Ssion and the Freak Inside | Q&A

[The following interview, conducted by Raws Schlesinger (aka Plack Blague), previews Ssion’s appearance at The Bourbon on Saturday, Oct 29 for Glam Halloween. The lineup also features Life Is Cool, C Styles, Isla Tack, & Evian Mangold, and is hosted by Kharizma Valentine & FUN GUISE. $10 in advance, $15 day of or $10 day of with costume. Doors at 9 p.m., show at 10 p.m. RSVP here.]

For the past 10 years now, I have been obsessed with Ssion. From their over the top gay pop anthems to their ever evolving music video brilliance, Ssion is a powerhouse of artistic creativity.

From the first time I saw Ssion perform live on stage, I absolutely had to get to know not only the project, but Cody Critcheloe himself. I was floored by Critcheloe’s stage presence, dressed in this weird lederhosen looking outfit while sporting black unibrow to mustache makeup, standing on stage risers 10 feet higher than the actual stage, and playing extremely catchy dance music that seemed not only hilarious but absolutely serious at the same time. The stage was covered in painted DIY cartoon props that made it seem more like a music video set rather than your usual stage. It was like nothing I had ever seen before, and I was hooked.  

Since then, I have been luckily enough to get to know Cody by booking Ssion in Lincoln a few times, opening for them in my own band, acting as a confused businessman in the Perfume Genius “Queen” video and even having late night slumber parties at my house complete with photo shoot sessions involving my dog. I have even done a painting of Cody/Ssion. That’s how big of a fan I have become.  

So, when Hear Nebraska approached me about doing an interview for Ssion’s upcoming show at the Bourbon Theatre, I was ecstatic to not only be part of this but to also catch up in general and talk with an artist I personally admire. After a little over an hour of bullshitting about pop stars, punk records, love, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, the Midwest and just weird shit in general, we managed to actually get some questions answered to help you get to know one of today’s most exciting and eclectic pop stars.

Raws Schlesinger: How long has Ssion been around?

Cody Critcheloe: I think the name came about when I was like 16 or something … around 1996? I started using that name on cassette tapes I was making, like on a 4-track of just straight up noise music type of stuff.  So, I always just kept that name around and gave it to any sort of musical project I was working on at that time.  

RS: So, is Ssion a band?

CC: I don’t think Ssion is a band, although we have been a band, and I’m sure we’ll be a band again. I don’t think that’s really the right way to talk about it. I mean, I definitely love to play with musicians, but I don’t think being in a band really works for me. I mean it’s really limiting! (laughter) I work better with like one or two people and I like to keep things separate. You know, nobody is in a band anymore. You can’t afford to be in a band.  

RS: You’ve performed in Nebraska multiple times now, especially in Lincoln. What is it about smaller cities like Lincoln or Omaha that keeps you coming back?

CC: I lived in Kansas City for over 10 years, and I consider Kansas City kind of like a second city … much like Lincoln, Omaha or, say, Milwaukee. I really connect and relate to that energy. That made me who I am and gave me a specific perspective to what I do. In a way, coming to places like that, it reminds me of home. I know that’s cheesy, but it’s true. I feel like a lot of people overlook places like that and don’t really value the fact that there’s legit, cool, freaky weirdos hanging out and doing stuff there. It’s crazy too, after touring so much, some of the best memories I have are playing at places like Lincoln. The energy is just different and more shook up. I just connect with that kind of vibe.

RS: One thing I always admired about Ssion was the devotion to Kansas City. How did living in a Midwest city like Kansas City influence your art?  

CC: I think for me in Kansas City, I connected to the community of people that were around who were willing to make something happen. It really was this community where you had to make things happen and do it on your own. Nobody was going to do it for you. I think there’s a real resourcefulness that came about from me living there, that knows how to do something cheap and be resourceful. I hang out with a lot of people that don’t have a clue how to do that kind of stuff.  

RS: Do you think somebody can “make it” or live as an artist in a city like Lincoln?

