It was not that long ago, but seems as distant a reality as the Big Red Machine: that post–“Smells Like Teen Spirit” moment when the record business was still fat with CD profits and the alt-rock nation turned its lonely ears to…well, just about any undersized metropolis that had a few beloved independent bands. Cincinnati’s up-and-comers at the time were the Afghan Whigs, Nirvana’s labelmates on Sub Pop for a time, and the Ass Ponys, which signed to A&M Records in 1994 and managed to eke out something of a novelty hit (“Little Bastard”) on MTV’s tastemaking Sunday night show 120 Minutes. As fleeting as that moment was, it resonated. Deep enough that Ass Ponys frontman Chuck Cleaver could be accosted downtown by a starstruck fan. “What are you still doing living in Cincinnati?” the guy asked Cleaver, an easily recognizable figure then (as now) with a Van Dyke beard and a beefy 6-foot 2-inch frame. “You’re a rock star!”
Fifteen years later, Cleaver is still living in Cincinnati, and still playing in a celebrated Cincinnati band—assuming, it can be said with minimal hyperbole, that the group in question, Wussy, didn’t break up in the time it took this magazine to go to press. But if that happened, not to worry. The band’s implosions never last, and make-up records really are the best. It’s funny what you do/ do to get my goat, Cleaver’s bandmate Lisa Walker sings on “Going Missing,” from their latest album. But honey you’re the pain/ and the antidote.
Formed on a whim (and possibly a crush) by Cleaver and Walker in 2001, Wussy—which also includes bassist/multi-instrumentalist Mark Messerly and drummer Joe Klug—highlights her voice and writing chops as much as his. It would be easier to split an atom than to separate the pair’s creative spark from their romantic life, which has been nuclear indeed. “What a *%#@ing nightmare it’s been!” says Messerly, without a trace of rancor.
The band’s first album, 2005’s Funeral Dress, was the product of all kinds of wreckage and reconciliation, while the (confusingly) self-titled new one welled up only after Walker moved to Chicago with another man for several months. The combustible lyrics had Robert Christgau, the so-called Dean of American Rock Critics, openly expressing his concern about the couple, even as he gave them yet another “A” in his canonical “Consumer Guide” (“…as brutal a relationship album as Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights…”). “Our relationship has been very tempestuous,” deadpans Cleaver.
Wussy’s dark and scrappy pop has also raked in accolades from Rolling Stone, Spin, Mojo, and NPR’s Fresh Air; and Wussy, the album, is the biggest seller in the history of Shake It, the independent label run out of the Northside record store. “It’s kind of cool when one of the best songwriters in America lives in your neighborhood,” says Shake It co-owner Darren Blase, who has also been reissuing a good chunk of the Ass Ponys back catalog. Why, you could almost call Wussy up-and-comers, if Cleaver wasn’t old enough to know better. The days of critically acclaimed bands cashing checks from giant record companies ended even before iPods came along. So far, Wussy’s actual sales are just under 6,500 copies (plus around 3,000 downloads). Having put both his old band and a marriage in the van rearview to be in this band, Cleaver is still very much the bohemian dreamer, but that doesn’t mean he’s foolish enough to believe that the group’s modest popularity might lead to some big break.
“My next break,” he cracks, “will be my hip.”
Now a 50-year-old grandfather, Cleaver’s still easy to recognize, especially since there’s more of everything about him: bifocaled horn-rims where he once went specless, a used-mop head of hair, a graying beard that’s closer to ZZ Top or Gandalf than Maynard G. Krebs. He’s also doing Weight Watchers—“a point destroyer,” he says about the bread and butter over dinner at Via Vite—perhaps prodded by Christgau, whose rave of the new album also spoke of “grizzled fat Chuck Cleaver and lissome tattooed Lisa Walker.” It’s not an idle observation. At some of Wussy’s tour stops, Cleaver has been mistaken for the roadie. “That’s what I get for being in a band with three people who could fit on a charm bracelet,” he says. (Walker is petite, and the shaven-headed Messerly is scarcely taller.)
But then, Cleaver kind of relishes his persona. When the band plays a killing-time-on-tour round of What animal are you?, Cleaver’s response is “turtle.” But the songwriter who has etched such lines as I’d write her name out on the road/ but I can’t piss “Denise” (from the Ass Ponys song “Grim”) is not content to leave it there. His gift is for the specific, the poetic, the discomfiting. He wouldn’t just be a turtle; he’d be “the creeky parts”—the gamy meat that even connoisseurs of roadkill might eschew.
Cleaver grew up in Clarksville, an hour north of Cincinnati, and says that he’d only been down to the city twice before enrolling at UC in the late ’70s. During the Ass Ponys years, he lived in Bethel, a part of Clermont County that was more country than not; he still speaks with something of a drawl, and his songwriting has always had a small-town gothic sensibility. In a 1994 review in The New York Times, Neil Strauss compared him to both William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, though the same article identified Ass Ponys as “a rock band from Cleveland.”
