Welcome, Wussy

See the group that Robert Christgau calls the best band in America

Even on his birthday, Chuck Cleaver was working, preparing for the concert tour that will bring his Cincinnati-based rock band Wussy to Tucson.

"I have basically been on the run since early this morning, making sure everything is set up, the van is ready and serviced, and everybody knows when we are leaving. And (I'm) going and picking up the T-shirts," he said last week. "I almost forgot what day it was today."

After a brief birthday dinner with his girlfriend—he turned 53, by the way—Cleaver found time for a late-night phone interview with the Tucson Weekly.

The month-long road trip will include a gig at Plush on Saturday night. Wussy will play at about 10:30 p.m., between opener Research and headlining act Bob Log III.

It will mark the first performance in Tucson by Wussy, and Cleaver's first in town since he played here with his former band, the Ass Ponys, in the 1990s.

"I haven't been out on the road in any great degree since the mid-'90s," Cleaver said. "I'm just a little bit rusty when it comes to touring."

Wussy plays a fuzzed-out concoction of indie-cum-garage rock, dashed with elements of folk, country, blues and punk, and employs an arsenal of irresistible pop-rock tools, from jangle and twang to feedback and drone.

The group, which has been compared to the Feelies, Yo La Tengo and early R.E.M., also showcases the vocals and guitar-playing of Cleaver and Lisa Walker. They alternate singing lead, sometimes joining together in the same song. Both also write the band's highly literate material.

The band has five albums under its collective belt, including the new and excellent Strawberry, which was released in November.

Well-regarded but low-profile, Wussy wins over converts wherever or whenever their music is heard, but because they rarely leave Cincinnati, not everyone knows about the band. Among the band's champions is Robert Christgau, formerly of The Village Voice, known as the dean of American rock critics.

While addressing Strawberry on his blog at barnesandnoble.com in March, Christgau wrote, "Wussy have been the best band in America since they released the first of their five superb albums in 2005, only nobody knows it except me and my friends."

Cleaver was flattered by the praise, but it caught him off-guard. "It was an honor, and it's just nice to know people like what you do, but it's weird, too. To tell the truth, when I first read that article, it truly was like I was reading about somebody else."

He's unfailingly humble. "We've never really thought about being the best at anything. The live thing has been up and down over the years, and I think we have ironed out those problems, and we can play good shows. But, quite honestly, from the beginning with Wussy, the goal has always been to make really good records and to write really good songs."

Wussy was formed about 10 years ago. The Ass Ponys were winding down, and Cleaver was asked to play a solo gig.

"It was this awards show in Cincinnati, and they wanted me to play a few songs at the thing. I play solo quite a bit now, but at the time, I hadn't. I was very reluctant and a little apprehensive. I had just met Lisa, and we had been talking about singing together. I just basically asked her to sing with me."

It went so well that they continued working together. They eventually added multi-instrumentalist Mark Messerly—who plays bass, guitar, keyboards, accordion and percussion—and drummer Dawn Burman, whose primal style often was compared to that of the Velvet Underground's legendary Moe Tucker.

Burman played on the first four Wussy albums, but she left the band in 2009. Joe Klug joined as drummer and utility player for Strawberry; adept in a variety of percussion and keyboards, Klug also co-produced the album with John Curley (of the recently reunited Afghan Whigs), another longtime Cleaver associate.

The new recording signals a new direction, Cleaver said.

"I think the sound is a lot bigger and more focused. We're definitely evolving," he said of the new album. "And Joe brings a lot of experience and talent to the band. Sometimes, we had to tell him to back it off a little, though. It was like, 'Joe, we're not Genesis.'"

Cleaver, in comparison, said he's not much of a technician. "I can just barely tune my guitar, and I don't really know anything about my instrument. I don't sit around discussing what types of strings I use. I just use whatever's lying around."

Since the recording of Strawberry, the band has added a fifth member: guitarist John Erhardt, an old pal of Cleaver and a former bandmate in the Ass Ponys.

"Now that John is in the band, he's the great leveler, and he did that in Ass Ponys, too. He balances us all out. He and Joe and Mark can pretty much play anything, and they do it easily and professionally, and they allow Lisa and me to make a racket."

The respective musical interests of the band members are responsible for creating its unique style, Clever said.

"Between the five of us, we listen to everything. Lisa's really heavy into '60s and '70s rock in general, and Mark leans toward Americana. Joe's kind of all over the place, but he's really into soul music. And John listens to everything, too.

"I tend to like noisy garage-band-type stuff. My listening is all over the board, but I probably fight the hardest for the crummy and tinny sounds. I really like that sort of fucked-up, noisy feeling in music."

Contrasting tastes and personalities fuel the creative process, he said, but it comes down to the fact that the members of Wussy really like playing together.

"I mean, it's not that we don't butt heads sometimes; we definitely do. And we've broken up a couple of times, too. But it's like family," he said. "You may bash your brother in the head, but when it comes down to it, you're there for him, and you can rely on him."