Madison musician Bobby Hussy says he is stepping back from music, after acknowledging allegations of verbal abuse and ostracizing women.
Photo: The cover shot for The Hussy’s 2018 release ”Live At High Noon Saloon.” From left to right: Bobby Hussy, Heather Sawyer, and Tyler Fassnacht. Photo by Scotify.
The public collapse of California record label Burger Records has rippled out to Madison over the past few weeks, hastening the end of Madison punk outfit The Hussy. The band has toured as the opening act and backing band for Nobunny, one of Burger’s biggest artists and one of the acts that came under scrutiny for sexual misconduct. And even with much of the activity that sustains local music scenes everywhere still on hold, there’s also some renewed conversation about inclusivity and accountability in Madison’s music community.
The Hussy guitarist and vocalist Bobby Hussy (also of Cave Curse, Fire Heads, and No Coast Records), came under scrutiny for a pattern of verbally abusive outbursts and helping ostracize a woman who accused another musician of sexual assault, behaviors that he has since addressed in Facebook posts, comment threads, and a brief interview with Tone Madison.
Bobby Hussy, real last name Wegner, acknowledged in Facebook conversations over the past couple weeks that his anger problems have harmed others in the music community and beyond. In an interview via text in late July, Wegner said he’ll generally be taking a big step back from the music scene to seek help and talk with people he’s hurt. “I’m sorry my actions have negatively hurt so many aspects of the scene I was a part of,” he says. “I hope the scene can grow into a safer, more inclusive space for everyone.”
Wegner told me via text on July 27: “I acknowledge that I have bullied my bandmates and abused them verbally. I have bullied other people within the scene as well who were not bandmates.”
The Hussy’s co-founder, drummer/vocalist Heather Sawyer, has confirmed that she is leaving the band, which formed in 2008, bringing a popular homegrown act to an end.
Even before the Burger Records news broke, The Hussy’s members had discussed the possibility of breaking up. Sawyer and fellow Hussy member Tyler Fassnacht (who also plays with Sawyer in Proud Parents and with Wegner in Fire Heads) both posted statements on the weekend of July 25 that acknowledged problems with Wegner’s behavior, and both apologized for not speaking up about it earlier. They stated that Wegner was seeking help.
The shake-up around Wegner reveals how much work the local music community needs to do, both in holding individuals accountable and creating a more just, respectful climate. The founders of Half-Stack Sessions, a group that advocates for women and non-binary people in Madison’s music community, issued a statement on August 5 addressing the ongoing need to create a safer music community. It wasn’t about any one person, but instead focused on the challenges and opportunities the COVID-19 crisis and the exploding movement against racism and police brutality have created for music scenes:
As we’re learning how to deal with the fallout of digital actions, we at Half-Stack believe that the guiding principles of conduct in public space should be: to listen to others, to amplify those who are not heard, and to act with extreme empathy. We are standing in solidarity with survivors of abuse that is sexually, racially, or motivated by any prejudice. With solidarity, we summon our collective power to ask questions of ourselves and others.
As we talk about defunding the police, we need to begin the work of imagining how that happens in our local community. What does this mean for the local DIY music scenes? How does this conversation relate to ubiquitous accounts of personal abuse locally and nationally?
How do we move forward with processes of accountability? We feel the push-and-pull of quietly listening or quietly being complicit, and question how to be present in conversations of accountability. How do we collectively create a safer scene? How can our cities be safe for all of their inhabitants?
The example of Wegner also helps to illustrate more generally why people often choose not to call out inappropriate behavior: Maybe they enjoy the benefits of rubbing elbows with a popular musician, maybe they don’t want to upset someone who could ostracize them or stop booking their band, maybe they fear the trauma that can come with speaking out, and maybe they brush things off in the interests of friendship or misguided scene solidarity.
In addition to playing in a local band that’s been popular enough to occasionally sell out the High Noon Saloon, Wegner has also been very active as a show booker, recording engineer, and label owner. The Hussy has attracted its share of attention from publications and audiences outside of Madison. That gives Wegner some power and influence, and that helps to explain why there’s so much attention on his behavior in particular.
The greater context here, though, is a whole set of problems that don’t begin or end with one person’s behavior. Respondents to a 2016 survey Tone Madison conducted reported experiencing a range of inappropriate behavior in the music community: sexist comments from fellow musicians, aggressive unwelcome advances from men at shows, full-on harassment and groping, and venue staff not always doing enough to make their establishments safe for people from marginalized populations. Still, it’s rare for people in Madison’s music community to go public with specific accusations about specific people, beyond whisper networks and private Facebook groups.
