In a cluttered art studio in Brooklyn, a boy in a purple tuxedo applies a new layer of sparkly shadow to his eyelids. He’s hot, which is semi confusing considering he looks like a totally insane freak gender-fuck, and has a unibrow and a lazy eye, and his ratty wig is crooked and his teeth are covered in lipstick. But there’s something about this boy that’s overwhelmingly magnetic. Like you can’t help but want to put all of him in your mouth.
This is Cody Critcheloe, the brain behind the unhinged art beast that is SSION. Since its genesis in 1997, Ssion has released three albums, toured with the likes of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Fisherspooner, made a feature film, directed music videos for artists like Peaches and the Gossip, exhibited art in cities all over the world, and has shocked, awed, and confused thousands in the process. Last spring, Cody performed a week of shows at MoMA’s PS1 museum in Queens to debut Ssion’s third album, Bent. The show–which included more than 30 performers, a live band, half-naked cowboy backup dancers, and massive video projections in SSION’s signature deranged pop art aesthetic–was an epic extravaganza of music, performance and film, and confirmed Cody’s place as a true art revolutionary. A punk prophet to a global army of freak disciples.
“I think a lot of people know about SSION, but they’re ultimately confused about what it is or what it’s supposed to do,” smiles Cody, “but I actually think that’s sort of cool. Most often people think SSION is a band, but it’s not really. There are times when I play with a live band, but it always changes depending on what kind of music I want to make at the time. Who I collaborate with depends on the nature of each individual project. So SSION is essentially just my thing, but there are other people involved at different stages who are hugely important to what it sounds like and what it looks like.”
The spectacle that is SSION (pronounced shun) began getting attention in the early 2000s. Cody was living in Kansas City at the time, studying at the Kansas City Art Institute. It was there that he formed a group of friends who would soon become infamous for their collective creativity, their outrageous costumes and make-up, and their twisted sense of humor. The close knit art collective, which also included photographer Jaimie Warren (who took the photos that accompany this article) and performance artist Collin Self, spent their time putting on performances, organizing parties and exhibitions, and making public access TV shows. From an outsider’s perspective, their lives seemed totally fantastical, extreme, and enviously cool. “People always ask me if Kansas City was as crazy as it seemed,” explains Cody, “and it was and it wasn’t. We were always doing stuff and making things, but most of the time it was purely for pictures to be taken, or to make a video that we’d put on Youtube. A large part of what motivated us was creating an illusion for people outside of KC, and I guess it worked.”
Cody’s Kansas City crew were also largely involved in the artwork and videos connected to SSION’s first two albums–Opportunity Bless My Soul (Version City Records, 2003) and Fool’s Gold (Sleazetone Records, 2007). They also took part in the creation of Boy, a feature length film comprised of SSION’s previous music videos strung together with mockumentary live footage, which premiered at Peres Projects in LA in 2010. “Something that’s really strange,” says Cody “is that since I moved to Brooklyn last year people will check me out the street, which is so crazy to me because that never happened in Kansas city. It’s such a different mindset here. People in KC thought I was such a freak. The thought of getting laid or hooking up wasn’t something I consumed myself with while I lived there, because it didn’t even seem like a possibility. I almost stopped thinking of myself as a sexual being, and I think other people in our group felt that as well. The scene was so small–it was really just our group of friends–so we weren’t going to date each other, and no one from outside the scene would have even looked twice at any of use, because we were just too far gone for them. So it sort of removed any need or desire we had to be sexually attractive. I think that was part of the reason we all looked so crazy and dressed up so much, because no one cared about looking hot.”
The very first incarnation of SSION, however, dates back to Cody’s pre-Kansas days, when he was still in high school in rural Kentucky. “I released a tape on a 4-track called SSION when I was about sixteen,” he remembers. “I did it all myself but when I played live I had my friends from the town play backup. This girl Rachel would be reading spoken word poetry and screaming, and we didn’t have a drum kit so we used pots and pans as percussion. You know, just sounding as horrible as we possibly could. After I made the first SSION cassette tape I sent it out to all these indie labels, thinking I was going to become part of the whole Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear movement. They were my idols. From my small town perspective they seemed extremely famous.”
