Cover Story: The Life and Death and Life of the Ass Ponys

A tale of how one local band experienced the glory and disappointment of a major record deal, only to eventually rediscover their love for music

 
Sean Hughes/photopresse.com


The Ass Ponys today



Man, oh man, were we stupid. It's almost funny now to think how naive everyone was about the way the world works. Grunge and the Lollapalooza mania of the Alternative Rock nation couldn't change things any more than boy bands can now.

Sure, 1991 was "the Year that Punk Broke," to borrow a phrase from Sonic Youth, when Nirvana made the masses forget about Michael Jackson. In the fall of 1993, The Afghan Whigs — the only local Alt Rock band to ever sell any decent amount of CDs — released Gentlemen, and the phrase "the Next Seattle" was thrown around Cincinnati as if it actually meant something. If Spin could anoint us as such, why not?

Yes, there were some really great things going on, both locally and on a wider scale, but no more or any less than at any other time. The difference was that people actually thought there was a chance they could make a living from their music.

To a lesser extent, it was the dot-com, IPO-frenzy of the Rock world. Some local musicians actually thought they could be Rock stars — while some just acted like they already were.

Labels sent A&R people to places like Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chapel Hill like a thousand points of light. Their orders were to sign any group that had any bit of credibility and perhaps some songs. Bands known in Cincinnati for having a bit of a draw got to make records on the dime of companies from the West and East coasts.

And then there were The Ass Ponys. It seems inexplicable in the current context, but in 1994 it made perfect sense that they got themselves a major league contract with A&M. They were sort of the elder statesmen of the local Rock scene, friends with the Whigs and had already put out a pair of long players on their own. Plus they had some kick-ass songs.

Dave Morrison, the Ponys' drummer/keyboardist, thinks the attention paid to Cincinnati's insular music scene was bad in the long run for its overall health.

"I feel like the horses were picked for the race and then everybody just watched them," he says. "It was Afghan Whigs, Over The Rhine, Ass Ponys, Throneberry and, I guess, Brainiac. But it had so little to do with who was good. ... I think that kind of validation from a label was currency in a way and exciting for people. Instead of just saying, 'I love the way those guys sound'' (it was) 'Hey, they're getting courted by these kinds of labels, they have to be good.'

"In a way it was good for Cincinnati, because everybody got excited about the music scene and felt like it was worth something. I guess the thing that pisses me off is somebody has to come in from Los Angeles or New York for people to find out that it's worth something."

But here's the truth: A label will spend several hundred thousand dollars recording, marketing and promoting a new act, and only one in 10 make a profit for the label. As surely as the record industry is cyclical and people forget about Tripping Daisy, Dink and Sponge, The Ass Ponys never became big stars. The Whigs had label problems with Electra, Throneberry had label problems with large-ish indie Alias and Lazy (who were on Roadrunner) broke up.

But unlike most of Cincinnati's Alternative scene, The Ass Ponys refused to die, even when it was expected of them. They came close to the brass ring, but as bewildered as the experience left them, they're still doing what they were before the multinational superconglomerates came calling with their open checkbooks.

In fact, they're doing it better.

I Could Rule the World If ...
The group's fifth record — and first since being given their walking papers from A&M four years ago — is Some Stupid With a Flare Gun, released on April 11. It sounds pretty much like the same band that had some success with "Little Bastard" on radio in 1995, with tweaked stories and countrified riffs.

And it's no worse a record for being on a label out of Chicago (Checkered Past) that has two employees. In fact, the album that was to become The Ass Ponys' major label debut, Electric Rock Music, was essentially recorded the same way as the newest — on a shoestring budget with a small audience in mind. The important meaning to the group's longevity and resilience is that they didn't go looking for a record deal.

The band got its start at the end of the 1980s, playing their first show in January 1989 and releasing their first record, Mr. Superlove, on a friend's label from Columbus called Okra. The album was recorded at the first incarnation of Ultrasuede Studios, owned by the Whigs' John Curley. A decade later, people still yell requests for "(We All Love) Peanut Butter" from that record. (The band did a split 7-inch with The Afghan Whigs, covering one another's tunes in 1994, and the Whigs chose Superlove's title track.)

In 1992, the band released album No. 2, Grim. During the recording of that record, original drummer Dan Kleingers was replaced by Morrison. Both albums formed the blueprints for the band's sound: Alternative Country/Roots Rock with Chuck Cleaver's lyrical narrative approaching a rural Gothic/Faulkner feel, his high-pitched voice delivering tales of murder with a ball peen hammer, burning barns, fat poets and industrial accidents. It's deceptively simple music matched with engrossing stories.

Things were picking up for the band (which also included bassist Randy Cheek and guitarist John Erhardt) in early '94, regionally at least, as they recorded what became Electric Rock Music. They spent their own money, reportedly $2,000, on studio time with Curley again behind the boards. The plan was to release the record themselves and to not expect very much.

"We did, like, three songs in one (recording) session and the rest of them in another session," Morrison says. "Mark Keefe from WVXU, he was frustrated with us for not ever promoting ourselves and he sent it to a guy he knew at A&M. And he was basically out here two weeks later. We were all working day jobs and hadn't banked on this kind of thing happening, and it definitely took some talking to get us to do it.

