Oral History: Randy Cheek and Wesley Pence

Why Sudsy Malone’s mattered, and still does

They play together these days in Van Echo, The Ready Stance, and other musical projects. In the early days they were friendly musical competitors on the Sudsy Malone’s stage—Cheek in the Ass Ponys and Pence in Middlemarch.

Wesley Pence in The Ready Stance

Photograph by David Sorcher

Pence: Sudsy’s was the first time I ever played in front of people, my first ever live music experience. It was just becoming more of a live venue, so the first time I played there they didn’t have a stage. It was one of the only places you could play other than opening at Bogart’s, the Jockey Club or Top Cats. When Middlemarch did our first shows, that was probably around the time they put in the stage and got a better PA.

Middlemarch and a half dozen or so original bands that were serious about our music were trying to get in when we could, but the owner was stingy with the weekends. And when Dan McCabe took over booking, that took Sudsy’s from what was a local phenomenon already to national acts playing there. Real touring bands and booking agents suddenly knew about it.

+ Cincinnati Magazine remembers the legacy of Sudsy Malone’s. Read the full story and other oral histories here.

Cheek: Prior to Sudsy’s, I think the only regular place to play around UC where you could do your own tunes was JR’s, which became like a wings and rings or something at some point. Top Cats was still mostly cover bands and had a much better stage, but it just didn’t feel as cool for some reason. It wasn’t as much fun. And I think it was because when Sudsy’s finally built a stage it was only three or four inches off the ground. There wasn’t a drum riser or anything.

Pence: One of the most memorable things about Sudsy’s is that, to the musicians in town and everybody else who cared about the local music scene, it was a community. Between seeing your friends’ bands and other local bands and the national acts, you’d be there four or five nights a week. You almost needed to be. If not, you felt like you were missing something significant.

Randy Cheek in The Ready Stance

Photograph by David Sorcher

Cheek: And the scene hadn’t become so codified yet. Bands that had very little in common would share bills and audiences, and it was no big deal. The bands doing their own thing were doing it for the same reasons that artists paint or sculpt—for its own sake. You created your own kind of fun. There was no thought of success or fame. That never even entered into the conversation. It was impossible. We lived in fucking Cincinnati and were playing in a goddamn laundromat!

But at some point, once bands from here started to get national recognition, the next waves of bands started migrating in from the universities and the suburbs. They had their shit together. In the case of the Ass Ponys, we’d wanted to be a band and so we learned to play together, and that’s how our sound happened. That’s why all the bands from here were different. There wasn’t a “Cincinnati sound.” At some point, however, bands started appearing at Sudsy’s that had amazing gear, had their shit together, and knew how to move around. They looked like bands, sounded like bands sound, moved like bands moved.

Pence: Bands started relocating to Cincinnati in 1994 and ’95 because the scene was so strong here, which was unfathomable to us. And there was more diversity here than most other scenes had. Like the MTV segment Randy was in with the Ass Ponys, when he said something to the effect that there was nothing else to do here. We were just making our own fun to entertain ourselves. Looking back, there were so many great shows at Sudsy’s, like Yo La Tengo, and it was hard to believe you were seeing them in a venue like that. I remember one of the last times I played there, there was a show across the street at Bogart’s with Guided by Voices and The Breeders. When we went on at Sudsy’s, all those people were right there in the front of the audience: Bob Pollard (GBV) and the Deal sisters (Breeders) and probably some of their label people and both of their bands.

Cheek: Many times bands who played at Bogart’s would wander over. Like Pete Thomas, Elvis Costello’s drummer. He came over to Sudsy’s once when the Ass Ponys were playing and he was pretty lit up already and just demanded to sit in. And he rocked. In fact, we had a hard time getting him off the stage. He said, “Speed up, you cunts, this isn’t bloody Brian Adams.” And then he started some shit with our drummer, and we had to separate them.

Pence: Sudsy’s being a landromat gave you a pretext to be there. So even if you weren’t seeing a band, you could be like, Hey, whatever, I’m doing my laundry. But I think it got to a point, at least with Middlemarch shows, where they didn’t allow laundry on the weekend. They were getting enough people in there where they gave up the laundry revenue to make more room. The washers and dryers just became bleachers.

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