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Interview: Justin Osborne (SUSTO)

29 October 2021

Photo by Sully Sullivan

The release of SUSTO’s fourth album, Time in the Sun, comes at an important point in singer Justin Osborne’s life. While many of the songs were written pre-pandemic, two major life events – becoming a father and then, months later, losing his own father – played heavily in the overall theme of the record and influenced the lyrics. For Osborne, it’s been a time of intense emotions and with the new album release and subsequent touring, the SUSTO founding member is hoping for a chance to return to pre-pandemic normalcy by sharing his music with fans in live settings.

On the eve of the release of Time in the Sun, Osborne, a Charleston, South Carolina resident, checked in from Nashville where he was working on some new songs before heading to Iowa to play at Codfish Hollow, a barn in the middle of nowhere set up to host concerts, one of Osborne’s favorite venues to play.

What’s your State of the Union address for SUSTO in 2021?

JUSTIN: SUSTO is a project I started seven years ago. It’s finally becoming what I intended it to be which is a live lineup of incredible musicians who also play on the record that help me bring to life these narrative-style songs. All my songs are pretty confessional. There’s definitely a popular element to the way I write but there’s an ongoing narrative trying to parse out some understanding of life from my experiences. Right now, people who are just finding us are going to find us hitting our stride. This is our fourth album, we’ve learned a lot in the studio, we’ve learned a lot on the road and the band is at it’s peak right now in how well we’ve been gelling live and in the studio creatively together. It never bothers me when people haven’t heard of the band before because every new album, we’re trying to reach new people. We’re an indie band so it’s not like our first album had radio hits. I released it myself on Bandcamp. Every show we’re reaching new people and every album we’re reaching new people. As someone who has been here since the beginning, I feel like the band is more itself than it’s ever been. For me, the vision that I’ve had is coming to fruition and being realized every night on stage and the work we’re doing in the studio. I’m really happy to be doing it and to have made it this far.

As you go from album to album, do you try to challenge yourself to try something new that you haven’t done before?

JUSTIN: To a certain extent yes, to a certain extent no. SUSTO is somewhere on the boundaries of Americana music. There are influences that come in from all over the place, from different international styles to electronic music to rock and roll. But, at the end of the day, from album to album you might hear a progression of sonic exploration and a deeper lyrical narrative but I also think we have created somewhat of a sound for ourselves. Our influences are where we’re from, we’re from a coastal place so I think that factors in as well to our sound. There’s definitely a bit of beachiness in all of it. At the same time, that’s something I’m just realizing. As I listen back on the records, I can hear the difference in the direction that we decided to take on each one. I also feel like they’re cohesive, the full body of work, each thing compliments each other in some way. I don’t feel compelled to reinvent ourselves on every album but, after you pour yourself into one sonic landscape, you want to paint a different one. I would compare it to painting a landscape and painting a sunny, beautiful meadow on one record and then on the next one saying, “I want this to be a little more doleful and cloudy.” My life swings like a pendulum sometimes so sometimes that sonic difference can reflect the different phases of my life.

You mentioned Americana and you mentioned beachy. I’m having a hard time pigeonholing the sound. I like to look on Instagram and see who we both mutually are following and you’re following artists like Ruston Kelly and Molly Parden and Lydia Loveless, who I would consider Americana. But I don’t hear you strictly as an Americana artist.

JUSTIN: I think our first album got tagged as an Americana album and I wouldn’t argue with that. Our first album is still pushing the limits of what you’d call Americana. It’s got a lot of indie rock in it, there’s a lot of indie rock influences in SUSTO. I grew up in the rural south so traditional music and southern rock, things that would fall under the Americana umbrella today, were a big part of my influences. But, I grew up in South Carolina so we loved Hootie and the Blowfish. Radio and fun rock stuff was cool too. And then living close to the ocean, you don’t even realize how that permeates into your psyche and your creative juices.

