Ass Ponys
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Ass Ponys

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The best kept secret in music


"Real Life Rock Top 10 by Greil Marcus ("

Real Life Rock Top 10

By Greil Marcus
- - - - - - - - - -

May 01, 2001 | 1) Ass Ponys, "Kung Fu Reference," on "Lohio" (Checkered Past)

The voice is pained and passionate, the voice of a fan of the TV series who, the melody convinces you, wants more than anything in this world for the show to mean as much to you as it does to him. Why? Because, you find out in a verse you'd rather not have understood, this man has nothing in his life but a choice between "RoboCop" and "The Bride of Frankenstein" -- whatever's on tonight. The chorus seals the song: "If you ever gave a damn for Sonny Jim/I know you will -- remember him." It's in the rise and fall, the shining light that, for some reason, 26 years after the show went off the air, isn't out, even if like me you never watched it, or heard of Sonny Jim. A heroic guitar solo seems to carry its own double inside itself; it's uncanny, and like all great guitar solos: not an interlude, but the story translated, elevated, pushed out in front of itself like a life the singer will never live.


" Review of Some Stupid - Kevin Berger"

Sharps & Flats

Despite the silly name, the Ass Ponys whip up a smart literary conceit to accompany the most gripping country-rock you've ever heard.

By Kevin Berger
- - - - - - - - - -

July 06, 2000 | When last we heard from the Ass Ponys, joyfully deranged singer Chuck Cleaver was living inside the head of Hazel Motes, confessing, as blithely as you please, "I only kill because God tells me to."

Actually, I don't know if the Cincinnati songwriter had Southern writer Flannery O'Connor's cursed preacher on his mind or not. But I can tell you Cleaver inhabits the pained and yearning lives of his dirt-farmer characters so completely and warmly that the gothic soul of the South doesn't seem like a literary conceit but the natural landscape of the most gripping country-rock you've ever heard.

Which brings us, five years later, to the Ass Ponys' fifth album, the radiant "Some Stupid With a Flare Gun" (a line from stoner classic "Smoke on the Water"). Songs about a lonely spinster who imagines collecting the bones of a dead astronaut have never sounded better. Nor have ones about a geek who calls Scatman Crothers his brother because he too has a third nipple. Sings he: "I'm so fascinated by these special people."

The Ass Ponys can play, really play, like the Flying Burrito Brothers. No, wait, they rock much harder and dirtier. And swing like the Lost Planet Airmen. The songs don't stew in dank bars but pick up speed and fly into the sun. Cleaver has a bizarrely high and querulous voice revealing that a truly mordant view of the world is not a pose but a richness of spirit. And lead guitarist Bill Alletzhauser sears your heart like bluesman Peter Green. The Ponys write melodies that pine after the moon, that lift Cleaver's suicidal characters out of despair and fill their heads with stars.

And listeners' too. Can I tell a story? I'm listening to "Caspar's Coming Home" from "Some Stupid With a Flare Gun" in my Discman, walking to work, stressed out of my mind; girl trouble. Wistfully, Cleaver starts singing:

This is sadness
And here's what you can do with it
Leave it in the dumpster
For the garbage man to find

In a flash, I feel weightless, as if I could float above the high-rises. But, in fact, the sadness the singer is talking about is not the emotional state: It's a discarded fetus. He assures the fetus' ghost it's all right to come home, he can face the ghost alone. Who knows what Cleaver is talking about? Only he can write such a weirdly touching song. And "Some Stupid With a Flare Gun" is full of them. It's rock 'n' roll with a heart so big that you want to cry.

About the writer
Kevin Berger is executive editor of San Francisco magazine. -

"Rolling Stone review of Lohio"

Ass Ponys: Lohio
Originally released: 2001
Checkered Past Records

3.5 stars

This raggedy cincinnati four - piece crafted a distinctive sound in the early Nineties - a rootsy jangle battered by mild dissonance and some artfully flubbed notes. But by 1996, with two brilliant A&M discs having stiffed, the Ponys disappeared into the cutout bin of history. Last year, however, an unexpected reunion introduced new guitarist Bill Alletzhauser, who tied together their album Some Stupid With a Flare Gun with thickly cabled power chords. On Lohio, singer Chuck Cleaver's teetering falsetto has aged into a surprisingly sturdy warble, reminiscent of the Band's Richard Manuel, while never allowing his fascination with the natural world to get in the way of a good joke. On "Last Night It Snowed," he muses upon a row of "powdered sugar cedars," observing, "They look good enough to eat, but I don't think I would/I can't imagine that they'd taste too good." Drummer Dave Morrison knows his Band records, too (his playing can recall Levon Helm's stagger), but it's his explosive rolls, suggesting Keith Moon at his most scattershot, that propel the Ass Ponys into heavier realms than ever before. - Rolling Stone

