During interviews Kansas City-based musician and illustrator Cody Critcheloe has a few concise expressions to encapsulate the elaborately lo-fi multimedia world he’s visualized to complement his band Ssion’s latest record, Fool’s Gold: “queer utopia,” “sexual anarchy” and “gay punk Forrest Gump.”
Ssion (pronounced “shun” as in “passion”) is an ever-evolving collective of musicians, video editors and performers making hi-NRG dance music that sometimes strays into Italo disco and punk rock. Five years ago the band and its larger-than-life stage show became the subject of much buzz after a series of dates with Liars and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
But despite that exposure (Critcheloe also created the pencil drawing sleeve art for YYY’s debut album Fever to Tell) the band has remained under the mainstream music industry’s radar. Instead, Ssion has built a cult following from its home base in Kansas City with a series of graphically colourful music videos and riotously campy live shows.
This DIY theatricality makes Ssion an ideal act for Shame, the Pride edition of Will Munro’s Vazaleen party, happening at Wrongbar on Fri, Jun 27. As with past Vazaleen acts, such as The Toilet Boys or The Hidden Cameras, Ssion’s videos and live visuals take the music utopist’s interior world to a new level.
“When I’m recording the song I’m automatically thinking how the song would be performed or what characters it will take on. That’s the way I listen to music, I think of the visual side of it,” says Critcheloe over the phone from Kansas City where he was busy prepping a video-based performance with Vice photo blogger Jamie Warren for an art gallery in Athens, Georgia.
He’s also making an hour-long, coming-of-age movie to accompany Fool’s Gold, a throwback to the days when bands would create long-format films based around seemingly disparate music videos. Think Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 movie but in colour, way gayer and with songs called “Street Jizz,” “Day Job” and “Ah Ma.” He’s hoping the film will be finished this fall.
“It’s basically the gay punk version of Forrest Gump in a way. The whole movie is loosely based on sexual anarchy and the show is as well,” he says. “[Forrest Gump] is one of my favourite movies. I remember the first time I saw it I cried — actually every time I see it I cry. It’s so touching. I would be like the Forrest character and The Woman would be [Forrest’s love interest] Jenny. The whole movie is basically my pursuit of finding this Woman character.”
When asked about The Woman’s identity, Critcheloe is reticent. Apparently his feminist alter ego, she typically sports stern-looking horn-rimmed glasses and severely red lips. When photographed she usually appears extremely unimpressed, but on stage her presence is commanding. She’ll be on hand for the Toronto show, but Critcheloe won’t say much about her identity.
“She’s everything that I look up to… not that I want to be her,” he says, cautiously. “When we were recording the Fool’s Gold record is when that character really came to life. I had this song called ‘The Woman’ and I wanted The Woman to sing on it. I got in touch with her publicist and whatnot. It took her a few months but eventually she got back to me and she was able to do it.
“It’s weird too because she doesn’t always play with us,” he says, his cautious tone punctured by bursts of laughter. “She’s really hard to accommodate. I’m not sure where she’s from, actually. It’s hard for me to answer a lot of questions about The Woman — she just doesn’t tell me much. I feel close to her in a way, but I don’t think anyone is ever that close to her.”
In addition to The Woman, Critcheloe works with producer and co-songwriter J Ashley Miller. He prefers to work with only one other person when recording to keep creative control and calls on the band to embellish the music onstage. When he started Ssion in his hometown of Lewisport, Kentucky at 16, he made punk music in the vein of The Germs and The Stooges. On weekends he’d drive to nearby Owensboro to loiter with the assorted goth girls outside the local mall. Eventually he recruited them for the band. When he moved to Kansas City to go to art school he started creating stop-motion animation to accompany the music and the visual show was born.
Now he’s 25 and sporting a dramatic handlebar moustache and an equally dark uni-brow intersected by a single spike of bangs. Imagine a 25-year-old Nick Cave thrift-shopping for extremely faggy club attire in the Midwest. When on stage he’s usually perched atop a platform and backed by skinny, shirtless doppelgangers with their noses painted black.
Living in Kansas City essentially makes all of this possible, he says. He works three days a week and has a network of friends eager to help out with his video projects. “If I lived in New York City I’d be working 24/7 and I think the quality of the work would be a lot shittier,” he says. “It’s hard for me to sit down and do a drawing just for the sake of doing a drawing. I like to be involved in big projects. I don’t really get a lot of joy out making flat work I like directing things and I like big productions.”