Words by guest contributor, Robert Isenberg
Picture a trim guy in a handlebar mustache, eyeliner, a cheetah-print vest, a patterned kufi, and a wide-collared jacket colored green and pink. And dancing—lots of dancing.
Cody Critcheloe is founder and front man of SSION, an alt-pop band originally from Kansas City. SSION (pronounced “Shun”) has toured throughout the U.S. and Europe, and after many years of self-released album-making, they have started a relationship with Chicago-based Sleazetone Records. Critcheloe also produces ambitious music videos, which involve elaborate costumes and Studio 54 sensibilities.
Critcheloe played in Pittsburgh for the VIA Music & New Media Festival. We caught up with him for a chat about musicianship, videography, and Andy Warhol.
RI: First time in Pittsburgh?
SSION: We were just talking about this. I think we came in 2004. [A friend] hooked us up with a show. That was a long time ago. It was a totally different group of people. It was a gallery, and I remember next door, Bruce LaBruce was having [an art show]. Or maybe it wasn’t Bruce LaBruce, but it was like gay photography or something, with like a punk-rock bend to it. It was interesting.
RI: How has the VIA experience been for you?
SSION: Well, we just got in today. The only thing we’ve done is—we did the thing at Carnegie-Mellon. It was like an interview, and then we performed two songs, which was weird, because we just did it to backing. But it was cool. So far so good. We haven’t really hung out in the city.
RI: In your videos, you invent these complex worlds. They have a visual language all their own. Where does it come from? How do you describe that world?
SSION: I don’t know. It’s hard to describe, because it’s kind of like this thing that’s always existed. As soon as I started making music, my instinct was to package that music. And by packaging, I mean everything down to the album art, the press release, the videos, what we’re going to wear on stage. It’s been this constantly mutating thing. It’s like this intuitive, impulsive, visual reaction to the music. First and foremost, you make the music, and then you create the world around it. [They’re] mini-movies. It should be something you watch over and over again.
RI: You’re something of an auteur, and you have a lot of creative control. How come? Why not just be front-man?
SSION: ‘Cause I do it myself. This is the first time we’ve ever had anyone [Sleazetone] officially release our record. I’ve been doing this since I was sixteen, and this is the first time I’ve ever had legitimate help with press or management. You do something by yourself for a long enough time, you get used to that. I really can’t do it any other way. You want to make sure [the music] represents you in the right away, and that it’s interesting.
RI: Does a studio label help the process?
SSION: There are certain things that are easier. But you still have to micro-manage. I appreciate [the help] being there, but even if it’s not, I’m still going to do this. You still have to fight for what it is you have to do. It’s not like a veil has been lifted, and all of a sudden things are really easy.
RI: As a visual artist with pop overtones, do you have a relationship with Andy Warhol?
SSION: Oh, yeah, of course. I wouldn’t say he was the first visual artist I got into. I consider my [introduction] to fine art being Sonic Youth, like in their album covers. But Andy Warhol was a huge deal to me when I was in high school. And not so much visually what he did, but more so the environment that surrounded him. Like the Velvet Underground. Or the legend that surrounds the Factory. I was obsessed with Valerie Solanas, the girl who shot him. I remember, in high school, I went to New York for the first time, and I was really excited to see his artwork. And I was so disappointed when I saw it.
RI: How so?
SSION: Because I think his work is more important as a secondary source. There’s something about Andy Warhol that’s more important in print to me—like looking at his work in a book. And I think he would probably appreciate that. Seeing his work in person, I was like, “Mm, whatever.” It’s not about that. It’s more like the culture and environment that surrounded it.
RI:A lot of these kinds of artists evolve over time. How do you think you’ll evolve in the future?
SSION: I don’t know. I think I’ll just keep doing what I do. I know I’ll always make music and put out records and want to perform. I love performing. I love collaborating with people, working with groups of people to put something through. Without sounding too egotistical, it’s very natural to me to work in that way.
RI: The trailer for your film Boy opens with the line: “Why should anyone care? As soon as you realize it doesn’t matter, you’re completely free, you can do whatever you want.” Is this the voice of a persona, or does this quote reflect what you actually believe?
SSION: I don’t think that’s a persona. I mean, I go back and forth with that, too. I like to get dressed up and wear all this shit, but… even if I’m decked out in a ton of shit, I’m going to have the same conversation with you. I’m going to perform the same way. I feel like, with that record in particular, I found a different side of myself. It allowed me to let go and not really care. And once you don’t care what other people think and stay true to your vision, you make your own audience. Rather than trying to find out where you belong, you do what is right for you, and those people come out of the woodwork. In a weird way, you can’t even choose your audience. It just forms because you’re just doing the thing that you do, and people are going to relate to that.
RI: I understand you come from a small town, where people can be judgmental, and that theme seems to resonate.
SSION: At the same time, you have to care to see something through. To spend that much time, knowing you’re not going to make any money, and you’re not sure what your life is going to be like. You have to give up a lot in order to get certain amounts of freedom, creatively. I don’t know what’s going to happen five years from now. I just have to put one foot in front of the other.
RI: There were words that come to mind when I watch your music videos. “Glam” or “Mod.” But they also seem to bend the genres.
SSION: And that’s important. I reference popular culture a lot, but I want to create a language that’s my own. I avoid direct references to pop culture or parody. Working in Kansas City for so long, I got stuck in my head. Then you move to New York, and you realize there’s all these different walks of life. There are a lot of people who don’t know who the fuck Rosanne Barr is, so if you reference her, you have to understand that there are a lot of people who don’t know about her. You can’t expect a 13-year-old to relate to an image of Madonna. Everyone knows that, or they should know that.