"Spin Review of Some Stupid - Robert Christgau"

Some Stupid With a Flare Gun
Checkered Past
by Robert Christgau
Score: 8 (out of 10)

The Ass Ponys should have disappeared by now. The Ohio four-piece lucked into A&M backing for their third and best album, 1994's Electric Rock Music, produced real cheap by a buddy from the Afghan Whigs. But the label sat on 1996's The Known Universe until it suffocated, which with alternative becoming a bad word would have happened eventually anyway. And though they're songful and down-to-earth enough for a roots-rock niche, Chuck Cleaver of the hometown-gothic lyrics and homely-gremlin falsetto is pushing 40. Bye bye bye. Only here comes the absurdly entitled Some Stupid With a Flare Gun, produced real cheap by a buddy from Nashville and out on an alt-country indie, and suddenly Electric Rock Music is no longer their best album. The tunes are stronger, the beat too, and young guitarist Bill Alletzhauser is all grown up. In memory of some fellow forgotten alt-rockers, there's even a rousing instrumental fanfare-as-interlude called "Love Tractor." Remember them?

But Ass Ponys fans are in it for the songs--and the singer, which is a big reason there aren't many Ass Ponys fans. Neil Young is adduced in defense of Cleaver's high Midwestern whine, but Young sings pretty. Cleaver is love-him-or-leave-him expressive, locked into the vivid local colors of his lyrics--pained, tender, sardonic, fallible. Here he leads with two tales of lost women--one hanging in the barn, the other in love with a dead astronaut she never met--as acute and forlorn as anything in his book, and goes on to a dirt farmer's wife and a fetus's ghost and a guy who's very proud of his third nipple.

As with so many potential disappearing acts, it's clearly the words that keep Cleaver at it. He's literary, but with a difference, because he doesn't want to write short stories about these suffering fools. He prefers to grant them a reality that testifies physically to the weird spunk and rough shapeliness of lives that aren't altogether imprisoned by the illusions they're prey to. He wants to make them into rock and roll. Nothing else will do.

Spin, June, 2000
- Spin Magazine

"The Life and Death and Life of the Ass Ponys"

The Life and Death and Life of the Ass Ponys

A tale of how one local band experienced the glory and disappointment of a major record deal, only to eventually rediscover their love for music
By David Simutis

Man, oh man, were we stupid. It's almost funny now to think how naive everyone was about the way the world works. Grunge and the Lollapalooza mania of the Alternative Rock nation couldn't change things any more than boy bands can now.

Sure, 1991 was "the Year that Punk Broke," to borrow a phrase from Sonic Youth, when Nirvana made the masses forget about Michael Jackson. In the fall of 1993, The Afghan Whigs -- the only local Alt Rock band to ever sell any decent amount of CDs -- released Gentlemen, and the phrase "the Next Seattle" was thrown around Cincinnati as if it actually meant something. If Spin could anoint us as such, why not?

Yes, there were some really great things going on, both locally and on a wider scale, but no more or any less than at any other time. The difference was that people actually thought there was a chance they could make a living from their music.

To a lesser extent, it was the dot-com, IPO-frenzy of the Rock world. Some local musicians actually thought they could be Rock stars -- while some just acted like they already were.

Labels sent A&R people to places like Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chapel Hill like a thousand points of light. Their orders were to sign any group that had any bit of credibility and perhaps some songs. Bands known in Cincinnati for having a bit of a draw got to make records on the dime of companies from the West and East coasts.

And then there were The Ass Ponys. It seems inexplicable in the current context, but in 1994 it made perfect sense that they got themselves a major league contract with A&M. They were sort of the elder statesmen of the local Rock scene, friends with the Whigs and had already put out a pair of long players on their own. Plus they had some kick-ass songs.

