The last time Wussy appeared in Little Rock in March, the band was playing their way home to Cincinnati from South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. That same day, in a long post on the Barnes and Noble website, Robert Christgau, the longtime rock critic for the Village Voice and many other publications, proclaimed Wussy "the best band in America." The aborted show that night at Vino's was described in detail on the Times entertainment blog, Rock Candy, but in short, the band played two songs, experienced sound-system difficulties, and left the few fans who'd shown up with free T-shirts and the promise of a better return trip.
I spoke by phone with the band's co-leader Chuck Cleaver. Before forming Wussy in 2001 with Lisa Walker, Cleaver, now in his early 50s, fronted the country-rock band Ass Ponys, which was known for catchy melodies and literate, witty lyrics of hardscrabble life in contemporary rural America. Walker and Cleaver have teamed up for five albums as Wussy, most recently for 2011's "Strawberry," which Rolling Stone described as "rocking out in a frayed, mordant way that makes every stick-in-your-head chorus they share seem like a small triumph." The band plays an 18-and-older show at Stickyz Thursday, 9 p.m., $6.
Being from Little Rock, I'll start with the obvious question about the last time you were here. It was the same day Robert Christgau had proclaimed you the best band in America and that night at Vino's there were maybe five people there and Lisa punched the microphone stand and you had to abandon the set after two songs because of feedback. And I was struck by the contrast between that proclamation by Christgau and the actual performance. Did you revel in the irony or was it just a shitty gig?
A little bit of both. I really enjoy stuff like that. Each person reacts to it differently. I think that's what makes it interesting to me. A few nights ago we played in Grand Junction, Colo., and this guy had just sold his theater and so we were his last show. It was sort of a no-holds-barred, nobody-gave-a-damn sort of thing. I've always wanted to play a show where you hardly play anything at all, and I remember reading about the Jesus and Mary Chain playing like 15-minute shows and pissing people off, and The Dream Syndicate playing one song for like 25 minutes and something. So we played a four-song set and we extended "Pizza King" to like 20 minutes or something. It was phenomenal. I had the best time. Everybody was pissed. I don't think it was looked upon too favorably, but we had a great time. So you know, it took me this long in life in my, whatever you want to call it, "career" I suppose, to do something I was actually really happy about.
So you've had a good time on this tour?
Oh yeah, touring... I've never known what to think about touring. It's equal parts having the best time and the worst time, all at the same time. Again, I don't want to bitch too much but it sure was a hell of a lot easier when I was younger.
Have things changed at all with the crowds since the Christgau article?
Oh, things are changing slowly, but it's very slowly. Things have picked up somewhat. We can tell. We sell a little more merch and there's a few more people there. But with this tour, we're going to places we've never been before. We played in Spokane [Wash.] and there were two people there, but those two people were fans. And one had a Wussy shirt on and they requested songs and we played for them and we had a really good time. The bar owners were nice. The guy at the door said he wasn't even going to stick around, but after he heard the first couple songs he stayed for the whole thing. So it was alright. You just have to kind of take it where you can get it.
You're making your fans one at a time.
The Ass Ponys were the same way. It's a very hard-earned fan base. We haven't been forgotten. We went to the radio station in Grand Junction and they had three of the six Ass Ponys discs, and they still play them occasionally. So it's kind of nice to know, even if you think you didn't leave much of a mark, that maybe you did.
When it comes up on my iPod, the songs still sound great. They don't get old.
Well, that's good. I don't know, I've never really thought about it as a "career" or a money-making venture or whatever. It would be nice if it would be one of these days, as I wonder what job I'm going to get next. At the same time, you do what you do. We really like to make records.
In a way, the trend in music is sort of going your way, because you've always been with [local Cincinnati record store and label] Shake It! and done it locally and that seems to be the way you have to do it these days.
CD sales are not the way to do it anymore. People can pick that shit up for free, so... I can't blame them, I'm not one of them, I still don't download stuff off the Internet. I still buy everything I get but that's just because I'm old and stupid and don't know what I'm doing, but you know I don't blame people for doing it. If I could figure out how to do it, I probably would too... But we've got a bunch of T-shirts and we made up some tote bags and stuff and that's what you do, you go out and you sell it.
Did you all consciously set out to make 2012 a year when you would do this extensive touring behind "Strawberry," and try to build a bigger fan base all over the country.
Yeah, we did talk about it some. Still, it's going to be limited. We've only got so much money and so much time. Our bass player Mark [Messerly] is a schoolteacher, so he gets the summer off, so we're just trying to pack as much into this summer as we possibly can. It seems like "Strawberry" by and large has been getting more attention than our other records. And we thought, well, we probably better do something about it.
In March, according to Christgau, you still had your day jobs. He said you were a stonemason, is that right?
I actually had to give that up. More for health reasons than anything. I've been doing it so long my body has gotten to the point where it's just not handling it very well anymore. I can tell on the road. I'm stiff and I'm sore, and I'm having to take massive amounts of pain pills. But whatever...
Can you tell me a little bit about how you and Lisa write together? About the process?
Sometimes, either she or I bring in a skeleton and we flesh it out. ...The last song on "Strawberry," "Little Miami," I was just messing around with it. Musical proficiency is not exactly high up on our list: I thought I was in one key and I was actually in another one, and I thought, 'Oh shit, I'm not even in the right key,' and she said, 'No keep playing that,' and that's how "Little Miami" came about. She just started singing something over the top of it, and there you go.
Happy accidents. That's how some of the best stuff gets done.
Oh, exactly. And now we're starting to move into another way of writing. I've been on a real strong writing kick here lately. When you write a lot of songs in a row, close together, they tend to kind of sound the same. And so she's taken a couple of them and sort of messed with them so they stand apart, and that's a first for us. We've never really gone down that road before.
I was curious about you as a lyricist. I was wondering what you read. I think some of your lyrics are the wittiest and most incisive that I've heard.
I'm mostly a fact reader. I don't read a lot of fiction. Magazines. I'm not much of a book reader because my train of thought doesn't tend to be very long. If I read a book, I normally have to read it in one sitting or I don't normally come back to it.
I was wondering about a line like, "Coming on like U.S. Grant took Richmond." That's something you would not normally hear in a pop song.
That's actually something my dad used to say... I always wanted to get that into a song, and I finally did. My dad was kind of a storyteller, so I picked that stuff up from him.
What's with Pitchfork? I checked again today and still no mention of Wussy anywhere.
I don't think we're hip enough for them and to hell with them. I don't think about them one way or another. I really don't care. We're not very nice to them either, so it evens up.
What else are you all working on? Will we hear new songs in Little Rock?
We haven't really gotten to the point where we're playing them out much. But we went in and did some demos maybe two or three months ago. And that's a first for us. We don't really do that. I've never been in a band that really made demos. We just go in and record. We decided to step up our game a little bit.
Every band I've ever liked was either the greatest or the shittiest band that ever existed, depending on the night. I really like that sort of dynamic. I don't know that we're purposely that way, it's just the way it turns out. Last night we played to two people and we played a great show. And we've also had shows where tons of people have showed up and we really didn't play very well.
It seemed like in Little Rock you were ready to have a good time, and then the feedback squealed.
We sort of need to redeem ourselves. For y'all that showed up, we feel like we didn't do our job.