Chuck Cleaver Still Has Something to Say

The Wussy frontman hopes you like it. He doesn’t much care if you don’t.

“I like to listen to things loud.”

Chuck Cleaver is cruising through the main arteries of Cincinnati’s west side in his gray Honda CRV on a gray January afternoon, stereo blasting the recently mastered cut of Wussy’s new album. Colerain Avenue. North Bend Road. Hamilton Avenue. Cleaver listens to music only in the car these days, so he knows this route well.

Illustration by Natalie Foss

The record, Wussy’s seventh studio album, is slated for release in May, and according to Cleaver it’s been the most challenging one yet. The band started on it over a year ago, though the hang-ups have been personal rather than interpersonal, which the group blames mostly on the current toxic political climate. You can sense some of that struggle, too, if you’re listening for it. The album is huffy and brash and heavily distorted, oscillating between loud, shoegazey intervals and quiet, atmospheric moments. Cleaver says it’s more “out there” than the band’s previous album, 2016’s Forever Sounds, and he already thought that one was a significant deviation from the group’s brand of Midwest-soaked indie rock. “We’ll lose people with this one, I guarantee you,” he says.

Maybe. It’s an undeniably Cleaver-ish outlook, no doubt, but it’s also still undeniably a Wussy album. “Out there” isn’t an unfair description. An extraterrestrial theme runs throughout, starting with Cleaver’s opening line: “Don’t you wish you could have been an astronaut / Back when astronauts had more appeal.” The graphic novel Black Hole was a major influence, about a group of teenagers who contract a sexually transmitted disease dubbed “the Bug” that causes strange physical mutations. There’s also a song titled “Gloria,” inspired by Carrie Coon’s character on season three of the FX television series Fargo.

“We’re very strange people,” Cleaver growls over the roar of his own guitar.

As if on cue, the track “Aliens in Our Midst” kicks on. It’s a cover of a 1977 song by The Twinkeyz, a short-lived California punk band, and the first cover Wussy has ever put on a studio release (there’s a second one a few tracks later). It’s arguably the most buoyant song on a largely indignant album, though sonically still a far, rollicking cry from the original. The ease with which Wussy instinctively puts its own rambunctious stamp of abnormality on it—thundering guitar, Cleaver channeling David Byrne while shouting the refrain “there’s aliens in our midst”—makes it hard to believe they didn’t write it themselves. The song ends with a ringing, 40-second outro. “We left it on just to make people mad,” says Cleaver. “Just when you think it should end, it keeps fucking going.”

The pride in his voice is the essence of Wussy. The band—Cleaver and Lisa Walker on guitar and vocals, Mark Messerly on bass, Joe Klug on drums, John Erhardt on pedal steel—has burnished international cult status and a reverence within the Cincinnati scene over the past 17 years by making only the music they want to make, on their own terms, with no regard for public opinion or personal gain. It’s never earned them riches or fame—the proverbial “making it”—but it never cost them their souls either. Love ’em or hate ’em, you’re getting a 40-second outro, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Wussy, featuring John Erhardt, Chuck Cleaver, Joe Klug, Lisa Walker, and Mark Messerly (left to right)

Photograph courtesy Chuck Cleaver

Cleaver warned me about how dour the album is, but as we loop back into Northside (where he lives, as does most of the group), I argue he oversold that aspect.
“Eh, you had to have been there,” he quips, knowingly. Again, on cue, the album’s final song turns over. It’s a slow, somber track with Walker on vocals, crooning lines like “Are you afraid of all the monsters in the folding metal chairs?” and an ominous chorus: “It’s the last time around.”

“We’re some evil sons of bitches,” clucks Cleaver. “We put this song on the end that makes it seem like it might be our last record.” He pauses for a moment before adding, “Who knows, it might be.”

The song winds down just as he pulls over to let me out. When I ask if they’ve decided on an album title yet, Cleaver smiles. “What Heaven Is Like.