Dave Morrison, the Ponys' drummer/keyboardist, thinks the attention paid to Cincinnati's insular music scene was bad in the long run for its overall health.

"I feel like the horses were picked for the race and then everybody just watched them," he says. "It was Afghan Whigs, Over The Rhine, Ass Ponys, Throneberry and, I guess, Brainiac. But it had so little to do with who was good. ... I think that kind of validation from a label was currency in a way and exciting for people. Instead of just saying, 'I love the way those guys sound'' (it was) 'Hey, they're getting courted by these kinds of labels, they have to be good.'

"In a way it was good for Cincinnati, because everybody got excited about the music scene and felt like it was worth something. I guess the thing that pisses me off is somebody has to come in from Los Angeles or New York for people to find out that it's worth something."

But here's the truth: A label will spend several hundred thousand dollars recording, marketing and promoting a new act, and only one in 10 make a profit for the label. As surely as the record industry is cyclical and people forget about Tripping Daisy, Dink and Sponge, The Ass Ponys never became big stars. The Whigs had label problems with Electra, Throneberry had label problems with large-ish indie Alias and Lazy (who were on Roadrunner) broke up.

But unlike most of Cincinnati's Alternative scene, The Ass Ponys refused to die, even when it was expected of them. They came close to the brass ring, but as bewildered as the experience left them, they're still doing what they were before the multinational superconglomerates came calling with their open checkbooks.

In fact, they're doing it better.

I Could Rule the World If ...
The group's fifth record -- and first since being given their walking papers from A&M four years ago -- is Some Stupid With a Flare Gun, released on April 11. It sounds pretty much like the same band that had some success with "Little Bastard" on radio in 1995, with tweaked stories and countrified riffs.

And it's no worse a record for being on a label out of Chicago (Checkered Past) that has two employees. In fact, the album that was to become The Ass Ponys' major label debut, Electric Rock Music, was essentially recorded the same way as the newest -- on a shoestring budget with a small audience in mind. The important meaning to the group's longevity and resilience is that they didn't go looking for a record deal.

The band got its start at the end of the 1980s, playing their first show in January 1989 and releasing their first record, Mr. Superlove, on a friend's label from Columbus called Okra. The album was recorded at the first incarnation of Ultrasuede Studios, owned by the Whigs' John Curley. A decade later, people still yell requests for "(We All Love) Peanut Butter" from that record. (The band did a split 7-inch with The Afghan Whigs, covering one another's tunes in 1994, and the Whigs chose Superlove's title track.)

In 1992, the band released album No. 2, Grim. During the recording of that record, original drummer Dan Kleingers was replaced by Morrison. Both albums formed the blueprints for the band's sound: Alternative Country/Roots Rock with Chuck Cleaver's lyrical narrative approaching a rural Gothic/Faulkner feel, his high-pitched voice delivering tales of murder with a ball peen hammer, burning barns, fat poets and industrial accidents. It's deceptively simple music matched with engrossing stories.

Things were picking up for the band (which also included bassist Randy Cheek and guitarist John Erhardt) in early '94, regionally at least, as they recorded what became Electric Rock Music. They spent their own money, reportedly $2,000, on studio time with Curley again behind the boards. The plan was to release the record themselves and to not expect very much.

"We did, like, three songs in one (recording) session and the rest of them in another session," Morrison says. "Mark Keefe from WVXU, he was frustrated with us for not ever promoting ourselves and he sent it to a guy he knew at A&M. And he was basically out here two weeks later. We were all working day jobs and hadn't banked on this kind of thing happening, and it definitely took some talking to get us to do it.

"We'd just say, 'What the fuck do you want with us?' We kept goofing around, and they loved it and they loved the record. It was just surreal."

Out of nowhere, The Ass Ponys had a deal. A&M released the record in the fall of 1994, and soon "Little Bastard" became a small-time hit. The Cincinnati Enquirer had trouble with the band's name -- once actually calling them the "Burro Ponys" -- and some radio stations disliked both the band's moniker and the song's title.

Still, they were on MTV a few times and had a rising profile. Too high of a profile perhaps, as A&M started thinking they had a big-time hit on their hands. But commercial radio proved too tough a sell.

