"I don't really feel like [a rock star]," observes Chuck Cleaver, singer, guitarist and chief songwriter for Cincinnati, Ohio's Ass Ponys. "With my physique, rock stardom doesn't really come into the picture--unless maybe the Atlanta Rhythm Section look is getting big again."
Indeed, Cleaver hardly possesses the alterna-hunk good looks of, say, Evan Dando: His neatly cropped coif and husky, barrel-chested build leave him looking more like a beer-swilling motorcycle mechanic than a sensitive musician. In fact, many would go so far as to describe the thirtyish guitarist as, well, normal-looking.
Check out Electric Rock Music, the Ass Ponys' new disc on A&M records, however, and you'll find that Cleaver and his fellow Ponys (bassist Randy Cheek, guitarist John Erhardt and drummer Dave Morrison) are anything but average, musically or otherwise. The record's thirteen songs overflow with oddball characters trapped in entertainingly surreal situations. "Lil' Bastard," Electric's first single, is a prime example--a vignette of a "fish-belly white" boy who dreams of being a "pirate on a sea of snakes." Equally strange is "Place Out There," the group's peculiar tribute to the paranormal. "They say that she burst into flames/Late one afternoon/They say that what was left of her/Could fit into a spoon," sings Cleaver in a voice that sounds suspiciously like that of another well-known Ohio performer, Pere Ubu's David Thomas. By song's end, you're left to wonder if everyone in the seemingly benign Buckeye State might not be a little touched.
Cleaver hurries to squash such speculation. "I think it's more in the way I observe [people in Ohio] than anything else," he notes. "The people there are pretty standard, chew-tobacco, work-at-the-feedmill types. I just happen to be the town weirdo.
"I was always considered kind of an eccentric," he goes on. "The people who live [there] haven't, until very, very recently, known anything about me, really. They used to see me coming in at odd hours, and they'd be thinking, `He must sell drugs' or `He must be a chicken runner' or whatever. I grew up in a fairly repressed place."
Cleaver's rural upbringing manifests itself in the Ponys' music, which--despite its offbeat leanings--sports an unmistakably country edge. As a result, the band's unconventional, highly infectious pop tarts are often compared to those of acts as diverse as the Meat Puppets and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Appropriately, Cleaver boasts a wide range of contemporary influences, including Uncle Tupelo, Captain Beefheart and the American Music Club. But he says he's also impressed by the works of some of rock's more traditional songwriters. "I don't listen to as much new stuff as I should, being an `alternative' musician--or whatever I'm supposed to be," he admits. "I've always really admired John Prine's writing. I've always liked Tom Waits, too. As for my vocal inspirations, I'd say there's a little Neil Young in there. And maybe the guys from the Band, like Richard Manuel or Rick Danko.
"That is, if I've even got any vocal inspirations," he adds, laughing. "I'm actually a singer by default. It's whatever comes out of my mouth. I mean, I could sound like Meat Loaf on a given day, for all I know."
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If Cleaver isn't able to pinpoint his personal style, the band's fans don't seem to mind. "Lil' Bastard" is a mainstay on alternative-radio playlists, as is "Earth to Grandma," Electric's second single. The singer is also earning a reputation as a budding fiction writer. Thus far, he's penned stories for the College Music Journal and Details--accomplishments he dismisses with becoming modesty. "Once they find out you can write, for some reason they just want you to keep on doing it," he claims. "I'm not much of a linear writer, though. I've always been more concerned with lyrics and the way words move, so it's kind of weird to write in a story fashion. Plus, I never write anything down. I always keep it in my head. My stories tend to be pretty short."
That's fortunate, since the Ass Ponys' schedule is especially hectic right now. The group has just put the finishing touches on a new album they hope to issue later this year (it will be their fourth, counting Mr. Superlove and Grim, two releases available on the Safehouse imprint that were made prior to the A&M deal). In the interim, Cleaver says, the Ponys plan to work at polishing their live performances, which lately have been on the erratic side. "We haven't officially been a live band until very recently," he offers by way of explanation, "so we can be very on and off. But we're learning, and it's getting a lot better.
"Personally, I have a hard time looking at people when I'm playing," the anti-star continues. "If I make eye contact with anyone, I always screw up somehow. It's weird. I always used to have really long hair, and it was always in my face, so I never really noticed it before. As soon as I got my hair cut, it was like, `Oh, no!' It totally freaked me out."
Throwing Muses, with Ass Ponys. 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 31, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $12.60, 447-0095 or 830-