Usually when you hear something described as “pop performance art”, you think “mediocre music that hinges heavily on a visual element”, but such is not the case with SSION, the multimedia project that Cody Critcheloe has been masterminding for over a decade now.
In fact, SSION’s latest album Bent not only holds up on its own; I’d say it’s the best damn dance-pop album of the year, for two years in a row. How’s that? After self-releasing it as a free download in summer 2010, it got picked up for a CD/LP re-release this fall, bolstered with new tracks as well as remixes from the likes of Physical Therapy and Nightfeelings (AKA Nick Weiss from Teengirl Fantasy). But even amidst the aural bliss, you shan’t forget to suck on his eye candy—for the world is Cody’s coloring book, and he colors outside the lines…with highlighters, and eye shadow, and bits of wrapping paper, and sprinkles. Following his recent massive US tour, he and I had a chat about videos, grrrls, parties and other heavy themes.
So far you’ve released three amazing videos from your latest record (“My Love Grows in the Dark”, “Earthquake” and “Psy-Chic”) that made the internet’s nipples go hard. With the previous album, each song had a video, and they were strung together for a kind of feature-length story. Can we be hopeful for something similar now with Bent?
Probably. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. So far, the videos are making sense together, and that’s intentional. There is a story, but honestly I’m not sure what the outcome should be at this point. Depends on what feels right. I will know when I get there.
You know about the play and film Bent, right? About the Nazi persecution of gays, with Ian McKellan?
Yeah, but I’ve never seen it.
Nor I, but I figured you would have. Anyway, I love your whole album, but the opener “Listen to the Grrrls” particularly struck me because it infuses a touch of radical politics into Kyliesque dance-pop. In Berlin I’m frustrated because it seems like most of the gay men live in a big leather bubble of privilege, blinded by their overgrown beards. To what extent is New York’s party scene, or scenes, politically queer?
I’m not sure. I don’t really go out a lot in New York. I like to walk around a lot during the day, but that’s about it. Every now and then I go to a party, but I usually leave after twenty minutes.
Do you expect something from a party experience and then leave unfulfilled? Or are such social gatherings simply not what you’re into in general?
I guess for me, I just like smaller social gatherings most of the time. It seems like the conversation is better. Maybe this sounds really bougie, but I love dinner parties. Every now and then it’s nice to go to some big party and get completely smashed, but most of the time I’m really chill. I think being able to perform, go on tour and create as a living fulfills that side of me. I think if I couldn’t tour or make videos I would probably spend more time at the club trying to draw attention to myself—by the way, that’s not a diss to party people.
My buddy Alexander Geist says you moved into his old room. Did he leave behind any notable odors or auras?
Not that I know of. We painted the room pink.
Which grrrls in NYC are you listening to right now? And I don’t necessarily mean music.
Hmm, well, I’m really inspired by my friends who do Chez Deep. It’s like a drag performance troupe. Maybe that’s the wrong way to describe it. I also spend a lot of time talking over ideas with Raul de Nieves, and I talk a lot on the phone with my close-friends outside of NYC. And I talk the most with myself. I’m listening to myself more than anyone.
For those of us outside the USA, can you fill us in on what we missed with your tour?
It was awesome. It was a full band playing the songs live. No props or videos. It was liberating, and it felt great to be able to strip it down and still have people respond so positively. I hate the idea of people only going to a SSION show because of the costumes, props, videos, et cetera. I wanted people to focus on the music and me as a performer. It felt right, and it translated well. I was happy.
I’d love to hear stripped down versions of your songs. Any chance for a Euro tour? Or did you take some decent live footage while on tour?
I don’t know if it sounds totally stripped down – It’s more like the performance vibe, or what a lot of people expect from a SSION show has been mutated into something more direct. I’m sure we will tour Europe in 2013; I just don’t know when.
The support act for this tour was House of LaDosha. Was that your choice? Is it a lot of work to cart an entire house across the country?
I love House of LaDosha. It was just Dosha Devastation and Cunty Crawford on this tour. From what I know their house is full, but it’s really only the two of them as live performers: Dosha the raptress and Cunty the MC.
What’s the difference between a raptress and an MC? Or do you mean a female raptor?
OK, I guess that’s the wrong way to describe Dosha and Cunty. I guess Cunty is more of a hype woman maybe? I’m not totally sure. I would never describe Dosha as a raptor. She’s more like a very beautiful lion, and sometimes if you’re really lucky, late at night she turns into a kitty that you can pet. I miss them so much now that the tour is over.
For the official CD and LP release of Bent, your label Dovecote had you make some adjustments to your pop culture-referencing songs because of intellectual copyright blah blah. How does that leave you feeling? Is it a compromise?
At first I was bummed, but then I woke up the next day and didn’t really care. The original versions still exist and are easy to find. Also, I’m staying true to those versions for the videos, so it’s not a big deal to me.
Outside of SSION, you’ve directed music videos for The Gossip, Peaches, Santigold and MNDR. Whose music these days inspires moving pictures inside your head?
Right now, Neil Young, and my own music: present and future.
As well as writing, Joey Hansom also crafts music under various guises. Download his exclusive remix of SSION’s “Nothing Happens At Nite” below!
