Chris Ballew is known by most of us as the lead singer behind the band The Presidents of the United States of America.
To toddlers up to about age 6 and their parents, he’s Caspar Babypants, a singer of “simple good-time sing-along music” who is bringing his “kids music” to the Fox Theatre in downtown Centralia for a benefit concert this Saturday.
Ballew and The Presidents made it big in the mid-1990s with a debut album that included the hits “Lump,” “Peaches” and “Kitty.” In all, The Presidents sold about 4.5 million albums, and toured extensively throughout the world. They earned Grammy nominations and appearances on Leno and Letterman. The Presidents turned down the opportunity to play Saturday Night Live when it conflicted with Ballew’s wedding.
Fast forward a dozen years and The Presidents still play concerts from time to time (including two recent appearances at the Napavine Amphitheater), but don’t plan on any more albums. Instead, Ballew, 44 and living in Seattle, is following his heart, which brought him to Caspar Babypants.
In the 1990s, he gave himself the nickname “Caspar” “because I’ve never been fond of my first name.” Later, while in Boston, he was cold, needed a hat to stay warm, and donned some babypants on his head. His friends then called him “Babypants.” Now, Caspar Babypants, a former rock star, has found his new identity and his destiny — children’s songs.
“This is my musical destination, this is what I’ve been looking for all my life,” Ballew said about his new direction in an exclusive interview with The Chronicle earlier this week.
It helps to have two children, ages 12 and 9, that assist him with songwriting. His target audience is birth to age 6 — “little kids and their parents.”
His aim is to bring simple songs about bugs and flowers and the like, with upbeat, soothing, minimalist music.
“I’m getting real good responses from parents who after five hours in the car, they tell me ‘your music saved our trip,’” Ballew said.
His songs with The Presidents often appealed to young children, with lyrics about frogs and toy racing cars, but they also attempted — successfully — to be ironic and cool, with a dose of sexuality and even drug use.
Now he’s removed any innuendo, sexuality and coolness.
“It’s really who I am,” Ballew said, adding that as a rock and roll front man for The Presidents, “It’s a fever pitch I can’t achieve five nights a week.”
He said he still can get the audience engaged, but he does it with “a whisper, not a scream.”
“These kids get there without all that noise and chatter and late night messiness that rock and roll supplies,” Ballew said.
Ballew is still appealing to young and old alike. In a press release, he quotes a 4-year-old saying, “I like Caspar Babypants because I like the words and I like so much the songs and I like the voice and I really, really like how they sing. I like poor little broken truck because he ran out of gas and got stuck.”
And on the adult side, wacky recording artist Weird Al Yankovic weighed in: “Caspar Babypants is one of the few children’s recording artists I can listen to without wanting to stab myself in the eyes.”
Ballew will play about a 45-minute set, with a few new songs along with music from Caspar Babypants’ first two releases.
Scott White is the president of the Historic Fox Theatre Restorations.
One of the Fox Theatre volunteers mentioned to White she was a fan of The Presidents, and her daughter liked Caspar Babypants.
White encouraged her to call Ballew.
The rock star agreed to the benefit, he said, “while I was in a weak moment.”
Ballew does, however, play lots of benefits as a way to publicize Caspar Babypants.
He does not spend any money on promotions.
It must be working. The first Caspar Babypants album is in its fifth pressing after being released in February.
Another album dropped in November is already in its second pressing.
White said the combination of Ballew’s talent and approach, with the setting of the large theater, should make an impression on the toddlers.
“I think it’s exciting for families,” White said. “We haven’t done a lot of things for young people at The Fox. This is a chance for kids to have a definitive moment in a big theater for the first time.”
Michael Wagar: (360) 807-8224
What: Kids’ concert by Caspar Babypants
When: 10:30 a.m. Saturday
Where: The Fox Theatre in downtown Centralia at the corner of Tower Avenue and Locust Street
Why: Proceeds go to the nonprofit Historic Fox Theatre Restorations
Tickets: $10 per person, $30 for a family up to four persons. Reservations are recommended by calling (360) 623-1103.