Cody Critcheloe

Cody Critcheloe discusses his new album, O

SSION, At Least the Sky Is Blue, 2018, video, color, sound, 5 minutes 54 seconds.

Artist Cody Critcheloe—the heart of music, video, and performance pop group SSION, which he founded in 1999 while he was in high school—is releasing O, his first album in five years, on May 11, 2018 through DERO Arcade. The thirteen-track record features collaborations with artists such as Ariel Pink, Róisín Murphy, and Contessa Stuto, and draws inspiration from musicians including Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper, the Pet Shop Boys, George Michael, Atari Teenage Riot, and Hole. Here, Critcheloe talks about the making of O and the magic involved in crafting the perfect song.

THERE WASN’T ANY CRISIS that prevented me from making this album. Though I definitely came to a point where I got sick of being the face of SSION. I’ve been making my music and videos since I was sixteen years old—obsessively—as an independent, underground artist with limited funds and resources. When I finished BENT, the record just prior to this one, I felt pressure to keep doing what I’d always done and begin a new album. So, I did. But none of it felt sincere or interesting. There wasn’t any urgency. I love directing and painting, so it just felt right to focus my energies elsewhere. That’s how I started directing for other artists, such as Perfume Genius, Robyn, Kylie Minogue, and Lower Dens. It provided me with this freedom to work with someone else on something that wasn’t all about my vision. All the artists I’ve worked with allowed me to do whatever I wanted, but in a way that served their vision. During my SSION “hiatus” I was still writing songs and touring—I was never entirely disengaged from SSION. I am, however, very glad I took the break.

While putting together O, I was going back and forth between New York and Los Angeles for about three years to work with two producers for the album. The LA producer, Sam Mehran, is more of a rock ’n’ roll purist—he’s into a very straightforward kind of pop songwriting. We are around the same age and come from a similar “punk” background. The guy from New York, Nick Weiss of the band Teengirl Fantasy, is more of an electronic music producer, is willing to experiment and screw things up—in a good way—and is also more tapped into current club music. So, I kept negotiating opposite sides of this spectrum, which, of course, I’ve always inhabited—but for this record it’s more pronounced, and it gives the new album this sense of in-betweenness.

I love pop music. I’m really invested in writing hooks and the science behind it. Successful pop songwriting has a certain kind of magic—a very witchy element that people don’t talk about. There’s something supernatural about the universe giving you a hook. Pop music has the ability to bring a lot of different types of people together, too, and that’s really attractive to me. I’ve never ignored pop music, even when I’m exploring more “avant-garde” music or whatever. I’ve always tried to make hooky pop songs that just stick in people’s heads. Nothing too frivolous, of course, but something pleasurable that also has the power to sustain emotional weight, an underlying sadness. It has to have that twist for me. It can’t be basic. . . There can be moments of basicness, but I always want to pull in something wretched that can really fuck with the form.

SSION, Comeback, 2017, video, color, sound, 7 minutes 28 seconds.

Though the visuals of my videos are important, the writing of the song always comes first. When I put a visual first and try making a song around it, the song never ends up being that good. You have to be really open and let the witchiness take over when you’re making a song. If you’re too premeditated about it, it fails. Once I have a great song, I can home in on the visual component. And it’s an incredibly lengthy process.

I keep a bank of images that end up working their way into the music videos. Something that influenced the video for “At Least the Sky Is Blue,” a song on the new album, came to me last Christmas, when I was spending the holidays with my family in Kentucky. I was bored and messing around on Google and found this picture of Henry Rollins when he won a Grammy in 1994. He showed up to the awards ceremony wearing this filthy sweatshirt and disgusting pair of sweatpants—it’s such an incredible visual. So, this composite image of beefcake Henry crossed with a Barry’s Bootcamp instructor runs through the video. I’ve also been obsessed by this orange distortion pedal that Boss makes. Nothing fancy—it’s the company’s simplest model. I keep imagining it as this oversize object with SSION written across it backwards, which phonetically spells out the word “noise.” The pedal’s one of those things I just associate with rock ’n’ roll. I envision one that’s huge and phallic, getting a guitar cable inserted into it. I think the pedal’s going to make an appearance in the video for “Heaven Is My Thing Again,” the last song on the album. I’ve also been thinking about donning breasts for the video, though I’m not exactly sure why. It might have something to do with looking at all these pictures of Linda Hamilton, when she was in the Terminator movies, and Wendy O. Williams—but then again, I’m not totally sure what will show up.

Cody Critcheloe, Contessa, 2017, acrylic on paper, 26 x 20".

I created a bunch of new paintings that are going be used for the album’s artwork. I love painting because you don’t have to rely on anyone else to do it, which is great. But that’s why I could never be a painter—at a certain point I’d just go insane. I need to be with people making work that can move a little harder.

A lot of people have been telling me how vulnerable this new record feels, and I have to say, that means so much to me. I remember when I was touring a lot with the last record and wearing lots of makeup, wigs, and costumes on stage. I got really frustrated because I felt the audience got overly attached to the stuff. I mean, Prince and Boy George had looks, but they also made incredible music. I resented that people were into SSION because of what I was wearing—it was really irritating. I know I’m more than that. Even if what I’m performing is funny and campy or ironic, there’s more. There’s always more. Anyway, I’m happy people are sensing the moreness.