Caspar Babypants knows how to rock
BY KEEGAN PROSSER
The Presidents of the United States of America made a name for themselves in the ‘90s for their cheeky, alternative-pop tracks. But in 2009, after 20-plus years of peaches, lumps and celebrating the Supersonics, vocalist Chris Ballew decided to go in a different direction.
“I’d been doing the rock band for years, and always had this sixth sense that I needed to do something else,” Ballew says.
Inspired by his wife’s quirky collage art – and his role as a father of two young children – Ballew started making music that was a bit more mellow.
“When I stepped back, I realized it was kid’s music I was doing,” Ballew says.
And so Caspar Babypants was born.
Known for his thoughtful, catchy pop tunes of the family-friendly variety, Ballew has since become one of many stars in Seattle’s Kindiependent music collective, a group started in 2010, that aims to make creative and innovative music for kids – of all ages.
Keeping it simple
Ballew says he tries to steer clear of the traps that generally define music for kid’s: firetrucks, space ships and airplanes.
“Fire engines and rockets are more man made – they seem more cool,” Ballew says. “And I’m trying to stay away from cool, because cool means cold.”
As such, Caspar Babypants songs pay ode to warm things, like animals and flowers, trees and insects.
“It’s just a reflection of how I live my life,” Ballew says. “I love nature and being outside.”
As for the melodies and arrangements, Ballew says his biggest inspiration comes from old-timey folk and blues songs of the 1920s and ‘30s and turn of the century spiritual songs. He’s also influenced by other children’s music writers, like Joe Raposo, of the Muppets fame.
In this tradition, Ballew keeps his music simple, choosing to omit electric guitar or percussion (for most songs) – aiming to make quirky, sing-alongs a-la the
Schoolhouse Rock! series.
“When I was a kid I felt a really happy sensation [from that] and that’s what I am trying to do with my music.”
The Caspar Babypants moniker came about from a combination of nicknames Ballew had in the past; Caspar is a name he gave myself when he was living in Boston in the ‘90s when he got tired of “Chris.” Babypants was what the neighborhood kids called Ballew as a result of him wearing a hand-knit pair of Babypants as a hat in the winter.
Ballew says it’s been really fun to write for Caspar because it gives him the opportunity to come from a freer, more innocent part of his personality.
“When I’m writing for Caspar I think of a family, in a car, under stress. Ballew says. “And I consider that family when writing, arranging, recording; that imaginary family is my guide. For the Presidents I imagined 1000 drunk people.”
And while he enjoyed making loud party music full of innuendos and rock riffs for the Presidents, his Caspar Babypants material has filled a more personal niche.
“This is the music that I am supposed to be making with my life,” Ballew says.
Caspar Babypants is a do it yourself venture, with Ballew running the Aurora Elephant Music record label, booking shows, running the studio and producing and distributing the albums from his home. Because of this, he’d like it to just hum along at a nice, slow pace.
“I don’t want it to – actually I’d prefer it to not be as successful as the Presidents.”
With five albums released in the last three years, and another coming in January, Caspar Babypants may be the most well known of children’s acts in the Northwest, but Ballew says the Kindiependent movement, as a whole, is very collaborative. Citing acts like the Board of Education, the Not-Its and Recess Monkey as partners in arms, Ballew says he is excited to be a part of the growing family music scene in the area.
“I think all bands in the Kindiependent movement are finally taking parents in to consideration – because parents buy the records, not the kids,” Ballew says.
The result has proved to be a collection of clever tunes that both kids and parents can enjoy.
In regard to the competitive spirit that might come with creating similar art in the same community, Ballew says it doesn’t exist.
“I’m happy to be doing it at the same time that other artists are concerned aboumaking quality music for families, because we can work together and share our experience.”
In the past year, Ballew has played several shows around the Greater Seattle Area, including stops at the KidsQuest Children’s Museum in Bellevue and the various University Bookstore locations. He also opened the third day of the Capitol Hill Block Party Festival in July (it was an early morning set, and families showed up in droves).
Currently, Ballew’s favorite song to perform is the song “Bunny Brown,” from his most recent release, Hot Dog! Based on a classic Appalachian song called “Pretty Polly,” – which Bob Dylan used as inspiration for his song of the same name – the Babypants track tells the classic story of the Tortoise and the Hare.
“It’s got a great story, great groove, and I’ve started doing this play by play of the race in the song, where I ask the kids who is going to win,” Ballew says. “It’s interactive and it’s really grown live.”
In addition to his Caspar Babypants albums, Ballew has dabbled in literature as well, working with his collage artist wife, Kate Endle, to release three children’s books.
“The books grew out of songs or songs ideas. One was a song I never finished – fragmentary parts of a song we developed together. And the other two were songs from my albums,” Ballew says.
He says the project was just a natural extension of their relationship with music and art, but the music remains the focus. Ballew will release his sixth Caspar Babypants album, I Found You!, in January – and has already begun tracking songs for the seventh album, to be released at a later date.
As of right now, he sees 10 albums being the goal, with the intention of releasing a box set after that.
“I used to have a Maurice Sendak box, with books in it – the Nutshell Library?” Ballew says. “I loved that thing. I have big dreams of doing that for myself.”