Hecklers in the Van: A Tour Dispatch from Wussy
Yeah, sure: say that Wussy typify the "Midwestern sound," but do so at your own risk, lest you miss out on blazing songs dealing with alien gods and Biblical reckonings.
The epitome of critical success, Ohio's Wussy, the repeatedly-championed best band in America, was back in the van following the release of its sixth album, Forever Sounds. Between sold-out shows in New York City and Philadelphia, the quintet of Chuck Cleaver (guitar/vocals), Joe Clug (drums), John Erhardt (pedal steel), Lisa Walker (guitar/vocals) and Mark Messerly (bass) played the promotional game, stopping off to record a radio session for Princeton University's WPRB.
A mix of "turmoil + harmonies", Cleaver and Walker are the lyrical architects behind the yin and yang of the Cincinnati act's caustic sound. While driving from Philadelphia to an upstate New York house show that would serve as the penultimate date of the band's tour of the East Coast, Wussy spoke with PopMatters about its latest album, arcane sci-fi graffiti, pop culture touchstones like The Big Lebowski and The Twilight Zone, spiritual matters, and the creative spirit reaped from the fertile soil of Ohio.
Singers and songwriters both, the ebullient Walker was largely afforded silence by band mates -- with only occasional input from the band's telegenic third spokesman Messerly. The reserved Cleaver did not fare as well, his fellow musicians providing business details and talking points on chart success while jeering him about his age when discussing the pleasure of vinyl and touring Europe.
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Forever Sounds is your sixth album. Quotes and press notes cite a mix of Tom Petty, '90s shoegaze, and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, while the final product's been called a "cosmic slurry," "a 40-minute barrage of noise," and even "deranged." Do you agree with those assessments?
Lisa: I think that seems about right. It probably falls somewhere in between all of that. The influences mentioned are pretty accurate in that it's the things that we listen to for pleasure. We've been trying to encapsulate some of that for a while. Especially on this one, we finally got close.
A much heavier and noisier album than Attica!. The song "Rainbows and Butterflies" and even "Bug" hinted at where Forever Sounds went after Attica!. Having John in the band from Attica! to Forever Sounds, how much did his playing contribute to the vision and sound of the new album?
Lisa: Quite a lot. He came on as some of those songs were already written for Attica!. When we were writing for Forever Sounds, we were writing with him in mind. We were all coming up with this stuff together. I would say either half the songs or more were developed in the practice phase as a group. That is something that as a band, I feel we've really been growing in writing more that way. There are still songs where Chuck will come in and be like, "Hey, I have this song; here's how it goes." But there are plenty of songs on those records that we sort of developed all together. And we started recording practices between Joe, John, and Mark, and we would go and write melodies on top, and eventually, we'd remember one. The one you remember is the one that you should stick with. If you can't remember it wasn't very good.
"Dropping Houses" and "She's Killed Hundreds" you could say are some of the most volatile recordings you have done on an album yet. With the strained instrumentation of Attica!, how nice was it to just let loose on this one?
Lisa: John Curley [recording engineer and producer; Afghan Whigs bassist] was there at the start of the recording and did a lot of the initial setup and some of the basic tracks. But the bulk of the tracking he turned over to John Hoffman and Jerri Queen. They're about 25 years old or so. They come from the punk DIY scene rather than an indie rock scene in our town. And their approach, even though it's very simpatico with Curley, he's like, "I want you to work with these guys when I'm away with the Whigs, I think this is going be a right match." And I already knew John a little bit. I was like, yeah, sure; that sounds awesome. He's a sweetheart. And it just worked out really well. And their instincts were very much to grasp things as they were being sometimes written -- like, just press record and not telling us.
So there's a lot of raw performances and things that maybe before we would've taken out and this time we left in because if the spirit is right and you're the only one that knows that that part is ... that you can see that part differently than how you played it, then maybe it's not that big a deal.
On "Dropping Houses" you reference Toynbee tiles. Did you happen to see any yesterday?
Lisa: I didn't see any of them. But I do know that there are some in Philly; what I don't know is, are they still visible? You might be able to answer this.
Some are in better shape than others. I think there's something on Google Maps where you can find all the ones and how they are.
Lisa: That would be cool. Unfortunately sometimes our schedule is such that ... we did a session at French Garden yesterday during the day. So we didn't have as much time as we normally do to get into Philly early and walk around and just kind of enjoy the city. But I think next time that will definitely be on the top of the list. They paved over at least one of the ones that I used to see in Cincinnati. But maybe it'll crumble through and be visible again; I kind of count on it. One was near where the Contemporary Arts Center is. When they were doing construction on that, that's when I worked downtown. I would walk over it every day. It was always kind of a highlight of my day to walk over the Toynbee tile and think about planet Jupiter a little bit.
