Wussy were depressed. They were “angry, weary, sad, scared,” according to singer and guitarist Chuck Cleaver. So the Cincinnati-based band known for its signature brand of Midwestern gothic rock poetry hunkered down and spent nearly a year figuring out where to channel all that weird, dark energy. Luckily for them, weird dark energy is pretty much their rocket fuel, so the mind-expanding results can be heard on their upcoming seventh studio album, What Heaven is Like (May 18), which features the song “Cake,” premiering today (Apr. 30) exclusively on Billboard.
“We all joined the workforce — which we’ve always been in — but this year we decided we were tired of being poor,” Cleaver, a stonemason by trade, tells Billboard about why Heaven took more than a year to record on-and-off. “So that cuts into recording time and the current climate just sort of affected some of us heavily.” Hence the aforementioned fear, anger and weariness.
For a band used to having the words “brooding” and “quirky” constantly attached to their songs, Cleaver says Heaven churned that grim period of reflection on what was going on in American politics and society over the past 12 months — “it felt like we were wading through molasses” — into a concise, 10-song meditation on hope and fear that the singer says he’s happier with than anything the group has cranked out since its founding in 2001.
But despite co-songwriter/singer Lisa Walker’s breaking news fatigue and sadness over the state of the nation, she’s proud that Heaven doesn’t feel, or sound, topical, but instead feels… Wussy. “One of the reasons we don’t write that way [about news headlines] is because we know we wouldn’t do it well,” she says of the unique manner she and Cleaver co-write songs that feel more like photographs of moments or snapshots of time rather than reactions to real-world events. “We have to adapt those emotions to a style of writing that suits us.”
The band — which also includes bass player Mark Messerly, drummer Joe Klug and pedal steel player John Erhardt — notch some firsts on the album, which includes their take on the obscure song “Aliens in our Midst” by 1970s garage rockers The Twinkeyz and a Neil Young-like grungy version of obscure 1980s East Coast avant folkie Kath Bloom’s “Oblivion,” their first-ever recorded covers. It’s also their first attempt at something of a concept album (though not really) thanks to a series of songs loosely inspired by Charles Burns’ Black Hole graphic novel series about a STI that causes mutations in teens that forces them to go into hiding in the woods.
“It’s beautiful, one of my favorites,” says Cleaver of the beloved series from the illustrator. “Read it, man, it will change your life.” The mid-90s-esque grinding rocker “Cake” was also inspired by the graphic novel and it features one of the album’s most affecting, typically elliptical choruses, “It’s not the type of picture/ That you would ever want to take/ These aren’t the kinds of colors/ That you would want them on your cake.”
Listen to the premiere of that track below and then find out how it came to be and why this might (or might not be) the last Wussy album.
Like a number of songs on this album “Cake” definitely has a dirtier, more grunge-like vibe than your previous album, Forever Sounds. Can you describe how it evolved?
Cleaver: I had the chorus first and for quite a while it didn’t have any verses… well it had verses but they were no good and it sounded very different.
Walker: Yeah, it was more finger-picking, Bread-like.
Cleaver: It sounded like the food bread, squishy. [Not the 1970s soft-rock L.A. band.]
Walker: Or what’s that guys you always make fun of… that you saw [when you were 14 at the show] where you had the wineskin over your shoulder?
Cleaver: Dan Fogelberg.
Walker: Right! It was pretty and I was like, “Okay, I like it, but we’re missing an opportunity for a rock song. We didn’t have a lot of uptempo ones in the hopper so I said “Let’s try it like this” and I played it different and like it is now and they liked that.
Cleaver: That’s a million times better.
It sounds like you’re talking about getting lost in something, or someone
Walker: This was the point where I thought, “well, let’s have more than one sound about Black Hole because that’s rich with ideas and it wouldn’t have to be be directly tied to it. In my head I was setting it in the deep South, or one of the characters escaping, that being part of their route. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a tour van going over Lake Pontchatrain, but it just feels like you’re going to die. I felt like that because you’re just several feet over water. There’s no solid ground, you know there are alligators in there and snakes the size of your arm. Just death water.
Cleaver: In the chorus there’s a veiled reference to “MacArthur Park” — “it’s not the kind of colors you’d want on your cake” — I love that song. A lot of people make fun of it. [Songwriter] Jimmy Webb is brilliant. And it doesn’t mean nothing, most of our songs don’t mean anything either, they don’t have to. Everybody thinks it’s so goddamn deep but it’s just words, words that sound good together.
With the multiple songs about space and those inspired by Black Hole, a song that’s a tribute to a character on Fargo (“Gloria”) and the two covers… is this a concept album?
Walker: I spent a bit of time in Minnesota, but I think Fargo is more imaginative than any movie I’ve ever seen. We’re very big fans of certain concept albums, though we would never make one.
Cleaver: We would never make one intentionally.
Walker: I’ll never get tired of Dark Side of the Moon and I will never get tired of that record. I think of Who’s Next as a concept album too and I know Mark will never get tired of Quadrophenia. I think of [Bruce Springsteen’s] Nebraska as one too and it’s a soundtrack, but Bonnie & Clyde [by Serge Gainsbourg]. There are certain pop culture tales… in the 20s and 30s murder ballads were really just tales that people heard about current events. I look at it as continuing that tradition. Like Ralph Stanley singing about someone getting thrown into the Ohio River.
Much is also being made of Lisa singing “It’s the last time around” over and over on “Black Hole.” Should we be afraid of the end of Wussy?
Cleaver: We’re evil sons of bitches.
Walker: To leave ea tickler as people listen to our stuff to try to scare them more with that.
Cleaver: You know, you fuck with people’s heads.
Walker: I’m a big believer in stuff like John Waters and camp. There is some drama there just maybe not in the traditional sense. But in the way we write and want to present things. It’s not necessarily camp up front but there’s always an element of camp in the lyrics.
Cleaver: The interesting thing is I don’t know that you would necessarily get as stupid and goofy as we are from our records. Maybe you would. A lot of people think our stuff is super-depressing and I’ve almost never seen it that way.
Walker: It’s funnier than it is dark.