Talking Through Forever: Rob Roensch and James Brubaker in Conversation about Weird Dust, Desperation, and Wussy’s Forever Sounds
Roensch: I want to start, I think, by saying I love Wussy, and I’m not immediately sure how to fit the new album into how I love Wussy; I wonder if you feel the same way.
Because I do love Wussy, and I did immediately and completely within the first song or two I stumbled across (“Airborne” and “Pulverized,” for me). I find the strength of my reaction itself curious, because, looked at in a certain light, Wussy are just another good alterna-indie-americana rock band with 80s/90s roots made up of people who seem maybe too old to be in a rock band in 2016. But they aren’t good; they are great. Why?
The songs, of course: they feel lovingly constructed, the parts interlocking, like in a sonnet. The interplay of voices—Chuck Cleaver gruff, Lisa Walker keening. The specificity and density of the lyrics that imply rather than tell whole life stories.
And I think it’s important that they are from Cincinnati. You can hear the distance from Seattle’s grinding adolescent emotion, Boston’s clever jaggedness, New York’s confident strutting. Wussy sounds uncomfortably grown-up. And quirky, but not willfully so; instead they are naturally, subtly, individual. Wussy is not mom- or dad-rock, but the sound of that one uncle who’s still covering the midnight shift at 7-11 but coaches his niece’s basketball team and runs up and down the court in his jeans.
The best Wussy songs feel like they were written and performed after a day of work by a group of friends who refuse to let go of the fleeting instant of relief and possibility of the first sip of the second beer. A kind of hard-earned and exhausted joy.
Brubaker: I, like you, don't know where to begin with how to fit this album into my love of Wussy. But my impulse, too, is to start somewhere bigger than the album, to look back a bit. My first Wussy-related encounter happened sometime between my freshman and sophomore years of high school when one of my friends, "the one with the cool parents" invited me to tag along on a family outing to see some local bands play at the Cincinnati Zoo. Of the three or so bands that played that night, only one really stuck with me and that was Chuck Cleaver's old band the Ass Ponys, known primarily for their "as seen on 120 Minutes" "hit" "Little Bastard."
That night, driving back up I-75 from Cincinnati to Dayton, I wasn't sure how to process what I'd just seen, but I knew it was kind of awesome. I didn't know any song titles—except for "Little Bastard"—and I didn't yet have the music vocabulary to describe a song like "Grim" as a punker version of Sonic Youth if Sonic Youth made southern truck driving music. I didn't understand the sad regional weirdness (and hopefulness) of a song like "Peanut," in which one young character offers to blow another in exchange for a cigarette. Even though I'd lived my entire life up to that point in Southern Ohio, I grew up in a sheltered, suburban version of Southern Ohio, and so Cleaver's Weird America felt somehow vaguely familiar, but also deeply, mind-blowingly uncomfortable to me in a way I'm not sure I fully understood until I got to college and dug a copy of Harmony Korine's Gummo out of the rental bin at Video Spectrum (R.I.P).
But when I got that sad regional weirdness? Well, those old Ass Ponys CD's I'd bought during high school started to feel like something special, and that same "something special" is just as apparent with Wussy as it was with the Ass Ponys. What is that something? I think the biggest thing that makes Wussy feel special is the way the songs feel conversational, feel lived in, feel like they exist—and I love this so I'm going to quote it directly from you—in "the fleeting instant of relief and possibility of the first sip of the second beer." There's something profoundly comforting in that. But what Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker do in that moment with Wussy is to somehow fill it with all the weird dust and desperation that blows through and somehow sticks to all of the out of the way people and things in all of the out of the way places that their songs are so good at conjuring. I don't know if that begins to shed any light on Forever Sounds, Wussy's latest, but I feel like I'm starting to make some progress. And I want to make progress because I like this album. I'm just not sure where it fits according to my expectations for Wussy.
Roensch: “All the weird dust and desperation”—maybe that’s key to thinking about how Forever Sounds connects to Wussy’s earlier work. Because Forever Sounds is different, right? It listens not as a simple extension of what has come before, but as a deliberate choice to choose a new path. I went into listening to this Wussy album with the expectation of more gritty but foursquare songs, so at first I felt a bit lost. This album is louder, blurrier; there’s more sprawl, more squawl.
