We continue our feature on the heavily modded instruments of Chris Ballew, frontman for the Presidents of the United States of America.
Today’s instrument starts with a1960′s fiberglass-body electric guitar made by the Valco Guitar Company. Although unbranded on the headstock, these guitars were sold under three names: National, Supro and Airline and were staple in the hi-fi sections of Montgomery Wards Department Stores.
No, this isn’t Jack White’s plastic guitar, but it’s just as important in Rock and Roll history…
In the beginning: In the early 1990′s Chris Ballew was spending his summers in Boston, performing as a street musician in a duo called Egg. It was there that he met a quiet and mysterious musician named Mark Sandman who invited Ballew to become his roommate. Sandman was the lead singer and 2-string slide bassist for the iconic jazz-grunge band, Morphine. It was there that Sandman introduced Ballew to the concept of the 2-string bass/guitar hybrid. Sandman had developed the instrument after nurturing a fascination with the sound of Willie Joe Duncan’s one-string Unitar instrument as heard in the obscure 1960′s single, “Cherokee Dance” by Bob “Froggy” Landers.
This red 2-string was the guitar Chris Ballew first learned the glory of the 2-string. It was the instrument that would forever change Ballew’s music and style. The guitar strings were removed and replaced with the A and D strings from a bass guitar…the same setup Ballew has been using on his 2-stringers ever since. This instrument is the genesis of The Presidents of the United States of America.
Supergroup: While Sandman was performing with a 2-string slide bass in Morphine, he would also take time out to do weekly pub shows with Ballew. They played once a week at the Plough and Stars under the name “Supergroup.” The whole idea behind Supergroup was that they would come up with the song names while having a beer before the gig. Then they would make up the songs onstage during their show. Occasionally Mark or Chris would call out a Super Challenge ie. shout out words on stage and the other one had to make up a song on the spot using those words.
Supergroup recorded one 7″ record for Cosmic Records in 1995. Side one featured the song, “It’s Not Like That Anymore,” sung by Sandman. Side two was “Telepathic Cathy,” sung by Ballew. The record is now out of print, but can be found on eBay from time to time.
Eventually, Ballew would move back to his native Seattle and start the Presidents of the United States of America and Sandman continued to blaze new ground with Morphine. Sandman passed away in 1999 while on stage with Morphine in Italy. He was 46. Ballew would later record a solo album, The Days Are Filled with Years (released under the band name, The Giraffes) that was dedicated to Mark. It contained the song, Gone Again Gone, written about Sandman.
Since Sandman’s death, several posthumous collections have been released, including the incredible SANDBOX box set that feature Ballew on several tracks.
[A big shout-out to to www.pusabase.com for the links and support. They're an incredible resource for all things "Presidential."]