Several women spoke with Tone Madison on condition of anonymity due to their concerns about privacy and retaliation. Wegner has responded to these accounts as well.
A survivor’s alienation from the music community
One woman who is active in the local arts community as both a performer and frequent show-goer says that Wegner “tried to silence” her when she accused her ex-boyfriend, another musician, of sexual assault. In 2018, she posted about her ex on an online forum for women in the music scene, not naming the ex or his bands (she also declined to name them publicly for this story). She says word eventually spread from there. About a month later, she says she heard from a friend that Wegner had encouraged the ex she accused to get a lawyer and explore legal action against her. (Another source, who also did not wish to be named here, backed up this aspect of her account.)
“[Bobby and I] had been friends, or so I thought, and I felt like he was perpetuating this situation and he couldn’t be man enough to tell me or express any doubts or feelings to me at the time,” the woman says. “When I would see him out even months after that he would try to nod and smile at me, after I had blocked him on Facebook.”
After this experience, the woman felt she had to be a lot more careful about which shows she attended. She no longer felt comfortable causally attending local music shows, and she’d check show lineups for bands connected to Wegner or her ex. “I only want to leave my house for bands I feel strongly about, or when I know at least one person in the band,” she says.
She also says others in the music community proved lacking in their support for survivors and their commitment to making local music safe and inclusive, depending on which side they chose. “So many people in the scene have shown me time and time again that they are fake and not truly for the cause,” she says. “The people that are feminists are feminists in name only and want to do it to score brownie points… for me, ironically, I noticed that it was the people that shouted the loudest that they’re inclusive or feminist or punk were the first people to say terrible things behind my back to my friends.”
Wegner’s account is that: “There were serious allegations being made public. Based on the information the friend gave me I said he should consider getting an attorney if necessary…. As far as I know ultimately he did not get an attorney involved, but I definitely think my support of this musician contributed to her being ostracized from parts of the music scene. I’m sorry for that and acknowledge my contribution to that.”
The woman never confronted Wegner directly about whether he’d encouraged her ex to threaten her with legal actions. She says that by this point Wegner had a reputation for lashing out at people in the music community who challenged him, and she felt talking with him directly would just lead to more problems.
She notes that she had previously been on friendly terms with Wegner, and had text conversations a few years ago in which Wegner confided in her about one of his ex-girlfriends. “I absolutely believe that there was a twisted power dynamic going on there and he really wanted to rile people against this younger girl,” she says.
This account concerns a woman who dated Wegner when she was 19 and he was 29. The woman involved gave a close friend permission to speak with Tone Madison on her behalf. “She thinks it should be put out there that she is not the only woman under 20 he had made uncomfortable or messaged,” says the woman’s friend, who did not wish to be named due to concerns about retaliation and the woman’s privacy. The friend adds that Wegner, since breaking up with the woman, inappropriately posted information about their relationship on Facebook in a way that caused the woman to feel ostracized.
About this particular situation, Wegner acknowledges that “My actions have absolutely directly made this person feel unwelcome in the scene. With my position within the scene I realize how damaging that could be. I didn’t quite see that at the time but I understand it now.”
The friend quoted above is herself a young woman in the music community, who has also had contact with Wegner that made her uncomfortable.
“I was apparently one of multiple girls he strangely texted at night on tour when I was 19,” she says. “Nothing explicit, but it left me uncomfortable and our conversations stopped after that. Looking back has always been increasingly uncomfortable.”
She added: “He was messaging me a good bit…trying to be friendly and inviting me to his shows, and me repeatedly telling him I’m not old enough, but inviting me to house shows and then gave me his number, and this was all the way up to mid-late 2016. I was giving him the benefit of the doubt that he wanted to be friends, or help our band, but was very smiley and friendly in messages in a creepy way and made a point of mentioning [my partner] multiple times. It felt increasingly weird. But I texted him after he gave me his number about an upcoming show, and then it was probably just a few days after that when he texted me that conversation I described.”
About his text interactions with various women, Wegner acknowledged that “At the time it was not my intention to make them feel uncomfortable. I realize now how it made them feel uncomfortable and I’m sorry I did that…The power dynamic is way off and I understand that now.”
A pattern of anger
Addressing a Facebook post to Wegner on July 24, fellow musician Chris Joutras portrayed Wegner’s angry outbursts as a pattern that wears people down:
“People have been trying to come talk to you for 10 years, but all they get is abuse: you screaming in their face/bullying and personally shredding them or an overwhelming amount and rapidly sent massive texts, a common abusive tactic to instill the feeling that it’s not worth the emotional and physical energy to stand up to you, even on small matters. It’s known colloquially as the HUSSY FIT and I didn’t come up with it, it was birthed analogously from the numerous people that have felt the brunt of it. Fuck that.”
