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Caspar Babypants

Rock-star lessons in life and parenting

Rock-star lessons in life and parenting
March 4, 2018
Seattle, WA

Caspar Babypants (Chris Ballew) is a very famous Seattle-based musician and a songwriter, previously known as the lead singer of the alternative rock group The Presidents of the United States of America. Dad to two wonderful teenagers, Caspar is calm, thoughtful and full of life-changing advice for parents.

What's it like to be popular and what path you took to get here?

I always knew I wanted to make music that was who I am. I didn't want to put on a costume,  metaphorically and literally. First, I wanted transparency with my music and I had figure out who I am, which took a long time. Second, was to make music that matched that person.

I rose to fame with The Presidents before I really fully realized who I am and what I prefer in life, and you know what, I rode that crest of fame without really knowing what I was experiencing. It got disorienting, and I really wanted out. A voice kept telling me to keep exploring.

When we broke up The Presidents, I tried all these different things, and then finally settled on music for kids as the end of this long path of experimenting and trying things.

The destination was this simple innocent music for kids and their parents, and I feel like I've arrived. It's like an arrival to a destination that I've been on my way to my whole life, and it's very relaxing to have finally like figured it out.  

Why did you call yourself Caspar Babypants?

That was actually an old nickname from Boston in the early 90s. I was in a jam band or like an improvisational bandwidth with Mark Sandman from a band called Morphine. He and I had a band where we improvised all the songs live in front of an audience and it became my stage name.

I never liked Chris very much, so I changed my name to Caspar at one point when I lived in Seattle. Some people who I met during the early 90s only still know me as Caspar because they met me as Casper, but I couldn't get the name change to stick.

When I was in Boston for the winter, and I had no winter hat and I went to a food co-op that had sort of a clothing exchange bin for poor people who couldn't afford clothing, which I was one, so I pulled out this pair of hand knitted babies pants and put them on my head for a winter hat and they fit perfectly and they were super warm.

The kids in my neighborhood started calling me “baby pants.” My arrival as Casper Babypants has been this long curving road. I wrote songs the entire way that were trying to be kids songs, but without knowing what I was doing I tried to make them grown up songs.

How you get inspiration for kids songs?

They come from all over the place. My wife Kate is a great inspiration. She is funny. She says things backwards. I heard a little slightly dyslexic mind just mixes things up. She's the one that said “my flea has dogs”, which turned into a song. She said “I’m too dirty to love.” Kate is like my Ringo!

Ringo's the one that said “it's been A Hard Day's Night.” John and Paul were like, song!!! Ringo's said “Tomorrow Never Knows” and … song! So she's my Ringo.



Another way, I swim around in the waters of public domain and look for old folk songs and traditional songs, and prison work chants and stuff like that. I use those as the foundation to write a brand new set of lyrics for an old melody. Another way, I record every little idea and look for little diamonds in the rough. Sometimes songs just fall out of the sky. Sometimes little kids will email me with ideas, or come up to me at shows and have ideas and so I'll write a song with a little kid or from the inspiration of a little kid & and so those are a bunch of ways.

 

What was your childhood like?

My childhood was super idyllic really, fun and really happy. I had a younger brother who we got along great with. We spent endless days playing with legos. Sometimes we would make up songs and rap back and forth about nonsense. It kind of informed how I use words. I like to twist words around and make them funny and make alliteration and stuff like that, that's where that really came from. I got to bask in the joy of being playful for a long time without stress.  So that's what I'm trying to now offer in the form of music to parents, a moment of ridiculousness and joy and energy to share with you kid.

I don't make kids music thought. That's the big secret. I make parents music, but there is no genre called “parents music” so I'm stuck with the moniker kids musician.

Growing up, I connected playing music with making my mom really feel elated, and she had such great joyful energy, and it was really great to see that come out in her so I kind of connected playing music with helping people feel good. That became just a real big cornerstone of why I do it.  I'm trying to give the gift of a silly ridiculous visual and a hooky musical element that people can ha, m even if they never hear the song again.

