Get To Know SUSTO: The Opener for The Lumineers Talks Pain, Faith and Love
Not too long ago I got the opportunity to talk on the phone with Justin Osborne, the frontman for Charleston-based indie rockers SUSTO, and the two of us touched on some pretty profound subjects. We reviewed their latest effort on the blog when it released back in January, and will be covering them in Indianapolis this coming Friday as they open up for The Lumineers on this next leg of the Cleopatra World Tour, so be on the lookout for that. In the meantime, see what Justin had to say.
TUNED UP: First off, I wanted to chat just a little bit about your new record, & I’m Fine Today, which released not too long ago. It’s your second full-length, and the follow-up to 2014’s self-titled debut. The lyrics are no doubt more personal, but before we delve into that, I wanted to talk about the instrumentation, how that writing process went this time around, and how it compares to your debut. After listening to both records, I noticed that & I’m Fine Today is significantly edgier than Susto… perhaps you took a different approach this time around?
Justin Osborne: With the first album, we weren’t expecting much out of it, and we were short on time. It was made over several months, but I was broke so we’d take studio time whenever I could afford it and didn’t take a lot of risks in the studio because of that limited time. Also, we definitely set out to make a simpler record with the first one. This time we wanted to tie in some different genres and upgrade the sound, but most importantly we wanted to have more fun. As far as creating the sound, everybody involved brought something different to the table. When you have a lot of people bringing a different element, different influences and different ideas, you get a diverse soundscape. We have multiple genres even within single songs. We tried to kick it up a notch with the entertainment value of the music, even aside from the lyrics. We also wanted to make music that reflected the lyrics as much as possible; it’s very important to pair the two so that it gives off that kind of atmosphere.
I noticed a lot of those different pairings of styles from listening as well, even in single tracks like you said. That’s something I really enjoyed about the record, which I reviewed a while back for the blog. One of my favorite songs on the record for multiple reasons would have to be “Gay in the South.” Be it the lush vocal harmonies, the fact that it felt so packed with emotion, or how heavy it was lyrically, that song really stood out to me, and I was wondering if there’s a story behind it. Was there a personal experience that inspired “Gay in the South,” and how did that come about?
Everything we’ve written comes from a very personal place. When I started writing that song I’d just found out about someone close to me coming out. Then as the song developed it evolved more into me expressing my frustration with the way that certain people have to live their life because of how society sees them, especially in the conservative Christian South. I’ve grown up with friends that are gay, and that inherent struggle that exists just by being yourself can put people in dangerous places and lead them to things like substance abuse. That struggle just takes a toll on people’s lives and it’s so sad to me. Eventually the song came to be about more than that though.
The name of the song is “Gay in the South” and the first verse is about someone being gay and what that means, but the song is also about people being on the outside in general. For example, the second verse is about women getting taken advantage of or abused; I think women are often put in vulnerable positions, especially considering the high levels of domestic violence in South Carolina. We’re even attaching the meaning to people of color. The song uses the term “gay” as a broader term for human rights and social issues in general, so it’s a heavy song. It’s packed with a lot of real hurt and pain that I’ve felt and still feel for people that I’m close with. I have a lot of close friends that are LGBTQ+, and I love them, but I know how backwards a lot of people think about what matters in their lives. It just felt like I couldn’t not write that song. As for the soundscapes, which we were talking about earlier, I feel really happy with the way we painted that picture sonically. Even with the explosive guitar solo and all that atmospheric stuff going on in the background, it still feels emotional, and it should be.
Definitely. Moving onto singles for a second, I was curious if there was a special meaning behind the title for one of them, “Jah Werx.” The title was the first thing that caught my attention when I was first looking at the tracks so I was curious on that end.
Yeah there’s definitely meaning behind that – you know, “Jah werx” is a phrase that’s used in a lot of reggae music, and it’s common in Rastafarian culture as well. Basically it means “God is good,” or “God works,” which to me translates to “it’s all good,” or “it’s okay,” because Jah werx. It’s a phrase that I wouldn’t say I use all the time, but when somebody says it you know what they mean, and the song captures that mood. The world is so crazy with everything going on, and you don’t feel like it’s ever going to end, but it does eventually. That’s something I think you can take from the whole record: shit can (and it will) hit the fan, but you just have to ride it out and eventually it calms down for you to keep your feet on the ground and keep going. It comes in “waves,” you know what I mean?
Hahaha well played. I am a fan of reggae music so I was already familiar with the term “Jah;” I just hadn’t heard the “werx” part of the phrase before and that’s one of the reasons why I asked. I think it wraps up the album quite nicely too – the whole album has that kind of message, so what better way to close out the record than with “Jah Werx.” Last question for you: TUNED UP is all about the local scene – we’re based in Columbus, Ohio, so we’re involved with that scene obviously but we’re all for those regional scenes outside of Columbus as well. Personally, I am always curious how artists’ local scenes shape or influence them, which in your case would be Charleston, South Carolina. From what I’ve read, Charleston is pretty rich in terms of music scene, so how does that influence you, Justin Osborne as a frontman, and SUSTO collectively as a band?
I think it has a huge influence on all of us because we do have a great music scene. It’s fairly diverse and it’s also not super young – there are people who have been making music in Charleston for years. The scope of it is starting to expand though with more success stories, like Shovels & Rope, who came out of Charleston and blew up about two years ago, hitting the road, or as we call it, “pounding the rock,” and in a lot of ways that’s influenced us. I watched them rise, saw what they were doing and tried to do that same thing. When that did happen and we put a record out, everybody (including them) supported us. But it’s like that in Charleston – everybody’s got each other’s backs, goes to each other’s shows, plays with each other and there’s definitely a small-town vibe. With that sometimes you want to get out, but the best part is that people support each other. I think as far as being influenced by the city, we’re influenced beyond the music scene. Charleston’s a really special place to live because it’s very rich in history, but there’s also a very large demographic of younger adults so the community feels expansive even though it’s small. It’s tight-knit, and everybody knows each other; you can’t really go out of your house without running into 4 or 5 people you know, which can be a good and bad thing. Also, with how close it is to the ocean, I find going to the beach very therapeutic, and that’s something you can almost hear in the sound of the overall scene. You can tell that we come from a beach town, and we’re very fortunate to have that. The ocean is something that inspires, and it also can be a relief and a great way to relax. There’s also an incredible food scene and art scene in general, so you can do a lot of local stuff.
People in Charleston love Charleston and they love being from Charleston, and that’s another great reason why it’s so great to be a band from there. The people love their local music, make it a scene, and support that scene. When we first started it didn’t take long for us to get traction in town because like everybody wants to hear the new band from their beloved town, and everybody roots for you. Whenever we come home from touring they treat us like family, especially in the last year or so. They all want to see us succeed, and we want to see everybody else succeed too. It’s just great to feel appreciated in our community by neighbors, friends, and people that have known us for years, happy to see us doing well. I could go on and on about Charleston I love it so much, and we all feel that way. We definitely feel very fortunate to have come up as a band in Charleston and to be able to play an active role in the music scene we have right now.
I’m super glad to hear that you have that community because not all bands have that. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview, and we’ll catch you at the Indianapolis stop of the Cleopatra World Tour this Friday!