I first met Cody Critcheloe back in 2007 when he was promoting his latest album Fools Gold, a snarling collection of trashy art-punk-glam-pop songs. The record marked a step away from the self-released lo-fi thrash of the DIY punk records he had been making up to that point, while maintaining all the loaded inspiration he took from early Riot Grrrl acts such as Bikini Kill, transgressive feminist art-terrorists like Lisa Suckdog, and gay boy go-to idols like Madonna. The album featured tongue-in-cheek pop-romps explicitly detailing Queer experiences where bored business men go cruising midnight parks for hook-ups, and the rapidly dwindling spirit of the gay male/feminist revolutionary alliance.
Under the guise of his genre-defying, media-spanning group SSION, Critcheloe formed early working relationships with fellow freaks at his art school in Kansas City, Missouri and began making elaborate animated music videos, as well as doing art work for it-bands such as The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. These skills snowballed into an instantly recognizable aesthetic, which can now be seen in more recent stints in the directors seat for the likes of major queer pop idols such as Kylie Minogue and Robyn, as well as indie darlings Grizzly Bear and Perfume Genius.
Having refined his sound on the Pet Shop Boys-esque 2011 album BENT, Critcheloe took a breather from the music thing, which gave him time to write and record his new opus O, a record that features an artillery of guest appearances spanning from ’90s grunge dream-queens like Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux and Patty Schemel from Hole, to reigning queer art-goddess Róisín Murphy.
O is a pop record for the unsatisfied masses. It’s a direct roll call to the Queers who love pop music but are bored of being pandered to with shitty Adele remixes and vacuous club bangers.
I spoke to Cody recently about the what it’s like to be working as an artist and musician for this long, the new record, and how his work is here to let the world know pop music can be conceptual, feminist, proudly Queer, and punk AF… if u want it.
Read the full Q&A after the jump!
OMG, I am so glad this is finally happening. I was just re-watching the new videos from O to get in the mood, so excuse me if my brain is a little fried! It’s your fault.
Fried is good!
I obviously wanna talk about gay stuff but I promise I won’t refer to you as an “openly gay” pop star or like “shamelessly queer” as it seems historically you’ve gotten a lot of that!
I mean people have always referred to (my work) in that sort of way but I think it feels like now people are saying it in a more positive way. No joke — just like five years ago that was often slapped on in kind of a negative way. Like no one would outright say it — I just always felt like it was kind of dismissive, and now, you know… It’s illegal (Trump)! But now everyone wants to be queer, so…
So how’s it been going with the new record?
Well, we just played our record release show in New York and are shooting another video, and we are hoping to tour. We just were able to do the show how we really intended it to be at The Bowery Ballroom, and I really want to figure out how to tour and maintain that kind of show quality. You know, touring the kind of show we do can be a kind of shit show. So I don’t wanna waste anyone’s effort or time doing that unless I can do it in the right way.
— MTB (@mtbrown11) July 1, 2018
SSION playing The Bowery Ballroom on June 30, 2018
It reminds me of when Fischerspooner put out that first record and the release show was rumoured to be this legendary show with champagne being fired out of fire hoses and hundreds of people dancing onstage and just pure chaos, and then when they went on tour in the wake of that hype they had to figure out how to distill it down into this moveable object.
Well, with the kind of guarantees an artist like us gets, it would be like me, one other dude and there you go. There are so many amazing artist features on the album that it would be so great to bring with us, you know, but they’re all adults you know they cant just like tour the world and sleep on someone’s floor. I’ve done that. I’ve made it work. I just really don’t want to play a bunch of shows where we are “making it work”. I can get into it no matter what — I like playing shows like that but that’s just not the show we are trying to put on.
It’s sad, but recently I’ve been joking with my friends in bands like, honestly, what’s the fucking point of still being in a band anymore if you’re still getting these tiny guarantees to play, even as your audience grows. It’s funny with you though because you kind of came back to the music after having taken a break for a while to do other stuff.
I mean its just another reason why there are less and less bands, It’s just so expensive to be in a band and there’s just not the same audience for it. I mean, if I wanted to make fucking bank I would just become a DJ. That’s how you make money. It’s the only way that you can sustain money at this point, to tour as a DJ. Someone like Princess Nokia can tour — and its just her and a DJ— and she tours relentlessly. And now that DJ world is a big thing, which is awesome, but that’s how you have to do it. Unless there is a label putting a lot of money into it, it’s not a feasible thing.
But I really wanted to make a new record despite all that! I mean I love writing songs and I’m always gonna do that in some way but I also love touring! I mean my dream would be to be touring the world right now – but I wanna do it properly and give people something they can really sink their teeth into.
