This week while I was in New York City I had the chance to catch up with the mastermind behind the freaky pop genius of SSION, Cody Critcheloe. We talked about new videos, the trials of growing up queer in small towns, what it's like working with bands like Gossip, Fischerspooner, and Peaches, what it means to "make it" in the music industry in this day and age, and more.
Watch SSION's "Earthquake" video now, then check out our conversation (and behind the scenes photos from the "Earthquake" shoot by Megan Mantia) below!
LL: Hi Cody! Thanks for chatting with me today. Your new video premiered this past week and the response seems to be really great so far. Congratulations! You and I have both spent a great deal of time in Kansas City. How was the experience of growing up in that part of the country for you?
CC: I'm actually not from Kansas City. I'm from Kentucky, so i grew up there. I didn't move to Kanas City until i graduated high school. I went to the art institute and I loved it. Lewisport, Kentucky was such an extremely small town that Kansas City seemed like a huge city to me. I used to call my mom from the dorms and hold the phone out the window if an ambulance or police car drove by. I thought it was exciting... and there were tons of weirdos at art school and Kansas City is a surprisingly gay city -- very salt-of-the-earth gay, but still very gay, don't you think?
LL: Yes. Absolutely.
CC: Anyway, college was a good time for me. I just worked a lot on my art and music. I was very focused and knew what I wanted to do. The only real downfall of that experience was having to go back to Kentucky every summer and work at the paper mill to pay for school. It was like the worst job EVER, but the pay was incredible at the time. I was in the storage room, so I basically just issued out parts and swept all day. That was when i first tried speed because all the swing-shift workers were on it. That job was so disturbing when I look back on it; a bunch of redneck dudes talking about pussy 24/7 and then ganging up on the few chicks that worked there pretending like they were these huge sluts.
I knew it was gross then, but I just had to deal with it. It's so stereotypical, but it's very real. I was just really quiet, but all these dudes were really charmed by my ability to draw bullshit like their favorite basketball team's logo. I gotta admit growing up in Kentucky really wasn't that bad. I feel like i was able to work it to my advantage. By the time I graduated, I was fairly popular because I was 'artistic' and cynical, so I was sort of impossible to make fun of cause I just didn't give a fuck. I have this really nice memory of making these redneck jocks listen to the Pet Shop Boys and Madonna's "Frozen" while driving around in this huge four-wheel drive truck getting blazed. They loved it. You know, my dad thinks Madonna is probably the best singer of our time. (Laughs) He's probably right?!
LL: Your dad sounds cool! How has your family been with your success? Are they supportive and proud?
CC: My dad doesn't really know what I'm doing and we don't talk about it, and my mom knows exactly what I'm doing and is secretly into it but has to pretend to be bothered by it because she still lives in small town Kentucky and cares what people think. She's supportive up to a point. She definitely wants me to be successful, she just wishes i would tone things down. You know though, I feel like Lady Gaga has given her and the rest of my family some sort of vague/misdirected understanding of what i do for better or worse, just like how when The Osbourne's reality TV show aired every fat alternative chick's parents thought, oh, you're just like Kelly Osbourne. It's frustrating, but probably a good thing. Who knows? At least I don't get compared too much to Adam Lambert.
LL: How is the Kansas City music scene these days?
CC: I honestly have no idea. I was never really a part of the music scene in KC. I think what SSION does or did in Kansas City never really went along with what other bands were doing. It's a very meat-and-potatoes rock 'n' roll kind of place. Burlesque is still huge in KC and all the girls look sort of rockabilly. A lot of crusty punk kids stop through on their way to wherever, but they don't really add anything to the music scene... or maybe they do?
LL: Maybe. Those things are almost impossible to measure. What did you like about your time in Kansas City?
CC: I liked living there because it was so cheap and I had a really supportive group of friends, but they identified more as visual artists. I spent most of my time there producing videos and staging performances, and I think this gave the illusion that there was a scene, which was what really excited me six years ago when I first started putting SSION videos up on YouTube. A lot of people thought that Kansas City had some crazy queer underbelly. At the same time, a lot of really amazing artists and musicians have come form KC; Blood Diamonds, Norrit, Ultrademon; so maybe it does exist on some level.
LL: Is home base New York now?
CC: I moved to NYC in June of last year but I still come back to KC to make videos. I was just there for a month shooting these videos and didn't go out once except to get BBQ, which is amazing. I don't want to come off too harsh or dismissive of KC, cause i still love it there and I'm sure there is something cool going on musically I'm probably just not tapped into. I feel like SSION has never really belonged to any scene, for better or worse. I've been doing this for a long time, getting bits of recognition here and there and it's always funny to me how people try to link up what I'm doing with what's happening now, which makes sense on some level because it's pop. I've always felt really outside of everything and I don't think the music I make really fits in with a lot of the music I listen to or am currently excited by. I think my nature is reactionary but when it comes down to writing a song, that goes away. I'm just writing a song, you know?
