Singer and visual artist Cody Critcheloe started Ssion (pronounced “shun”) when he was a teenager growing up in Kentucky. Roughly 15 years later, what began as a straight-up punk band has evolved into a smutty, campy, gender-melting, multimedia dancepop collective. Witnessing Critcheloe’s live performance and the mini-movies he directs to accompany it is like stumbling into a decidedly adult version of Pee-wee’s Playhouse as soundtracked by Prince. “It’s very ‘arts and crafts,’” the recent New York City transplant says of his flamboyant aesthetic. “That’s the future. When everyone revolts against technology and everything looks like it’s from IKEA, we’re going to go back to arts and crafts.” Critcheloe—who has also produced music videos for Santigold, Peaches, and Gossip—is working on a new video project for MTV and just released an extended version of his 2011 album, Bent, which includes new tracks and remixes from Grimes and MNDR.
You’re from Kentucky, but you recently moved to Brooklyn. What happened?
I’d been going to art school in Kansas City and got this thing through Parsons in 2001 where they gave you a studio in the West Village and paid for everything if you got accepted. You did whatever the fuck you wanted, and they would have professionals come in and critique your work. I was already doing Ssion then and was so obsessed with music. I was going to rock shows all the time, and that’s how I got hooked up with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars. I didn’t like New York because I was so broke that I couldn’t really enjoy it. I went for a semester, stayed another year, and then I went back to Kansas City. I came back when I had my art show at The Hole, and that’s when I completely fell in love with New York. I couch-surfed for six months, and while I was gone my roommates in Kansas City got into a lot of trouble, so we got evicted from our apartment. So I was like, “Fuck it. I’m just moving to New York.”
Ssion’s music has a slightly trashy element to it. Where does that come from?
I think it comes from me really getting into music through punk rock. When I’m writing a song with a guitar, it’s basically a punk-rock song—you know, four chords. It’s the production that makes it pop. When I started Ssion it was just a straight-up punk band, and it kind of mutated into pop because it seemed like an exciting, weird thing to do at the time. There’s a part of me that’s really reactionary with art and music. I look at what’s popular and say, “I want to do the opposite of that.” But I’m really just trying to write a good song and say what I need to say. Sometimes it turns out great; sometimes it’s shit.
You’ve been pretty open about your queerness in your music, visually and also lyrically. Do you think that prevents you from achieving mainstream success?
I don’t really care. As crazy as this may sound, it’s not really intentional. I’m not setting out to write this queer anthem, nor do I think about a queer agenda or being a queer artist. I’m just doin’ my thing. I’m gay and it’s gonna come out regardless. I’m wearing makeup because I like the way it looks. I’m wearing this outfit because I like it. I just don’t want to have to tone it down.
You just released Bent, your third album. Do you think your style and music will be easier to digest now that the new brigade of pop stars (Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, Katy Perry) are embracing costumes and an overall zaniness in their performances?
Yeah, but it’s kind of tough to make that call because the thing that makes me so different is that I’m a legitimate weirdo. I’ve been making music for a long time, and it’s always had this fucked-up bent to it. There’s something that happens in mainstream culture—with Lady Gaga or Katy Perry or whatever—where even the most fucked-up things are still put through this filter that’s easy to digest. Look at something like Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” video: If you take off the beginning and the end, the middle is just her doing choreography in a bikini.
So tell me about Bent. The title alone is inherently—
Gay? Yeah. Also, Bent is such a “pop” title. It kind of reminded me of Pet Shop Boys; they always had those one-word titles, like Disco. I obviously liked the gayness of the title, but I also like this idea of being hell-bent and determined. I struggled making this record because it was the first time I had collaborated with a ton of different people, and I was really dead set on making good pop music. I don’t care how cheesy it is, I just hope that people get songs stuck in their heads.
You’ve said there’s a narrative running through the songs on Bent. What’s the story you’re telling?
Every record I do has a narrative, and then, video by video, I’ll elaborate on that. It’s sort of like a quilt being made. The new video for “Earthquake” ties in some of the elements from the last video, “My Love Grows in the Dark.” “Earthquake” was the hardest video I’ve ever made. It’s a short film—six minutes long. “Earthquake” is actually the first legitimate love song I’ve ever written. I had never really fallen in love before, so it was the first time I’d experienced it in a real way. So when I was trying to come up with the treatment for the video, I kept coming back to this idea of how I idealized being in love when I was younger. In Kentucky, in this really small town, it was all about magic, in the same way that I envisioned what it would be like to be a pop star. I wanted to tie in this character that’s not me, but could be me. It could also be my brother, or my lover. You know how, especially in a gay relationship, sometimes the two people become twins? You sort of lose yourself. I was trying to play on that, and the idea of what I thought love and being a pop star was going to be like when I was a kid. I wanted it to be David Lynch meets Desperate Housewives. It’s basically a soap opera.
Where did you film it?
In Kansas City, in the suburbs. My boyfriend did all the styling for it. We’ve been working a lot together.
So in the video for “My Love Grows in the Dark?” what’s the deal with the broads making bread in the kitchen?
It’s pretty literal: Women are making money. I showed the video to one of my really good lesbian friends who borderline hates men. She was like, “The women are in the kitchen making bread while all these gay dudes are dancing around acting crazy?!” And I was like, “No, they’re in control of everything that’s happening—they’re making money.” I feel like it’s the future. Doesn’t it seem like women are always the ones in control of everything that’s happening? In entertainment, pop is all about women, and then you have a guy in jeans and a t-shirt up there playing a guitar. Also, the video has all these different groups of people, but everyone is completely self-obsessed, looking at their own reflections; they’re not really paying attention. I’m sort of the voyeur throughout that video, and then in the “Earthquake” video, everyone else is the voyeur. My other half is always following me, watching me either on a television screen or on an iPad.
I think to appreciate Ssion you need to see the whole package. How would you describe the aesthetic of your shows?
I have no idea. I love color. I’m also attracted to things I sort of hate. What would you say my aesthetic is?
Well, what I’m seeing right now is ghetto bling meets Liberace meets cowboy.
It’s very arts and crafts. That’s the future. When everyone revolts against technology and everything looking like it’s from IKEA, we’re going to go back to arts and crafts.
Bullett’s fall 2012 issue is The Romance Issue. What’s the greatest love story ever told?
Wild at Heart. I love the book and the David Lynch movie. I love the tie-in with The Wizard of Oz. I love how the girl [played by Laura Dern] is so naïve, and then she sees the world and she’s sort of destroyed by it, but her love affair with Nicolas Cage still works. I just think that Nicolas Cage is so hot. He’s such a weird-looking and -talking guy. That’s one thing my mom and I have in common.
What’s your favorite love song?
“Time” (Clock of the Heart) by Culture Club. Boy George is hands down my favorite pop star. I’m one of the few people who thinks pop stars should be a little fucked-up and get into trouble. I admire him a lot. He was an incredible songwriter, especially for being so young. There’s a theory that part of the reason the world turned on him–aside from him getting into drugs—is that it was much easier to accept a boy in drag. There’s something non-threatening about that. But a man in drag… He’s way more threatening the older he gets.