CC: I think the strength of Ssion during that time period of living in Kansas City was because of YouTube starting … and MySpace and Facebook. I think that allowed us to do something in a city like Kansas City, by not really having any media outlet in a small town but being able to use the internet to create a strong visual presence really helped us. Not in a way that was like “growth”, but in a way that was very natural and exciting and interesting. Just using a tool that a 25 year old had at the time, allowing us to make all of these videos and not really have to think much about it in order for people to see it. I think that had a lot to do with it. I think anything is possible now, even more so now than ever.  

RS: So how did moving to away to a much larger city like Brooklyn help your aesthetic?

CC: Personally, I will say my biggest reason for leaving Kansas City, while I felt like I had a small amazing group of friends, was because it had become aesthetically very incestuous. There wasn’t anything that was super challenging to us anymore, like we had reached our plateau. While I do come back to Kansas City to make my videos, I feel like leaving really helped the art. It helped make the videos better. It made me question what I was doing and made me think way more in depth, because all of a sudden I was surrounded by people who maybe didn’t give a fuck.

RS: Going back to talking about freaky people or people who don’t give a fuck, what constitutes as freak these days?  I mean, I consider you a freak.  

CC: Well, you know, I think it’s all inside. At this point, you really, really can’t judge a book by it’s cover. Everybody has so much access to things to appear weird. Literally the most basic people in the world can go dye their hair now and be weird. So, you can’t judge it by that anymore. Some of the most the basic people you meet might be the freakiest or most intellectual people you’ll know. I know that’s kind of a hippy answer, but there’s nothing now that merits somebody as being a freak. It’s hard to even think about anymore. I mean, I don’t even know. (laughter)

RS: Ssion is known for looking a little freaky.  You’ve had many “looks” throughout the years.  One of your iconic looks is that green leprechaun looking outfit around the time of the Fools Gold album. Do you have any specific meanings to them?

CC: No, especially for me during that time period, it was purely accidental aesthetic based. I didn’t really go in depth in thinking about anything. It was basically about trusting the aesthetic of something. People ask me about the face painting stuff a lot, and the truth is, I wasn’t referencing anything. At the time, I just did things in a careless way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  

photo courtesy of Ssion

RS: Being a subversive artist myself, have you ever experienced any major problems for being “too weird” or being “too gay,” especially in a live performance setting?

CC: Um..yeah, but mostly like when I was younger. I don’t feel like that happens too much anymore. I feel like I’ve gotten to a point where maybe I’m totally aloof to it? I mean, maybe it is happening, but I just don’t notice it. Maybe it’s just me being completely unaware, or maybe I embody that space where I’m just this weirdo that’s beyond that. When I was younger and more flamboyant, there was something about being so excessive in that way, that it was kind of hard for people to have a chance to even take it in. I think I looked at myself more as a clown on stage and if you did have a problem with it, what are you going to do, laugh at it? I don’t care.

RS: I consider what you do and what Ssion stands for is a very punk attitude. Do you think punk still exists today?  

CC: Punk definitely still exists today. I don’t think we can think about punk the way that we maybe thought about it. There’s something with the spirit of punk still existing, in some way. I think what we read about in books, and the aesthetic of mohawks and chains and stuff like that is not what punk is now. There are definitely kids still wearing that stuff, whether it means something to them, I don’t know. I think the spirit of punk is what is important, that’s what really matters. What I took away from punk rock as a kid was not necessarily the idea that it had to look or sound a certain way. It was just a legit freedom to not give a fuck and do exactly what I want.  

RS: After doing this project for some time now and gaining quite a bit of popularity, have you noticed a change in your audiences at all?

CC: Um, sometimes. It varies. I was noticing at my last show in Kansas City, there were obviously a lot of gay, lesbian and queer youth that get down with it, but I think lots of kids these days aren’t interested in the idea of being gay or caring about being gay as something important. The idea of being gay seems so old to them, or the thought of being gay is like, weird to them, you know? Like, they are just this gender fluid being that will sleep with whoever they want to and it really doesn’t matter. Which is kind of amazing really. It’s cool seeing a very gender-fluid scene happening in Kansas City, which seems to be popping up everywhere.  

RS: Unless everybody has been sleeping under a rock, anybody who knows what Ssion is knows about your music videos.  You have definitely made a name for yourself as a music video director, not only for your own videos, but also for directing videos for artists like Robyn, Kylie Minogue, The Gossip, and Perfume Genius.  What was that first real breakthrough moment when you felt like you were onto something big?

