocket: What satisfaction are you each getting out of the project?
Mix: It doesn't have that corporate feel about it. There's no one saying, "Hurry up and get it done. Joe Schmo wants it done this way and by this time." We're doing it because we want to and that's what music should be about. There's no pressure. Like after I'd done "Baby Got Back" I was pressured to try and re-create it. You know "Baby Got Tits," "Baby Got Face"
Ballew: "Baby Got Lips," "Baby Got Baby, Whoops!" "Baby Don't Got Contraception...." Seriously though, it's been very cool for us because Dave and I have had groovy riffs lying around for years and no outlet for them. "Addicted to the Fame" is from a riff I've had for 10 years.

Rocket: Who is writing the lyrics? And what are you using as inspiration?
Mix: Me, pretty much. I got the idea for "Addicted to the Fame" when we were just talking about how much we all hated "the business." And I went straight home and started scribbling. That's how it's been with the whole album, nothing has been forced. I haven't sat down and said, "I'm going to have to write a song now."

Rocket: Can you give us a rundown on the other songs you've completed so far?
Mix: There's "Addicted to the Fame," "Something Wicked," "Beach Rats," "What the Hell," "Skinning and Grinning" and "What She Gave," which will be the epic we perform at the Grammys with a full choir.
Ballew: And Snoop Dogg flying around on a wire in the background.
Mix: None of the songs sound alike, yet we're definitely starting to develop a distinctive "sound."

Rocket: So will this be a one-off or an ongoing collaboration?
Ballew: We'll take it as it comes. After the Showbox all I knew was that I really wanted to do this.
Finn: And of course, he doesn't have to sing now. Me and Chris were already the tightest rhythm section in rock and since he's been playing a four-string bass, we've got even better!

Rocket: So you and Dave have finally retired the guitbass and bassitar?
Ballew: Yup, we snapped out of it. We're back to normal. I have four strings and [Dave] has six. At least we won't have to talk about playing "wacky" instruments ever again.

Rocket: How would you describe Subset's sound? Does it sound like Sir Mix-A-Lot accompanied by the Presidents?
Mix: People ask me, "Is it alternative? Is it rap?" It's not bullshit, that's all I know. It's just great shit.
Ballew: It's nothing like the Presidents. I'd describe it as the Meters playing car-chase music, like New Orleans soul or something.
Dederer: My fantasy is Booker T. and the MGs
Ballew: Riding around in the General Lee.

Rocket: And this is the year of rock and rap after all, according to MTV.
Ballew: But this isn't rock and rap. It's Subset. It's not rock.
Mix: If it had ended up being like Aerosmith and Run DMC with a rapper singing over a crunchy guitar, I wouldn't have done it. The closest thing I could compare it to would be L.L. Cool J when he did "Unplugged." It was a group, it wasn't just L.L. and some guys in the background. It has that feel. It has personality.

Rocket: What has been the response so far from people who have heard Subset?
Mix: When I take it to the "hood," they ask, "Are you sure it's white boys playing that shit?"
Dederer: Really white.
Ballew: Transparent.
Mix: And when I've played it I haven't said it was me, I've just asked, "What do you think of these guys?" And they'll all say, "That's the shit!"
Ballew: A good friend of mine who I've been playing music with for 22 years said it's the best thing I've ever done or been involved with. Not to build it up or anything! DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE!

Rocket: Mix, were you ever a fan of the Presidents?
Mix: Yeah, I was. When "Baby Got Back" was peaking, these guys were hot and I was just always bragging up Seattle. These guys, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden--I was giving shouts out to everybody. I was like (stands up with arms in air): "Seattle, motherfuckers! Come fuck with us!"

Rocket: Have you ever worked with or had a live backing band before? What's it been like working in such a different way?
Mix: It's certainly not a back-up group. I don't like the idea of it being like Mix-A-Lot and the Fuck-Ups or whatever.
Ballew: We're a band.
Mix: We are an incredible fucking group.

Rocket [to the ex-Presidents]: How have you enjoyed your "retirement," your time away from the limelight so far? Bring us up to date on what you've been up to since your "farewell" show at the Paramount last year?
Ballew: I've been too busy to retire. First, I put out the Giraffes record and then I had the Tycoons, then a band with Tad Hutchison [of the Young Fresh Fellows]. I also did a little producing for Bicycle and I've been working with another couple of friends of mine of no notable name. As well as raising a child, of course. The days are full. Definitely.
Finn: I just joined the Nevada Bachelors and I've also been playing in a band called the Congratulators with the Sangster brothers--Jim and Johnny--which is really fun.
Dederer: And my band the Uptights is playing on June 16 at the Crocodile Cafe for our second gig ever.

Rocket: Do any of you feel any pressure to re-create former glories? After all, you've each experienced prior success, and on a pretty big scale: sell-out tours, platinum records, Grammys.
Ballew: There's a distinct lack of pressure. We're not thinking too hard about it.
Dederer: Like when we were in the Presidents we would just make up these really dumb songs.
Ballew: We forged a career from not thinking too hard. "Don't look before you leap," that was our motto. Still is.

Rocket: Did the commercial pressures and expectations of the music business ruin the experience of being in a band for you?
Dederer: Sure. We pretended that it didn't, but, of course, it did.
Ballew: The truth is, when you sign a contract you grow a new part on your brain that adds a step to the creative process. It's this little voice that continually says, "What's the demographic? Who's going to buy that?" And I've spent the past two years trying to get rid of it.
Mix: The truth is, hits aren't made that way. Think about it. "Baby Got Back" was considered racist, sexist, everything and it fucking hit. Do you think I was thinking about demographics when I did that song? Fuck no.
Ballew: (singing) "She's lump, she's lump." I don't know what I was doing. I just found that one day on a little micro-cassette player and couldn't remember ever having made it up.

Rocket: Do you get nervous showing each other ideas you've come up with? Are you worried the others will just turn around and say, "This is rubbish, get it out of here?"
Mix: I know I can't bring any weak-ass shit to these guys.
Ballew: We've been on a bus with this guy after eating ribs all night so we no longer worry about getting nervous showing him anything.
Dederer: He intimidated us with some of his most pungent ideas.

Rocket: What are your immediate plans after these first couple shows?
Ballew: Just to finish the album and then find a record company.

Subset perform at the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle 6/26 and at Pain in the Grass in Seattle 8/28.

 

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