Cincinnati, Ohio-based musician Chuck Cleaver didn’t have an especially profound reason for naming his current band “Wussy.”
“I really did pick it because I thought it looked good on a t-shirt,” he told Boise Weekly.”They’re attractive letters, you know? They’re all curvy.”
Like the name of his previous band, The Ass Ponys, it’s not one you’d expect to see on the marquee of Madison Square Garden or Radio City Music Hall. Cleaver had never expected to make it that big, though.
“Pre-Internet, when you were from a place like Cincinnati, you never really expected anybody to pay any attention to you anyway,” he told CBS News in 2014. “It’s like we’re never getting out of here. So you call yourself Ass Ponys or Wussy because you think, ‘Nobody’s gonna care, so what difference does it make?’”
Though he and his bandmates still live and work day jobs in Ohio, time has proven Cleaver wrong. Since forming in 2001, Wussy has earned a loyal cult following and considerable critical acclaim. “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau has called the group “the best band in America.” Wussy’s fifth studio album, Attica (Shake It/Damnably, 2014), received a 7.8 from Pitchfork and was named one of the best albums of the year by Slate. Popmatters contributor Justin Cober-Lake gave the band’s latest album, Forever Sounds (Shake It/Damnably, 2016), eight out of 10 stars and wrote that Cleaver and company “find new ways to be impressive.”
Wussy is touring the West Coast now and will play its first show in Boise at Neurolux on Monday, June 20. Seattle, Wash.-based experimental rock musician Chris Brokaw and Baltimore, Md.-based indie-pop band Outer Spaces will open.
At the heart of Wussy's sound is a mix of droning riffs and the tuneful, grim yet darkly humorous songwriting of Cleaver and singer-guitarist Lisa Walker. The two musicians started performing together in 2001.
“We met at an Ass Ponys show, if I’m remembering right,” Cleaver told BW. “We were sitting around on a bunch of stairs outside the club or somewhere. I played an acoustic guitar at the time. We were just passing the guitar around and stuff. And she got it and started playing something, and it’s like, ‘Wow, she’s actually better than the rest of these people.’”
After playing a few acoustic shows together, Walker and Cleaver recruited bassist Mark Messerly and original drummer Dawn Burman. The quartet’s debut album, Funeral Dress (Shake It, 2005), got attention for its polished songcraft and minimalist sound. “It’s as if they’ve reduced all of white Ohio to an articulated drone, unlocked a silo or warehouse of hummable tunes, and worked out the harmonies,” wrote Robert Christgau in a 2006 Village Voice review.
As impressive as Wussy’s sound was early on, Cleaver and Walker--even as an acoustic duo--had envisioned something bigger and louder.
“We always told people even from the very beginning that one of these days, we’re gonna be a big, noisy, electric band,” Cleaver said. “We just have to get there.”
One big step came when Joe Klug took over on drums in 2009. Another one came when pedal steel player John Erhardt—who played with Cleaver in The Ass Ponys from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s—joined after the release of Strawberry (Shake It, 2011). Klug’s muscular drumming and Erhardt’s massive, highly distorted guitar noises add significant power to Attica and Forever Sounds, helping to counterbalance the songs’ themes of disillusionment, romantic turmoil and hardscrabble living.
Walker and Cleaver’s own lyrics help too.
“I can’t admit defeat,” Walker sings on Attica’s title track. “I’m standing in the street, / Yelling Attica, baby! / Call it love.”
On Forever Sounds’ closing song, “My Parade,” Cleaver sings, “If you’ve given your heart to yesterday, / Stay right where you are. / But if you’re playing a part in the great escape, / I’ll meet you at the car.”
Other critics have noted the defiant, warily hopeful vein in the duo’s recent songs.
“Wussy approach rock and roll as people who are past the age when they look to the music for salvation or as a soundtrack for their rebellion,” wrote Charles Taylor in a 2014 Los Angeles Review of Books essay. “But because they are fans, because this music has long been their chosen vehicle for expression, they test it to see if can still provide a kind of transcendence, or at least a way of speaking that will make sense of the life around them.”
This testing has begun to yield benefits for Wussy.
“We’ve always been sort of a word-of-mouth band, and there’s blessings and curses to that,” Cleaver said. “It takes a lot longer to build a following... But yeah, it’s been getting better. We’re making more money, we’re selling more merch.”
Whatever ups or downs they encounter, Cleaver and his bandmates will continue making music.
“It’s a reward in and of itself,” he said.