Wussy Kicks Ass
How a Ragtag Group of Musicians with Day Jobs Became a Great American Band
Cincinnati's Wussy is a rock band that'll remind you on the deepest level why you love rock bands. Fronted by former Ass Pony Chuck Cleaver and the previously unaffiliated Lisa Walker, Wussy's central conceit is to submerge pristine, literate songwriting in the rumble and roar of a full band. (Think Richard and Linda Thompson meet Crazy Horse.) On each of Wussy's five albums—2005's Funeral Dress, 2007's Left for Dead, 2009's Wussy, and 2011's Funeral Dress II and Strawberry—the interplay of words and music is precise. What's best communicated musically is communicated musically (in addition to Cleaver and Walker—who both sing and play guitar—Wussy holds bassist/keyboardist Mark Messerly, drummer Joe Klug, and the recently added John Erhardt on pedal steel). What's best communicated lyrically is communicated lyrically (the best of Wussy's ingeniously simple words read as well as they sound). This dense layering of roaring guitar, lyrical imagery, and gorgeous, ever-present melody adds up to unusually strong songs that feel like something new and meaningful in the antiquated tradition of rock 'n' roll. Wussy's secret weapon: a chemistry so rare, powerful, and under-recognized, it inspired Robert Christgau—America's tersest rock writer—to publish a 2,000-word love letter to "the best band in America."
The high-profile hype will be dealt with later. For now, a Q&A with Wussy's Lisa Walker, contacted by phone at her Cincinnati home.
National tours are a rare and wonderful thing for Wussy, especially considering that you all have non-Wussy day jobs. Is it tough to sync up enough time off to tour?
We're really lucky. We all have really understanding jobs. Mark is a teacher, so he gets summers off, and we do as much as we can then. John works in the film industry, so he's in project-based mode rather than 9-to-5 somewhere. Joe and I are both in the service industry, and summers are great because people come home from school and are looking for work, so it's easy to cover shifts. Chuck's been a stonemason for years, but he's had to make a choice between doing his job and being able to walk. When they say that it's backbreaking work, it's pretty literal. Everyone who does it long enough has to get hip surgery, or back surgery, or hip replacements. So he's between jobs now.
Your band effectively has two lead singers. Is it safe to assume that songs you sing are songs you wrote, and the same with Chuck?
That's almost 100 percent right on, but there are always a couple exceptions here or there. Sometimes, someone, usually Chuck, will write a song and think, "This person would sing this better." Sometimes the line you write isn't the line in the verse you sing. I think it's easier to interpret a song you wrote yourself. But it's fun to get the opportunity to sing someone else's song, too. It's a different thing.
You've spoken in the past about how Wussy works on a song until it's "done," and when you have enough done songs, you put out an album. What is it that makes a song feel "done"?
The key to Wussy is that we're all pretty OCD, and when we're working on songs, we'll obsess over every aspect. It's very helpful having two writers in the band. You can't get too soft. No one wants to be the other guy in Creedence who gets one song on an album and it sucks. A lot of it's just being a good judge of what's good. Everyone writes crappy songs, and there's always crossing stuff out and rewriting. You know when it's not stupid. And if you don't know, you ask your bandmates. It helps to have different ages—between the youngest and oldest [Wussy members], there's an almost-20-year gap. The benefit of being a band, instead of Chuck and Lisa plus blah, is it's more like the Rolling Stones or the Who. Everyone's contributing. Everyone's working on this together, and you don't want to let anybody down. We're not going to do it until we do things exactly right. My favorite song on Strawberry is "Pizza King," which turned out just the way I wanted to hear it in my head. I can't play it by myself anymore, because the parts the other guys added are intrinsic. I rewrote the lyrics based on what they did instrumentally. They changed the song, and it's our song now. The song doesn't exist without them. For me, the process is very magical.
From the start, Wussy has had a high- profile champion in critic Robert Christgau. Has his writing had a noticeable influence on your audiences?
I think it definitely helps. We're a very word-of-mouth band, and he's one of the kings of word of mouth, among people who care about word of mouth. He's championed our grassroots, word-of-mouth campaign, and it's really been amazing. He wrote a treatise about us! ["The Many Reasons to Love Wussy," sample sentence: "When I say I consider Wussy the best band in America, I mean I like or love—no, make that love or really like—just about every one of the 46 songs on [their] five albums... We're talking Beatles-Stones consistency here."] We got very emotional reading it... It lets us know that what we're doing is real. We all believe in what we do. We all work on it together, we all work really hard at it, we all have other jobs, and sometimes it's really frustrating. You have to really care about it. It's not a moneymaking venture. It's something else.