Should you put yourself through unnecessary stress?


I guess it's up to each individual in the circumstances. I think I put myself through some unnecessary stress in the early days of the president's because I couldn't reconcile the little messaging in my gut and in my head saying “move on, move on, keep looking, this isn't it.” With the external experience of being on MTV, and you know cheering thousands of cheering fans and all that stuff.

I wanted to experience all that stuff. At the same time, I was feeling like this was not my place. I didn't I need to get out of here, so it was weird, but I let that go on for as long as I could.

The first time I quit the band though, I quit very emotionally, a very emotional and messy experience. The second time the band retired, it was a very neutral educated self-aware peaceful decision. I think if you can extricate yourself from a situation that you know is not what you want to do, but do it without emotion, do it without being hot-headed about it, then you will be set up to grow and find your new voice, or your new way. You won't be stuck in an emotional state.

How to get through a divorce for the benefit of your kids?

It's the same as what I was just saying about the band. My first wife and I had four great years and then started to slide into friction, and we had six friction years and during those six years we were searching for the truth about our relationship. What's the answer? Is it “Yes, we're supposed to be together, and this is just a little difficult,” or “No, we are not supposed to be together?”

We went to couples therapy for a while, but really it was when we split off and did individual therapy that we figured it out because we worked on each of our-selves to figure out whether that self wanted to be in the relationship, and that process led to a neutral unemotional let out of sort. A big emotional angry time turned into a neutral unemotional realization that we were not supposed to be together, and so when we finally decided to divorce, I slept like a log that night.

If we didn’t do this therapy to realize where we were individually, we would have been frozen in an angry state and it would have really hindered our ability to raise children. Now she and I are totally on the same page about how to raise the kids and we have lots of talks about parenting philosophy, and what's happening with them. We agree on all that stuff.

I think when you're involved in something that's not quite right you really have to get out in order to find what is right. Whether it's a job or a person or a creative situation.

 

How did you explain the divorce to your kids?

We got professional advice about how to do it - stick to the facts, be loving, remind them that you still got them. Ask them if they have any questions.

It went kind of like this: “The fact is your mom and I don't love each other the way we need to to stay together. We will always be your parents, and you will always be loved and taken care of, that's it.”

How do you co-parent with your first wife?

We communicate a lot, we're open with the kids. We have a very serious philosophy with the kids that they can tell us anything, although they don’t have to. They can always come to us, and we never talk about each other behind the other ones back, so I don't disparage her in any even subtle way, and she doesn't disparage me in any subtle way, and so that way we never put the kids in a position of defending one or the other parent.


My first wife and I have deep conversational check-ins over the years that have been great because she knows me like very few people do, and I know her, so we are keeping each other as a resource. The process of parenting requires you to talk frequently and openly.

What is shaping and inspiring Caspar music?

Finding myself took time, and it was a big stepping stone towards self awareness for me. Why did this happen? How did I make this decision? You know how did I just allow life to happen in a way without really deciding what I wanted? That was a big step towards self-awareness which in turn became a step towards musical clarity and Casper Babypants. In fact my first wife, Mary Lynn, is as much responsible for Casper Babypants as Kate is.

Mary Lynn was the one that made up the song “Run baby run” in the car in order to keep Auggie happy, which became my purpose in a lot of ways. I think about the car and what it’s like and what instrumentation going to help that atmosphere, so she took part in that. She made that song up, and it worked.

Kate's artwork is what really pushed me over into wanting to make a body of work that kind of came from the same planet that her art comes from. And she and I currently collaborated on songs and ideas and books and stuff like that.

I couldn't have done it without either of my wives.

Kate Endle Collages on Etsy (kateendle)
Kate Endle Collages on Etsy (link in show notes below)

How do you know if you’ve made the right choice?

Do you feel relaxed around this person? Do you feel like you can be yourself? Do you feel like you can say whatever you want to say, or do you feel yourself editing yourself or reserving your opinion or tiptoeing around to please that person?

Allow your body intelligence or your emotional intelligence to be part of the dialogue inside yourself that informs whether you're in the right place or the wrong place. You know it.