"We'd just say, 'What the fuck do you want with us?' We kept goofing around, and they loved it and they loved the record. It was just surreal."

Out of nowhere, The Ass Ponys had a deal. A&M released the record in the fall of 1994, and soon "Little Bastard" became a small-time hit. The Cincinnati Enquirer had trouble with the band's name — once actually calling them the "Burro Ponys" — and some radio stations disliked both the band's moniker and the song's title.

Still, they were on MTV a few times and had a rising profile. Too high of a profile perhaps, as A&M started thinking they had a big-time hit on their hands. But commercial radio proved too tough a sell.

A true story to illustrate the band's personality: Around this time, Cheek goes into a local used record store with a grocery bag full of A&M CDs he's selling and tells the clerk he "feels kind of bad" selling the work of his peers. Clearly not the sharklike, me-first instincts needed to conquer the record industry.

The Ponys' limited success was a surprise, because the band was sort of dragged into it without much forethought. And since most of their business dealings had been with friends, they didn't have a reason not to be trusting.

Still, this was what most bands dream of — but not these guys.

"When we got signed to A&M, we kept thinking they were going to find out that they made a mistake," Morrison says. "They totally courted us. We felt like, 'Do you guys realize what you're doing? We don't fit.' That didn't really change. They thought we were going to be the next Weezer."

"We were the next Weezer because of asthma," Cleaver says, laughing.

Sure enough, it slowly started going downhill.

What the Hell Is That?
Erhardt quit after The Ass Ponys returned home from a tour opening for the Throwing Muses. Enter Bill Alletzhauser. The band then headed to the studio to record The Known Universe.

A&M was in the process of getting leaner and trying to show a profit because the label was for sale (not because of Cheek's CD sales). There were also showing signs of losing confidence in the band.

Electric Rock Music had sold only 30,000 copies or so, more than originally expected, perhaps, but still not a big moneymaker. The follow-up record wasn't a big priority. Add in the fact that The Known Universe was somewhat of a downer record, and miniscule sales were sure to follow.

It didn't deserve, however, to sell a little more than a quarter as many as its predecessor.

"Basically, we were getting a lot of pressure from the label to prove ourselves," Morrison recalls. "They seemed to think we weren't going to recover from losing a member. And they seemed to have lost a lot of interest.

"We put out (The Known Universe) and they worked it for all of about three weeks. We took that incredibly personally, because when we signed to the label we explained to them, 'Look, we're a slow burn band — we're not mass appeal.' They assured us that they understood that and were interested in building a roster of boutique bands and felt we were a band that would add credibility to their roster."

As would be the case for 95 percent of Alternative acts signed to the big boys, this pitch turned out not to be true. A&M was no longer interested in artist development — it needed to show black ink to prospective buyers.

"The writing was on the wall when we went to make the third record," Morrison says. "They were really going to step up to the plate with us or drop us. And it looked like they were going to step up right until the end. We were pretty happy with our demos because we had gelled the band back into something. We sent the demos before Christmas of 1996, and by the beginning of '97 they were really excited. A month and a half later we got dropped.

"We took it fairly personally, but it wasn't so hard to believe. We lasted pretty long, all things considered. They were trying to make themselves look nice for a takeover. In the process, they couldn't spend money."

The band understandably stumbled for a while. Even though they'd never made any real concessions to the machine, they couldn't help feeling that somehow they had failed.

"We all went through our shitty period, to some greater or lesser extent," Cleaver says. "I considered it being 'fired' and that bothered me a lot."

It might have been a business decision for the label, but bands have only one career. This was The Ass Ponys, and they'd had great reviews in Spin, Rolling Stone, Village Voice and The New York Times. Certainly another wiser label would pick them up, dust them off and send them back into the heartland.

Au contraire. Alternative Rock bands were being let go faster than you could say "self-inflicted gunshot to the head." Lollapalooza had sputtered. Over The Rhine left I.R.S. Records, the Whigs feuded with their label and Throneberry couldn't generate support from their record company.

No Dope, No Cigarettes, No Record Deal
Grunge had run its course. The lights were going out on the "revolution." And our heroes, The Ass Ponys, had forgotten why they were in a band in the first place.

Despite protests to the contrary, the machine had, in fact, colored what they were doing. Instead of the music being the reason for the record deal, the record deal had become the motivation for the band.

"We were really stranded when we got dropped," Morrison says. "It was like, 'Well, who the hell do you call?' It was and continues to be a bad time for finding any kind of deal, especially if you're a band like us. It was hard to set goals. It just seemed like all the next steps weren't going to happen. It was really hard to get momentum going again.

"We're going to make the music we want to make. Not that we've ever done anything differently, but it was a lot more difficult for a little while there because we did worry what other people would think."

There was some hope a little more than a year ago after the merger between Universal and Polygram was finalized — decreasing the total of big record companies to five — that indie labels would rise back to a level of prominence by cherry-picking free-agent bands and filling a niche while making money selling a few thousand records. That really hasn't been the case, but some of the bands that survived their stints in the majors have landed in the indie world. The Poster Children, XTC and now The Ass Ponys have done pretty well for themselves.