The phrasing of the cryptic messages on the tiles carries over onto
"Majestic-12". Was that a conscious choice given the song's subject matter?
Lisa: Yes and no. I think once it started to go that way, we wanted to keep it going that way. I've always wanted an album that kind of had a cohesive feel that wasn't just a collection of songs. Even though I have no problem with a good collection of songs, I wanted the opportunity to maybe massage it towards a certain direction. So yeah, I think some of that did play in.
"Majestic-12" is an alien narrative in a way.
Lisa: Yeah, absolutely, a bit of conspiracy theory of redacted FBI files, a Twilight Zone episode. That's the first line in the Twilight Zone episode where the guys doing tank war games go back in time ... I want to say it's Custer's Last Stand that they go to. I'll have to re-watch it. I was watching TV when it came on and the title of the episode is "The 7th is Made up of Phantoms". That is a winning phrase if I ever heard one. Half the stuff that we write is pilfered from various pop culture sources; the amount of new lyrical material that I have to come up personally with is very minimal. It's more like a collage.
With that in mind, how did you go about presenting the idea for "Donny's Death Scene" to the band? You take pop culture farce and convert it into really deep pathos.
Lisa: Well, thank you. For one thing, in the original scene the pathos is already there. And I even find the botched memorial to be very ... it's like I'm laughing and crying at the same time. And what happened was we'd been playing that song kind of semi-wordless for probably a year or so. And then when we tracked the instrumentation, we needed a title just to save the file.
Having watched the movie earlier that day on cable I went with "Donny's Death Scene" like a placeholder. When it came time to go tracking vocals, I just put something down that would go with that, not really knowing if it would stick. But it stuck. And Chuck said after that he went home and wrote two more songs because we have a healthy competitiveness that if one person comes in with a song that the other one likes, then the other one needs to go and come back with two more. That's what he did. And that's where "She's Killed Hundreds" and "Hello, I'm a Ghost" came from.
With "Majestic-12", the alien aspect of it carries over into "Hand of God". There's a line, "All six fingers around your throat." If there is "a God," would they be an alien in your mind?
Lisa: I don't know. That one mystifies me. That was one of those you smoked too much and start writing. And you just like it enough that you don't go back and change it. One of the things I was thinking is don't use any type of ideology to be a dick, whether it be a god or I don't know. That was one of my thoughts in it. But I don't know exactly what it means. I have a Bible minor. I had to study a lot of Old Testament stuff and sometimes it comes out in dreamlike form. I don't know what to do with it. My brain is filled with these facts that I don't need, like the end of days and Revelation in the New Testament. Anything in the Old Testament, I read the whole thing and I really liked it. I don't have any practical use for the facts, if that makes sense.
It sounds like you need to be on Jeopardy.
Lisa: Maybe, if the Bible is the clue. Levitical law. Me and a kid that just had his bar mitzvah could go toe to toe.
You mentioned Ohio a little bit ago. In a lot of the reviews of the new album the tag "Midwestern" is often applied to Wussy. What does that mean, if anything? Do you think there is a “Midwestern sound”?
Lisa: I do. I think there is an East Coast sound, a sound in the Rust Belt spearheaded by [conferring with Messerly] Bruce Springsteen ... that trickles down and combines with the country elements. "Heartland rock" maybe, for lack of a better term, just because so much of that is well loved by Midwestern kids growing up. Tom Petty and Springsteen being the best ones. I really don't want to listen to Bob Seger. He's not really one I learned to like. John Mellencamp is heartland; I'm from Indiana so I've had enough of him. We live on the border of Kentucky and even in Cincinnati we had, for lack of a better term, hillbilly records. Some of them were called that at the time, weird country stuff put out in tandem with R&B. It's a real mix of the different elements of the Eastern United States. It all comes through a swirling tornado in Ohio. I like that.
I grew up in Ohio. To me "classic rock" comes to mind.
Lisa: Yes, absolutely.
Once you're out of any of the bigger cities in Ohio, it's a time warp. I last lived there in 1984; we were out last fall to visit my parents and had the radio on. I think it was Q96 out of Columbus. I listened to that when I still lived there when I was ten years old. And they were still playing the same songs they played 30 years ago.
Lisa: If I don't hear "Don't Fear the Reaper" at least once a week, I feel something's not right. I think there is a reverence on those as far as certain elements of classic rock. Even the stuff you don't like; there's plenty of classic rock I don't like but I respect. I don't want to be one of those assholes that will be "there's nothing good now." And I don't believe that. I do think there was an embarrassment of riches in popular music from the late '60s to the mid-'70s where you could turn on mainstream radio and it would be great a lot of the time. That's why I think oldies and classic rock kind of rule the school in the Midwest.
