Chuck Cleaver of the Ass Ponys has stories to tell. Some of the stories are about himself growing up in a small Ohio town. There's the one in which Cleaver found a dead body on his way to high school. Cleaver says it was really no big deal. He was standing at the bus stop, someone asked him to check on an old guy who lived up the street, Cleaver checked and the guy was dead. Cleaver says you're more likely to stumble over a dead body in a small town as opposed to a big city. Death, he says, is very much a way of life out in the sticks.
Cleaver also has stories of his early employment opportunities in the rural Midwest. For example, he earned a few paychecks out of high school scraping and shoveling road kill for the highway department. He says he got the job because he was new and no one else wanted it. He later found steady work cleaning out Port-o-Lets. That was back when his daughter was about to be born. Cleaver says it was good money for easy work; there just wasn't a lot of prestige involved.
Cleaver has stories about other people, too. And the themes are just as grotesque. Here's one that tells how the Ass Ponys' bassist, Randy Cheek, almost got killed by a shirt:
"Well, he and this other guy were kids, and they were playing some kind of superhero thing. There was this Ban-Lon disco shirt on the clothesline, and the kid grabbed it off the line and got it around his neck and was swinging him around by the neck. I don't know if he tried to kill him, but that's what almost happened."
The story of the killer disco shirt is one of many tuneful tales on the Ass Ponys' major-label debut, Electric Rock Music, an engaging collection of episodes and observations put to song. Cleaver is the band's lead Pony, or biggest Ass, if you will. He says he didn't set out to be a storyteller songwriter. Incidents like the Ban-Lon-shirt affair just seem to fit.
"When Randy told me that story, I pretty much just transferred it almost immediately," Cleaver says. "I thought that might be an interesting thing to write about. You know, it's weird. I never considered myself that kind of a writer until somebody else pointed it out. It's just the way I write."
Cleaver's speaking by phone from a practice space the Ponys share with fellow Cincinnati band Afghan Whigs. It's a cold day in the Midwest, and Cleaver says the streets are a mess because of an ice storm that just passed through. And the neighborhood's a mess for other reasons, too. He describes it as one of those places that went to seed years ago, "when the hillbillies moved in."
It's a far cry from Clarksville, Ohio (population 300), where Cleaver grew up. Clarksville apparently died and went straight to hell. It once was a self-sufficient little town, as Cleaver tells it, complete with a movie theatre, an opera house, a meat-packing plant and a pipe factory. But by the time Cleaver started stepping over dead bodies, Clarksville was a ghost. Industry was long gone, and Cleaver remembers watching workers tear up the railroad tracks through town.
Such is the stuff of color and characterization, American-style. And Electric Rock Music includes enough shadows and off-kilter characters to recolonize Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Jesus freaks and walleyed girls and boys with peanut-shaped heads limp and stagger through Cleaver's lyrics. Some of the characters make exotic exits, like the woman in "Place Out There" who implodes in a puff of spontaneous combustion. More often, Cleaver's people are shown in simple snapshots, existing as best they can. Uncertainty hovers like haze in the CD's stories and anecdotes. Cleaver figures that's the way it should be.
"I like to think there's hope and despair in all the songs," he says. "Just like there is in everything else in life."
Cleaver even finds foreboding in what seem to be his goofier songs. "Earth to Grandma," for example, describes a bunch of weird arts and crafts made by a dazed and confused matriarch: "It's a doll completely made of socks/It's a cover for a tissue box/It's a painted rock with google eyes/It's a match stick cross where Jesus died. . . ." After chronicling the quirky set of handicrafts, Cleaver's high, folksy voice sings, "Earth to Grandma/What the hell is that?"
"Yeah, even that song has an ominous feeling," Cleaver says. "There's kind of an overlying sense of doom. It's like, 'What the hell's going on here?'"
Cleaver used Ass Pony guitarist John Erhardt's grandmother as a real-life model for "Earth to Grandma." Her wacky objets d'art are pictured throughout Electric Rock Music's CD booklet. There's a family influence in the CD's title, too. It was coined by Cleaver's 11-year-old daughter. She came up with Electric Rock Music because, like she says, "that's what it is." Cleaver says his kid's well-adjusted to having a father who makes his living playing electric rock music in a band named the Ass Ponys: "She's fairly matter-of-fact about it. It's just what dad does." And Cleaver seems fairly matter-of-fact himself about being a dad in his mid-30s performing for audiences almost half his age. "I've never thought that much about age. I think responsibility is the most important thing. As long as you're responsible, you can act like a chucklehead as far as I'm concerned."
Cleaver admits, though, that he and his fellow Ass Ponys would probably have assumed chucklehead levels themselves if they'd experienced their current success ten years ago.
"We would probably have been stupid and blown all the money on something dumb," he says. "It probably would have gone to our heads a little more. We've now had more experience slogging through shit. It's now more of a pleasant fluke than some sort of monumental thing."
That fluke motif takes on extra weight given the way Electric Rock Music made it to major-label country. Cleaver remembers being "fed up" about the logistics of releasing albums through independent labels--understandable, considering the Ponys' first two albums were casualties of the demise of Rough Trade Records. After recording Electric Rock Music at the home studio of Afghan Whigs bassist John Curley (for a modest $2,500), the Ponys started raising money to put the CD out themselves. A friend suggested they send a taped copy to some major labels. The band didn't want to bother, but the friend did. A&M Records liked what it heard--so much so that the label released the CD as it was.
The disc turned out to be one of the better releases of the year, with the Ass Ponys winding up on numerous Best New Band lists. Cleaver's voice was compared to Michael Stipe on the lower register and, especially, to Pere Ubu's David Thomas on the more prevalent higher notes. Other comparisons for Cleaver and the band included Willie Nelson, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Velvet Underground.
The subsequent attention paid the Ass Ponys helped to enforce a budding notion that Cincinnati was the site of a bona fide "scene." That idea, initially generated by the success of Afghan Whigs, brings a chuckle from Cleaver.
"A guy recently came out here to do a feature for a national magazine, and he told somebody I know that he was totally frustrated because everybody within the scene kept asking him, 'What scene?' It basically doesn't exist."
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Cleaver's voice is starting to lose out to the sounds of Erhardt cranking up his guitar. The band's ready to spend the rest of the icy day rehearsing in the warmth of the great indoors. Not that there's much else to do, anyway. Such small-town temperament is one of the most endearing characteristics of Cleaver's songs. And it's not something he's in any hurry to lose.
"The notion of going somewhere to make it has always been kind of ludicrous," says Cleaver, a self-described "rooted hillbilly" who figures the Clarksville-to-Cincinnati move was more than enough for him.
"If you're not good enough to make it no matter where you are, you should pretty much hang it up," he adds. "I've always had the notion that if you do well enough, long enough, somebody's going to notice you."
Ass Ponys are scheduled to perform on Monday, March 27, at Gibson's in Tempe, with Throwing Muses. Showtime is 9 p.m.