Behind The Song: PUSA’s Chris Ballew Talks ‘Peaches,’ Madonna and Disorientation

Chris Ballew, frontman for the Seattle-born band, The Presidents of the United States of America, remembers the super-tornado that sprung from his group’s self-titled 1995 album and its smash, worldwide hit, “Peaches.” It was in 1996 some 25 years ago when “Peaches” really took over the airwaves, playing seemingly every 30 minutes on commercial rock stations around the country (and, likely, globally, too).

“Peaches,” which hit No. 1 in Iceland and reached the top 20 in a handful of other countries, peaked at No. 29 on Billboard and No. 8 on its Modern Rock Tracks chart in the U.S. In the mind of many teenagers at the time, though, it was surely a domestic No. 1 hit. The song, itself, is cartoonish, fun: Peaches come from a can, Ballew sings. They were put there by a man. In a factory downtown

But the story behind the hit is both drug-filled (in a good way) and full of coincidence. Here, we catch up with Ballew to learn the origins of the song and how it changed his life dramatically. Ballew, who recently put out a new solo project, I Am Not Me, under his own name is a true dynamo of creativity.

American Songwriter: When did it first pop into your mind to write about peaches and is it true that you wrote it for a girl you liked while waiting for her under her peach tree?

Chris Ballew: Well, I didn’t write about it then. So, the whole song started with me taking LSD and going to a girl’s house to tell her that I liked her while on LSD, which is a really great idea! [Laughs] Or, it seemed like a good idea at the time. There might be a disclaimer here that I’ve taken LSD a handful of times and it performed as advertised and exploded my creativity and that was all I needed.

So, this was just one of those rare times that I took it. I went to her house. She was a singer-songwriter. Her name is Marylou Lord and she lived in a canary yellow house with white trim and a white-picked fence and little sun-shiny yard and a peach tree in the yard. But the house was in a neighborhood full of one-story brown machine shops. It was almost cartoonish and I don’t think it was the LSD that was making it cartoonish!

I went to the door and knocked on the door, so I thought, “Well, I’ll just wait for her.” And I sat under her peach tree. There were peaches that had fallen, that were in various stages of decay. And, of course, in my state of mind that I was in, I just started diving in and squeezing the peaches and mixing it with my desire for the girl and the desire for the peaches and juicy weirdness and ants crawling all around.

But she never showed up, so I left. But the song didn’t really come to life until much later. Until I had moved back to Seattle. I was waiting for a bus and a disheveled man in an oily overcoat with a big beard, who I assumed was, you know, homeless, came shuffling by the bus stop and saying under his breath, “I’m moving to the country, gonna eat a lot of peaches. Movin’ to the country, gonna eat a lot of peaches.” Over and over, as he passed by.

AS: Wow!

CB: Yeah! And that reminded me of my peach experience in Boston and I sort of started fashioning it into an idea — it was an idea first then I started attaching it to a melody and a verse and a chorus and a verse and a chorus. So, all the lyrics in the verses are distinct memories from that moment under her peach tree. But the song didn’t come together until the homeless man muttered the chorus under his breath! So weird.

If I wasn’t waiting for that bus on that day or he didn’t walk by saying that, that song wouldn’t exist, I don’t think. It’s crazy how things can line up, or not line up. Who knows what songs don’t exist because of whatever didn’t happen. And then the other twist of the song was all I had was verse-chorus, verse-chorus and then Dave Dederer, the guitar player for the Presidents, came in and wrote the outro part. So, it really is kind of two songs welded together, and it kind of sounds like that because we virtually stop and start a new rhythm for the outro.

So, I love the song for that reason because it’s a really great representation of me and Dave as co-writers of a song and the song became one of our big songs — biggest, really. So, it was nice to have both of us involved in something that became so synonymous with the band.

AS: At that time, you had a penchant for writing about absurd things, cartoonish characters, double-entendres. Where do you think that comes from and why did you embrace that side of your creativity?

CB: Well, that specific strata of my creativity—I think of it as like a, you know, cliffside in Utah. You can basically see time, as far as the types of different music I’ve been doing over my whole life. I mean, I’ve done everything from ambient stuff to, you know, sample-heavy hip-hoppy loopy stuff. I’ve had a band with Sir Mix A Lot, I’ve had Presidents, I’ve written rock songs, children’s songs. I’m writing psychedelic, abstract music now.

So, for me, it’s always been about following the impulse or the intuition—like, okay, I’m drifting into this now, hmmm. I’m into writing innocent little songs for babies, interesting, I’ll follow that for ten years. Now that’s kind of done its thing so now I’ve followed this other voice. So, when the Presidents happened, I was writing songs that were kind of more character-based and silly and narrative and abstract. That’s just the direction I was being pulled in at the time.

But I think the source of that version of my creativity is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, because I listened to that record when I was two-and-a-half when it came out in 1967. My brother bought it for my parents for Christmas that year, it came out June 1 and he bought it that winter for my parents and they just let it sit in their record collection and I glommed on and listened to it every day over and over and over. It just took me for a ride, in my mind.