At the tail end of their first European tour, which included three Berlin dates, I met up with NYC producer Daniel Fisher AKA Physical Therapy and his pal, the genderfucking shock-hopper Mykki Blanco, as they finished a thrift store expedition. While Mykki firmed up plans to shoot with Wolfgang Tilmanns, Daniel and I headed to a Neukölln diner where I prodded the recently-retired chandelier installer on his burgeoning music career. I admired his finely formed, naturally butch eyebrows while breathing through my mouth to avoid catching wafts of his stinky kofte sandwich, gaining insight on his various endeavors: solo productions, collaborations (both real and fantasized), re-edits and DJing.
You played at Prince Charles for Renaissance Man’s Import/Export series, Festsaal Kreuzberg for Club Transmediale, and Südblock’s Creamcake party. Those are three quite different audiences. How did you find their different reactions?
The reactions were really good in all of them. Prince Charles was the most “club” oriented of all of them, and that’s the kind of place I like to play at, having started out as a club DJ. Festsaal was also really good, but that was more of a “show” venue, so there was less dancing.
Yeah, Club Transmediale is known for more of an academic crowd. And Creamcake, the queer party?
Well, I didn’t play ’til really late at Creamcake. It seemed, honestly, like there was a lot of overlap from all three, with people who were there to see Mykki, and they all had pretty passionate reactions.
How about Berlin as a whole? And not necessarily only in regards to your own gigs, but going out on your own time. How does the clubbing lifestyle compare to back home in New York?
There’s absolutely no comparison! I went to see my friends Total Freedom, E+E and Why Be at a tiny little place, not known as a cool bar, but literally cooler than any place in New York. But in Berlin it’s the shittiest little bar. New York has obviously been a club city, but right now, it is not. There’s not one good venue. All my friends who throw parties are always desperately looking for a new place. Over the last couple years we’ve started doing warehouse parties, but the police presence in New York is so heavy that it’s impossible to do that in any long-term way.
So you think there might be demand for parties, but there’s so much legal stuff to deal with?
I don’t know exactly what it is. There was a while when there were a lot of cool parties happening, but I think a lot of those people spent time in the studio producing music, and now a lot of that music is coming out, and maybe the focus is less on trying to throw good parties. I know for me it got to be too much work. But I definitely think it’s a lack of venues. There is interest, but no one can seem to pull it off right now.
I’ve told some Berliners and Germans about New York’s cabaret license, and they don’t even believe me that venues have to pay extra money to allow people to dance! So, you have both solo material and production work for other performers, like Mykki Blanco whom you just toured with. Does the creative process differ in these different cases?
There isn’t really any production work for Mykki Blanco. Just one track on her upcoming mixtape. Mykki has been my best friend for six or seven years. That’s really our connection.
But you’re not necessarily planning to work with any other vocalists?
No, I do like working with other vocalists, like, I worked with Jamie Krasner on my EP. But I’m a really, really slow producer. It takes me forever to make each track! So I can’t just give them away.
Understandable. You’ve also done remixes for SSION, MNDR and Pictureplane, which I assume were all based on a direct connection to the artist. But then you also did the unofficial one for Alicia Keys that got a strong positive reaction online. Which “big name” artist would make you swoon if they approached you for a legit remix or production work?
Nice pick. So, you just released your first solo EP, and Mykki’s about to drop her mixtape which has a track you produced. Do you know what’s next on your agenda?
I’ll have a white label hopefully coming out this fall, with a couple of edits: “Music Sounds Better with You” by Stardust, and “Controversy” by Prince. But don’t tell Prince that!
I already have three unofficial re-edits of “Controversy”, but that’s one of my all-time favorite tracks, so I’ll be happy to hear a new version.
I like that song, but only the part where it goes, “Do not believe in god…”, so I just took those two bars and looped them for the whole track. It’s hypnotic.
Are you putting the white label out yourself?
No, with No Relation, which is an UNO sub-label. Then, I have another release with Hippos in Tanks slated for next year, which I’m in the production stages of, which will hopefully be a full-length with lots more vocalists, a more ambitious project.
We’ve been following MNDR‘s career ever since we saw her playing a basement show at Brooklyn’s Silent Barn. She’s certainly come a long way; now she’s premiering videos on Spin and working with professional weirdos like EB favorite Cody Critcheloe of SSION. Her latest single is a slice of catchy, sexy electro called ‘#1 In Heaven’, conceived as a tribute to Patty Hearst and directed by Critcheloe in a classic ‘Saved By The Bell’ opening format. That’s pop music you can get behind. ‘#1 In Heaven’ is out now on Ultra Records.
A true treat for all those fans that have insatiable appetite for new music. UK based label Something in Construction have put together a free online album available for download via The Guardian’s news website.
The compilation features the hotly tipped up and comer MNDR, a remix of Bloc Party lead singer Kele’s ‘On The Lam’ track, the Gay Blades and much more. It was put together in order to celebrate 100 releases of the label, their adage being "a building space just outside the mainstream, where melody rules, artifice is its own reward, escapism is encouraged, and where POP MUSIC can be whatever it wants to be."
Other names you might be aware of making an appearance include the endearing folk artist Loney Dear, Memory Tapes and Super Furry’s very own Gruff Rhys. Something in Construction is something of a new label on the circuit housing Swedish pop luminaries The Concretes and Air France plus The Silent League and a few more.
Here is a stream of the excellent compilation:
If you want to download the whole album go here. Get in there quick before it get’s taken down.