IN 2001, a small-time Ohio band named Ass Ponys delivered a dark, weird, marvelous album called Lohio. It was a record of heartland rock that, for once, accurately reflected the state of the American heartland—one troubled by blight, marginalized by big-box businesses, and pepped up on meth. It was Ass Ponys' finest statement in a near two-decade history, and it also proved to be their last.
"I really didn't feel like I had anything else to say with the Ass Ponys," songwriter Chuck Cleaver explains. "We were working on new material but to tell you the absolute truth, after we put out Lohio, I thought that was the record I always wanted to put out and I didn't have any more to give to it."
Around that time, Cleaver was asked to perform solo for a local awards show; he enlisted another Cincinnati musician, Lisa Walker, to sing with him. "I was kind of nervous about it," Cleaver says. "And I had just met her, and we didn't really know each other all that well, but she said, 'Hey, I can get up to sing with you if you're nervous.' So I wrote the lyrics down on a napkin and without really rehearsing, we got up, and she sang along with me and it was received so well and it sounded so good, I'm like, 'Do you want to do this some more?'"
The two started a band and called it Wussy, and their terrific 2005 debut Funeral Dress made good on the gap left behind by Ass Ponys. Walker's confident voice and songwriting provided an excellent counterpoint to Cleaver's neurotic delivery, and the band's thick, soulful sound found the shared ground between lonesome country and noise-pop squall. Three more full-lengths followed, including 2011's superb Strawberry; august music critic Robert Christgau recently deemed Wussy "the best band in America."
They very well could be. The band—which also includes bassist Mark Messerly, drummer Joe Klug, and pedal steel player John Erhardt—boasts a sound that's familiar but far from consoling. Elegant pop flourishes creep up on Strawberry, but the record, produced by the Afghan Whigs' bassist John Curley, is driven by an unpretentious, rust-flecked honesty and a warped worldview. (Two of its best and most graceful songs bear the oddball titles "Pizza King" and "Grand Champion Steer.")
With the help of fervent fan support, Wussy is finally playing their first-ever West Coast shows, with some dates in the UK coming up as well. It's about time for a band that's existed close to a decade in near-obscurity—a history that's also seen Cleaver and Walker become a couple and subsequently split. "We were pretty careful for a while, but then, ya know," Cleaver says. "But really and truly, we get along. We're not a couple anymore, and haven't really been for, jeez, it's been close to five years now. We were able to work it out and we get along wonderfully, probably better then we ever have."
Not that a ton of Fleetwood Mac-style breakup drama has made its way into Wussy songs. "The thing that I've said a couple times is Stephen King's not a swamp monster, he only writes about them," says Cleaver. "A lot of times people think that because it's a song it must be true. And sometimes it is. There are little fragments in there, certainly. But if as much stuff happened to us as we wrote, we'd probably be dead by now."