And some of the lyrical subject matter is less “sad Midwestern Baptist girl writes 'sorry' on the mirror” (from Strawberry’s lovely “Waiting Room”) and more psychedelic, dreamy, out-of-left-field—that pyramid on the album art. There’s occult references. A song called “Donny’s Death Scene” about a Big Lebowski character.
But in the end I think that core of Wussy is still here in Forever Sounds, and I think the core is not that clicked-together bar-band-in-heaven song construction I attached to in previous albums but what you identified as “all the weird dust and desperation” that inhabits and drives these songs—you can hear it when Walker’s voice glides painfully, a wounded bird, above the drone and skronk and burble in “Donny’s Death Scene.”
Maybe Forever Sounds isn’t the first sip of the second beer; maybe it’s later at night, halfway through the fifth or sixth, barely holding on.
Brubaker: Your focus on "Donny's Death Scene" is perfect, and I think instructive as to why this album feels a bit out of step with the rest of Wussy's catalog. It's the third song on Forever Sounds, following two wonderfully messy, drone-y slabs of southern rock, one of which, the meaty and dark "She's Killed Hundreds," isbuilt on a noir-ish foundation of death and murder. And then comes "Donny's Death Scene," and with just those two songs, Forever Sounds starts to feel like an album about crime and murder. Walker's imagery on "Donny Death Scene" does a fine job of accentuating the pathos in what is, by and large, one of the Coen Brothers' more absurdist comedies, as she sings, "Fear, it takes the form of a stranger/And travels through like electricity" before, later, memorializing Donny as a "Faithful soldier/In the service of [the ocean's] rising morning tide." The blending of the Coens' shocking moment of violence with Walker's touching lyrics, and the song's vaguely psychedelic arrangement comes off as downright haunting and heavy, to an extent that even some of Wussy's most powerful songs from previous records haven't attempted. When, on the song's chorus, Walker sings, "A man is down tonight," I find myself forgetting that she's singing about a fictional character, imagining, instead the song's speaker stoically muscling through witnessing the murder of a dear friend. On early listens, I think these two songs sort of overwhelmed the album for me--I came to think of the album as a collection of songs about murder and violence.
But it's not.
Not anywhere close. And that brings us back to the beers at the end of a long day metaphor—because, while that violence only rears its ugly head in two songs, here—three if you count the Walker-sung, Old Testament murk rocker, "Hand of God"—it makes the rest of the album feel a little more desperate, a little bit cagey, even when Cleaver is shouting out rock history on "Sidewalk Sale," or Cleaver and Walker try but fail to deny nostalgic longing on "Better Days," or Walker sings, as best as I can tell, about Ryan S. Wood's UFO book, Majic Eyes on "Majestic 12"—whatever the subject, yeah, these are more the conversations that happen later in the night, when the participants are sloppy, and "barely holding on."
And the more I listen, the more exciting the conversation feels.
Roensch: One song that sticks out to me is Cleaver and Walker’s gentle, aching, back-and-forth “Better Days”—you can imagine a band at the prom playing this for a slow dance right after Journey’s “Faithfully.” Unlike most of the album, “Better Days” is a song I “got” immediately—I wonder what it means to “get” a song right away.
I love your metaphor of songs as conversations. You can think of those conversations as happening in two ways—between the musicians and the audience (prom band and slow dancers), or among the musicians themselves. Maybe it makes sense to think of Forever Sounds as an urgent conversation the band is having with itself. Maybe for me as a listener it took more effort and patience to feel like a part of the conversation (and to even get a sense of what the conversation is about) than it did for their other albums. But, yes, like you, the more I listen, the more that conversation—passionate, specific, weird—opens up to me, the more I get it.
Bio: Rob Roensch's collection of stories, The Wildflowers of Baltimore, was published by Salt and his story "The Zoo and the World" was listed as a Distinguished Story in the 2015 Best American Short Stories. He lives and teaches in Oklahoma City.