I really want to talk about the new record! I feel like it’s such a reflective record. Especially for the latest video “Heaven Is My Thing Again.” It feels like you’re really addressing a lot of these frustrations. It almost feels like a retrospective or something.
Yeah, the last video was definitely making a lot of jabs at past SSION stuff with the set design, but giving it a new perspective or new life, kind of like burning down something from the past so that something new could potentially come from it. But I think in general there are just certain things I am attracted to in terms of colour or sound that I am always revisiting.
It all seems super tongue-in-cheek because not only are you referencing old SSION stuff lyrically on the album, but in the video for “Comeback” you also appear as a character directing yourself within the video. As usual with SSION stuff, this record is a total landmine of eggshells and references for people who are fans of subcultures and pop culture, but this time around you seem to have included yourself in that iconography. Is that something you were motivated to do?
I mean I think I’ve always done that. I’ve always included myself in it.
I wonder about the difference between celebrating iconography versus becoming an icon, and if you want this character to be included in that genealogy, like If you want SSION to be celebrated in the same way you yourself celebrate past icons?
I just think of it as me doing what I’ve always done. It’s just me being a frontperson for a group that makes music and does videos. When I step into SSION, when I step into this world its not like some crazy artistic jump — it’s just me doing what I always do but it’s me being a pop star. It’s me making use of whatever I have, and the people that I have around, the collaborators I work with. When I am making a record, I feel like I’m just approaching it the same way as Madonna did it or George Michael did it or Prince did it! I try not to think about it too much. I feel like if I did think about it too much it would kind of ruin it.
I like how you say, “stepping into SSION.”
Yah I mean I put on SSION but I’ve been doing it for so long I don’t really think of it as a separation between me and that. It’s like I wear blue pants every day, but when I’m on stage these pants have sequins on them. I mean I’m sure Prince is a different person when you have coffee with him than when he’s on stage but, like what do you expect? He’s still Prince. I don’t think I’m the person to be talking about this. I kind of think other people should talk about SSION in this way other than me. I should do the work and let other people talk about it [laughs].
The thing about your work – you’re so much a part of it visually, but something about this new album seems so much more vulnerable than other SSION records.
Watching all the videos set to these new songs feels like you are allowing yourself as an artist to step a little closer to Cody rather than just SSION. It feels like you are giving people a little more of personal-you on this one, but its still really guarded behind art-abstraction and all that. Is this a more personal record for you?
I think so! I love hearing people say they feel like it’s a more vulnerable record, but I don’t know if I really set out to showcase that. I was just approaching making songs in an honest way and wanting to say something about the past five years in a human way. I wanted to write about falling in love and having your heart broken, and partying and just everything that I’ve experienced.
It’s so strange, because I feel like people talk about SSION in such a different way because I mastermind everything, you know? I just do that because no one else was gonna do this for me! Like when I was a kid and dreaming of being a pop star or a rock star, there was just this point where I was like, “Okay, no one is gonna come and just make me a star and give me a record deal, so I’m just going to have to do every single aspect of this and have it manifest in my own way.” That’s kind of why the way I go about doing SSION is more relative to being a teenager, and having that kind of DIY mindset. Something about knowing that there isn’t a whole machine or industry behind what I do really changes the way people talk about the work. I don’t know!
I remember when you were up here recording stuff for BENT, you were kind of complaining about wanting to improve on stuff you did with Fools Gold, and I recently read with this record you want to improve on stuff from BENT which is completely natural for any artist to want to do.
Yah! I just wanted to make even better songs. With this album I wanted it to like rock more. I wanted to get back to being noisey and abrasive and aggressive and really fuck shit up. I really wanted that spirit to be alive in this album in a way it hasn’t been on the other records. I love those records and I’m really proud of them but I feel like they’re much more flat in their tone. I think it was really easy to listen to the last records and dismiss them in terms of the listener being like “OK I know what this is, I know who this person is” like BAM!
With this record I wanted to make something that was way more nuanced. I also just feel like there is no perspective of a gay guy in his thirties making pop music. It doesn’t exist right now. You know what I mean? Like what maybe Sam Smith, but those songs could literally be written and sung by anyone! Is that really a nuanced perspective? Are those lyrics at all poetic or deeper in any way than a generic love song — which is great, but I you never hear anyone talking about gay things and not have it be super coded. Nothing is super direct.
Ugh Its so funny to me. It’s so weird. It doesn’t bother me when all the press around SSION is queer this and queer that. Having it reduced to that used to bother me more, but now it’s like whatever I don’t even think about it.
