Strawberry Letter #4

Wussy proves they’re ready for their close-up with fourth album


ussy’s members are in the MOTR Pub basement, basking in the post-Cincinnati Entertainment Awards glow after closing the 2011 ceremony with a clattering bang. The new songs from the just-released Strawberry are still gelling on stage, but the thrilling anticipatory undercurrent in Wussy’s performance suggests these fresh set additions are blossoming with time-lapse photography speed.

“We’re playing more of this record than we ever have of any other record,” vocalist/guitarist Chuck Cleaver says.

“It’s taken us awhile to figure them out,” drummer Joe Klug adds. “We had recorded them but we couldn’t really play them. We had to figure them out.”

Wussy has always been about learning. From the start, Cleaver and vocalist/guitarist Lisa Walker learned to be a couple and bandmates simultaneously. Dawn Burman learned to be a drummer, multi-instrumentalist Mark Messerly learned to play bass and, as a unit, they learned to be a fairly incredible band.

On Strawberry, the learning has escalated. With Burman’s 2008 departure and the addition of Klug — beat master, keeper of all time — Wussy has graduated. Cleaver and Walker ended their relationship and became best friends, Messerly became a sinewy, solid bass presence and Klug linked everything with a rhythmic rumble as old and powerful as rolling thunder. With Strawberry, Wussy becomes the teacher, instructing the world on writing wonderfully seductive songs about the pain and pleasure of being together, as a band, as human beings, in and out of love.

“I don’t know why everyone assumes we write about ourselves all the time,” Walker says. “We see things in first person but we aren’t necessarily writing about each other. It’s an evolving story, and the story of the last several years is how we’ve become friends and close work partners.”

“Wussy isn’t just about our relationship,” Cleaver says. “It’s about everybody’s relationship.”

If Wussy’s first three albums represented a band threatening to fly apart at any moment, Strawberry represents unification, clarity and confidence in the success of their future experimentation. Klug’s arrival was Wussy’s galvanizing moment, leading to a natural domino effect.

“Dawn was a very basic, Mo Tucker-y ‘boom boom boom,’ and sometimes we would have to keep the beat as well; you get used to playing a certain way and you have a certain sound because of that,” Cleaver says. “When Joe came in, it’s like, ‘I don’t have to play the whole time.’ ”

Like their performances, Wussy interviews can jump the rails in a heartbeat. The band’s post-performance adrenaline speeds us toward the tipping point, beginning with Messerly’s colorful metaphor of their illuminating first rehearsal with Klug (“I did something, and Joe responded, and I was like, ‘I’ve been fucking her bellybutton, this is wet hole...’ ”) to Cleaver’s equally intriguing response (“Joe is our nappy dugout...”), but Walker steers the conversation to Wussy’s semblance of order.

“It felt like we could do anything,” she says. “We’d learned to play our instruments better, but we hadn’t experimented with that because we were too busy keeping the beat. And that’s OK, but suddenly we could actually use these skills we had developed to do something different.”

One of Wussy’s first studio exercises was to jam around with sounds that resembled other bands, not in a conscious attempt at emulation but simply playing in a similarly familiar fashion. Klug documented the results on his home recording rig, resulting in work tapes the band referenced as “the National’s song” and “the Zeppelin song.”

“Other bands do it when they’re teenagers, we just hadn’t done that yet,” Walker says. “By the time we’re done with it, it sounds like its own thing anyway, because we can’t play like those bands.”

“It was always just us playing anyway,” Messerly says.

“And you know, that’s the thing, between the four of us, I don’t remember a time when we were at the studio and somebody went in to play a part and it didn’t work,” Klug says. “Everything worked.”

In the end, Strawberry, which almost plays like a debut album, evolved like all the Wussy projects before it, with little deliberation and tons of brilliant serendipity. This time, however, the planets were aligned for the newly augmented quartet to take full advantage of their gifts.

“You keep your fingers crossed as to whether it’s going to go OK or not,” Cleaver says. “We happen to have a decent batting average at making records. I’m hoping we always do, but there’s no way of knowing.”

Messerly credits Wussy’s critical success to the constant feeling they have something to prove; that they were worthy with Funeral Dress, that Left for Dead wasn’t a fluke, that the third album was the album they wanted to make, and that Klug’s presence in the Wussy clubhouse altered the pattern at the end of the kaleidoscope and thus the perception of what Strawberry could be.

“I feel like we’ve done a good job of keeping a chip on our shoulders,” Messerly says.

“I almost think you have to,” Cleaver notes. “I think we’ll always have to keep a bit of a chip on our shoulders. Plus I don’t think any of us are ever satisfied with anything.”

Cleaver identifies the band’s listening eclecticism and Messerly notes the band’s superior musical taste, but after three years as Wussy’s amazing new anchor, maybe Klug has it figured out best.

“We all know it’s about the song; you guys write great lyrics and everything falls behind that,” he says. “When I did SonicBids, I had to pick two genres, and it was like, Rock and … what else? And I think Pop, because that’s what we do.”

Pop and Rock and Wussy songs. Long may they coexist in the nappiest of dugouts. ©

For more on WUSSY, visit The band’s next local show is Jan. 20

at MOTR Pub.

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