Taken from IDOL Magazine Issue #6
Photography by Eli Schmidt
I meet Cody Critcheloe at a London hotel, on his day off between European tour dates. He s curled up in a lounge chair dressed in a neon yellow twin set. I can't help but notice he bears a notable resemblance to a young Alice Cooper, but he's so meek and unassuming. It's initially difficult to reconcile him with the outlandish, dissident art collective he's been leading since 1996.
Cody Critcheloe is the head of Ssion (pronounced "shun" - we'll get to the name later). Ssion is a communal art group that produces music, visuals and films of the seemingly contradictory punk pop kind. The energy is raw and DIY. The delivery is accessibly glossy. With revolving cast members, 30-year-old Cody is the one continual presence. "It's a spearheaded collaboration," Cody explains.
However, when asked to define himself and what he does, it's not so easy to pinpoint: "I'm a musician, an artist, a director - all of the above. I guess it depends on what I'm doing at the time." To get a clearer idea of who Cody Critcheloe is, refer to the subversive spirits he lists as his idols: Kathleen Hanna, Courtney Love, Little Richard, Prince, Dead Kennedys. "Anyone who comes along and is fucking shit up and causing some trouble," he says.
While it cannot be denied that Cody has an eye and talent for visuals (he's directed videos for CSS, Santigold and Peaches as well as his own fanciful shorts), Critcheloe admits that music is the beating heart of Ssion. "The music is the vehicle for all of the visual stuff and gives life to Ssion. I love directing, drawing and making videos but those things wouldn't exist or exist in the same way without the music." Ssion's music has evolved over the years. For those who got wise to Ssion via the 2011 LP Bent, Cody's punk background may come as a surprise. Compare and contrast the technicolor alt-disco fest of Ssion's 2010 track and video 'Clown' with 2006's 'World's Worth', which features rough garage guitars, Cody snarling the chorus "you only wanna come" whilst dressed like a cow, thrashing around against a background of barely censored porn snippets.
As many mutations as Ssion's music may undergo, one thing will remain unchanged: the baffling but brave band name. "Ssion is such a good name," Cody says, smiling. "I love the way it looks. The name has been the one thing that's constant. And considering how much my opinion changes on things! But I will always love that name." He admits to some "ridiculous" band monikers in his high school days, such as a punk trio called The Khaos Kittens, but Ssion is the perfect stylishly perplexing name for the artistic statements that Critcheloe makes.
Ssion made their musical debut back in 1999 with a self-released cassette called Fucked Into Oblivion. The aforementioned Bent album earned Ssion some long overdue attention. It must have felt like a significant step forward, right?
"I didn't see it as a breakthrough," says Cody, "because everything's so slow. It's more about being successful over time. I don't see it as necessarily a bad thing. I mean, you don't want to peak when you're 23." Bent is an underground gem of a pop record and the most accessible of Ssion's back catalogue, which was Cody's unashamed goal: "I wanted to make the most pop record I could." The title too was a perfect fit: "I was like, 'Oh, it sounds like a Pet Shop Boys album.' I liked the negative connotations of it too. It's a good pop title - it's easy and direct."
Bent was another self-release for Ssion. As Cody frankly states, "There was no one who was interested in putting it out. There was no label. It was a very do-it-yourself operation." So with a lack of traditional outlets, the decision was made to give the album away for free online: "It reached a lot of people. There was an insane amount of downloads within the first week." This release method for Bent was a DIY move that recalled the ethics of Cody's punk background. Speaking of which...
Where did Ssion's visionary frontman come from anyway? Was he hatched from a disco ball incubated by Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol?
"I'm from Kentucky originally," Cody relays. It was a secluded, small-town upbringing. It was the isolation of his hometown that allowed Critcheloe to discover and nurture his creativity. "It just pushed me further in that you have to make do with what you have. It was really good because you don't get jaded by things so you stay excited and remain idealistic." Cody made a move to Kansas City, and that's where Ssion was first formed. "It's a cool city. It's really small but has a lot of very proactive art communities."
Although Cody lives in New York, KC will always have the edge over NYC for him: "I still do a lot of my work back in Kansas City because it's a lot cheaper, and I just love the way it looks. It's a way weirder environment and is so much cooler than New York." Ssion is sometimes referred to as a New York outfit, yet Cody says his work isn't about New York. "I do not come from New York, and we're not a New York band."
But the city did provide a significant performance platform. Ssion played a three-night stint at the Museum of Modern Art PS1. Cody had the opportunity to stage the kind of pop-punk spectacle he had only fantasised about.
"It was the first time I've ever had that type of budget to do the kind of show I've always wanted to do. We spent two months putting the show together in Kansas. It was really awesome and well received. I would love to travel a show like that. That is my dream." Ssion's headline European tour, 10th to 30th June 2012, couldn't be more removed from their large-scale installation and performance piece at PS1: "The show we're touring now feels rooted in punk rock. It's been one of the best tours we've ever been on."
In fact, touring is a part of the job Cody really loves. Talking about life on the road, he declares, "I love it. I'm actually more apprehensive about when we get off the tour! Even when touring sucks and it's a nightmare, I would still rather being doing it."
After the tour, Cody isn't planning on taking a break. "We will definitely be doing another record but right now it's all about figuring out what direction I want to push that in."
In terms of film projects Cody has big plans: "I would like to do something more along the lines of a short film. I like the idea of it having specifically a soundtrack, as it means I could move away from writing pop songs in the traditional way and have a bit more freedom to experiment - and have more fun with the format."
As I sit listening to Cody running through all these ideas, he continues to develop them during our conversation. "I don't necessarily want to make a musical-type movie," he continues, "I would prefer it to be more about acting and to have dialogue. I just don't want it to be like a bunch of show tunes!" Anything else? "There's some photography and art-related projects I'm interested in." As we're wrapping up, I remember that this was supposed to be his day off. "I have down time - but I don't do very well with it."