Chuck Cleaver met his wife in the least Cleaver-y way imaginable. “Believe it or not, on OkCupid,” he says. We’re sitting in the front window of Sidewinder Coffee, Cleaver’s Northside haunt of choice these days. “I was in here bitching one day because ‘old dating’ is the worst, and there was a barista who was like, Have you ever tried OkCupid? A lot of my friends have actually met people on there. So I thought, I’ll give it a try.”

Cleaver created a brutally honest profile page, describing himself as a hermit and saying he was in a band with his ex-girlfriend. “Then I put a picture on there where I look like a member of the Manson family.”

To be fair, the Cleaver aesthetic has always been a significant part of the Cleaver mystique: the tattoos and army jackets, perpetual side-eye, biblical beard, and shaggy tangle of hair. Regardless, the OkCupid results were mixed. He went out with a few perfectly nice women; one wrote to ask if she and her partner could walk him on a leash. Nothing took, but the day he logged on to cancel his subscription, he got a message from Josie. They had their first date at Sidewinder. “She said, ‘I thought it was interesting that you were a man in his 50s and you couldn’t look at me the entire time you were talking,’” Cleaver recalls. “Then we were walking back to our cars and I accidentally brushed her breast and I almost passed out.” They got married two years later, in 2013. The ceremony was held across the street at Shake It Records.

Almost from the very beginning, the narrative on Wussy revolved around the mercurially romantic relationship between its two vocalists, but the truth is that Cleaver and Walker were together for only a small portion of the band’s 17-year existence. (In 2009, Jason Cohen wrote a profile for this magazine that asked the two singers if the band could exist if they weren’t a couple. Cleaver admits now they weren’t even together during that interview.) Walker married her husband, David, in 2015. They actually met on the same weekend Chuck and Josie had their first date. “We both married people we consider saviors,” says Cleaver. “To tell you the truth, it’s been so long that it’s almost like we were never together. And I kind of like that. It’s kind of nice.”

The relationship can still be volatile at times, but in a petulant-sibling fashion. “There’s usually one or two people in your life you can be shitty with and still stay really good friends,” says Walker. “[Everyone in the band] is like that to some degree, but especially Chuck and I.”

More than on again/off again, the sonic, lyrical coupling of Cleaver and Walker has always been the band’s one true romance. Every fawning review Wussy has ever received from the universe of Robert Christgau–spawned hipster music critics starts by praising the confounding beauty of the duo’s sweet-and-sour vocal dissonance—Walker’s celestial holler, Cleaver’s rickety howl—and ends by exalting the poetic virtuosity of their lyrics. It’s justly deserved. The band’s Y chromosomes, Cleaver especially, tend to get irked when his songwriting longevity is given precedence over hers, critically speaking, though that’s happening less and less with each passing album. “We’re equals,” says Cleaver. “Always have been.”

Which is not to take anything away from him, either. “This guy is the best songwriter I’ve ever met,” says Messerly. “His lyrical contribution to modern rock, folk, Americana, whatever, I think his quality could easily and convincingly be held up with a Lucinda Williams. He’s so good at describing, what did Greil Marcus call it, the ‘old, weird America?’”

Cleaver is in fact from old, weird America. He grew up in Clarksville, Ohio, a town 45 minutes away from anything in every direction. Raised in a humble household of misplaced liberals, he was writing songs since before he could actually write them down. The surroundings certainly stuck with him, a backdrop omnipresent in his songs for Wussy and the Ass Ponys before that. They’re largely void of nostalgia or sentiment, mainly because Cleaver always felt misplaced too, but the lyrics clearly pour from the soul of man who managed to get out of Nowhere, Ohio, yet still can’t escape it. “I always felt like a Martian when I was kid. Nobody else thinks like this around here,” he says, thinking back. “I had friends and stuff, but I think sometimes I just faked it.”