My mind’s eye just lit up when I listened to that record. So, I just remember as a very small child not really knowing what was happening but feeling like I want to be part of that world, I want to live in that world. So, I think my character-based or almost hallucinatory descriptive lyrical fun stuff comes from that record, really. And how that record changed —there are different styles and genres in that record, “Within You Without You” to “Lovely Rita.” It’s all over the map. “Fixing a Hole.”

There’s like pop to abstract Indian conceptual and everything in between, even old-timey clarinets. But that’s why with the Presidents I always felt like, “Oh this is our me trying to be KISS song.” Or “This is me trying to be Carl Perkins.” On and on and on. So, I felt like I learned cultural sampling and hallucinatory lyrical writing techniques from that record.

AS: What about the recording process for that particular song, what was it like to track “Peaches”?

CB: I think it was really relatively simple. We in the band have created a mythology around our first record that we just sort of went in and played our live set and walked out! But I found notebooks recently with all the notes from those sessions and there was a lot of, like, “Okay, the high hat needs to come down just a little bit.” But as far as committing it to tape, though, that was easy because we really did just what we did live.

Then we did a vocal overdub. In those days I would do the lead vocal while Dave did his background vocal in the same room. So, we had a kind of energetic rapport going on. So, it was easy. It was fun to record it. I get kind of specific about mixing. One of the reasons we took the strings off of our guitars, the high strings, and took Jason [Finn]’s cymbals away was because we really wanted to make sonic room for the lyrics and the melody and the imagery to come through.

In mixing, that’s when I got a little knit-picky. I really wanted to maintain this sonic hole where we can put the melody and the visuals. I remember at the time being angry and mystified that the high hat, which is the smallest part of the band, was the loudest in the recording. Like “Get that high hat out of there!”

Yeah, anyway, drums are problematic, but luckily we had one of the greatest drummers ever in Jason. He was a great drummer because he drummed to the lyrics. He paid attention to what the song was about and where we were going energetically, depending on the lyrics. He’s irreplaceable for that reason.

AS: What was it like for you when something you made in Seattle went around the world? How did it change your life?

CB: It brought validation. It brought chaos. It brought financial reward. It brought disconnection from family and home. It brought disorientation and also dreams coming true. It was like this crazy Yin-Yang, light-dark mixed bag, you know? It was at times so disorienting that I wanted nothing but to get out. Other times it was dear and wonderful, the connections with the audiences that I never wanted to leave the stage. So, it was everything.

AS: In this video, it seems like you start out sort of apprehensive—a bit like, “Oh, this again?”— but then you end exuberant. That seems like the gamut of the experience, in a way.

CB: I distinctly remember some of those shows. I remember Pinkpop, we did it where we rolled into the festival site at, like, what was for us the morning, because we were jet-lagged. I remember brushing my teeth, bleary-eyed and rolling out of the van and just walking right on the stage, standing in front of all those people, like, “Man, I’m not even really awake!”

It would take a while to shake the dust off. Of course, our festival sets weren’t very long. So, just about the time we’d be like, “Okay, here we are.” It’s like, “Time to go.” But I have nothing but really fond memories and pride for what we achieved and did. At the time, it was so disorienting that I think I missed a lot of the benefits. I missed some of the positive aspects of it because I was disoriented. But luckily after a five-year break, we got back together for another 13 years. And those 13 years were the greatest because the spotlight was off, we played for the people that loved us, we toured all over the world.

We got to be in the greatest Presidents cover band ever. Which is what it felt like because I felt far enough away from the songs then that I could just play them and marvel at how fun they were to play and not get wrapped up in my own ego about them. So, that span from 2003-2016, whatever it was, that was golden.

AS: You’re such a conscientious person. You’re so focused on health, physically and mentally. I can imagine how torrential it might have felt when you were really one of the biggest bands in the entire world. But I’m glad that you’re okay!

CB: Yeah, I’m okay. And some of why I’m okay is because of Madonna. We had a business meeting with her and she said in the meeting, or I think she might have—my memory is that she pulled me aside and told me this, which was, “Whether you sign with me or not,” she says, “you are never going to get critical acclaim for the craft of what you do. Because it’s fun and it’s funny. So, don’t wait for it, don’t expect it. Just give that a pass and enjoy playing for the people that love you.”

AS: Wow.

CB: That was great because that really did happen. I could feel that happening in me, too. Like, “Where’s the conversation about songwriting and craft and what we spend all our time in the trenches caring about.” But luckily her comments kind of negated my dependence on that sort of validation. That also led to just navigating the whole thing with my eyes wide open.

Being like, “Yeah, my nervous system is breaking down. I’m unhealthy.” That global idea of being healthy kind of kicked it, which is why we broke up in the first place. I wanted to break us up, like, right when the first record came out. I wanted to pull a Sex Pistols. Just the week after the record comes up: BREAK UP! But it didn’t work!

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