Cody’s description of his childhood is like something out of s movie: boy raised in a small, Southern Baptist town by a teenage mother; boy grows up to be a gay, dog collar wearing goth freak; boy escapes to become an internet celebrity, etc. “My town was really tiny,” he says, “like there were only 50 people in my graduating class. It was a dry county, so there was no alcohol, and it was in the middle of nowhere so you had to drive over 30 minutes to get to the nearest mall or movie theater, or to do anything really. It’s a really meth-y town too, because there are so many factories. Like there’s a paper mill, an aluminum factory—everyone has these long shift kind of jobs, so it makes sense. I didn’t realize how druggy it was until after I left. On some level I was really clueless about my surroundings there. I knew more about what was happening in other places than most people, but I was sort of separate from that town in a weird way.”
While his peers were huffing glue in fields wearing Korn hoodies, Cody spent his high school days reading queercore zines and listening to Riot Grrrl. “Suckdog, Dame Darcy, Pussy Galore—those were the biggest deals for me, and I would send always send them the various tapes and fanzines I made. When I was nineteen I wrote Lisa Carver [of Suckdog] a letter every single day until she responded. For some reason I just wanted her to acknowledge my existence. Then when I started making videos I would send them to Vaginal Davis and Bruce LaBruce. I wanted them to critique my work, and sometimes they actually would. When I met Bruce in person thirteen year later he remembered the zine that I sent him. Man, he’s so cool.”
When asked if he’s close with his parents, and if they are fans of his work, Cody gives a halfhearted shrug. “I talk to my mom every now and then,” he says. “She’s an odd mix. When I was growing up we had a satellite dish and we would always watch MTV together. She was into Def Leopard and Poison and all the hair metal stuff. So she sort of gets it, and she thinks I’m pretty funny, but she’s also Southern Baptist. Deep down I think she likes what I’m doing, but she would prefer not to know too much about it because it’s too much for her to handle. I just went off the deep end in her world.”
On the day of this interview, Cody is in the process of editing together the music video for Bent’s first single, “Phy-chic”–a euphoric dance track with a chorus that croons, sometimes I think about you every day. The video sees Cody in a neon computer universe, sashaying about amid flying peace signs, acid smileys and puppy dogs. “I wanted to make something really commercial but also really gross and fucked up,” he says. “I wanted it to reference all that internet art, but also sort of make fun of it because I actually hate that aesthetic. I think it’s disgusting.”
The video will be premier this Summer, alongside the physical release of Bent. [The album will be released through a Brooklyn based indie label which at the time of publication Cody wished not to disclose]. However, most SSION fans are already familiar with the record, as Cody put it up as a free download on the SSION website last Summer to coincide with his MoMA performances. Working along artists like Fischerspooner, Teengirl Fantasy and Azari & III, SSION’s new material is anthemic, empowering, and apologetically gay–a guilty pleasure you don’t have to feel guilty about. At its purest, Bent is an incredible pop album. Think Prince meets a Richard Simmons workout video meets a children’s TV show from the 90s where everyone is tripping on DMT. “I feel like over the past couple years I’ve gotten more comfortable as a song writer, both lyrically and musically,” Cody explains, “and with Bent my ambition was just to write good pop songs. I once made a record during a weird period where I was trying to prove to myself that I was a ‘serious songwriter.’ It totally backfired, and since then I’ve tried to approach music in a genuinely punk way, where you just doing give a fuck, and you do exactly what you want. And if what you want is to make a cheesy pop song, then fucking go for it.”
SSION has grown from Cody’s gay-disco-meets-punk-rock experiment into an internationally renowned art machine. Many people have contributed to building the myth that surrounds the project, and helped to actualize Cody’s pure vision. Truly original, SSION is redefining the way we think about punk and about modern pop music, and has turned Cody into a cult hero in the process. “Sure, I know gay kids and weird kids are into what I do, but at the same time there are people who are into Dungeons and Dragons and Frank Zappa fans who get the SSION,” Cody laughs. “But, I try not to think about that stuff too deeply. My only job is to create the best art that I can, because if I’m making music that I love, then I know I’m doing the right thing for myself and for other people.”