Alt-rocker Chris Ballew finds new voice with Caspar Babypants
As the former lead singer of the Presidents of the United States of America, Chris Ballew has experienced his fair share of rowdy audiences. But nothing quite compares to the crowds he encounters while performing as Caspar Babypants.
The 0 to 6 age range, it turns out, can be quite wild.
When kids get really into the concert, Ballew said, they’ll come right up to him and mess with his equipment or walk behind him while he’s performing.
Or, they turn into polite hecklers.
“They’re always saying ’ ’Scuse me! ‘Scuse me!’, screaming at me and I have to stop the song and they have the most ridiculous things to tell me…” he said with a laugh. “One time a kid said ’ ’Scuse me! ‘Scuse me’ and I stopped and he’s like ‘I’m thirsty.’ How many times would that happen at a grownup show? You don’t go out to see a giant rock band and yell ‘Excuse me! Excuse me!’ and then tell the lead singer you’re thirsty.”
But even after more than a thousand Caspar Babypants concerts, and likely as many outbursts, Ballew loves the energy children bring to a show.
“It’s just weird and it’s surreal and it’s unpredictable,” he said. “The potential at every show for something unscripted and totally disorienting to happen is high with the kids, and it’s a little lower with the grownups.”
Ballew will perform as Caspar Babypants on Saturday at Center Place in Spokane Valley.
Ballew introduced the world to Caspar Babypants in 2001 after his then-wife Mary-lynn suggested he record a collection of children’s songs for the Seattle nonprofit Program for Early Parent Support.
“PEPS Sing A Long!” featured songs meant to help parents and children with various activities during meetings.
“I remember in the midst of all this grown-up rock and roll I was doing, I remember making that record and feeling really relaxed and ‘Wow, this is really nice. This is so simple and spacious and harmonious and innocent,’ ” Ballew said.
Writing and recording “PEPS Sing A Long!” provided Ballew with a welcome reprieve from the music he was known for.
“As I was doing the rock band, as I was doing all that stuff, I had this very clear message coming from somewhere saying ‘This is not it. You have to keep digging. There’s some other voice that you’re supposed to use, some other presentation you’re supposed to pursue,’ ” he said.
But even still, Ballew didn’t realize that the other voice, the other presentation was Caspar Babypants.
It wasn’t until Ballew met his second wife, artist Kate Endle, that his next step became clear.
Endle’s work – bright, sweet, beautifully simple collages of, primarily, animals – serves as the cover art for every Caspar Babypants record.
“When I decided to make music that went with her art, everything clicked and all of a sudden I realized ‘I was supposed to be making this kid music all along,’ ” Ballew said.
After that revelation, Ballew hit the ground running with Caspar Babypants, releasing “Here I Am!” in 2009. He’s since released 15 more records as Caspar Babypants, including two collections of Beatles covers (“Baby Beatles!” and “Beatles Baby!”), two records of lullabies (“Sleep Tight!” and “Night Night!”) and even a holiday album (“Winter Party!”).
He released his most recent record, “Keep It Real!,” in August.
When writing as Caspar Babypants, Ballew said his process is more intense than writing for a rock band, calling it “forensic and ruthless” toward the goal of making music that will appeal to both 3 year olds and 33 year olds.
Calling back to his time working on “PEPS Sing A Long!,” Ballew also wants his music to serve as a tool that families can use to enliven a boring day when they’re stuck inside because of the weather, on a long car ride or when the children are having trouble falling asleep.
“I really admired how their mission was to reduce stress for families because I think that’s a big part of how we’re going to make healthy grownups is reducing stress for parents and babies,” he said.
Many of Ballew’s songs feature simple tales about children or animals, but he has also written about or from the perspective of things like trees, robots, bubbles, a rubber ball and bananas that dream of being used to make banana bread.
“I relate to everything on a really surreal, silly level, I guess,” Ballew said. “Everything to me is anthropomorphic.”
“Keep It Real!,” for instance, features a song called “When A Penguin Moves to California.”
“She’ll feel the heat on her toes from the sun-warmed sand … She’ll learn the earthquake evacuation plan … She’ll want to hug a giant redwood tree,” naturally.
His songs are silly, yes, but also sweet and touching, with enough cleverness and musical variety to satisfy both children and parents.
Though Caspar Babypants is classified as children’s music, Ballew said he makes about 85 percent of his decisions for parents.
“When you think about it, no child has ever bought an album,” he said. “It’s only parents. I haven’t sold a single album to a child.”
Ballew also looks for ways to rework songs in the public domain, like “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes,” and combs through older material to find bits of potential Caspar Babypants songs.
“Emotional Robot,” “My Lullaby Got Too Loud” and “I Thought I Saw Bats,” all from “Keep It Real!,” for example, were gleaned from songs Ballew wrote in the mid-’80s and early ’90s.
“Just because you sit down to write a song that doesn’t sound like something you would normally write or something that you’re writing for a current band that you’re in, go ahead and write it because you may be catching a glimpse of a future that you don’t understand yet,” he said.
In September, Ballew released “Happy Hits!,” his second vinyl-only collection of greatest hits following “Fun Favorites!”
When compiling these collections, Ballew looks at songs he loves to play live, songs he’s particularly proud of, songs that are being streamed and downloaded the most, and songs that he hears about the most from parents via email or after his shows.
Ballew said being part of so many families’ lives is incredibly satisfying and hopes his music can be functional as well as entertaining, helping to create special moments between parents and children.
“As a grownup, I still have very, very warm memories of how music related to my childhood…,” he said, referring especially to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” “That music has welded itself into my memories of childhood, and I’m really excited that my music is doing that for other kids.”