Photos by Sean Costello
Remember that episode of "The Simpsons" when Springfield imposed a sundown curfew on minors and all the adults whooped it up with youthful reverie? The scene at Amplyfi in Los Angeles is like that. Otherwise studious Gen Xers mill about the alleyway, clutching telltale brown bags full of whisky and vodka, chattering about roadtripping to San Diego and Ventura to see Their Favorite Band at hole-in-the-wall venues. One fellow brandishes his vintage T-shirt like a badge of honor. One couple chortles about the fact that they hadn't been to a concert in ages, but for these guys, they'd make an exception.
A live appearance on the West Coast by Wussy is as rare as a total solar eclipse. The Cincinnati drone-rock outfit is a prime example of the real artist narrative of the two-thousand-teens: A gifted quintet forged from the remnants of a group that got subtle buzz in the '90s soldiers on in day jobs, cramped vans and all-ages clubs that don't serve alcohol. And they don't get groupies.
Drummer Joe Klug grins as he slings back a drink of paper-bag liquor handed to him by an admirer. "I can spot a Wussy fan from a mile away," he says. "They're over 50 and they're bald."
He's only half-joking. Save for a small cluster of 20-somethings, the audience at Amplyfi is gray around the temples – for those who still have hair. Rather than the hero-worship factor that springs from most artist-fan relationships, Wussy exists on an even playing field. It might be due to its Midwestern morale, but these musicians exude gratuity and a down-to-earth demeanor.
This three-week coast-to-coast tour is the band's first extended voyage in its decade of making music. Its most recent release, 2011's alternarock masterpiece Strawberry (Shake It Records), has struck a chord with a population weaned on Sonic Youth and Pavement, who salivates for the throb of drop-D tuning paired with sincere lyrics. It's hard to get more sincere than a group that consists of a former couple: Vocalists/guitarists Chuck Cleaver (ex-Ass Ponys) and Lisa Walker spar in the stanzas of their songs but meld beautifully onstage and on CD. His gruff world-weariness is the perfect foil to her fragile yelp, and their exchanges are less cloying and dismissive than other purveyors of the "boy-girl vocals" club. Theirs are more of an adult nature – Cleaver, in particular, is on the other side of 50 with grandchildren.
There are so many elements to the Wussy story that makes this collection of hard-working Ohioans different from other up-and-comers. Certainly, most respected underground musicians in this poor economy have to slog through regular careers, but how many of them have the Robert Christgau seal of approval? The godfather of rock critics earlier this year penned an ode to Wussy, marveling at why it has remained under the radar for so long, given its resume of solid output – dating back to 2005's Funeral Dress – and Cleaver's lengthy stint in Ass Ponys. (That band got airplay on "120 Minutes," among other high-profile outlets of the era.)
And it's not just on recordings that Wussy shines. At Amplyfi, bassist Mark Messerly (his shirt emblazoned with "Ohio against the world") puts his entirety into the performance, radiating an energy that artists half his age would kill to possess. As Cleaver and Walker shoot affirming glances to each other, another Ass Ponys alum, John Erhardt, underscores the vibe with soaring steel pedal effects. Fans sway elatedly to Klug's steady time signatures, grateful to be present at this intimate gig. It feels familial, as though the show were in someone's basement. Wussy merchandise flies off the table – tour manager Rene Dean notes that they're having a tricky time keeping the albums and shirts in stock. But at the end of the three weeks, it's back to Cincinnati and the members' other lives as normal citizens, save for Cleaver and Walker's fall excursion to the U.K., where Buckeye (Damnably) will be released as a sort of greatest hits compilation for this new audience.
"People assume that because people have heard of your band that you're making a lot of money or something," Klug muses via email a few days after the Los Angeles gig. "I had one guy say: 'Why do you work here? You're in Wussy!' I must have looked at him like he was an asshole because he just walked away!"
Klug splits his working hours between construction and bartending. Walker is a waitress at a vegan-friendly restaurant. Cleaver does stonemasonry. Messerly is a special education teacher. (The bassist says that his own children, ages 12 and 9, are fascinated by his being in bands and touring. He recalls their jealousy of his visit to San Clemente, California, where the ocean waves were much more captivating that those on the East Coast.) So to be able to go on cross-country jaunts, no matter how short, is a perk for the band. Messerly spoke emphatically about getting to see Oregon's breathtaking Coulee Dam and passing through Palm Springs. It fires up the exploratory Steinbeck within him and his mates.
As positive word of mouth about Wussy spreads, the band hopes that it will in turn lead to more prosperity and more opportunities to thank far-lying fans in person for their dedication.
"Where would I like Wussy to be in a year? In a better hotel!" Klug writes mirthfully.