Walker, who’s 32—“And your daddy still calls you baby,” Cleaver interjects, free-associating into Tanya Tucker’s “Delta Dawn”—is from Muncie, Indiana, a good Baptist girl who went to Cedarville University, the Christian college outside of Dayton. Before she had tattoos and two-toned hair, she was a married young professional working downtown as a marketing and Internet consultant for the likes of P&G, GE, and Fifth Third, where she eventually went full-time for a spell. Wussy’s creation myth is that she and Cleaver kinda-sorta knew each other from being at rock shows. (“You’d given me a Zippy the Pinhead button,” Walker remembers as they retell the story.) Cleaver asked her to sing with him at the 2001 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards, where he was supposed to perform solo, something that he says he’s not too fond of. “It went really well,” he recalls. “And I thought, Wow, I liked that, let’s do that some more!
“I had real faith in her talent,” Cleaver continues. “Mine’s all right in some spots.”
“Some spots,” Walker says, mocking his humility.
Messerly, one-half of the long-established local combo Messerly and Ewing, signed on as the third member, while original drummer Dawn Burman volunteered to join on the strength of one credential: she had never played the drums. “I thought, man, that’s kind of ballsy,” Cleaver says. Sloppiness was part of the original design: to drench well-crafted songs in noisy, off-kilter melodies—pop music that had something wrong with it.
To make matters slightly stickier, Cleaver was still a member of Ass Ponys, so the sound and dynamic of this new project came together slowly. What did not was Walker’s role. “When I joined the band, Lisa had a song called ‘Winter Hat,’ and I think ‘Motorcycle,’” says Messerly. “She was always a brilliant singer, but the fact that she became a world-class songwriter was not a given. I mean, I’ve been writing songs all this time and she went, whoosh, right on by me. I’ve never seen someone—”
“—Get so good so fast,” finishes Klug, who replaced Burman earlier this year.
“By some weird chance we happen to be able to write fairly seamlessly,” says Cleaver. “You can tell the difference between my songs and her songs, I think, but they fit in the same band. And she can sing with anybody. I just happen to be lucky enough that she’s singing with me. I’m a better singer because of her. She’s a worse singer because of me. And it works.”
A reflection from Chuck Cleaver on the way he’s spent the past eight years: “At 42, I started a career in something that is usually reserved for young people. It’s also very physically demanding, and, especially the last couple of years, I’m starting to notice it. I don’t have the stamina I once did. But I can still outwork all the young guys.”
You’d think that he was talking about rock and roll, but being loved by Robert Christgau doesn’t pay the rent. Cleaver works as a stonemason, a job he also had right out of high school. For most of his adult life he has eked out a living selling records and collectibles on the side, both online and at antique shows. And he and Walker, who is currently a waitress at Melt in Northside, were also partners in the now-closed secondhand boutique Avant Garage. Joe Klug does construction on and off. Mark Messerly’s a teacher. This is the face of Cincinnati music in the aughts: Employment. Playing rock and roll is just like playing jazz or writing poetry, except with way fewer grants and teaching jobs. If you are making music these days in the Queen City you are doing it for the right reasons—and at least the rent is cheap.
“We have a whole community here of artists and musicians who are all very no-nonsense,” says Walker. “They all have a very strong work ethic and they all support themselves. Almost everyone I work with [at Melt] does something else; they’re either in a band or they do visual art or they’re a DJ or an activist. I find Cincinnati inspiring for that reason.”
Cleaver is part of a generation of musicians who never sold big or sold out but keep playing—a list that includes the Wolverton Brothers (Cleaver and the Wolvertons’ Tim Schwallie formed their first band together at UC in 1978); Goose and Culture Queer (each featuring a former member of Throneberry); and several groups, both new and old, with ties to Wussy and Ass Ponys, including Fairmount Girls (in which ex-Ass Ponys bassist Randy Cheek currently plays), the Hiders, Kiss Me Everlasting, and of course Messerly and Ewing. Before Wussy, Klug played in the now-disbanded Staggering Statistics with former Afghan Whigs bassist John Curley, who has recorded just about everyone in town at his own Ultrasuede Studio on Spring Grove Avenue, including all three Wussy albums.
Curley still remembers being told that he should jack up the recording budget for Ass Ponys’ A&M debut, Electric Rock Music, in 1994. The amount he and the band proposed was too low for a major label to compute, like trying to weigh a postcard on a bathroom scale. Now, however, “it’s the greatest time in history to be a musician,” he says. “You can make your record and promote your band with a computer from your house. You don’t need a record company for people to hear about you. But on the flip side, Wussy is a great example of how a band can get stellar reviews and still not be able to put a tour together that they don’t come back broke from.”
