It’s a common lifestyle for an independent band. They release albums out of a small record shop in their hometown, where the majority of their shows are booked. When they tour, it’s typically for short stints between the punch-in-punch-out gigs that keep the electricity on.
At this point in their 13-year run, however, that seems uncommon for Wussy, the Cincinnati-based four-piece that keeps a loyal listenership in pockets across the country and was labeled by veteran rock critic Robert Christgau as “the best band in America” in 2005, after the release of the first of their five albums (not including compilation and acoustic re-releases). The sound lands nowhere near common.
Swirling, expressive guitar effects and feedback fill every corner of your eardrums, as 55-year-old burly tattooed frontman Chuck Cleaver pounds out straight-ahead chords from a road-worn Tele while delivering a dual-attack croon with guitarist Lisa Walker, nearly 20 years his junior.
“My guitar-playing is basically based on not technically being a very good guitarist,” Cleaver says with what we’ll call chronic modesty. “I just make a lot of noise. Once you’ve made a lot of noise over a few years, you get good at making a lot of noise.”
That humility has stuck with Cleaver since his departure from country-punk outfit Ass Ponys and the formation of Wussy as a solo project in 2001. Wikipedia lore has it he took Walker on to help him overcome stage fright, but Cleaver says he just never really cared for playing by himself, and Walker’s voice helped mask his own lack of skill.
“She can harmonize literally with anything,” Cleaver says. “You could throw some ball bearings in a washing machine and she could harmonize with it. She makes me a better singer, and I make her a worse one.”
Cleaver’s gruff, soulful falsetto meets Walker’s able voice as they sing narrative-based songs, mostly about bad breaks and love lost — some of that material inspired by rough patches during the two’s relationship during the first half of Wussy’s career. The lyrical structure favors double entendre, setting the listener up to expect one thing before going in a different direction. “I’m not the monster that I once was/ 20 years ago I was more beautiful than I am today,” they sing measure after measure on “Beautiful,” the cathartic closing track on new record Attica!, which was released in May.
Cleaver says the band took more time to write and record this record than they did with any of their prior albums, because they wanted to capture their live feel and make the songs more diverse.
“We wanted to make the louder stuff louder and the softer stuff softer,” Cleaver says.
Though Attica! is available internationally and received positive reviews from Pitchfork and Spin, Cleaver doesn’t expect any impending stardom or commercial checks to roll in. “I think if we’d had been in it for the money or for the fame, we’d have been gone a long time ago. I wouldn’t have made it as far as Wussy.
“I mean, I don’t want to suck,” Chuck Cleaver adds, after a moment of reflection. “If I ever thought I did something that was terrible, I’d be like, ‘Ah piss, I don’t want to do this anymore.’ ”