Still kicking butt


January 12, 2001



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


Ass Ponys, Great Crusades, Uniform

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*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.


*Eric Stafford