Friday, 18 October 2013


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."

Friday, 11 October 2013

PRINTED WORDS / Klaus Nomi in Classic Pop

Calling all Klaus Nomi fans.

I know you're out there. 

Please pick up the latest issue of Classic Pop magazine as dear Klaus is the subject of a "Pop Art" feature written by yours truly. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

DIGITAL WORDS / "Michael!" Book Review

Find the original post HERE

‘Michael!’ by Mark Bego
Book review by Kate Allen

The enthusiastically titled ‘Michael!’ is a slim vintage book published back in 1984. It serves as a capsule insight into the time when Michael Jackson was truly, without question, considered a global phenomenon.

Written when Michael was just 25 and the world was reeling from the videos for ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean’, plus his Motown 25 performance, Mark Bego ensures that his narrative conveys the contextual mania of 1984 through lively prose and a generous smattering of exclamation marks – which is slightly grating after a few pages but as you read on the punctuation does become somewhat humorous.

Unfortunately the book both begins and ends by talking about Michael’s burgeoning film career – a venture that, of course, was never to be. It’s a shame Bego gives so much time to talking up Michael’s acting aspirations and potential as he is writing at a time when Michael, musically, could do no wrong. Surely this should have been his focal concern.

Another unfortunate slip-up made by Bego is his story of the early days of the Jackson 5. Someone clearly didn’t check their sources as Bego, amusingly, informs readers of how Diana Ross made her first-hand discovery of the Jackson 5 in their hometown whilst the band performed as part of a benefit for Richard Hatcher in his bid to become Gary, Indiana’s first black mayor:

“When Diana saw Michael and his brothers she flipped, and immediately got Berry Gordy Jr., the president of Motown Records, on the phone to tell him what she had seen. She made arrangements for the Jackson Five to audition for Motown at Berry’s home in Detroit.”

This is all completely fictitious but as all later books on Jackson tell this same tale in order to contrast it with the true series of events that lead the Jackson family to Motown, it is interesting to see how this casting of Diana Ross as fairy godmother to Michael was believed at the time.

A couple of chapters of ‘Michael!’ are dedicated to interviews of varying significance. An unedited transcript of Bego chatting with Julie Klein – who styled Michael for a promotional photo shoot that saw him don a rather fetching yellow sweater vest and matching bowtie – reveals a few pernickety factoids. An interview with John “Jellybean” Benitez on the other hand is a waste of time and paper. So Jellybean, who is most well-known for his relationship with a young Madonna, remixed ‘Say Say Say’ – umm… okay. Anything else? No? This is a chapter to skip.

Overall ‘Michael!’ is a valuable primary source that conveys Jackson’s global popularity during the early ‘80s. There are attempts to add a layer of analysis to the Michael Jackson story as Bego incorporates quotes from J.M. Barry’s ‘Peter Pan’ to provide a better understanding of this untouchable pop music sensation. However, the principal function of this book is fervent propaganda which wants readers to know that Michael Jackson is the be-all and end-all of popular culture. As Mark Bego excitedly concludes:

“It’s very rare that people all around the world agree on much, but in 1983  it was clear that people on the four corners of the Earth unanimously concur that they are all into Michael Jackson.”  

Written for The Michael Jackson World Network

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

DIGITAL WORDS / Drake "Nothing Was The Same" Album Review

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In a post Kanye-West-interview-with-Zane-Lowe world, Drake is looking like an average Joe. He’s a heavyweight big-name, big-bucks star, yet he registers nowhere on the insanity scale of fame. Good for you, Aubrey.

It’s been two years since Drake truly established his widespread appeal with Take Care and, helpfully, this is exactly where Nothing Was The Same picks up from. In a “last time on…” style reminder, Drake lets us know on opener ‘Tuscan Leather’ that he made “20 million” off his last record and he doesn’t plan on changing his winning atmospheric sound or his well-played conflicted sense of character any time soon. Yet it’s not money that Drake sees as his biggest boasting point.

Yes, he may have recently come in at No. 11 on Forbes’ highest-earning hip-hop list, but mainstream success and recognition is what Drake seems to want to show-off and have his contemporaries bow down to. “Degenerates, but even Ellen loves our shit,” Drake quite appropriately points out. He’s right – how many other rappers can comfortably appear on The Ellen DeGeneres Show? And when he semi brags, “I’m just as famous as my mentor” it feels like Drake is displaying that rare beast of modesty in hip-hop as, let’s face it, Drake is making better records and accruing more fans than Lil Wayne right now.

Drake’s growing fame is down to the fact that he is a different calibre of rap star to that of Weezy. Although he has mastered his dichotomy of braggadocio rapper and sensitive singer well, we all prefer the latter mode. Girls love the Drake who says the stuff they want to hear. You know, like liking your hair when it’s wet, noticing that you’ve been eating right, working out and getting an education… Swoon. Again, how many rappers could get away with professing, “Next time we fuck, I don’t wanna fuck, I wanna make love” (‘Own It’) or plainly talking through a deep sense of regret and loss over an ex (‘From Time’)?

More than this, it’s Drake’s ability to get introspective and show off his vulnerability (all the while propped up by a gorgeously minimalist yet sprawling R&B backdrop) that sets him apart and makes his brand of hip hop so prevalently esteemed.

The straight down the line R&B heartthrob is his strongest suit and he should stick to it more often. As showcased on ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’ – aka the best song of the year, no question – he can do insanely catchy hooks and auto-tune-free vocals. And as the accompanying video proves, Drake can and will save you from a hostage situation and put his jacket over your shoulders once his heroic mission has been completed. This is the Drake we want, know and love; if he can curb the seemingly requisite ego trips, Drake could produce an entire album as perfect as ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’.