By Peter Lindblad
Chuck Cleaver, former leader of Cincinnati’s mid-’90s indie hopefuls the Ass Ponys, and wife Lisa Walker, Wussy’s other main songwriter, had split up, and bassist Mark Messerly was dealing with heartbreak of his own.
While making the record, Messerly’s wife left him — on Valentine’s Day, no less. As if that wasn’t enough, drummer Dawn Burman was fighting breast cancer.
Since then, Cleaver and Walker have gotten back together, and staying in the band helped Messerly cling to his sanity, while Burman managed to beat cancer.
Comparatively speaking, “making this record was a cinch,” says Cleaver of Wussy’s new album, Left For Dead. “As the years have gone by, things have just gotten better.”
No longer tempest tossed, Wussy throws its tumultuous past into the roaring bonfire of Left For Dead and watches as painful memories burn to a crisp. Still, remnants of old animosity and thorny relationship issues can be found among the ashes, where the glowing embers of rockers like “Rigor Mortis” and “What’s-His-Name” live on.
Tangled up in Velvet Underground-inspired distortion and drone, with the ragged melodic sensibilities of The Replacements and country charm of The Flying Burrito Brothers, are an array of rural instruments, such as mandolins and accordions. But, for all the joyous jangle of “Sun Giant Says Hey,” Left For Dead is scorched rock earth, blackened by the stain of sin burned into “Killer Trees,” the industrial bleakness of the Midwest and the sadness of “Tiny Spiders.”
“I think that’s very much a regret song,” says Walker of “Tiny Spiders.” “It’s about losing things, losing parts of yourself. There’s an ebb and flow of life here, and you need that to grow.”
Wussy has done a lot of growing the last couple of years. Musically, Cleaver says, “My singing is better; my guitar playing is better,” and that shows in Cleaver’s extended, wild soloing — something he didn’t do a lot of with the Ass Ponys.
Forever on the verge of a major-label deal, the Ass Ponys faded into oblivion in the new millennium. Hopes were high that the Ass Ponys would break into the mainstream, but it never happened, and after 2001’s Lohio, Cleaver, who used to be an inveterate record collector and an advrtiser in Goldmine, could see the writing on the wall.
“The Ass Ponys were on their way out,” explains Cleaver. “Members were getting married and having children. I was married and had kids. I can’t speak for everyone, but I was convinced that Lohio was the best record we could make, and I felt that after 16 years together, I was kind of ready to do something else.”
Enter Walker, who grew up in a very different background from Cleaver. The product of a strict, religious upbringing, Walker, who is adept at playing with metaphorical and allegorical devices, often incorporates biblical themes into her lyrics.
“It’s more of my theology is what I work from,” relates Walker.
Influenced by the writings of Southern writers like William Faulkner, Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor, Walker remembers viewing the violent, bloody imagery of illustrations from the Bible.
“The Old Testament — I’m all over that shit,” Walker jokes.
Her affinity with writers from the South is based in her being raised in a “more old-fashioned environment.”
“I think there are more people in the South who had strict, religious upbringings,” says Walker.
In the wake of Funeral Dress, Walker experienced a “fruitful” writing period, as she either wrote or co-wrote 11 of the 12 songs on Left For Dead.
“A lot of it was self-examination and apologizing to people, and saying, ‘I f**ked up,’” says Walker.
Cleaver was only happy to let Walker take center stage.
“Lisa is one my favorite songwriters,” says Cleaver.
For himself, Cleaver says he’s writing less “in character” these days. “In my early songs, I wrote about everybody else.”
As a band, Wussy, despite the different approaches of its two songwriting protagonists, will always have a bucolic character.
“Everybody grew up rural, or somewhat rural,” says Cleaver. “Cincinnati is kind of a big, small town. It’s not exactly a major metropolis.”
But, it’s the perfect environment for a band still healing its wounds.