"By our very nature, we felt that we'd been duped and that we were too trusting," Morrison explains. "We were far too trusting in terms of believing that that kind of altruism actually existed, that people did it because they loved the music. I think we've really pissed some people off locally because we didn't play the part.

"We never played the part, and when it all went away we didn't try to prove to people that it didn't go away or that we were still viable. We landed on our bellies, and it took us a while to get on our feet. You expect to put out another record. You believe the press you read about yourself and you think, 'Somebody will want to put out another record by us. Look at how many four star reviews we got.' Like that means something."

"It was pretty frustrating," Cheek says. "I don't know. We've never really had a career plan. We've always just said we'd do it until it sucked. It's hard to be careerists when you call yourselves The Ass Ponys."

There was the feeling that they were damaged goods. Most bands at this point break up, change their name, their sound, their members. The Ass Ponys, true to their nature, just kept meeting once or twice a week at their rehearsal space to play their songs. What else were they going to do?

Big Rock Ending
Here comes the happy ending.

Brad Jones, one of the people on the list of potential producers of the band's third A&M record, called Cleaver out of the blue and offered to record them for whatever the band could pay him. So the guys trooped down to Nashville and recorded their songs, just like it was 1990 or something.

Some Stupid With a Flare Gun sounds like nothing but The Ass Ponys. Some of the Country elements have been smoothed out and Alletzhauser seems more fully integrated into the sound, but there still are songs of twisted endings and unrealized dreams.

"Bad Part," with its semi-psychotic, delusional characters, would be right at home on Grim. There are more uptempo numbers than Known Universe, like "X-tra Nipple" and the instrumental "Love Tractor." But clearly it's neither a definitive statement nor a sign that the band's glory is behind them.

They're simply doing what they do. It's all they know.

The label that's releasing Flare Gun, Checkered Past, is well respected in the Americana/Roots music world, with bands like The Silos, The Flat Irons and Souled American on its roster. It's clearly a better match for the Ponys' sound and expectations. Another true story that illustrates the personality of the band: Their original A&R person at A&M, Jeff Suhy, helped put the band in contact with Checkered Past.

And what better place to announce their re-arrival than the Spring Break for the music industry, South By Southwest, where Checkered Past was having a showcase night? At the recent event in Austin, Tex., the band tore through an eight-song set, exchanging nearly four days worth of driving for 45 minutes on stage.

They were clearly in their element onstage — relaxed and confident setting up, even when someone from the crowd drunkenly yells, "Ass!" Alletzhauser, who barely speaks in person (he was present for this entire interview, yet his voice isn't on the tape), floated in and out of the band's airspace, sometimes delicately, sometimes ferociously. He'd be the band's secret weapon were it not for the fact that Morrison plays keyboard on his lap while keeping the beat.

There was a languid looseness and a lot of space in the songs in Austin. It sounded damn good.

Afterwards, the band's attitude was calm as well. As the guys moved their amps offstage, someone from the next band hovered around the bass amp. Cheek asked the man if he's the bass player.

The man replied "No" with some enthusiasm, so Cheek asked what he does. He explained that he does some "spoken word stuff." Cheek responded, "Oh, that sounds tedious."

Laughing about the exchange (and the show), Cheek says the drive time versus stage time ratio was worth it.

"Hell, yeah," he says the next morning over Fruit Loops and an English muffin, noting that since the band doesn't really tour anymore fans had driven down from Oklahoma to catch their SXSW appearance.

"How much is this trip costing us?," Morrison asks Cleaver.

"Oh, God," Cleaver says. "When all is said and done? The van was in sorry shape — it cost us between $1,500 and $1,800. It's hard to put a price on it, but it felt successful last night."

"If we had come down and sucked, we'd feel different," says Cheek.

Though they seem to think they don't really have the same impetus for playing that the A&M deal gave them, truth is, one big reason for The Ass Ponys sticking it out is to prove that they haven't changed.

"But it's like you have something to prove," Cleaver says, laughing. " 'We're still alive, fuck you if you don't like us.' "

What hasn't changed is that the four Ponys are really good and they still love to play with each other — perhaps the only things that matter about a Rock & Roll band.

"It's nice to think that someone might have counted you out and it's nice to play well or grab someone's attention," admits Morrison about the band's profile. "It's a small victory, but it's fairly sweet. It was because everybody wants something new. It's always the newest thing that you haven't heard. Well, we're the oldest thing that everybody's heard. 'You guys were pretty big four or five years ago.' Yeah, I don't know how much that has to do with our music."

But in true non-career planning fashion, the quartet is anxious to record another album. They're playing catch-up with themselves, barely playing any of the songs from their just-released record in their live set. Checkered Past has told them that it's still within the realm of possibility to get a second long player out this year.

"The biggest difference between where we are and where we were is that we used to go from one thing on the horizon to the next thing," Morrison says. "There isn't that much clutter on the horizon now. It just comes back to playing.

"We can always get together at our practice place and play, and that's still fun. I guess that's what it's got to be about." ©

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