Well, that’s something I think is important about you as a songwriter. You’re gonna encompass all that gay shit anyways because its you, but in terms of nuance as a songwriter, that was the first thing that struck me with the new record. For instance with “Dogs On Ashpalt” (featuring Contessa Stuto and Jennifer Herema of Royal Trux fame), it starts off super heavy like you are going to go wild and then it takes an unexpected softer turn. I love how each song doesn’t necessarily fulfill one purpose. I think that’s what makes the record so super-listenable because it can start somewhere very aggressive and go off into another place that’s really dreamlike.
That was kind of the point of these songs was having them more collaged together in a way, more along the lines of a mixed tape. When we first started diving into this record I was making a bunch of mixed tapes with Nick [Weiss of Teengirl Fantasy, who helped produce this record] and I think that really informed how we made it.
I was really into Frank Ocean’s album and how he approached songwriting where there would be this amazing hook would happen, but maybe it would only happen once, and then the ending of the song would be totally different. Tyler The Creator does that too. The songs would go wherever they wanted to, and I wanted to do something like that. Especially with “Dogs on Ashpalt,” I was like, “What if the chorus only happened once?” I wanted to structure it more like a mountain just going up and coming down. So it could be like Slayer into Tones on Tail into Alice Cooper into Madonna’s Come Together?! To me it was oddly reminiscent of Bohemian Rhapsody, but with the music I like and the music I want to make.
It’s a good record for people like myself who are moody as fuck, basically! I think musically that works more honestly on an emotional level too. You said you went through hardships while writing this record it really encapsulates a real emotional experience, where something like heartache can never be summed up with just one pop song.
It’s also very of our times. Everything is super ADD where nothing gets to last that long. It’s very quickly paced.
Oh my god I thought you said, “No one gets to laugh for long!”, which is so dark!
Well, it’s kind of true…
Its interesting looking at the way kids are collecting and interpreting information and culture through the Internet now, its all sort of references without context mashed up into this one new thing, which is amazing, but I feel like that has always been SSION’s job.
I agree. It’s not groundbreaking to say, but like just because you do something first, it doesn’t mean shit. There are so many other factors in the timeline of how people get to know something.
Do you think SSION makes sense more now as an entity because of all this?
I do! I think people are kind of accepting it and understanding it rather than dismissing it, which is great. I always knew that would happen eventually. I’m really glad people are taking it seriously right now. It means a lot to me!
What do you mean you knew it would happen? You could see people’s consumption getting more and more restless?
No, just like if you do something long enough, eventually people are going to have to reckon with it! I think it coincides with the fact that the record is super good, and is super alive! I think that means something. I love it.
I read somewhere that the Róisín song “The Cruel Twirl” came into the picture a lot later in the recording process. It really does act like a manifesto style centerpiece that really brings the record together thematically. Can you talk about that?
I actually wrote that monologue when we first started writing the record to act as a centerpiece. I sort of wanted to get an actress to read it, but I couldn’t think of or find anyone who would be right to do it, so I kind of just thought it wasn’t even going to make the album. I’d become sort of friendly with Róisín after she put out that Hairless Toys album, which I was freaking out over.
Then I saw her posting these insane Instagram stories where she was talking a lot and I thought they were so funny and hilarious. God, she’s so fucking cool. God, I truly, truly look up to her as an artist so I was like I wonder if Róisín would do it! I sent her this really long monologue and she sounded amazing. That was like THE last thing we did for the album.
I just loved having her on the album doing something spoken word, rather than say a dance track or something people have come to expect from her. I think its way cooler. I always imagined an actress reading it but she really is an amazing actress and all her own videos are so incredible and she’s just such a badass! She just funny and cool and down. I feel so lucky to have someone like that making music and art outside of this whole system.
Your records are sort of snap shots of your whole social circle. Your videos also operate in that way, in terms of your use of your own community.
Definitely! It’s a family of people. Whether I’m touring or doing a video or an album I’m totally pulling a weird family together. Its like if I find someone I love working with or connect with I’m very loyal to that because I know those types of collaborations aren’t easy to find. A lot of the people I do video stuff with I have been working with since 2006!
There is an element of queerness maintaining that sort of art-support-system. Especially where queerness meets a punk ideology, as your work very obviously does. It’s interesting seeing the Internet conflating generations of queer artists such as yourself with say someone like Boy George, who you probably get compared to a lot. We’re starting to see that support system branch outside of just genre and become even larger, more intergenerational. What is your experience with that?