I’m totally fine being considered an Americana band because I would like the Americana genre to include bands like us. It’s hard to find a place where you fit into the music scene right now. We’re not like a super hard rock band or strictly a rock band. I play an acoustic guitar for most of our set so it is this fusion of a lot of things. The biggest piece of our pie chart could be considered Americana or derivative of Americana or some sort of continuation of folk music. I feel like it’s folk rock that really utilizes a bunch of influences and tries to stay fun and light-hearted while also tackling very serious concepts at time. I try not to get too caught up on the genre. I used to be like, “We’re not an Americana band!” And then I was like, “Well, we kind of are.” The older you get, you stop fighting everything and start to realize that you should listen to what people say sometimes. If people think you sound like you fit something, they probably feel that way for a reason.

I’m older than you so my references are a bit dated, but I hear a band like the Meat Puppets in some of the stuff you’re doing.

JUSTIN: I know who the Meat Puppets are and the era and they are kind of adjacent to Nirvana and all that but I’m not really familiar with their music. But, ’90s rock I am familiar with. I’m very much a product of ’90s radio rock like Beck, Hootie, Matchbox 20, Third Eye Blind and even some of the more profound stuff like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. At the same time, we listened to the radio. Most of the time we listened to Christian radio but I would ride with my friend’s parents home from school and they’d have the regular radio station on. I still love Beck’s “Where It’s At” because that was a song that I found at skate night in the 4th grade. There’s definitely ’90s influences but sometimes people will be like, “You remind me of the Meat Puppets” or some other band and I’ll be like, “I wish I knew more of the catalog so I could parse out those similarities.” I was sheltered a bit in that realm.

The Meat Puppets can be described as sun-baked, southwest, psychedelic country.

JUSTIN: I can definitely see how we can be similar to that because I would use a lot of the same descriptors.

What bands would you say were the ones where you made the switch from being a fan of a song, like you mentioned about Beck, to being a fan of the band and listening to a whole album?

JUSTIN: I think I really started to appreciate that whenever I started playing music. It’s not like they’re mutually exclusive. I guess I started playing music whenever I started to get into that phase where I started getting into records in the long form. A lot of that stuff was happening to me when I was into pop-punk; like Taking Back Sunday, Saves the Day and New Found Glory. Those were my first concerts that I went to with friends. Some people point to that as being “bad” music and, to some extent, I get that but it was teenage angst and silliness in a lot of ways predecessors had been. There’s not a lot of those influences still in my music, I don’t think, but they are definitely down there and that’s where the DIY approach I’ve taken from the beginning has come from. All of the bands that I liked were on small labels and were booking their own tours. It was underground bands I was getting into. But, I was also into Matchbox 20’s Yourself or Someone Like You. My dad went to high school with Rob Thomas’s dad, they were like best friends, so my dad was always a big fan of Rob Thomas and everything he did. We listened to that album all the way through. Hootie and the Blowfish’s Cracked Rearview and then also Jim Croce albums and CCR. There were a handful of CDs – Green Day’s Dookie was another one that was pivotal for me – and then I started getting my own CDs. I got Bob Marley’s Legend and Sublime’s self-titled. I’m trying to think what the beginning of all that was, it was the pop-punk bands but even before that, at a younger age, I had gotten into some of those ’90s bands in a full-album kind of way.

Are you constantly writing songs? Are the songs on Time in the Sun ones that were written two or three years ago and it takes that long to get them out into the world?

