Chris Ballew could have jetted from his West Seattle home to the Grammy Awards this year, thanks to the nomination of his latest Caspar Babypants release “Flying High!” in the Best Children’s Album category.
You might think the former frontman of The Presidents of the United States of America, who lightened Seattle’s 1990s grunge music scene with quirky alternative-rock hits “Lump,” “Dune Buggy” and “Peaches,” would want to spend time with his musical peers. After all, he attended the Grammys back when The Presidents were nominees and ceremonies were in the historic Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
Caspar Babypants had a concert gig at the Marysville Opera House that night, and that’s Ballew’s priority now: Local gigs for his loyal, local fans.
Even though “Flying High!” didn’t win, Ballew is OK with that.
“It was very nice to be nominated, but I never planned to go,” Ballew said. “One was, I already had a show booked. Two, I’d been to the Grammys in the 1990s, and the Shrine, it just has a vibe to it. Staples Center (the 2020 awards venue) didn’t appeal to me. And three, it’s a continuation of me not paying attention to that kind of awards stuff.”
In fact, Ballew himself hasn’t submitted any of his work as Caspar Babypants for any kind of awards or public accolades since Caspar Babypants sprang to life in 2009.
“My focus is on happy parents,” Ballew said, adding that he values their word-of-mouth opinions more than anything. “That’s worth more to me than a thousand positive impressions online.”
As Ballew wrote the first Caspar Babypants songs, he saw parallels with songs he wrote for The Presidents. Strip away the “crusty exterior, guitars and innuendo” of Presidents’ songs and you’ll find the same simple musical foundation in Caspar Babypants.
“If you think about it, ’Dune Buggy’ is basically a Caspar song,” Ballew said. “The songs just come out with an innocent core, like ‘Noodles and Butter.’ So, I just love noodles and butter. That’s just me being who I am. I like being childlike.”
Then he pauses for a moment. “Maybe I’ll have noodles and butter for lunch.”
Using that innocent core and catchy lyrics, Ballew says he tries to help frazzled families relieve their daily stresses during transitions at mealtimes and bedtimes, or on boring car trips. He doesn’t write just for the sake of “clever songwriting.” After 16 albums, and a 17th album due for release on Aug. 14, he’s found a formula that works, one that parents and kids equally appreciate.
At Caspar Babypants performances, kids bounce, jump and flail with wild abandon and parents sing along as Ballew strums his guitar and sings his goofy, funny lyrics (and the occasional Beatles cover) with pure joy.
“Especially focusing on the 0 to 5 year olds, they have this really surreal, boundless sense of the world, and I just love being near that perspective, because I identify with them, they’re my people,” he told Sno-Isle Libraries during a 2015 performance at the Camano Island Library.
When Ballew writes Caspar Babypants lyrics, “I see a scene when I write a song,” he said. “When I write the lyrics, I see the picture. Everyone has that imagery. … I describe something, people hear it. I hone the lyrics so they point to the same picture.”
Ballew and his wife, graphic artist and illustrator Kate Endle, have taken seven Caspar Babypants songs and turned them into children’s books. He expects they’ll turn more Caspar Babypants songs into books.
While Ballew likes “being childlike” as Caspar Babypants, he deals with the same aches and pains as other people in their 50s. As a result, he’s scaling back his performance schedule.
Plus, the growing popularity of Caspar Babypants makes intimate performances in small settings like the Camano Island Library’s meeting room harder to manage because of limited access. Much as he likes those tight-knit gatherings, he doesn’t like to see parents and kids scramble to get in, or leave disappointed when they can’t.
“I’m playing fewer shows to larger audiences,” Ballew said. And many of those shows are at ticketed venues, like the show he did at the Marysville Opera House instead of going to the Grammys.
One upcoming ticketed show is for parents only. It’s Caspar Adultpants on Sunday, Feb. 9. The Tractor Tavern in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood bills it as a Caspar Babypants show for adults 21 and older. Tickets are $13.
Since it’s at a tavern, Ballew knows what kind of audience to expect.
“I’ll sing for adults who are drinking,” he said. “And I’ll get adults to act like kids.”