From Ohio there is this wellspring of bands that have come along in the last 20-30 years: Pere Ubu, Devo, Guided By Voices and Afghan Whigs, probably the biggest and most recent. Then even more recently, you've got more of the indie bands like Lydia Loveless, SPORTS, All Dogs and Two Cow Garage. All of these transcend that outsider view of the state. Is there something about Ohio that sparks creativity?
Lisa: Yeah, I think there's nothing to do. I mean, have you ever been to Dayton?
Lisa: So you know there's nothing to do in Dayton. I lived near Xenia for four years. Dayton was the big city we could go to other than Columbus because that was an hour away. Even then, I was like, "this sucks." So what do you do? You just make your own fun and make your own life. You don't have to rely on the world around you to entertain you. You have to entertain yourself. I think that's what Ohio bands have in common. I'm not saying Ohio sucks; I love it. I love Cincinnati; I think it's awesome. When we go to cities like Philly and New York, I'm always amazed at all the stuff that's going on everywhere. You could do something cool every night of the week. Cincinnati is honestly trying to make that happen. And I applaud that. It's going to take some time.
I don't think Dayton's going to make that happen any time soon, or Toledo. I think there is something to that. I'm from Indiana originally, and there's not as much to do there. I don't know why it didn't catch fire the same way. There are a lot of bands from Louisville, which is closer to us than most Ohio cities. It's the same distance away as Columbus. Cleveland's five hours, that's the same as Detroit or Chicago for us. Cleveland's like another world. Cincinnati's a pocket. It's Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville, Columbus, Indianapolis, kind of. But there's not a lot going on there. We never play there. And I'm from there, sort of. They're like why isn't there anything going on in Indiana? People move away.
If you're not going be a farmer or something. I lived in Iowa for a short time. After Ohio, it was even more staid.
Lisa: I think it's the lack of cities. I used to drive around Des Moines to go from the Twin Cities to visit family in Kansas City and I was always amazed, like this is the biggest city in Iowa. And it would take ten minutes to drive around it. I was like, that's okay. It gave me a new perspective like there is a lot of states that are just small towns. Indianapolis isn't that big of a city for it being the one big city in a state. I think there is something to that. It helps to have enough people in one place that you can find other weirdos to make bands with. I think maybe that's what Ohio has over some of its neighbors. And Louisville's a pretty artsy place, honestly.
Talking to Lisa about the new album, you personally play a larger vocal role in the album. Is that a matter of you having written more songs or just simply a matter of the sequence of the songs that were chosen for the album?
Chuck: More often than not, we sing the songs that we've written. I mean, not always, but that's usually the case. We do tend to sing what we've written.
Do you ever continue narratives or characters across albums? "Hello, I'm a Ghost" is a sequel in a way to "Acetylene" from Attica!, that bitter narrator ...
Chuck: I don't know that it's done consciously, but perhaps subconsciously, sure. I think the same character goes through everything I've ever done.
With Attica!, there was very melodic instrumentation. On Forever Sounds, there are more layers of sound that are stressed. It's almost like sonic scars on a beautiful song, like you're afraid to leave them untouched. Is that more of a conscious effort going into that album to make it more brazen and bold?
Chuck: Yeah, I think the idea was we wanted to make a record that was maybe a little bit more representational of what we actually sound like live. I mean, not entirely live, obviously; just worry a little less about making it super pretty and be a little bit more adventurous.
The week of or after its release, you guys charted on Billboard. Along with that and the steady promotion, have you seen increased sales of the album over Attica!?
Chuck: I don't have an idea. I guess we'll talk to Darren [Blase, Shake It Records owner] about it and see. Increased sales ...
Chuck to Lisa: There is? Chuck to PopMatters: Lisa said that these had to press several times more. So I guess it is doing better.
When will the album be out on vinyl?
Chuck: I think it already is. I don't know if it came out officially, but we got them the day we left for tour. So we have some with us. It'll be out mid-April, I'm guessing. [note: vinyl was released via Shake It Records on April 18]
How important is it to you to have your albums on vinyl?
Chuck: It's my preferred way of listening to records. Being the age I am, it's the way I enjoy recordings. It's very important to me. I just get a kick out of it. I get a kick out of anything we put out, really. When the albums come, that's just the most special.
You have been playing a new song, "In the Tall Weeds"; just yesterday, you premiered "Days and Hours" [the b-side to the band's cover of New Order's "Ceremony"], your song for Record Store Day. Does this point to any future Wussy album coming sooner rather than later, or are these songs that didn't make Forever Sounds?
Chuck: It was actually on the record pretty much right up until the 11th hour. And we just decided that it didn't fit the rest of the record. We liked the song. It was going to be an 11-song album. Without really talking about it, all of us decided it didn't fit.