The biggest reason his upbringing looms so heavily is because Cleaver has an almost photographic memory of his childhood: inconsequential lines of dialogue he can recite word for word, forgettable moments he can recount in vivid detail. “My poor friends and family remember them all now too because I’ve told the stories about a million goddamned times,” he says.

He’ll often write an entire song just to work in a particular turn of phrase that’s lodged in his brain, and he obsesses over syllable count and diction. If he can’t get the pacing or rhythm of a line precisely the way he wants it, he’ll abandon the whole song. And he’s a painfully honest songwriter, unafraid to explore topics like an earlier divorce from his first wife or the weeks immediately after when he was forced to live in his van, or his struggles with anxiety and depression.

Tyler Randall, half of the local synth-sitar duo Dawg Yawp, stumbled in on a solo set Cleaver performed at Northside Tavern a few months back. “He played this song with the chorus, ‘I’m so happy that I found you, I can’t stand to be around you.’ And I just thought that was so brilliant,” says Randall. “I talked to him once about trying to write happy songs, from a place of happiness, and he said that’s not how it goes for him, that it often comes out of a place of darkness and sadness.”

Even as equals, Cleaver’s grim sincerity has been essential to Walker’s evolution as a lyricist. She also experiences anxiety, in addition to being on the autism spectrum, but Cleaver helped her realize that being a gripping, introspective songwriter isn’t dependent on leading a particular kind of life. “You don’t have to be a war hero to have a story to tell,” she says. Together, they’re able to coax pensive, haunting songs out each other that leave a lingering taste. “We both tend to be observational lyricists, and I think we learn from each other in those ways,” says Walker. “Something he’ll write, I’ll think, I never would have thought to say it that way. That teeny, tiny half of a line captures this thing I can’t describe. There’s a real freedom in that, someone giving words to something you haven’t had before.”

For as much as Chuck Cleaver might repeat stories, he’s also incited quite a few that are worthy of reprise.

“Hey Chuck, what stories am I allowed to tell about you?” Walker shouts. She and I happen to be on the phone just as Cleaver swings by her place to discuss the upcoming album. There’s a gap of silence on the line before she erupts with laughter. “He said, ‘Don’t tell him about the time I shit myself.’” Well, now she has to tell me.

Sparing the, uh, murky details: On the road in Philadelphia two summers ago, everyone in the band got food poisoning while stuck sharing a single hotel bathroom. Calamity ensued.

Then there was the time the entire band drove hours out of the way to see the Grand Canyon. They arrived at sunset, the canyon lit up in beautiful shades of orange and sandy earth tones. Most of them sat and stared for a while, having near-spiritual experiences; Cleaver took one quick glance and walked back to the van.

There are the countless times Cleaver has been mistaken for a homeless guy squatting in hotel lobbies, forced to defiantly produce his room key like a physical “piss off” sign. (“We could seriously pay for gas if we put a can out in front of him,” Messerly deadpans.)

But the story that gets brought up most often actually happened back in the Ass Ponys era. The members of the ’90s Americana indie rock group (which also included Wussy’s Erhardt) will tell you they weren’t much of a “druggy” band, but on a west coast tour they found themselves driving through the Redwoods with a bag of shrooms. They pulled off, partook, then dispersed into the forest. Hours later, Cleaver returned as a grizzled, mountain sage, with clothing wrapped around his head and a giant walking staff he’d grown attached to. He named it “Sticky.”

“He had this look on his face like he was Moses coming down from the mountain,” says Billy Alletzhauser, a guitarist in the Ass Ponys who now plays with The Hiders. “I wish I could describe it. It was great.”

Chuck Cleaver’s previous band, the Ass Ponys

Photograph courtesy Chuck Cleaver

Back then, Cleaver was notorious for what he self describes as “a public asshole personality”—berating audience members was a ritual at Ass Ponys shows. Cleaver acknowledges that some of this was alcohol-related, drinking as much as a bottle of Jägermeister a day on one tour. He rarely drinks anymore—Coca-Cola is his current vice—and he’s certainly not the Cleaver-hole he once was. Those close to him will tell you he’s always been more of a gentle giant than he lets on, but he seems to be sharing that softness more and more with age (he turns 59 this summer). “The warts are back there, hopefully,” he says tilting his head to the past. What’s left remains a fully distinctive character—still cranky, aloof, blunt, but less pointed. A guy who’s never entirely comfortable in his own skin, yet unafraid to be himself.

