Still kicking butt
January 12, 2001
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Self-delusion is the central currency of rock 'n' roll; it never ceases to amaze me,
the grand fallacies and inflated falsehoods that rock stars spout as my tape recorder
rolls. So it's always refreshing to encounter a musician who isn't kidding himself.
"I'm 41 and experiencing probably my second or third midlife crisis," says
Chuck Cleaver, guitarist-vocalist with Cincinnati cult heroes the Ass Ponys. "What's
it all about? What am I worth? Do I make enough money? Do I have a big enough [manhood]?
My teeth are falling out, my hair's getting gray, I'm gaining weight and I just have to
face the fact that I ain't gonna be in matchbox twenty."
True enough. But after five albums and 12 years as a band, the Ass Ponys have a
dedicated following. The group stands as one of the most intriguing exponents of the
alternative-country genre, mixing a fair amount of psychedelic weirdness with its
hillbilly twang. And it just gets better and better.
"The new one is a little bit more of everything we do," Cleaver says of the
forthcoming "Lohio," due in March on Chicago's Checkered Past Records. "The
country stuff is a little more country-ish, the strange stuff probably gets a little
stranger, the sad stuff is a little sadder, and the rock stuff rocks a little more."
Gearing up for the release of its sixth album, the band is coming to Chicago for the
first time in five years. (For entirely too long, it has limited its gigging to its
hometown and nearby Columbus.)
"It used to be that we were kind of an iffy live band," Cleaver says.
"Sometimes we were really good and sometimes we were really bad, and there wasn't
much in between. But we played our [butts] off when we were on A&M--we were out [on
tour] 20 weeks in a row--and you learn; you just get better because that's what you're
doing every day. Now, even a bad show is like a seven out of 10. It used to be that when
we'd fall apart, we'd really fall apart. Now when we fall apart, we can make it look like
we meant to do it."
Drawing their name from a list of bizarre monikers--it was supposed to be temporary but
somehow it stuck--the Ass Ponys came together in the fall of 1988 from the remnants of
Ohio guitar-punks the Libertines and the Midwestern version of Gomez, which preceded the
British band of the same name by a decade.
The Ass Ponys recorded two independent albums with John Curley of the Afghan Whigs
before attracting the attention of the major labels during the mid-'90s alternative-rock
feeding frenzy. No one was more surprised than the musicians themselves when they were
suddenly signed to A&M, then the home of Sting and Sheryl Crow.
The group didn't change its approach for the big leagues. "Electric Rock
Music" (1994) was as idiosyncratic as the earlier recordings, opening with an
atmospheric drone that proclaimed, "Life is too damn grim!" But the next song
was a jaunty guitar-rocker called "Little Bastard," and it became a bona fide
alt-rock hit--by virtue of the cuss word in the title as much as the catchy chorus.
"We never expected any of it in the first place, so it was all just sort of a nice
little bonus," Cleaver says. "Really, the whole A&M thing is kind of like it
never happened. It was one of those things that I sort of ignored while it was happening,
and then it was over with, and it was like, `Geez, was that me?' "
The band released a second strong album for A&M in 1996, "The Known
Universe," but lightning didn't strike twice with radio, and the label promptly
dropped the band when guitarist John Erhardt quit the group. (The current lineup is
completed by guitarist Bill Alletzhauser, drummer Dave Morrison and bassist Randy Cheek.)
The Ass Ponys took some time off to regain their bearings, then went on to Nashville
and recorded the oddly titled "Some Stupid With a Flare Gun" with producer Brad
Jones (Marshall Crenshaw, Jill Sobule, Steve Forbert). Once again, the group topped itself
with songs like "Astronaut" and "X-tra Nipple"--alien pop gems with
impressionistic lyrics that place Cleaver in a tradition of whimsical wordsmiths like
Robyn Hitchcock and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.
"After the first couple of records--and especially after `Little Bastard'--the
novelty tag started coming in, and that [ticked] me off to a degree that I sort of shied
away from it, especially for `The Known Universe,' which is much more somber,"
Cleaver says. "I like that record, but I missed having--for lack of a better
word--the `goofy' songs.
"I grew up listening to a lot of different stuff, and John Prine was one of the
people I really liked. He writes goofy songs; not all of his stuff, but he'll throw in a
goofy one every once in a while. So I just thought, `[Screw] it! I'm not gonna edit
myself, and whatever comes out comes out.' So you get `X-tra Nipple' and `Magnus (Robot
Fighter).' But at the same time, if you sort of dig through the goofiness, there's some
real stuff in there. Our drummer Dave says I'm writing more personal stuff than weird
hillbilly stuff now. Maybe so, but it's taken me 20 years to get to this point!"
And so the Ass Ponys continue, balancing their weird and wonderful musicmaking with day
jobs and forgoing illusory dreams of stardom. We fans are richer for their efforts, even
if the band is not.
"Friends of mine and people who are into the music keep telling me that one of
these days, if we stick around long enough, we'll at least arrive at a comfortable
place," Cleaver says. "I have yet to get to that spot, but I can feel it."
Pop music critic Jim DeRogatis co-hosts "Sound Opinions" from 10 p.m. to
midnight Tuesday on WXRT-FM (93.1). E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ass Ponys, Great Crusades, Uniform
* 10 tonight
* Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee
* Cover, $8
* (773) 489-3160
*Rock has bonehead history
*Hi Jim:In the WeekendPlus section of Dec. 22, you published a letter
regarding your review of Q101's "Twisted Christmas," which pointed to the
concert as a sad statement on today's music. While I agree that modern rock is a little on
the predictable side, I also think there is a little too much posturing about the supposed
"bonehead" appeal of the current crop of popular bands. Let's face it,some of
the best and longest-lasting rock music has had an appeal to the bonehead side of our
collective consciousness. Take, for example, Nirvana. A lot of the roots of their music is
in "dumb" rock; I recall the band saying when they recorded
"Nevermind" that they were influenced by the Knack and Black Sabbath. Let's also
not forget that Kurt Cobain's suicide was about as boneheaded a public action as anything
Papa Roach or even Limp Bizkit could come up with. We've all got some bonehead skeletons
in our closets. I have to admit to being a big Kiss fan when I was younger, and if I'm not
mistaken, Jim, you once admitted a love for Ted Nugent. The point is: Where do today's
rock fans go from here? Do they stay in one place, or will they progress into more
challenging music? Will a Limp Bizkit fan start listening to rock that truly has an edge?
I'd like to think so.