LL: I do know. I think it's also pretty safe to say the underground has always fed the mainstream its good ideas though, so I would take that linking up as a compliment. Let's talk about gay stuff. Do you identify as queer?
CC: Sure, but I don't really have much to say about it that hasn't been said better by someone else. I'm just doing my thing, making the stuff I want to make. I don't sit down and do something with a queer agenda in my head. I don't think what I'm making is a big gay statement. I'm just trying to write the best songs I possibly can and write/create in an honest way -- in my way -- my experience. The same goes for what I create visually.
LL: What does it mean to be a "queer performer"?
CC: I feel like I could have given a great answer to this when I was in high school and thought about this kind of thing all of the time, but now I just think doing whatever the fuck you want is a really great definition of a "queer performer." That's probably the answer I would have given in high school, too.
LL: Nice. With that definition in mind, who are some of your favorite queer performers?
CC: Garth Brooks, Boy George, Huggy Bear, House of Ladosha, Actually Huizenga, Vaginal Davis, Darby Crash, Bratmobile, Ryan Trecartin, Le1f, Reba McEntire, Tom Cruise in Interview with a Vampire, Jim Morrison, RuPaul, Dame Darcy, The Cramps, Moschino, Lisa Crystal Carver, Bikini Kill, Raul de Nieces, Greg Araki, David Lynch, and GOD.
LL: That is quite the list. You have been linked to bands like Fischerspooner, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, CSS, Peaches, Santigold, and Gossip. How does a Kansas City freakscene performer like yourself transition into the big time?
CC: I don't think I've really transitioned into the big time. Association is not the same as making it on your own. Even when you make art or videos for another artist it always sort of becomes their thing in the end, regardless of how little they had to do with it. I don't even know what making it means anymore. I'm just glad I don't have a day job and can do this 24/7 AND have people who support it.
LL: Speaking of videos, the visual arts come into play with your work more often than not. Tell me a bit about current film projects in the works.
CC: I'm making videos for songs off the new record Bent -- mini movies basically. That's all i can say right now. I'm working with some new people trying some new stuff, making things hard all.over.again.
LL: Is acting and directing at the core of your experience as an artist or is that all secondary to writing and recording songs?
CC: Directing is at the core, but not acting. I'm actually not that great of an actor, although I would like to get better. I really wanna be in a Hollywood movie one day. Remember how well John Doe from X transitioned into acting? (Laughs) Maybe that will be me one day! Anyway, my first love was drawing. I still love drawing and it helps me make sense of everything. My mom was a draftswoman so I think in some weird way it helps me figure out everything else. Writing songs is equally important. The videos and visuals wouldn't be there without the songs. In the end it all feeds off each other, but without the music there wouldn't be the other stuff in the same way.
LL: I saw that you are playing some shows with my fellow Portland peeps Beth, Nathan, and Hannah (Gossip) later this month. Do you have any tour plans upcoming in other parts of the country/world?
CC: Yes, we are gonna tour all summer. Working on a tour in September after Bent is physically released, and we're doing some gay pride shows on the West Coast.
LL: Tell us about the new video!
CC: It's the video for "Earthquake" and has been the hardest video I've ever made. I'm working with Christopher Good, a filmmaker in KC who is a great director and cinematographer. He's made a few movies in KC that really amazed me so I wanted to work with him on SSION stuff just to push things in a totally different direction. His style is like the total opposite of my own, which has been really challenging but ultimately a good thing. Just watching his technique and the way he goes about getting a shot is so laborious. I feel like the experience is prepping me for something else. I'm sooooo excited for people to see this video! "Earthquake" was really the first love song I'd ever written so when writing the video treatment I wanted to tell the most honest love story but in the way I had envisioned it when I was a teenager, which was really odd. I never dated anyone in high school, so my perception of a relationship was so distorted and delusional... downright MAGIKAL... and i didn't really have any reference points for what it would be like.
I think coming of age in a small town pre-Internet made me really focused and independent but also incapable of handling love for a really long time. I think it's really important to have crushes growing up and fool around with someone and get in trouble. I never really did that until way later in life, so I feel like for a long time I was really emotionally stubbed. Also, being an only child and then being in a gay relationship where all of the sudden you have this brother/lover and then slowly you start to merge into one person and then you're fucking a twin...that's what i wanted this video to feel like. It's really voyeuristic. I feel like in all my new videos everyone's a self-obsessed voyeur. I guess it's easier sometimes. There's something really gross about this video. I wanted it to be really legitimately suburban. So much of it visually reminds me of Adderall, especially the scenes with the two women.
LL: How is love for you these days? Anyone special in your life?
CC: Yes. I am in luvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv.
LL: Good work! I love love. Thanks again for taking some time out for us, Cody. I can't wait to see what comes next for you!
Buy SSION "Bent" on iTunes.
SSION on Tour:
Sat., June 30, 2012
Wrong Bar, Toronto
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