A true story to illustrate the band's personality: Around this time, Cheek goes into a local used record store with a grocery bag full of A&M CDs he's selling and tells the clerk he "feels kind of bad" selling the work of his peers. Clearly not the sharklike, me-first instincts needed to conquer the record industry.

The Ponys' limited success was a surprise, because the band was sort of dragged into it without much forethought. And since most of their business dealings had been with friends, they didn't have a reason not to be trusting.

Still, this was what most bands dream of -- but not these guys.

"When we got signed to A&M, we kept thinking they were going to find out that they made a mistake," Morrison says. "They totally courted us. We felt like, 'Do you guys realize what you're doing? We don't fit.' That didn't really change. They thought we were going to be the next Weezer."

"We were the next Weezer because of asthma," Cleaver says, laughing.

Sure enough, it slowly started going downhill.

What the Hell Is That?
Erhardt quit after The Ass Ponys returned home from a tour opening for the Throwing Muses. Enter Bill Alletzhauser. The band then headed to the studio to record The Known Universe.

A&M was in the process of getting leaner and trying to show a profit because the label was for sale (not because of Cheek's CD sales). There were also showing signs of losing confidence in the band.

Electric Rock Music had sold only 30,000 copies or so, more than originally expected, perhaps, but still not a big moneymaker. The follow-up record wasn't a big priority. Add in the fact that The Known Universe was somewhat of a downer record, and miniscule sales were sure to follow.

It didn't deserve, however, to sell a little more than a quarter as many as its predecessor.

"Basically, we were getting a lot of pressure from the label to prove ourselves," Morrison recalls. "They seemed to think we weren't going to recover from losing a member. And they seemed to have lost a lot of interest.

"We put out (The Known Universe) and they worked it for all of about three weeks. We took that incredibly personally, because when we signed to the label we explained to them, 'Look, we're a slow burn band -- we're not mass appeal.' They assured us that they understood that and were interested in building a roster of boutique bands and felt we were a band that would add credibility to their roster."

As would be the case for 95 percent of Alternative acts signed to the big boys, this pitch turned out not to be true. A&M was no longer interested in artist development -- it needed to show black ink to prospective buyers.

"The writing was on the wall when we went to make the third record," Morrison says. "They were really going to step up to the plate with us or drop us. And it looked like they were going to step up right until the end. We were pretty happy with our demos because we had gelled the band back into something. We sent the demos before Christmas of 1996, and by the beginning of '97 they were really excited. A month and a half later we got dropped.

"We took it fairly personally, but it wasn't so hard to believe. We lasted pretty long, all things considered. They were trying to make themselves look nice for a takeover. In the process, they couldn't spend money."

The band understandably stumbled for a while. Even though they'd never made any real concessions to the machine, they couldn't help feeling that somehow they had failed.

"We all went through our shitty period, to some greater or lesser extent," Cleaver says. "I considered it being 'fired' and that bothered me a lot."

It might have been a business decision for the label, but bands have only one career. This was The Ass Ponys, and they'd had great reviews in Spin, Rolling Stone, Village Voice and The New York Times. Certainly another wiser label would pick them up, dust them off and send them back into the heartland.

Au contraire. Alternative Rock bands were being let go faster than you could say "self-inflicted gunshot to the head." Lollapalooza had sputtered. Over The Rhine left I.R.S. Records, the Whigs feuded with their label and Throneberry couldn't generate support from their record company.

No Dope, No Cigarettes, No Record Deal
Grunge had run its course. The lights were going out on the "revolution." And our heroes, The Ass Ponys, had forgotten why they were in a band in the first place.

Despite protests to the contrary, the machine had, in fact, colored what they were doing. Instead of the music being the reason for the record deal, the record deal had become the motivation for the band.

"We were really stranded when we got dropped," Morrison says. "It was like, 'Well, who the hell do you call?' It was and continues to be a bad time for finding any kind of deal, especially if you're a band like us. It was hard to set goals. It just seemed like all the next steps weren't going to happen. It was really hard to get momentum going again.

"We're going to make the music we want to make. Not that we've ever done anything differently, but it was a lot more difficult for a little while there because we did worry what other people would think."

