If you think you haven’t heard of Ssion, the smart, subversive, pop-song performance project helmed by Kentucky native Cody Critcheloe, perhaps you’ve just been mispronouncing it.
The name, copped from Boston post-punk pioneers Mission of Burma, sounds like shun, but bewilderment regarding how exactly to talk about the group -- and people are talking -- is just part of Critcheloe’s plan.
“I love the name, how it looks, and how it’s confusing for people,” he says. “I love that people can’t pronounce it or that they think it’s my name.”
Launched as a bedroom project when Critcheloe was a teenager in Lewisport, Ky., Ssion is now comprised of his music, videos, visual artwork, and live shows featuring a rotating cast of bandmates, all of which play heavily with costumes, makeup, and video. The result is akin to a series of outtakes from a John Waters–directed Culture Club biopic.
Artistic early adopters have been clued in to Critcheloe’s work for years; he’s directed music videos for Santigold, Peaches, MNDR, and the Liars. When he was in art school, he created the eye-catching packaging for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ debut record, Fever to Tell. But with this month’s release of the Ssion album Bent, as well as summer tour dates across the U.S., Critcheloe and his gang of gender outlaw collaborators are poised for much larger exposure.
For Critcheloe, a Brooklyn resident often seen sporting a sleazy handlebar mustache, time in the limelight isn’t the end goal.
“I want to be able to live well and do exactly what I want to do -- and that’s not crazy,” he says. “I’m glad that someone’s putting out my record, but ultimately, I would do this regardless. I’ve been doing this same thing forever; it’s just that, recently, people have started to pay attention.”
After fleeing at 18 from his Kentucky hometown, where the local movie theaters and diners were a half-hour’s drive away, he landed at the Kansas City Art Institute. There, Critcheloe began working with stop-motion animation and became immersed in the local art and music scene. He set up camp in a 3,000-square-foot loft, where he was able to churn out music, videos, and artwork. A 2001 move to New York City didn’t stick, but after a 2010 Manhattan gallery show of his work, a three-night engagement at MoMA PS1 -- an incubator for avant-garde work -- and an eviction from that loft, Critcheloe decided to give the city another chance.
Although he still returns to Missouri to work, Critcheloe and his hyper-queer, alternative output has been embraced by New York; his live shows are see-and-be-seen events, and he’s been commissioned by the edgy local arts group Creative Time to work on a forthcoming video project for MTV.
Critcheloe started out making music influenced by the No Wave scene and cites ’90s rock groups, like Hole and Sleater-Kinney, as having a huge effect on him. While he retains the spirit of more underground music, making tracks with radio-friendly production and a seditious ethos proved a compelling challenge.
“Pop music was sort of an accident,” he says, “and it’s harder; [writing] something that’s hooky or connects with people is a much different experience.”
The songs are indeed poppy. Cuts like “My Love Grows in the Dark” and “Psy-chic” are easy to imagine as dance-floor fireworks -- and at some art-school-adjacent gay bars, they are -- drawing on funk, house music, and R&B to create a high-energy whirlwind of sound. And while this is performance art with a candy coating, the political agenda -- mostly in the form of provocative, sexualized lyrics -- isn’t so overt or weighted that enjoying the songs for themselves makes the listener a rube.
Bent features 10 songs from an album of the same name released online last year, with a dozen remixes and three brand-new tracks. While Critcheloe is working on videos for the songs on the album and plans to tour heavily for it, he’s already itching to move on to the next phase of Ssion.
“I’ve started writing songs for another record, but I have no idea what it is I want to do,” he says. “For Bent, I had really concrete ideas of what I wanted to do, but now I need to abandon that entirely.
“I don’t want to ever feel like I have to stick to something that everyone’s familiar with. The last show we played, we didn’t do video stuff and it was liberating -- but it was because the projector was broken.”
Bent (Dovecote Records) comes out August 17.