JUSTIN: I was in the studio yesterday working on my next album. The process doesn’t stop for me, I have to take advantage of the time I have whenever I’m home or some place with a good stuff to work. I don’t write every day but I don’t ever stop. Some times I have time to and I feel compelled to, and some days I don’t. With Time in the Sun, one of the songs, “Summertime,” I’m pretty sure I wrote that in 2018 with a friend in Nashville. That might be the oldest song on the album. Half of them were written pre-pandemic and then we started recording right before the pandemic and then I had lots of life things happening, from becoming a dad, losing my own dad, and having the pandemic happen and having all the renewed conversations about social awareness, there’s a lot going on so I kept writing. But, the writing process for a record, this record is coming out at the end of 2021 and I would say I was writing the earliest song for it by mid-2018 which, at the time, I was still trying to figure out my third record. The songs are all a snapshot of time but this one I was willing to have a little bit bigger of a window because I wanted the album to be a snapshot of my perspective more than my experience for a specific number of years. Generally, it’s a 2 year writing and recording process. It’s rare that I’ll go further back than that for a song. I made 20 songs for Time in the Sun and I like all 20 of them and I would have put them all out but I didn’t want to put a double album out and I wanted the concept of Time in the Sun to come through and I chose the ones that fit it. That left songs that also have their own cohesion and have a cohesion with other things that are happening in my life now. The process never stops, there’s markers. Those markers are the releases of certain bodies of work.

Is it anti-climactic after working on songs for 2 or 3 years and then you go out on a 6-month tour to play those songs?

JUSTIN: It’s not anti-climactic. I’m listening to Time in the Sun and even though I wrote this about this other stuff, it feels really applicable to me right now. I’m excited to play these songs live. This album is meaningful to me and the stuff I was working through in the writing is stuff I’m still working through. In some ways, it’s led to the stuff I’m dealing with now in my life. In this specific season of my life, I wouldn’t call it anti-climactic, I would say it’s an event horizon. It’s all about creating the project and bringing it together and that can take years. And then it all of a sudden it becomes accessible to the public, it’s out there. It’s a very real point that you cross. The album becomes something different. It ceases to be yours and the teams, it becomes everyone’s.

Do you have any album release rituals or things you do as a band, or by yourself, to mark the release of an album?

JUSTIN: I cry. Just thinking about it makes me want to cry now. It’s always a really important day. It’s a day you work towards for years. I’m usually busy. We do in-stores. We’re still a band that is trying to break ourselves out into the world. So, when an album comes out, we do a lot of work, especially right out of the gate. That work continues for a while. My thing now, which would be the 2021 equivalent of what artists did in the ’70s, is Spotify Artists. For artists, they’ll show you in real time how many plays your song has had. You can see the metrics of what’s happening and who is listening to it where, and how many people where, and how old those people are, what they’re gender identity is. In some ways, it goes a lot deeper than what you really need to know because it’s easy to obsess over, but I watch that. It’s not just the album. When the first singles comes out, you get to watch and see them get plays. Those plays are more than numbers, they are actual ears of people that are hearing this work. It’s kind of nerve racking, honestly, to have that much information but that is my ritual.

You’re very comfortable on the road. That’s where you prefer to be is playing songs in front of people.

JUSTIN: Yeah. I’m learning that in real time, at this point in my life. The road is my home. I didn’t necessarily mean to make it my home, but it became my home. It’s where I feel comfortable. I feel comfortable with my band, traveling in whatever way – busses, vans, trains, planes. I feel comfortable in hotels and Air BNBs and venues.

Was 2020 the longest that you hadn’t been on the road?

JUSTIN: Absolutely, since 2014, it was the longest. The silver linings were huge for me. I could not have picked a better time to be forced off the road. My daughter was born in June of 2019, from 8 months to about 2 is the time I was home. I’m just starting to get back out on the road. First steps, first words, when I found out I was going to become a dad, I was sure that I was going to miss all those things. It was a future pain that I decided to go ahead and accept and chalk it up to me getting to do what I love for a living. The universe threw me a curve ball. Instead of that, I was the only one there when she took her first steps. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to have been there for that. My dad passed away in May of 2020 and, if I had been on tour, I wouldn’t have gotten to spend the last week of his life with him. Even before that, the months leading up to that, we knew he was going down hill after Christmas of 2019. It was hard, he died of lung cancer and obviously COVID protocol was serious, we didn’t want him to get COVID and go down even quicker. I still got to be with him. I got to talk to him. I got to have a lot of closure which I know many people aren’t fortunate to have. Those are both silver linings in my personal life. Those are two important parts of the live cycle that I otherwise would have missed and would still be very broken up about.