There was some hope a little more than a year ago after the merger between Universal and Polygram was finalized -- decreasing the total of big record companies to five -- that indie labels would rise back to a level of prominence by cherry-picking free-agent bands and filling a niche while making money selling a few thousand records. That really hasn't been the case, but some of the bands that survived their stints in the majors have landed in the indie world. The Poster Children, XTC and now The Ass Ponys have done pretty well for themselves.

"By our very nature, we felt that we'd been duped and that we were too trusting," Morrison explains. "We were far too trusting in terms of believing that that kind of altruism actually existed, that people did it because they loved the music. I think we've really pissed some people off locally because we didn't play the part.

"We never played the part, and when it all went away we didn't try to prove to people that it didn't go away or that we were still viable. We landed on our bellies, and it took us a while to get on our feet. You expect to put out another record. You believe the press you read about yourself and you think, 'Somebody will want to put out another record by us. Look at how many four star reviews we got.' Like that means something."

"It was pretty frustrating," Cheek says. "I don't know. We've never really had a career plan. We've always just said we'd do it until it sucked. It's hard to be careerists when you call yourselves The Ass Ponys."

There was the feeling that they were damaged goods. Most bands at this point break up, change their name, their sound, their members. The Ass Ponys, true to their nature, just kept meeting once or twice a week at their rehearsal space to play their songs. What else were they going to do?

Big Rock Ending
Here comes the happy ending.

Brad Jones, one of the people on the list of potential producers of the band's third A&M record, called Cleaver out of the blue and offered to record them for whatever the band could pay him. So the guys trooped down to Nashville and recorded their songs, just like it was 1990 or something.

Some Stupid With a Flare Gun sounds like nothing but The Ass Ponys. Some of the Country elements have been smoothed out and Alletzhauser seems more fully integrated into the sound, but there still are songs of twisted endings and unrealized dreams.

"Bad Part," with its semi-psychotic, delusional characters, would be right at home on Grim. There are more uptempo numbers than Known Universe, like "X-tra Nipple" and the instrumental "Love Tractor." But clearly it's neither a definitive statement nor a sign that the band's glory is behind them.

They're simply doing what they do. It's all they know.

The label that's releasing Flare Gun, Checkered Past, is well respected in the Americana/Roots music world, with bands like The Silos, The Flat Irons and Souled American on its roster. It's clearly a better match for the Ponys' sound and expectations. Another true story that illustrates the personality of the band: Their original A&R person at A&M, Jeff Suhy, helped put the band in contact with Checkered Past.

And what better place to announce their re-arrival than the Spring Break for the music industry, South By Southwest, where Checkered Past was having a showcase night? At the recent event in Austin, Tex., the band tore through an eight-song set, exchanging nearly four days worth of driving for 45 minutes on stage.

They were clearly in their element onstage -- relaxed and confident setting up, even when someone from the crowd drunkenly yells, "Ass!" Alletzhauser, who barely speaks in person (he was present for this entire interview, yet his voice isn't on the tape), floated in and out of the band's airspace, sometimes delicately, sometimes ferociously. He'd be the band's secret weapon were it not for the fact that Morrison plays keyboard on his lap while keeping the beat.

There was a languid looseness and a lot of space in the songs in Austin. It sounded damn good.

Afterwards, the band's attitude was calm as well. As the guys moved their amps offstage, someone from the next band hovered around the bass amp. Cheek asked the man if he's the bass player.

The man replied "No" with some enthusiasm, so Cheek asked what he does. He explained that he does some "spoken word stuff." Cheek responded, "Oh, that sounds tedious."

Laughing about the exchange (and the show), Cheek says the drive time versus stage time ratio was worth it.

"Hell, yeah," he says the next morning over Fruit Loops and an English muffin, noting that since the band doesn't really tour anymore fans had driven down from Oklahoma to catch their SXSW appearance.

"How much is this trip costing us?," Morrison asks Cleaver.

"Oh, God," Cleaver says. "When all is said and done? The van was in sorry shape -- it cost us between $1,500 and $1,800. It's hard to put a price on it, but it felt successful last night."

"If we had come down and sucked, we'd feel different," says Cheek.

Though they seem to think they don't really have the same impetus for playing that the A&M deal gave them, truth is, one big reason for The Ass Ponys sticking it out is to prove that they haven't changed.

"But it's like you have something to prove," Cleaver says, laughing. " 'We're still alive, fuck you if you don't like us.' "

What hasn't changed is that the four Ponys are really good and they still love to play with each other -- perhaps the only things that matter about a Rock & Roll band.

