It’s the final song of the Hussy’s set on the basement stage of Magnetic South, a residence/venue/recording studio/cassette label in Bloomington, Indiana, and Bobby and Heather Hussy are going wild. As she wails on her drums with cavewoman vigor, he unstraps his guitar and drops it to the floor at the feet of the audience. For a minute it looks like Bobby might be leaving the stage, but the lanky frontman returns with a bottle of lighter fluid and douses his guitar. He strikes a match, and the instrument erupts in a quick burst of flame. The fire burns only a few seconds before Bobby picks it back up and continues playing as though nothing has happened.
This is no shamanistic sacrifice to the rock gods à la Hendrix at Monterey but a primal piece of punk stuntwork — a daredevil conflagration that plays like a logical conclusion of the Hussy’s super-loud, super-fast rock-and-roll. Burning a guitar, however, has become something of a ritual for the Hussy, who hail from Madison, Wisconsin. “I only do it for a special show,” Bobby Hussy says. Adds Heather, “We don’t want to overdo it. There was a while there when we did it a lot, but now it’s not that often.”
The duo started setting fires at an outdoor concert in Madison — as a spoof of Jimi Hendrix. It went over well, until, as Heather recalls, “some hippie guy who was trashed tried pissing on it to put it out. It was like, dude, we know it’s on fire. It’s okay.”
“I had to stop him,” Bobby says, “because there were little kids in the audience.”
For his part, the guitarist/singer has become very adept at combining lighter fluid and match (“I’ve been a pyro since I was 5”), but there was one show at a bar in Brooklyn earlier this year when he almost brought the house down.
“I had bought a bigger-than-normal bottle that was plastic,” he recalls, “and when I threw it on the ground, it cracked and leaked all over the stage. This guy grabbed the bottle, and he ended up lighting his hand on fire. He just sat there trying to shake it out. Then this other guy threw his beer on the fire, which just made it spread wider. Everybody in the bar ran out, and the owner had to come with a fire extinguisher.”
That bit of DIY pyrotechnics has helped the Hussy build a reputation as a fierce, unpredictable live act, but it would be merely a gimmick if their music couldn’t match and even exceed the spectacle. Despite their reliance on matching pseudonyms (Bobby and Heather Hussy are not related, and those aren’t, of course, their real names), the Hussy are not a joke band.
On their third album, Pagan Hiss, they play loud, blistering punk, which, especially during their live shows, achieves a sweaty physicality as Bobby flays his guitar and Heather pummels her drums. But underneath the noise lurks sharp hooks and emphatic lyrics about alienation, despair, bad blood, and good weed. The Hussy strike a fine balance between brute force and measured subtlety, mixing hardcore, surf rock, ’60s pop, power pop, and even classic rock into a head-banging, arms-flailing, guitar-burning mix.
The pair were mainstays on the Madison scene long before there was a Hussy. They had played together in a short-lived trio called Cats Not Dogs, which Bobby says was “just to get our feet wet and learn the ropes.” Heather played drums, and Bobby played bass. They didn’t release any music, but they did tour and they did argue a lot. The frontman “thought our songs sucked and our ideas weren’t any good,” Bobby says. “He said he wanted more input from us, but then he kept saying we had bad ideas.”
Bobby and Heather grew tight as friends and as a rhythm section, eventually leaving Cats Not Dogs to form their own group. Rather than expand into a trio or quartet, they decided to remain a duo. “We can do whatever we want in this band,” Bobby says. “It’s 50/50. There’s no third person to tug at it in a weird way. If it’s an odd number, it always becomes two against one. That’s just natural. I’m surprised people even try to make a three- or four-person band work.”
Their limited lineup makes touring inexpensive and recording relatively easy. In two years, the Hussy have released three LPs, four cassettes, seven seven-inches, and a lone 10-inch — all of which they engineered and produced themselves in their tiny Madison practice space. Each subsequent release has revealed new facets of the Hussy, new technical skills as well as sturdier musical chops, culminating in Pagan Hiss, released in May on Southpaw Records. It’s a sharp blast of surprisingly sophisticated rock-and-roll: loud but austere, funny but never ironic, blunt yet nuanced.
It’s hard to imagine just two people churning up this much noise, but it’s even harder to imagine three or more musicians playing together with such intensity.
“That’s what we’ve been working for this whole time,” Bobby says. “As the years have gone by, we’ve gotten better gear and we’ve become a better band, because we’ve actually put our lives into it. It just feels like this is the right band for who we are.”
The Hussy, with Moving Finger
Three Angels Diner
Friday, July 5th