BY STEVEN ROSEN
Blurt Online / June 9, 2009
Growing up in rural Clarksville in southwest Ohio, Chuck Cleaver learned early to hide his artistic interests from friends — even though at age six he had a gift for making up songs.
“I think in the community I came from, any kind of artistic
aspirations that a male had were considered wussy or gay, and you just don’t
want to be that in a small town,” he says. “So I never let on.”
Cleaver, who turns 50 in June and now lives in more arts-friendly Cincinnati,
isn’t sure if that memory is the impetus for the name of his band Wussy. It’s
the successor to the critically beloved but commercially iffy alt-rock band he
led, Ass Ponys. In Wussy, he shares singing and songwriting with Lisa Walker, his significant other.
“Wussy just looks right,” he says of the name, during a
weekend breakfast at Blue Jay Restaurant in the city’s scruffy but hip
Active in the local music scene for three decades, he knows
just about every person in the divey, friendly place. The restaurant also
happens to be next door to Shake It Records, the city’s premiere record store
and also part of the enterprise that releases Wussy’s music.
On its new self-titled album on Shake It – the band’s third
since 2006 (plus an EP) – Wussy is looking right to a lot of people. Besides
Cleaver and 36-year-old singer-songwriter Walker, Wussy consists of Mark
Messerly on bass and late-arrival Joe Klug on drums (recently replacing Dawn
Burman). Its sound is often foreboding and intensely urgent, yet eminently
tuneful with an approach that recalls R.E.M. and the Velvet Underground.
Cleaver and Walker’ voices work well in harmony and solo; he’s capable of an imploring falsetto, she of compelling insight. Cleaver gets credit for the lyrics to five songs; Walker six. On a twelfth song, he wrote “most” of the lyrics; she “the end.”
The literate, mysteriously imagist quality of the songwriting about relationships (“Little Paper Birds” and “Gone Missing”) or life’s meaning (“Happiness Bleeds,” “Scream & Scream Again”) is striking. For instance, on the song “Happiness Bleeds,” Cleaver rhymes “porn” and “born” not in a jokey or smutty way, as so many bands might do, but rather almost existentially as he envisions a compellingly strange scene from rural youth:
“Trampling through the brambles til our pants were all
torn/searching for a paper bag of mildewy porn/ reflecting on the neverending question/why had we been born?”
Wussy will be touring the East Coast and Midwest
this summer in support of the album. And in September, Cleaver and Walker will
do acoustic shows in Great Britain. It will be his first time overseas. The Ass Ponys once were about to go, even had dates booked, but the original guitarist suddenly quit.
“We had gotten back from a 2½-month tour and his infant daughter didn’t know who he was,” Cleaver recalls. “So he said, ‘Screw this.’ By the time we got a new guitarist, the tour was over. That was between Electric Rock Music and the album after that.”
Electric Rock Music was Ass Ponys’ shining moment in the culture at large. Although that 1994 album was the band’s third, it was the first on A&M Records. The band had been signed when the majors chased offbeat and impassioned indie-rock acts in the wake of Nirvana’s breakthrough. It even spawned a modern-rock hit, “Little Bastard,” and earned the band a spot on tour with Pavement. But by the time of a 1996 follow-up on A&M, the
moment had passed. It came and went quickly.
“I think the label felt it had the next big thing, and for a while there was some frenzy,” Cleaver says. “But we were a bunch of midwestern guys, not especially good-looking and in our thirties, so they did not have the next Nirvana. We always got the impression they wanted us to be a little less heavy and to dress a little better. But we were like old grumpy men who didn’t want to do what they’d say.
“The guy who signed us to A&M really liked us,” he continues. “He signed a lot of ‘odd’ bands – Kitchens of Distinction and a band who were all really little and marveling at how big we were. They were really tiny people and looked like they all could be on charm bracelet.” Cleaver remembers that band had a one-word name, but can’t recall what it was.
Cleaver, it should be noted, is still a strapping guy – 6-2, heavyset, with a thick graying goatee, darker tousled hair and prominently framed glasses that give him a seriously bookish presence, like Trotsky. The tattoos, however, hint at a life on a hipper, alt-culture edge. He fits in both camps – he has a degree in fine arts from University of Cincinnati,
where he also started playing in experimental-music bands.
Ass Ponys continued on after the A&M moment passed. Two albums on Checkered Past, 2000’s Some Stupid With a Flare Gun and 2001’s Lohio, won praise for their committed rock and their witty and offbeat pop cultural references.
But something was happening to Cleaver around that time. “After we made Lohio, which was my favorite record, I thought I don’t know what’s beyond it,” he confides. “We were coming up with new material, but having trouble getting into it. I felt I needed a break. I’m not sure the Ass Ponys ever broke up, just faded out.” In fact, Ass Ponys is planning a
compilation, The Checkered Past Years, for release this summer on Shake It. It will include both albums, plus some live tracks and songs from various compilations.
After an Ass Ponys gig at a club in Newport, Ky., just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Cleaver was sitting on the building’s front porch when a younger women he had never met – Walker – came up to him.
“She picked up my guitar and started playing a song she had written and it was actually really good,” he says. “I tend to be a little picky – writing is the only thing I can do really well. So I was really impressed by that. And when she sang, Bam! That’s about all it took.”
Cleaver had earlier agreed to play a solo acoustic gig – a rarity for him – at a local festival. After that, “We thought maybe we can do this,” he says.
It was a tough time for them. Both were in the process of having their marriages fail. Cleaver was so financially strapped he had all his electrical musical equipment and gave up his fulltime business as a collectibles dealer. (He now works as a stonemason.) Then romance ensued. “We sort of went with it,” he says. “When you meet somebody, you don’t really have control over it. Our intention was never to be a couple.”
It has not been the easiest of relationships, Cleaver says, and some of that might be reflected in the songwriting. But, however much his image of the “old grumpy man” may persist in certain quarters, he feels renewed.
And, as he turns 50, he’s optimistic his best songwriting lies ahead.
“I hope so,” he says. “I always kind of hoped it was.”
(Photo, above, of Chuck Cleaver of Wussy by Jesse Fox)