If Cleaver has any fantasies about Wussy’s commercial prospects, it would be to do just well enough to stop being a stonemason, or to scrape by from the combination of the band and selling vintage stuff. “A lot of people my age tend to lead fairly safe lives,” he says. “I’m just too dumb to realize that the likelihood that something’s going to happen is probably fairly remote. It’s not that I don’t like being a stonemason, but I would like to do what I do.” He and Walker are essentially dropouts from the economic mainstream: shredded credit, no current plan for home ownership, no kids (though Cleaver’s daughter from his first marriage is 26 and in the arts herself, working as a photographer and college professor).
With two children and a mortgage, the 40-year-old Messerly, who also went through a divorce around the time of the first album, is less of an outcast, but that only makes him cling to rock and roll more fiercely. His definition of success is every day he gets to do it.
“Because it’s getting harder,” he says. “Each record I can make, each time we can go out on tour, is one more time than expected. You feel as if you’re cheating some sort of death-by-maturity. Everything that’s happened to Wussy in the last couple of years has been like, ‘Oh, that dream list that I made in 10th grade is starting to happen now.’ Getting in Rolling Stone is phenomenal! And the NPR thing? It’s like, Wow, we made Terri Gross say Wussy.”
Cleaver is no less immune to such hosannas. He still considers the night Conan O’Brien came to see Ass Ponys at Brownie’s in New York to be a career highlight. “He’s like eight feet tall!” he recalls. “Jesus Christ. I’m from a small town in the middle of nowhere and this guy’s coming to see me?”
Cleaver’s ego is not especially big by artist’s standards, but the perfectionism in his writing also carries over to his expectations. “I wouldn’t be interested in being in a band that didn’t make records, for one thing, and I also wouldn’t be interested in being in a band that didn’t make records that weren’t out there and critically acclaimed,” he says. “That doesn’t mean my satisfaction is only gained from people digging what I do. I just want it to be out there. I want to be a part of this thing.”
It’s an admirable, necessary impulse: a pop impulse, even if the band still isn’t all that popular. It also partially explains the end of Ass Ponys, a band that always seemed like it could keep making its folk and bluegrass-inflected rock and roll until the nursing home, albeit without ever acquiring new fans. “I just kind of felt that Ass Ponys had run its course,” Cleaver says. “We were coming up with new material, but I just really wasn’t all that interested in it anymore.” He thought the band’s last record—Lohio, in 2001—was their best (and therefore couldn’t be improved on), and that the other members’ real-life situations (i.e., families and jobs) meant that they couldn’t play or tour as much as Wussy is attempting to. “It had nothing to do with personalities or anything. I love those guys,” he says of his former bandmates, “and I always will. I just was ready to do something else.
“They were mad at me for a while, and deservedly so,” he adds. “I left in a very passive-aggressive way. I didn’t exactly say I was leaving.”
Former Ass Ponys drummer Dave Morrison certainly agrees with Cleaver on that last point. “Really, it was me who said we should stop,” Morrison says. “And the reason why we stopped was because we sucked. And the reason why we sucked was because he didn’t want to do it anymore, but didn’t have the heart to tell us. It was sort of like being broken up with by somebody in high school who makes you break up with them.”
To guitarist John Erhardt, who had only just rejoined the band, the explanation is simpler: “Chuck fell in love. That’s what it comes down to.” But he disagrees that the band had lost its mojo. “Chuck is a masterful writer and an awesome performer,” Erhardt says, “and that continues even when it comes to looking back at history.” Ironically, the band’s final song, a 2005 recording called “Your Nothing Day,” is one that Cleaver wrote while he was in the middle of a break-up with Walker. I could be your prison break, your big mistake, the roses on your wedding cake, he sings over Erhardt’s haunting pedal steel line, if you ever say I do.
“I think we helped him win her back,” says Erhardt, “and it did us in.”
Now, of course, Cleaver and Walker’s love life is the stuff of Wussy songs. NPR.org’s Christian Hoard recently described the latest album as “a song cycle about a fictional couple, written by a real one…who don’t likely suffer the same troubles as their counterparts.” Which is plainly nonsense.
“They live it,” says John Curley. “Most bands have to make up stuff to have a story as good as these guys.” So good that certain anecdotes are pretty much unprintable, or only get repeated off-the-record, out of respect for their privacy.
“I find it really fascinating that actual rock critics are listening to our songs and interpreting them in a very literal fashion,” says Walker. “It’s very flattering. Like, they really seem to be worried about us somehow! I never think of a song as being about any one thing. It’s a culmination of a lot of things that you are feeling at that moment, and trying to express them as artfully as you can.”
True enough—except that, in Cleaver’s and Walker’s case, the personal details of their lives are intertwined with the creative process. And that’s what’s so interesting—not the details themselves, or what any of the songs might actually be inspired by. Their personal collaboration is their artistic collaboration. The way they sing together is the way they are: both harmony and disharmony, both call and response and togetherness.
