The Wussy frontman talks success (and lack thereof), reading his high school diary and seeing dead people
Cincinnati singer/guitarist Chuck Cleaver has been consistently playing in rock bands since 1978, most notably with the Ass Ponys for 16 years, and his current band, Wussy, for about 18 years. In all that time, Cleaver never stepped away to write and record a solo album.
“I just have always preferred to be within a band. I'm more comfortable in that situation,” Cleaver said recently by phone from the road. “Wussy got started because I was playing a solo show and I was so freaked out about it that Lisa [Walker], who I didn't even know very well at the time, saw how nervous I was and said, ‘Well, I don't really know any of your songs, but if you'll write the lyrics on a napkin, I'll get up and sing with you.’”
But recently, Cleaver found himself with a batch of new songs, and he wanted to record and release them quickly, which led to the creation of his very first solo album, the excellent Send Aid, which surfaced on Cincinnati’s Shake-It Records in July.Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
Technically, though, Cleaver doesn't write songs; he keeps them in his head until it’s time to record or perform. “I write in my head literally every day … but I don't write anything down,” he said. “I had a diary when I was a teenager, and I found it a couple of years after that, and I'm like, ‘God, this is horrible. I'll never write anything down again.’ And so I don't. I lose things — I lose lots. But I've always figured if I lose them, they probably weren't worth a shit anyway.”
Cleaver never thought his creative process was unusual until other people told him so. It’s a pattern he has seen repeated throughout his life, starting in his childhood home of Clarksville, Ohio, a tiny Clinton County village about 40 miles northeast of Cincinnati. “I've been called weird my entire life, and it's always perplexed me. I don't feel weird. I just feel like a regular person,” he said. “I'm from a fairly rural area. There were 52 people in my graduating class, and I always felt like I was dropped from a UFO or something.”
An old Clarksville furniture store graces the cover of Send Aid; it’s a photo taken by Cleaver’s daughter, Anna Stockton, who’d always heard an infamous story from her father’s childhood but didn’t realize this storefront was the site of the tale. When Cleaver was about 14, he was waiting for the school bus outside the shop when the owner came out and asked him to check on the barber down the street.
“She said, ‘You know, we haven't seen him in a couple of days. Could you maybe go see if he's OK?’” said Cleaver, who dutifully went. When he arrived, the barber was dead.
“He had turned gray and he was bloated and staring at me. That image will not leave my brain. But the thing is, a lot of kids found dead people when I was growing up,” said Cleaver, who recounted a childhood friend finding a janitor hanging from a school stairwell and another friend who came upon a murder victim frozen in a creek. “He quit school. He just couldn't handle it. It might've messed me up, too, but I've somehow been able to trudge on.”
In that context, not to mention the economic degradation of rural Ohio towns like Clarksville over the last several decades, the sign reading “Send Aid” that hangs in the window of the furniture store on the album’s cover takes on new meaning and provides a framework for thinking about Cleaver’s songs, some of which are self-deprecating and autobiographical (see the instantly catchy leadoff track, “Terrible Friend) and others that are works of fiction (“The Weekend that it Happened”).
Cleaver’s music has never fit cleanly into the subcategories of rock. He sings with a warbly, slightly nasal, rural drawl that tends to give his songs a rootsy vibe, but he also loves to lightly dust his songs with a layer of art-rock grime that threatens to send the teetering pop melodies careening over the edge.
“I am used to being an acquired taste, and it's OK,” he said. “I've never really cared all that much about money, but at the same time, I've always equated success with money, and the fact that we never made any money in any of my bands, I really don't consider myself a success. … If money constitutes a career then, no, I do not have a career. But if [a career] is just time spent slouching towards whatever, then yeah, I do.”
“Artistically, I consider us a great success,” Cleaver continued. “I don't think we've ever put out a record that was shitty.”
On Cleaver’s current tour, which will stop at Ace of Cups on Friday, Aug. 9, he’ll be joined by fellow songwriters and Wussy bandmates Lisa Walker and Mark Messerly. Everyone will play their own material, plus the trio will perform some Wussy and Ass Ponys material. “And we talk an exhaustive amount and argue and tell each other we're full of shit,” Cleaver said.