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Music: Wussy Galore

Chuck Cleaver takes another big time shot with Wussy

By Brian Baker · September 14th, 2005 · Music
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Wussy is (L-R) Mark Messerly, Lisa Walker, Chuck Cleaver and Dawn Burman
Shake It Records

Wussy is (L-R) Mark Messerly, Lisa Walker, Chuck Cleaver and Dawn Burman



Improbable seems the only logical way to describe Wussy, and it might turn out that the only thing more improbable than their actual existence is the palpable prospect of the rootsy Pop/Rock outfit's success.

Take the band's membership, for instance. Comprised of local luminaries Chuck Cleaver (guitarist/vocalist/songwriter for The Ass Ponys) and Mark Messerly (multi-instrumentalist of the much lauded Messerly and Ewing) and relative unknowns Lisa Walker and Dawn Burman, Wussy feels like a cross between the Jesus and Mary Chain, John Prine and the Mamas and the Papas; JAMC gets namechecked because of the gorgeous sheets of noise that take place throughout much of Wussy's presentation; Prine is a longtime yardstick against Cleaver's similarly twisted sense of the mundane; and there are physical markers that suggest San Francisco's favorite sons and daughters (two guys/two girls, cool harmonies, exceptional songwriting, Cleaver and Walker are a couple ... it goes on).

Like most great things, Wussy was an accident. Cleaver had been tapped to play a solo set at a Top Cat's preview for the 2001 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards, a gig he was dreading because of his reticence to play alone. Walker offered to join Cleaver on harmonies, an offer he accepted based on their initial meeting months previous.

"The Ass Ponys were playing the Parlour at the Southgate House when she introduced herself to me," recalls Cleaver. "I was out on the steps that go up to the art gallery, and I happened to have my guitar with me -- at the time I was playing an acoustic -- and different people were picking it up and playing stuff, and she picked it up and sang a song and I was like, 'Jesus, she can fucking sing, she can write ... all right.' Because everybody else was different shades of dismal."

After Cleaver jotted down the lyrics to The Ass Ponys classic "Pretty As You Please" on a napkin for Walker, the pair hit the Top Cat's stage and it clicked. Wussy was an official entity.

For the first months, Wussy (a name Cleaver had stockpiled long ago for an appropriate project) remained a duo, with Cleaver and Walker settling into a folky groove that bears only a passing resemblance to the band's current sonic profile. The addition of Messerly gave Wussy not only an accomplished and seasoned musician but also a third songwriter, which expanded their repertoire and range.

"The thing I think that matters to me with this band is that we've never had a conversation about 'We want to sound like this,' or 'We want to accomplish this,' " says Messerly. "There's no conscious pre-planning. We are what we are."

As the Wussy sound was undergoing its first transformation, mutual friend of the band Dawn Burman offered her services as drummer, a particularly bold move given her limited experience.

"The first full set I played with them, I had only played for about a month or so," says Burman. "Never having done it before, it was a little intimidating working with a couple of people who had done it for years. I just listened to the music I liked until I heard something I could actually play. The thing is, I somehow always knew that I would end up in a band with Mark. I just knew it."

With the final piece of the puzzle in place, Wussy began evolving as all of the individual members' influences and experiences became a part of the band's musical mosaic. Walker, who barely had any band experience outside of choral ensembles, naturally gravitated toward the front of the stage while Cleaver gratefully moved away from the spotlight.

"I've always considered myself a reluctant frontman," says Cleaver. "(Lisa's) such a natural ham, and I don't say that in an insulting way. She digs being up there, and that's what makes it so appealing."

After consistent gigging for the past two years, Wussy finally entered the studio earlier this year to record Funeral Dress, the band's debut CD for Shake It Records.

The disc is an astonishingly diverse document of Wussy's disparate but oddly interconnected influences and a legitimate contender for one of the year's best releases. Cleaver, who has had more than a little major label smoke blown up his Ass Ponys skirt, is cautiously optimistic about the album's chances for success, preferring at this point to just enjoy the fact that Wussy has made an excellent album.

Wussy already has a handful of brand new tracks and a promise from noted Nashville producer Brad Jones (who produced the last two Ass Ponys albums) to man the boards for their sophomore album.

Cleaver and Messerly are both quick to point out that their better-known affiliations are still alive and well but on extended hiatus, and both are adamant that Wussy not be characterized as some kind of weakly-structured side project. With all of the experiential and non-experiential baggage in their histories, it's imperative to Wussy's members that the band be considered a self-sufficient and free-standing group and that Funeral Dress be considered on its own merits.

Walker offers an analogy to explain the scattered quality of Wussy's live shows as the band has progressed over the past couple of years.

"It's like when you order alligator and there's the three good pieces and then the one that's the worst thing you've ever tasted," she says. "The good ones are a little more frequent now that we've learned how to play our instruments.

"We've thought the album was amazing all along," says Cleaver with a laugh. "We've always thought we were good, but our fans would fit at this table. We have to keep talking them back into it. We sent Brad Jones the record and he got back with me and said, 'This record reminds me of Jefferson Airplane at Monterey Pop.' So now I'm gonna have to go back and watch it, and it's either gonna be really great, or I'm gonna be horrified."