I don’t think about that a lot, but I’m sure my background in working and surviving in that way that now it’s just completely subconscious. It’s just what I do.
Is it weird to be someone with that sort of small town USA punk perspective and find yourself working and writing in a place like Los Angeles? Is there a friction there for you in terms of making work in a place that is infamous for its shallowness of character?
Not really. When I’m in Los Angeles, I’m hanging out with the same types of people as I would be in Kansas City or if I was in New York. You know even someone like Robyn, who functions in a very “pop” way visually and musically, but I mean she hangs out with punks! The way she lives and functions is very much punk but I don’t think that’s something she thinks about at all! I don’t think she is even aware of that. It’s like just a working method she prefers.
Like even if she’s a punk she may have never even heard certain records, or maybe a guitar tone is gross to her doesn’t change the essential fact that her spirit aligns in more of a punk way.
So to me, it’s like you’re either cool or not. You’re either someone I want to work with or hang out with or not, regardless if we have the same records or not. I was having this conversation this weekend where my friend was asking me like, “Remember when we used to ask each other what records we were listening to?” and its like so irrelevant these days. I can be open with anyone as long as they are cool.
I mean all my punk friends basically have to deal with the reality that I almost exclusively listen to Mariah Carey. It’s the reality we are dealing with.
Yeah, and I feel queers and punks were the first to do that. To be like, “You know what? I’m queer and I’m punk, but I can still wear clothes from The GAP and listen to Mariah Carey if I want to, you know?” For me, queers were the first to make me realize there were no rules to how I should look or what I should like, and if anything if you don’t like it then there was even more reason for me to be into it.
Do you think we pay homage more often to dead gay people rather than living ones? Even say with Ryan Murphy.
I LOVE Ryan Murphy. He is such a good example of someone using their gay power in the best way possible — and also the work itself is great. Both Pose and Versace were so well done. I love that he is giving voices and jobs to everyone who have been so marginalized. He’s so fucking badass!
He’s talking about issues like transphobia and racism within the gay community in a way that no one really has yet in a popular context. One of the lines that struck me most when I first heard O was, “Do you love me like I’m already dead?” (from “1980-99” featuring Sky Ferrera and Patty Schemel from Hole), because I think about how queer icons aren’t ever celebrated until they are dead. I mean, Leigh Bowery wasn’t even a star until decades after his death! It seems there is a lot of George Michael-y stuff happening on the record too. Can you speak to that?
That stuff is all over the record, it’s true. It happens to people who aren’t gay but it definitely happens more with queer artists. I think its changing, but I think gay people’s place, the acceptance of gay people and their work is still very much behind the scenes in that we are always doing the hair, or getting the props or making the gowns. We’re never in the position of being celebrated for our work while we are living. It’s always pushed to the back. Even the way a lot of female pop stars promote having all these gay friends is so gross. We have all these gay anthems that are just so basic and generic and say nothing. I still fall for them and love them in a way, but it’s a tough call.
Do you reflect on your legacy? Is that something you want all this to culminate in or what?
I don’t think that way. I don’t think its wise because then it means that your best stuff has already happened. I mean the cool thing about this record is there are still so many people who still have no fucking clue who SSION is.
It’s so annoying.
I find it liberating! It allows me to not have to get attached to a legacy! Like it never happened! I’m way more excited about getting old! I want to be 60 years old and be a fucking badass. I want to be like John Cassavetes or Pedro Almodovar, or Iggy Pop!
I think we are in a good position in terms of reinventing what it will mean to be old.
When you are an artist and one of your main currencies is being hot and young, it must be really hard. I feel like whatever appeal I have — not saying that I’m not sexy — but it’s maybe more of an acquired taste for most. I feel this freedom to get old and it wont affect what I’m doing. The people who are into SSION aren’t into me because I’m a sex symbol; they’re into me because I have something to say and make cool work that’s like, deeper than that. I think of someone like Peaches, who is super sexy but she didn’t build her career on being a hot chick in a traditional way. She could put out a record when she is 90 and have it still be super relevant, if she wanted.
Was the “Comeback” a preview of that for you?
That was really fun for me, playing the older character in that video. I loved playing this old man who is still badass. I wanna be that 60-year-old dude who is still in charge of his shit and making cool shit. As long as I’m able to physically move and still be creative and pumping out interesting stuff that’s inspiring people, the idea of getting old really doesn’t bother me. Maybe that’s also rooted in punk rock. Like I don’t fucking care!
— Q&A by Kevin Hegge (@kevinheggs on Instagram)
O is available to purchase online now via Dero Arcade Records, with a pre-order of the soon-to-be-released limited edition vinyl.