“It’s hard to separate that stuff, isn’t it?” Walker says to Cleaver at one point during the dinner at Via Vite.
“Ehhh. It’s probably all the same,” he says.
“Whether we’re on good terms or bad terms, we’re on some kind of terms. We’re always writing,” she continues.
“The band has always prevailed,” Cleaver adds. “And in some ways our relationship has always prevailed.”
Messerly has his own thoughts on the matter. “Can we make a record where there’s a chance it might not be our last record ever?” he asks. Good question. And one that could be—or perhaps should be—asked of almost any band, even when its members haven’t slept together. The same goes for the drama of breaking up and getting back together. Insecurity and creativity go hand in hand, and if you don’t do everything like it could be last the time and feel like each successive record should be better than the last one, you’re already dead. Which is just another way of saying that drama is good for art, if not always for the artist’s life, let alone the people in it.
“I don’t necessarily wish for it,” says Messerly. “But it’s one of those things. Like, Paul Westerberg is sober and he hasn’t ever written as good a song as he did in The Replacements. Do I actually wish Paul Westerberg started drinking again? Hmmm. Little bit…little bit.”
So can Wussy actually exist if there is no relationship between Chuck and Lisa? “That is an excellent question,” Messerly says. “And you know what? The answer is unknown. You’d have to ask them.”
Okay, so, flat out: Is there a band if there’s no relationship?
Lisa Walker: Oh!
Chuck Cleaver: What is that?
Is there a band without your relationship?
Cleaver: I don’t know.
Walker: I don’t know. (Pause.) I don’t know.
Messerly: It has to be some relationship other than hatred for the band to exist.
Walker: That’s a really good answer!
Cleaver: That’s as good as I can—
Walker: —that’s as good as I can come up with.
Cleaver: That’s fine with me. I really don’t know. (Beat.) I’m not sure. I don’t know. I really don’t. (Beat.) It’s an interesting question.
When Wussy played to several thousand people on Fountain Square this past July, it was less a triumphant hometown gig than a debut. “A friend of ours was out in the audience,” says Walker. “He told us, ‘I don’t know how many times I heard, “Man, who the hell are these people? Where are they from?”’” After so many nights of playing to the Northside crowd, this is by no means a bad thing. Cleaver gets annoyed when people condescendingly assume that Walker brings less to the collaboration, since he’s the veteran indie rocker and she’s, y’know, a girl. (“And I’m not exactly Gloria Steinem or anything,” he says.)
This is not much of a problem anymore. “Is that her father?” cracks a fan a week after the Fountain Square show, when Wussy play a laid-back little dive called the Green Lantern in Lexington, Kentucky. It’s not clear if the guy is serious, but Messerly sure is when he surveys the pre-show scene around the pool table. “Our crowd is a lot less ugly than they used to be,” he notes. A fan base that was once two kinds of geeks—the ones who own Ass Ponys on vinyl and the ones who have a thing for Lisa—has broadened. There’s no more than 100 people in the place, and at five bucks a head not all of them are here to see the bands, but it’s a diverse group: overdressed young lawyers, a professorial-looking guy in seersucker, hipster couples, drunken hook-ups, and true fans.
And this show feels like a triumph, the platonic ideal of a struggling indie rock band on the road. It’s the sort of pleasure that isn’t available to most touring bands, caught up in the need to promote, coordinate, and feed expectations on both sides. The room is only half-full, but nobody is hanging in the back chattering, and as Wussy moves through its set, more people gravitate to the performance space. The band is loose and lost in its own noise, Cleaver sweating through his shirt, Walker an intense, teeth-baring belter, her clear, high voice driving home her undeniable desire to be heard. It doesn’t matter if she’s singing to Cleaver (though they do sound like they are yelling at each other sometimes—part Mickey and Sylvia, part Ralph and Alice Kramden), or even what she’s singing about. She will be heard! By the time they do an especially distorted version of the sweet yet zingy song “Yellow Cotton Dress,” Cleaver’s shirt no longer appears soaked, because soaked is all there is. It’s 1:41 a.m., and there’s a clamor for an encore, even from the front-row fan who yells, “Who are you?”
By 2 o’clock, the bartender is counting out the evening’s take on a back staircase with Cleaver: $400, split between Wussy and a Louisville band called The Fervor, who provided most of the equipment. From the moment they left home to the moment they’ll get back, that’s 12 hours honest work for 50 bucks a head, not counting dinner and gas, and a little extra income from the sale of CDs, pins, and T-shirts. Just another night that four people from Cincinnati get to play another show, feel like they’ve been heard, stop time for a couple of sweaty hours. This is Wussy’s next big break.
Photographs by Jonathan Willis.
Originally published in the December 2009 issue.