Tyler Fassnacht is quite close to Wegner, having played together in Fire Heads and The Hussy for years. Fassnacht acknowledges his own complicity in not speaking out sooner about Wegner’s outbursts.
“All I can speak to is what I saw and experienced myself, which was verbal: getting very angry quickly when someone would disagree with him or call him out or correct him,” Fassnacht says. “Yelling and berating that could turn very personal. Bringing up kind things he had done in the past to discredit valid angry or discontented feelings in the present.”
While he didn’t want to center himself or play the victim, Fassnacht, who has been talking with Wegner as he seeks out help, also pointed to the bigger issues at hand.
“With the pandemic it’s hard to feel like a scene even exists at this point, but I’m hoping this helps the scene just be generally more aware,” Fassnacht says. “I’m seeing a bunch a shit going down in scenes all across the US and it’s sad to see all the harm that’s been going on but it’s also kind of a beautiful thing that people are banding together and cleaning up the BS.”
Carleigh Knowles, who has been active for several years in Half-Stack Sessions and took part in writing the statement quoted above, got into an argument with Wegner in 2017, after several people in the music community criticized Wegner for often using sexualized images of women on his show posters. (I collaborated with Knowles and Half-Stack Sessions on a 2019 event, Infamous Local Fest.) The two got into a conversation at the Crystal Corner Bar, where Wegner was hosting a show for his annual Turkeyfest. It started off friendly, but soon turned to the subject of posters, Knowles says: “That was something he really didn’t like because he thought of it as censorship. He brought up censorship to me and said, ‘Well, St. Vincent’s ass is on her album cover, so are you gonna boycott her too?'”
Knowles says things eventually escalated, and that Wegner called her and other women criticizing his show posters naive. She clarifies that they’d never called for a boycott of Wegner, but that some people had made the personal choice to stop going to his shows.
“All of a sudden he was just yelling at me,” Knowles says. “We were having a pretty normal conversation but he remembered the flyers and started to get heated… he was straight up yelling at me in the Crystal Corner and there weren’t that many people around, and I remember looking around and going, ‘How is no one else reacting?'” Wegner texted her to apologize the next day, saying that he had been stressed out about some bands dropping off the show at the last minute. She says that at one point Wegner made some show posters that used images from Burt Reynolds’ famous nude photoshoot, apparently in response to criticism of flyers with nude women on them.
Wegner responded that this is “a very accurate account of what happened and I’m extremely sorry because this was a person whom I considered a closed friend, and it ruined our friendship, rightfully so. I was a real dick about it at the time. I can see how intimidating it must have felt to be on the receiving end of that. Ultimately I did take what they said to heart, and I drastically changed the way I produced flyers. Unfortunately it took longer than it should have.” As for the Burt Reynolds posters, he says: “It was completely childish. It was stupid of me.”
Knowles is also reflecting on her own friendship with Wegner and includes herself among people who’ve enabled his harmful behaviors or turned a blind eye. “There was definitely a time when I was getting the benefit of being friends with the musician everybody likes in town,” she admits.
It’s in part because of Wegner’s popularity and connections that these behaviors have largely festered as an open secret.
“Everyone has kind of known this for a long time and we didn’t get together before to say, ‘Hey, it’s kind of messed-up that we let one person and their boys’ club kind of run the scene.'”
The Nobunny connection
Nobunny, real name Justin Champlin, admitted in a statement on July 23 that he “used [his] power and influence to take advantage of young women and teenage girls.” In the same statement, Champlin announced that “Nobunny is over.” Burger Records has announced it will shut down, after survivors on a “Lured By Burger” Instagram account and elsewhere shared stories that allege people involved with the label and members of affiliated bands took part in a range of predatory sexual behaviors. Before shutting down, Burger initially tried to announce a poorly received overhaul that would have included a name change and adding an imprint for women, “BRGRRRL.”
Wegner addressed the Nobunny revelations in a public Facebook post on his personal account on July 23, condemning Champlin’s behavior and saying he wasn’t aware of any of it before last week. Wegner also wrote: “I myself have had anger issues at times in my life and I am extremely sorry for the people I have hurt and the friends I have lost because of my outbursts.” (This initial post about Nobunny prompted others in the local music community to start talking more openly about Wegner’s own behavior.)