"It's nice to think that someone might have counted you out and it's nice to play well or grab someone's attention," admits Morrison about the band's profile. "It's a small victory, but it's fairly sweet. It was because everybody wants something new. It's always the newest thing that you haven't heard. Well, we're the oldest thing that everybody's heard. 'You guys were pretty big four or five years ago.' Yeah, I don't know how much that has to do with our music."

But in true non-career planning fashion, the quartet is anxious to record another album. They're playing catch-up with themselves, barely playing any of the songs from their just-released record in their live set. Checkered Past has told them that it's still within the realm of possibility to get a second long player out this year.

"The biggest difference between where we are and where we were is that we used to go from one thing on the horizon to the next thing," Morrison says. "There isn't that much clutter on the horizon now. It just comes back to playing.

"We can always get together at our practice place and play, and that's still fun. I guess that's what it's got to be about." ©

- Cincinnati CityBeat

"Chicago Sun-Times Review by Jim DeRogatis"

Still kicking butt

January 12, 2001


Self-delusion is the central currency of rock 'n' roll; it never ceases to amaze me, the grand fallacies and inflated falsehoods that rock stars spout as my tape recorder rolls. So it's always refreshing to encounter a musician who isn't kidding himself.

"I'm 41 and experiencing probably my second or third midlife crisis," says Chuck Cleaver, guitarist-vocalist with Cincinnati cult heroes the Ass Ponys. "What's it all about? What am I worth? Do I make enough money? Do I have a big enough [manhood]? My teeth are falling out, my hair's getting gray, I'm gaining weight and I just have to face the fact that I ain't gonna be in matchbox twenty."

True enough. But after five albums and 12 years as a band, the Ass Ponys have a dedicated following. The group stands as one of the most intriguing exponents of the alternative-country genre, mixing a fair amount of psychedelic weirdness with its hillbilly twang. And it just gets better and better.

"The new one is a little bit more of everything we do," Cleaver says of the forthcoming "Lohio," due in March on Chicago's Checkered Past Records. "The country stuff is a little more country-ish, the strange stuff probably gets a little stranger, the sad stuff is a little sadder, and the rock stuff rocks a little more."

Gearing up for the release of its sixth album, the band is coming to Chicago for the first time in five years. (For entirely too long, it has limited its gigging to its hometown and nearby Columbus.)

"It used to be that we were kind of an iffy live band," Cleaver says. "Sometimes we were really good and sometimes we were really bad, and there wasn't much in between. But we played our [butts] off when we were on A&M--we were out [on tour] 20 weeks in a row--and you learn; you just get better because that's what you're doing every day. Now, even a bad show is like a seven out of 10. It used to be that when we'd fall apart, we'd really fall apart. Now when we fall apart, we can make it look like we meant to do it."

Drawing their name from a list of bizarre monikers--it was supposed to be temporary but somehow it stuck--the Ass Ponys came together in the fall of 1988 from the remnants of Ohio guitar-punks the Libertines and the Midwestern version of Gomez, which preceded the British band of the same name by a decade.

The Ass Ponys recorded two independent albums with John Curley of the Afghan Whigs before attracting the attention of the major labels during the mid-'90s alternative-rock feeding frenzy. No one was more surprised than the musicians themselves when they were suddenly signed to A&M, then the home of Sting and Sheryl Crow.

The group didn't change its approach for the big leagues. "Electric Rock Music" (1994) was as idiosyncratic as the earlier recordings, opening with an atmospheric drone that proclaimed, "Life is too damn grim!" But the next song was a jaunty guitar-rocker called "Little Bastard," and it became a bona fide alt-rock hit--by virtue of the cuss word in the title as much as the catchy chorus.

"We never expected any of it in the first place, so it was all just sort of a nice little bonus," Cleaver says. "Really, the whole A&M thing is kind of like it never happened. It was one of those things that I sort of ignored while it was happening, and then it was over with, and it was like, `Geez, was that me?' "

The band released a second strong album for A&M in 1996, "The Known Universe," but lightning didn't strike twice with radio, and the label promptly dropped the band when guitarist John Erhardt quit the group. (The current lineup is completed by guitarist Bill Alletzhauser, drummer Dave Morrison and bassist Randy Cheek.)