WUSSY (
Wussy is (L-R) Mark Messerly, Lisa Walker, Chuck Cleaver and Dawn Burman
Shake It Records

Wussy is (L-R) Mark Messerly, Lisa Walker, Chuck Cleaver and Dawn Burman



Improbable seems the only logical way to describe Wussy, and it might turn out that the only thing more improbable than their actual existence is the palpable prospect of the rootsy Pop/Rock outfit's success.

Take the band's membership, for instance. Comprised of local luminaries Chuck Cleaver (guitarist/vocalist/songwriter for The Ass Ponys) and Mark Messerly (multi-instrumentalist of the much lauded Messerly and Ewing) and relative unknowns Lisa Walker and Dawn Burman, Wussy feels like a cross between the Jesus and Mary Chain, John Prine and the Mamas and the Papas; JAMC gets namechecked because of the gorgeous sheets of noise that take place throughout much of Wussy's presentation; Prine is a longtime yardstick against Cleaver's similarly twisted sense of the mundane; and there are physical markers that suggest San Francisco's favorite sons and daughters (two guys/two girls, cool harmonies, exceptional songwriting, Cleaver and Walker are a couple ... it goes on).

Like most great things, Wussy was an accident. Cleaver had been tapped to play a solo set at a Top Cat's preview for the 2001 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards, a gig he was dreading because of his reticence to play alone. Walker offered to join Cleaver on harmonies, an offer he accepted based on their initial meeting months previous.

"The Ass Ponys were playing the Parlour at the Southgate House when she introduced herself to me," recalls Cleaver. "I was out on the steps that go up to the art gallery, and I happened to have my guitar with me -- at the time I was playing an acoustic -- and different people were picking it up and playing stuff, and she picked it up and sang a song and I was like, 'Jesus, she can fucking sing, she can write ... all right.' Because everybody else was different shades of dismal."

After Cleaver jotted down the lyrics to The Ass Ponys classic "Pretty As You Please" on a napkin for Walker, the pair hit the Top Cat's stage and it clicked. Wussy was an official entity.

For the first months, Wussy (a name Cleaver had stockpiled long ago for an appropriate project) remained a duo, with Cleaver and Walker settling into a folky groove that bears only a passing resemblance to the band's current sonic profile. The addition of Messerly gave Wussy not only an accomplished and seasoned musician but also a third songwriter, which expanded their repertoire and range.

"The thing I think that matters to me with this band is that we've never had a conversation about 'We want to sound like this,' or 'We want to accomplish this,' " says Messerly. "There's no conscious pre-planning. We are what we are."

As the Wussy sound was undergoing its first transformation, mutual friend of the band Dawn Burman offered her services as drummer, a particularly bold move given her limited experience.

"The first full set I played with them, I had only played for about a month or so," says Burman. "Never having done it before, it was a little intimidating working with a couple of people who had done it for years. I just listened to the music I liked until I heard something I could actually play. The thing is, I somehow always knew that I would end up in a band with Mark. I just knew it."

With the final piece of the puzzle in place, Wussy began evolving as all of the individual members' influences and experiences became a part of the band's musical mosaic. Walker, who barely had any band experience outside of choral ensembles, naturally gravitated toward the front of the stage while Cleaver gratefully moved away from the spotlight.

"I've always considered myself a reluctant frontman," says Cleaver. "(Lisa's) such a natural ham, and I don't say that in an insulting way. She digs being up there, and that's what makes it so appealing."

After consistent gigging for the past two years, Wussy finally entered the studio earlier this year to record Funeral Dress, the band's debut CD for Shake It Records. The disc is an astonishingly diverse document of Wussy's disparate but oddly interconnected influences and a legitimate contender for one of the year's best releases. Cleaver, who has had more than a little major label smoke blown up his Ass Ponys skirt, is cautiously optimistic about the album's chances for success, preferring at this point to just enjoy the fact that Wussy has made an excellent album.

Wussy already has a handful of brand new tracks and a promise from noted Nashville producer Brad Jones (who produced the last two Ass Ponys albums) to man the boards for their sophomore album.

Cleaver and Messerly are both quick to point out that their better-known affiliations are still alive and well but on extended hiatus, and both are adamant that Wussy not be characterized as some kind of weakly-structured side project. With all of the experiential and non-experiential baggage in their histories, it's imperative to Wussy's members that the band be considered a self-sufficient and free-standing group and that Funeral Dress be considered on its own merits.

Walker offers an analogy to explain the scattered quality of Wussy's live shows as the band has progressed over the past couple of years.

"It's like when you order alligator and there's the three good pieces and then the one that's the worst thing you've ever tasted," she says. "The good ones are a little more frequent now that we've learned how to play our instruments.

"We've thought the album was amazing all along," says Cleaver with a laugh. "We've always thought we were good, but our fans would fit at this table. We have to keep talking them back into it. We sent Brad Jones the record and he got back with me and said, 'This record reminds me of Jefferson Airplane at Monterey Pop.' So now I'm gonna have to go back and watch it, and it's either gonna be really great, or I'm gonna be horrified."



WUSSY (wussymusic.com) celebrates the release of their new CD on Saturday at Northside Tavern.
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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