Chuck Cleaver has writer's block. The worst case, he claims, in his entire life. It's so bad that even his reliable trick of escaping to the solitude of a nearby motel hasn't worked this time around. Ever since the Ass Ponys' singer-guitarist left the studio last September, he hasn't written one song and says he doesn't feel inclined to.
"So it's like 'Oh, well, I guess I just don't have anything to say,'" he chuckles nervously, then admits that the dry spell has him worried.
"There are certain days you think, 'Oh Jesus, am I done? Have I done it? Am I finished?' But you can't really imagine that you are, you know. Hell, I've done this my whole life -- written songs -- since I was a little kid, in some form or another."
But doubts creep in. "I guess I probably am a little concerned," he mutters. "What the fuck? I gotta have something else to say."
Conversations with Cleaver often take such stream-of-consciousness turns. His thinking-out-loud musings cover topics as diverse as To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee ("Fuck, what is that like? To feel that you did the best thing you've ever done right off the bat, so much so that you never write again?") to what it's like to front a cult band ("Knowing that there are people out there that could dig you that are never going to hear you -- that's the ultimate frustration").
Yet it quickly becomes evident to anyone familiar with the Ass Ponys that listening to Cleaver talk isn't all that different from listening to his songs. The Cincinnati band has been filling records with rolling Cleaver commentary for over a decade now: songs about aliens, robots, astronauts, television stars, girls, cars, love, life, and death.
Despite his abundant self-doubts, Cleaver remains steadfast and unapologetic about his band, and with good reason. The Ponys' music has always been an assured, intelligent, and confident-if-slightly-askew version of American pop music and its variant possibilities. Labeled, at one time or another, post-punk, alternative rock, and alt-country, the band has never fit neatly into the music industry's convenient genres.
"I really have a problem with expectations," Cleaver admits. "I'm one of those kind of people that, if somebody expects me to go a certain way, it pisses me off, and sometimes I'll do exactly the opposite thing. The idea that somebody thinks they have me pegged makes me mad. So a lot of times I'll throw a wrench in the works, just to vex people."
Almost immediately, he reverses himself and insists that his obstinacy has never been intentional, but rather something within him that he cannot control.
"I -- we -- don't try to be this way, but we just are," Cleaver sighs. "Hell, in some ways the band name -- Ass Ponys -- is exactly the same thing, you know? It's like 'Fuck you, we can call ourselves whatever we want to. We're going to make it in spite of what anybody thinks.'"
He admits that may not have been the best strategy for success. "With the name Ass Ponys -- and I was thinking about this a lot this past week -- we really set up a weird course for ourselves. We called ourselves something that we knew damn well that people were going to have a problem with. And I know that, for better or for worse, my muse is odd to most people. It's not to me, but it is to most people. So I still wake up every day and think, 'What the fuck? Why can't we figure this out? Why can't we make a living at this?' Sometimes it seems as though we have engulfed ourselves in thorns."
The Ass Ponys came together in 1988, after Cleaver's two previous bands -- the Lunchbuddies and Gomez -- dissolved. Band members chose the name with the understanding that they would "use it once or twice for the first few live shows and then pick a 'real name.'" But the name stuck, and they even signed with A&M Records for two albums.
In the past two years, the Ponys hit a peak with 1999's Some Stupid with a Flare Gun and this year's Lohio, two impressive and critically well-received records. The former seemingly came out of nowhere, having been released a long five years after 1994's Electric Rock Music, a hit in alternative radio circles. With Flare Gun, the band delivered a startlingly beautiful and evocative set of tunes that flashed light into the darkened corners of growing up and growing older, balancing its gravity with sharp moments of Cleaver whimsy.
While the songs on Flare Gun are twisted pop marked with a slight country tinge, Lohio has a distinctly Americana sort of groove to it. "We wanted to make something a tiny bit more immediate, one that sounds like everything's in the same room," Cleaver says. "Some Stupid -- and I liked that record -- had more, oh, I don't know, gloss to it. But this one I really like. It's exactly what we wanted to do; it's the closest we've ever come to making a record that we set out to make."
But it remains to be seen whether making the record they've always wanted to make furthers the band's career, and Cleaver understands this as well as anyone. "You go out and hope that people will finally accept the [band] name, you hope that distribution gets better, you hope that this record will sell better than the last -- and it never does," he laughs. "But I'm proud of this one."
Cleaver can't help but feel a bit defeated, even as the band gets a nod in Rolling Stone's "Hot Issue" as the "hot depressives" of the moment. "I don't know what it is, or how you do it," he says, trying to put "making it" into perspective. "I just really can't figure it out. What would finally make people embrace us, you know? It's like -- you want a hug, but you smell like a bum's ass or something."
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