It’s most acute when the band is on the road, an exercise Cleaver loathes outside of playing shows. “He hates the touristy aspect of traveling,” says Messerly. “But he’s not unpleasant if you don’t force him to do anything.” The Wussy bassist remembers one trip when the group had a rare day off and proximity to a beach, so the rest of them spent the day in the sun. “Chuck happily puttered around the hotel and did everyone’s laundry, folded it,” says Messerly. “Happy as a clam. Just as long as he didn’t have to go anywhere.”

And now, assorted members of the band Wussy on why they never quote/unquote “made it.”

Lisa Walker: “Oh God. Wow. We wouldn’t even know what that would entail. I don’t even know what that would be. [long pause] I think if we knew how to be successful we would have tried it by now.”

Mark Messerly: “We’re literally too dumb to make music that would be appealing to other people. The idea of us trying to do something that isn’t happening organically is a nightmare. And not in some pure, 1990s, no-sell-out kind of way. It’s because we’re really bad at it. You should see us try to learn covers.”

Chuck Cleaver: “Without meaning to, we have always just been an acquired taste. So yeah, we’ve kind of gone nowhere. I guess we do better than some. We have fans…and really, what’s ‘making it’ anyway? I mean, maybe we already did and I just don’t know it.”

Self-deprecation aside, it’s all true. The band never “made it” in a commercial sense, and at this point they never will. They all still have day jobs. They more or less break even on tour. Any money they do bring in from album or merchandise sales goes toward studio time for the next record. But they’ve also been a band for nearly two decades. They spent a year working on a seventh studio album—one with esoteric covers and spitefully long outros and pseudo-cryptic messages—that will send them on tour to Europe and along the east coast. And they’ve never once had to make a record they didn’t want to, never had a label head or studio exec demand a radio hit, never had to be anything other than their strange selves. “It’s been so much of a pain in the ass the last 17 years, but it brings me more joy than anything,” says Messerly.

Wussy’s career arc has had a seismic impact on the local scene as well. There’s a wealth of talent here, but this is a tough town to make any semblance of a living in the music industry. Wussy symbolizes why that doesn’t always matter. “It’s nice to know there are bands here who can do it,” says Randall. “I go back and forth about wanting to move to a bigger city, but being here has given us a total freedom to create whatever we want.”

After Randall caught Cleaver’s solo set at Northside Tavern, he couldn’t get that song out of his head, so he asked Cleaver to play it with him soon after at his own show. Cleaver thought Randall’s sitar was a nice addition, so he had him play it on the track for Cleaver’s forthcoming solo album, set to come out on the Shake It label this fall.

Darren Blase, who co-owns Shake It with his brother Jim, has been hounding Cleaver for years to make a solo record. He finally relented, though it’s a wonder it took this long. Even considering Wussy’s prolific resilience, Cleaver’s own catalog is ceaseless. For a musician who’s such an acquired taste, the songwriting is life-affirming, motivated not by vanity or materialism but rather an innate, primal need to breathe the stories in his head out into the ether. If people don’t dig it, that’s fine, but it is vital to him that the music exists, that he leaves a trace of himself behind.

“I knew very early on that I was gonna have to make my own world, because I don’t function very well in the one that’s here,” says Cleaver. “When the bomb drops or whatever the hell is going to happen, when they’re going through the rubble, they’ll find a Wussy CD. There it is. I might be a shadow on the wall now, but there I am.”

There he is: Chuck Cleaver, a stereo-blaring, syllable-counting, story-repeating, freedom-giving, stick-befriending, pants-shitting alien in our midst.

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