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Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

“Doodling” with Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker of Wussy


Published June 17, 2009 at 6:42 a.m.


Wussy, of Cincinnati, Ohio, have garnered a fair amount of national ink in recent years. And much like their music — raw, at times dysfunctional and thoroughly engrossing — critical praise has been varied and startling. For example, Rolling Stone’s Robert Christgau writes, “Imagine Yo La Tengo too tight to get cute or far out dispensing a Velvet Underground derivative fluent enough to warm the erectile tissue of anyone with a thing for guitar drones.” See what I mean?

Wussy are back out on the road, touring behind their excellent new self-titled release. Seven Days caught up with the band’s Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker by phone, in advance of their upcoming Lamb Abbey show, and chatted about band names, junk food, journalistic folly and a supposed resemblance to … Katharine Hepburn?

SEVEN DAYS: OK, I usually avoid this question like the plague. But I have to ask: Where did the name Wussy come from?

CHUCK CLEAVER: It was sort of a back-burner kind of thing I had when I was in The Ass Ponies. A lot of people give me grief because I tend to choose kind of … I don’t really consider them “controversial,” but I just like the way certain things sound. And I just like the way it looks. That’s what the weird thing is — it’s a good-looking word. It’s got a lot of curves in it. It looks good on a T-shirt, you know?

SD: Well, that’s as good a reason as any, I guess. Moving on … how did your approach differ on the new record as opposed to your previous efforts?

CC: Well, I think our idea was that we wanted to sound like a conglomeration [of] the first two. We really liked the sort of crunchy immediacy of the first record [Funeral Dress]. And we really liked the … produced sounds of the second one [Left for Dead]. We just wanted to make a combination.

So, purposely, none of the amps on [Wussy] are any bigger than, like, about 14 inches. They’re really small amplifiers. They’re just well miked. We wanted that sort of trashy, garbage-y sound. But it’s well recorded. It’s done right. And we were both on good writing feet at the time. We just got lucky. In studios, it’s just always luck. With us, anyway. You just never know. You could just come out with a total turd.

SD: And you’re already working on your fourth album?

CC: Yeah, actually. We’re coming up with new material … We tend to get a record done and almost immediately start working on another one.

SD: And what kind of stuff can we expect from that?

CC: I think probably something like … oh, what’s the song? “Muscle Cars.” That’s kind of the … well, it’s a little bit more intricate, a little more varied. I think we’ll probably head off in that direction a little bit.

I mean, I don’t want to make anything symphonic or anything. But with the new person [Joe Klug, drums], we’ll be able to do a lot more. Nothing against our old drummer [Dawn Burman]. She was perfect for what we needed. But at the same time her style was pretty basic.

SD: There is a sort of haphazard quality to your music. It’s not necessarily sloppy, but maybe … disjointed? How much of that would you say is intentional?

CC: I don’t know that it’s intentional as much as it is just how we play. Lisa tunes to a different tuning than I do. So, at least between the guitars, a lot of that dissonance and tension is just because the guitars are tuned differently.

And we try to keep it loose, especially the vocal stuff. We really like the way The Band did it: harmonies, but not always right on top of each other. I mean, we try and be as precise as we can as far as pitch goes. But as far as where we put them, it’s like, “Wherever you feel like wailing, just go ahead.” And Lisa, for all intents and purposes, is our vocal arranger. She’s just really adept at that.

SD: You’ve had some pretty interesting things written about your band. What is the strangest thing that’s been written about Wussy?

LISA WALKER: Somebody told me that I sounded like Katharine Hepburn. That was really strange. But he’s also insane …

And a Cincinnati magazine, which is actually a good magazine — it’s like our town’s glossy magazine that when people move away they subscribe to — they said that we sampled “various cheeses from around the country.”

SD: Really? In what context?

LW: I don’t know! I think what happened is that Chuck said they like to sample cheese doodles. Regional chips, you know? Because every region has their own little brands. So they wanted to try all of the puffed cheeses from around the country. Not actual cheese. Junk food.

But I think, since they’re, like, the hoity-toity magazine in town, they changed it. Their fact-checker called, like, really early in the morning, and I just said yes to everything [laughing]. So I think that’s what happened … But it gave people a delightfully wrong impression, so we were very pleased with it.