The Ass Ponys took some time off to regain their bearings, then went on to Nashville and recorded the oddly titled "Some Stupid With a Flare Gun" with producer Brad Jones (Marshall Crenshaw, Jill Sobule, Steve Forbert). Once again, the group topped itself with songs like "Astronaut" and "X-tra Nipple"--alien pop gems with impressionistic lyrics that place Cleaver in a tradition of whimsical wordsmiths like Robyn Hitchcock and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.

"After the first couple of records--and especially after `Little Bastard'--the novelty tag started coming in, and that [ticked] me off to a degree that I sort of shied away from it, especially for `The Known Universe,' which is much more somber," Cleaver says. "I like that record, but I missed having--for lack of a better word--the `goofy' songs.

"I grew up listening to a lot of different stuff, and John Prine was one of the people I really liked. He writes goofy songs; not all of his stuff, but he'll throw in a goofy one every once in a while. So I just thought, `[Screw] it! I'm not gonna edit myself, and whatever comes out comes out.' So you get `X-tra Nipple' and `Magnus (Robot Fighter).' But at the same time, if you sort of dig through the goofiness, there's some real stuff in there. Our drummer Dave says I'm writing more personal stuff than weird hillbilly stuff now. Maybe so, but it's taken me 20 years to get to this point!"

And so the Ass Ponys continue, balancing their weird and wonderful musicmaking with day jobs and forgoing illusory dreams of stardom. We fans are richer for their efforts, even if the band is not.

"Friends of mine and people who are into the music keep telling me that one of these days, if we stick around long enough, we'll at least arrive at a comfortable place," Cleaver says. "I have yet to get to that spot, but I can feel it."

Pop music critic Jim DeRogatis co-hosts "Sound Opinions" from 10 p.m. to midnight Tuesday on WXRT-FM (93.1). E-mail him at - Chicago Sun-Times

"Alternative Press Top Albums of 2000"

#45. Ass Ponys – Some Stupid With A Flare Gun - Alternative Press Magazine


Mr. Superlove (Okra - 1990)
Grim (Okra/Safe House - 1993)
Electric Rock Music (A&M - 1994)
The Known Universe (A&M - 1996)
Some Stupid With a Flare Gun (Checkered Past - 2000)
Lohio (Checkered Past - 2001)


Feeling a bit camera shy


This alternative rock band from Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, was formed by Chuck Cleaver (vocals), John Erhardt (guitar), Randy Cheek (bass) and Dan Kleingers (drums). Music obsessives to a man, the band formed in October 1988 and were soon compared to

such acts as Hot Tuna, Pavement and the Minutemen. Cleaver and Kleingers had previously played together in the Lunchbuddies and Gomez, while Cheek enjoyed some small-time success with the Libertines. Erhardt had no prior experience in rock bands, previously working as part of a bluegrass collective. Ass Pony's independent debut for Okra Records was released in June 1990. At this stage the band's songs were still shambolic and erratic, although the germ of their talent was evident. The band returned to Ultrasuede Studios to begin recording material for a second album in October 1990. The working period lasted through winter 1990 and the summer of 1991, during which time Kleingers was replaced by Dave Morrison. He was in place for four of Grim's 16 tracks. Grim was a more subdued effort which was scuppered when distribution agency Rough Trade Records of New York collapsed. Like previous albums produced by John Curley (the Afghan Whigs' bass player and proprietor of Ultrasuede Studios), Electric Rock Music synthesized the strengths of the biting emotional edge of the earlier material. Lyrics explored both large emotional targets and the seemingly insignificant. Despite the transition to a major label (A&M Records), the recording budget was a mere $2,500, and the lyrics had hardly brightened - Cleaver remained obsessed with the hopeless and the doomed, wallowing in the outsider's point of view. The Known Universe was similarly gross lyrically, but great middle eights and memorable riffs made the maggot-infested lyrics almost irrelevant. The album, which marked the end of their association with A&M, featured new guitarist Bill Alletzhauser.
Following an extended hiatus, the band returned to the studio in 1999 with producer Brad Jones to record the excellent Some Stupid With A Flare Gun, released the following year by Checkered Past Records. A second album for the label, Lohio, confirmed their creative renaissance.