CC: I don’t feel like I have ever had that moment to be totally honest. I mean, obviously I was super excited to get to do a video for Robyn, and the circumstances with doing that video were so amazing. She was so awesome and cool and fun to work with, that she was truly amazing. I loved working with her so much. It’s basically every artist’s dream to work with an artist like that. That being said, Perfume Genius was the same way. I feel like I’ve been in the situation where the artist who wants me to make videos for them, know what they are after. They want to collaborate and make something awesome, and they are putting a lot of trust in me. Therefore, when they do that, it’s like I’m going to give them that best I can. I’m really only making videos for people I really admire and like. The whole game of pitching things to some dumb person who just got signed is something I’m not interested in. I don’t want to bust my ass for some lame ass artist and have my name dragged down with their crappy project, just for the sake of making some money. I mean, I still do a lot of indie videos where there’s not a big budget and I want to do it because I believe in the artist and it’s something I’m really excited about. I love the idea of collaborating with like-minded artists and people, making something different and interesting, and to where the primary focus is not about making the artist look “hot” or “sexy.”

RS: Is there any certain artist at the moment you would really like to make a video for?

CC: Well, I fucking love that Frank Ocean album. I listen to it constantly. I love, love, love that album. I love the production on it. I think he is a genius lyricist. I just love that record. Lyrically, he’s such a bad-ass. The music is so cool. I love that it’s so guitar driven and I love how there’s hardly any drums on it. I love the way the album flows. There will be this great song and at the very end, he drops the chorus and the song is over. I mean, it’s just such a cool record. I would love to do something with him. I know that he’s posted some Ssion videos on his Tumblr before, so I know he knows of Ssion. I mean, I would just love to do something with him. I think he is just such a badass. Um, who else? I would love to do a video for Lady Gaga. I really like her new album, no joke. She has full-on gone Coyote Ugly, like Shania Twain style. I mean, what the fuck planet is she on? It is so cool. I mean, it’s headless music. What is going on? She is just unreal.

RS: Speaking of unreal. I saw you perform with Gravy Train in Omaha years ago and I swore you were lipsynching on stage that night. I was floored by how real it looked and how your voice actually sounded, like it seemed unnatural to you but it wasn’t. Do you lipsynch on stage?

CC: (laughter) Um, well this is kind of a pop thing. I never straight up lipsynch, but sometimes on the choruses or whatnot, I will have them backed bigger. Sometimes when I’m performing new songs that I’m still learning, I would keep the vocal real low in the mix, but I’m never not singing. Usually in live performances I always have backing tracks to make the vocals sound bigger and thicker. I mean Robyn does that, even Lady Gaga does that, and you know they are fucking amazing singers!

RS: Even I have backing vocals in my live performances. (laughter)

CC: I mean, anybody that cares about using backing tracks or something like that at a Ssion show, doesn’t really want to be at that show anyway. You know what I mean?  

RS: (laughter) I absolutely loved it. I was blown away by how awesome it looked and I hoped you actually were lipsynching.  

CC: I mean, I do sing over the top!

RS: I’m going to change things up a little and give you 5 words where you give me a word or first reaction to these words … Kylie Minogue.

CC: Lips.

RS: Nebraska.

CC: Black and White (like the movie)…or Bruce Springsteen. Actually, “State Trooper,” from that album.

RS: Grunge.

CC: Blah.

RS: Beth Ditto.

CC: Hilarious.

RS: Madonna.

CC: Sweet

RS: Name your top 5 favorite punk bands.

CC:  X-Ray Spex, Hole, Pussy Galore … (long pause). The Germs, duh. Tyler The Creator. He’s like the only punk out right now.

RS: So, since you are returning to Lincoln once again, what can people expect from you this time?

CC: Well, I’m going to perform a bunch of new songs from the upcoming album and I will play some oldies as well. Looks like I will have a live saxophonist with me, which I’m excited about. There will be a visual presentation of all of the songs. And you know, just me doing me! I’m really excited about it. Lincoln is always a good time!