Wegner and Sawyer both say they were unaware of Champlin’s inappropriate behavior towards women and girls in his years as Nobunny before Champlin publicly acknowledged it.
“I’m absolutely 100% disgusted and disappointed,” Sawyer says of Champlin’s behavior. “First and foremost, my thoughts are with the victims of all this. I honestly feel really really naive and stupid, but I had NO idea whatsoever of his behaviors. I just didn’t. My relationship with Justin was pretty straightforward and professional. We would drive to the city, get to our hotel, soundcheck, eat somewhere, play and then go back to the hotel. Repeat for a month. Had I known about any of this, I would obviously never have played with him. I just can’t stress enough how badly I feel for these women. They are all extremely brave in coming forward. May they get help and peace.”
Sawyer says she hopes Champlin gets help, but found his public apology a bit “weak” because Champlin talks about his own experiences as a survivor of abuse. “I understand he was abused, but that gives zero excuse,” Sawyer says. “He kind of made it like well, I did these things, but this happened to me too. I feel it should have just owned up to it all without a ‘but’ added in there. I am very sorry those things happened to him as well, but own up to what you did without adding that.”
Before the accounts about Wegner’s behavior started coming out, Wegner voiced support for survivors and accountability. “I hope if anyone feels like they are being abused or are being assaulted in Madison that they come forward in a way that can help enact change,” he said in an exchange on the morning of July 24, when I messaged him and Sawyer for comment about Nobunny. “It’s not entirely on them of course as everyone needs to self-police the scene if they see or hear of something questionable happening,” Wegner said at the time.
After more discussion blew up publicly about Wegner’s behavior, Sawyer said in a Facebook post that she was sorry for her inaction in the past and that Wegner was seeking professional help. She declined to comment further, other than to confirm that she’d left The Hussy and to say: “I am beyond devastated.”
Addressing the role of Tone Madison
I want to address the fact that I’ve used my platform as a journalist to write about Bobby Hussy, his bands, other artists he’s recorded or mentored, and the shows he books. I’ve covered a lot of his work on Tone Madison and in other local publications. Bobby and I even worked together for a while, years ago, at MadCity Music Exchange. Once people started talking about his behavior in the wake of the Burger Records implosion, I felt a responsibility to pursue the story, given all the positive attention his work has received here in the past.
When making coverage decisions about music, we should ask basic questions about the music itself—Is this compelling? Does it have character? Would I listen to it again if I weren’t writing about it? Does it push me to listen to music differently?—but our responsibility as journalists also goes deeper than that.
We have to look out for our community and hold people accountable, especially people who are relatively prominent in local music and have an audience beyond Madison. I don’t write about musicians to ingratiate myself with them or puff up their egos, but at times I have been oblivious about how said egos impact other people. After all, you can’t do good work in media without really thinking about who has power and who doesn’t in any given situation.
However small a local music community might seem in the grand scheme of things, it matters a great deal to the people involved. Most of them are in it for more than creativity, expression, and entertainment. They’re also in it for a chance to connect with other people and a chance to be more fully themselves. The end product of a show or a recording matters, but so does the social climate around it. If that climate isn’t supportive and inclusive, we rob people of opportunities to express themselves and opportunities to hear from a healthy multitude of voices. I hope the people who talked with me about their experiences for this story get the help and support they need, and that they get the opportunity to participate fully in the music scenes they care about.
Over the years I’ve tried to measure complaints about Bobby (i.e. the outbursts and the show posters) against his positive contributions—for instance, putting his clout behind newer local bands, and booking Madison shows for great touring acts like Obnox, Xetas, and Nots. I hope he is also able to get help and move forward constructively.
As I mentioned above: There are accounts of other problems in the local music community beyond one person, of course. There are plenty of open secrets about various kinds of harm. These rarely translate into open, sustained public conversation that actually holds people accountable. Journalists aren’t entirely helpless in this situation, but it does take considerable effort to bring these stories out into the open.
People have very good reasons for not wanting to go public with accounts of abuse—it’s painful, it’s traumatic, it could expose people to further harm, it can burn bridges. Many times I’ve been in the position of more or less knowing about something, but being unable to publish an actual story, because people won’t talk. Publishing a story that just says “there’s a rumor out there that…” doesn’t really work, and could cause further pain for survivors who didn’t consent to share their stories.
There are other things we can do—holding off on covering someone, for instance, pushing bigger conversations about safety and inclusivity in music—but admittedly, that doesn’t accomplish the goals of holding specific people accountable for specific behavior. All I can say is that if people want to talk, we’re here and will listen to you with care and respect.