I knew it for years that The President's was not quite right. I knew that my first marriage was not quite right. But you just have to wait until that feeling is so clear that you can't ignore it.

How do you know when to stop?

Whatever your golden carrot is, you know your podcasts hundredth episode or whatever, and then you check in with yourself, and you say - “do I want to go in that dip?” That answer was “no” for me, so I quit. The answer is going to be “no” a lot of time, and that’s okay. Just because you bought office supplies, doesn’t mean you should start a business :)

Music is something you haven't quit yet, why note?

I can't man. The songs are just the volcano of tunes. I got to deal with it. There was once a time I wanted to quit, but then I read another book - “The subtle art of not giving a Fck” - great book! It basically says that human beings have problems, every human being will always have problems.

I was going around for a few years previous thinking, I just needed to get my life, so there’d no problems. I don't want any problems. I just want smooth sailing, in fact in The Presidents there was a song called “zero friction” which was about that idea. And it was torturing me because I had emails to answer about booking shows or you know, but the mechanics of running a record label and booking and playing shows and all that stuff got really annoying to me. I read this book, and the book basically turned me on to the idea that if you find something you do give up beep about it will generate problems.  Your job is to love those problems because they support what you give a beep about.

A lot of people choose things that they don't give up beep about and get annoyed at the problems that circle around those things, or things they can't control or things that are out of their sphere of influence or things they don’t really want to be doing. Those problems become really annoying and can cripple you with anger and stuff. Learn to love your problems.

What does your music teach kids? I

don't think it teaches them anything, not one single thing. I am very proud of the fact that there's no educational value in my muse. Yeah, you'll never learn how to count to 10 or do the alphabet or tie your shoe or brush your teeth or any of that stuff nothing it teaches absolutely nothing, because I am singing in a vocabulary that kids already have. One of the main reasons I focus on 0-6 years olds is because they are enlightened human beings.

When you're born, you experience the world as an energetic place, right? And then you learn names for things, and things start to kind of settle and make sense and there's organization. Before that it's just this crazy surreal energetic place, and even after when you get language, like they know the parts of the world, but they don't know how they go together, and that makes for surreal weird juxtapositions that don't make sense that are hilarious, and that's the language I use in songs, so I'm really learning from them how to exist in that space, and trying to coexist with them in that space, so I'm not teaching them a darn thing!

Nothing, I love that. That was one of the things that I figured out early on that may be super happy because I was like yeah, I just have to I just get to be around that energy and swim around in those Waters. It's great.

I really feel like learning is for school and that music is for fantastical, impossible, magical thinking.

 

How profitable is Caspar Babypants?

I have no overhead, and it costs me 32 cents to burn a reference CD and play it in my car once. I bought the laptop and a couple of speakers and a keyboard; the overhead is ridiculously low. It's literally cost me like $4 dollars to make a record.

That's why I make the records with cardboard sleeves - they're cheaper to make there's less garbage involved, kids can chew on them and the margin is nice and high. At live shows I sell them for $10 including tax, for 20 songs, and I've never raised that price since I started in 2010. It’s kind of a thank you to parents who make the effort to come to the show you can get a discounted CD.

Want to win a Caspar Babypants CD ? Follow this link.

Physical CDs have some issues. New cars don’t have CD players, and then you know, I've got to ship them, I've got to distribute them, I’ve got to haul them to shows and sell them and count them.  But they're such cute little things, I’m not going to get rid of them prematurely, people still buy them.

Your kids are 17+. What do you do with your kids are that age?

I've done what I've had to do, and no I want to be available and on deck for any issues and supportive of their projects and their dreams. They don’t have a shortage of ideas for what they want to do with their life. So I'm just trying to support them and their desires. The heavy lifting of being a parent is kind of over.

They know how to walk and eat and talk so that's kind of my main job was done. My son is in the music and for him, I am keeping the instruments that I am not using anymore, to help him kind of experiment without stress of spending all his money on it.

My daughter is a super adventurer. She wants to graduate college, and then wants to go on the NOLS course (National Outdoor Leadership School in Patagonia), so she's going to be in Patagonia in the wilderness for 90 days, and then she's going to go to Sweden and be an au pair and then go to Colorado College, and she's going to the South this coming semester to study civil rights, and she's been to London to perform in plays …etc.

So really it's just about supporting that stuff.

How do you talk to your kids about sensitive subjects?

You mean sensitive subject like sex and drugs and stuff like that. Yeah. The car is great because you are you have them captive there, but you're not looking right at each other. You just have to come out in plain language and say what you have to say.  Dancing around the subject is not good. It just makes it torturous. Just say it. Whatever your position is on those sensitive subjects, say it in plain language and it will be over soon.

There's a podcast called Roderick on the line, John Roderick and Merlin Mann and that podcast has really helped me raise my kids. We've been listening to it in the car to and from school for years and years, and they are not shy about talking about those kinds of subjects: sex drugs and rock n roll, Hitler and World War II and music and all kinds of stuff. I'll pause the playback of the podcast and say to kids kids: “ What do you think of that? What do you think of what he just said?” It’ll start conversations about sensitive subjects and it's really been helpful because John and Merlin are funny and smart and they have a great perspective on the world.

I think maybe a certain percentage of what they say is totally made up, but they do it with such confidence, that's kind of appealing. They are compelling storytellers and have great personalities.

How does your life change when you become a dad?

I think that the chemical reaction that happens when you fall in love is kind of similar. I definitely noticed that some chemicals kicked in that allowed me to not sleep and to be awake all night. That was interesting.

You start you be kind of less selfish. I had to spend less time in my studio making music and more time doing family related activities and chores and stuff like that.

How do you choose between a professional career and kids?

I'd say if you have any second thoughts about having kids - do not have kids. Just don't do it because we got a lot of people in this world. We don't need a lot more people.

I decided to make two because I thought I had struggled my whole life for self-awareness and to be a better person and I felt like we could make two really good people and so we did. I am really glad I did.

But if you have strong feelings for your career or strong feelings that you're not paternal or maternal naturally, or you don't daydream about  having that, and yet you feel pressure from external forces to do it, I would not do it.

What's the role of a dad in marriage and parenting?

A lot of times the dad is sort of typecast as the fun parent right? The parents that has to go away to work and come back, end up being the ‘fun parent,’ and often times that’s a dad. Lots of dads struggle against the fun dad problem.

The mother has a whole system going at home, and dad comes in and like wakes the kid up, or feed them candy or does something because it's time for fun. It's time for, you know, the circus to begin because Dad is home. That creates crazy friction between the mom and the dad. Especially on the mom's part because you know, you come in, mess up the system.

I would advise dads to be aware of that and to be respectful of the systems in place because it's a hard job. It's a hard job for the one that stays home, whether it's the mother or the father.

As far as being a parent goes, I think it's important for a father to show kids the emotional depth. Men are taught to be strong and sort of emotionally shallow. I think sports are popular because it's a place where men can cry and be emotional and hug each other and touch each other in high five and you know. So I think showing emotional depth to a child as a man is very important because you can get yourself in a lot of unpleasant situations later in life if you don't have emotional depth or complexity, or aware of your own emotional depth and complexity because you won’t have access to a whole menu of feelings that you might be feeling.

If you're feeling vulnerable, for example, and you don't have access to that vocabulary then you're gonna do something bad. You're gonna make bad choices.

How do you know if you are a good parent?

Are you kids still pushing the limits? It's normal to assume that if your kids are always pushing their boundaries, then you are not doing a good job as a parent, many think that way. But in practice, it's the opposite. Kids would push the line of safety only if they know you are there to catch them when they fall, so as long as they keep pushing, you are doing a great job because they trust that you are there to support them. It's not failure, it's the action of doing your job as a parent.

What would you want people to remember about you?


I'm a happily engaged in the struggle to be as self-aware as I possibly, and to create as little friction in the world for people and as much joy as possible. Goodbye!

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