In between, I got to work on the record. We were in between labels, we didn’t know how we were going to pay for it. We were going to use money from shows, but money from shows also has to go toward paying payroll and paying the bills and stuff. But, because of the pandemic, the government is giving people money. Our business manager secured us substantial funds from the government, which we paid back with our record advance, that helped us keep working. I can’t tell you how much I needed to be doing the creative work that is the studio instead of the live out-on-the-road stuff in those periods when I was home and experience so much of fatherhood and watching my dad pass as well. It was so crucial that I didn’t have to wait to go into the studio. I was actively in the studio, if not every week, then every other week. We did like 50 or 60 days in the studio. It is right down the road from my house. I was working with one of my best friends on the record and a lot of other great friends coming in one at a time, because we we were keeping to COVID protocols.

In terms of touring, is it always a full band on tour or do you pare it down based on economics, support slots, venues booked for the tour?

JUSTIN: It’s flexible. I try to do it with a full band as much as possible but our full band is 6 people and people need to be paid a living wage so it’s not always in the cards for that. The vast majority of the shows that we’re going to be doing in the next year, year and a half, are going to be full band because it takes a full band to bring the record to life. Once the record has had it’s moment, it’s “time in the sun,” then it goes back to the songs. In between albums, I’ll always do some solo touring or pared back touring that has a bit more of a storytelling element. That’s one thing that isn’t part of the full band show is storytelling. It’s more of a show, it’s energetic, it’s about the interplay between the band. When I go out on the solo or duo or even trio shows, they are geared toward storytelling and the songs and what they are really about. SUSTO is a band but I also consider it my day thing. I also consider my bandmates to be members of SUSTO. I think, artists like Cat Power and Bon Iver, people that I’m big fans of, I always admire that the name works whether it’s just them or a band. It’s also hard to keep a band together, at times, SUSTO has been a revolving lineup. I’m the guy that’s always there.

I saw Quiet Riot recently and there are no original members. The most recent original member who was still left was the drummer, Frankie Banali. But he passed away and now the band tours with no original members.

JUSTIN: We toured with Boston early on and I was like learning about …

Wait! You toured with Boston?

JUSTIN: Yeah. It was one of the first big tours we got. It was only 3 shows but it was huge for us. It was a similar thing, they had a couple of OG members but not to the extent of Quiet Riot where literally nobody is an original one. But, they are keeping the music going so I’m not going to knock that.

I can’t imagine you playing with Boston. That blows my mind.

JUSTIN: A few of their shows were in the Carolinas and I have a long relationship with a lot of promoters in the Carolinas because I’ve been doing shows in my part of the country for a long time. It was a thing like that, where a buddy was like, “Boston needs openers for these 3 shows.” And I was like, “Hell yes!” We were still touring in a minivan, it didn’t have a bumper or anything. There is some picture of that old beat-up minivan parked beside Boston’s boss and we were all outside of it looking like idiots. But, it was fun. I still have the tour shirt. People are like, “Nice Boston shirt, where’d you see them?” And I am like, “I was on this tour. I played these shows.”

SUSTO tour dates

:2021
October 30 – Maquoketa, IA – Codfish Hollow
October 31 — Chicago, IL — SPACE
November 2 — Indianapolis, IN — The HiFi
November 3 — Louisville, KY — Zanzabar
November 4 — Nashville, TN — The Basement East
November 19 — Asheville, NC — Grey Eagle Tavern & Music Hall
November 20 — Charlotte, NC — Neighborhood Theatre
December 4 — Key West, FL — Fort East Martello
December 10 — Athens, GA — Southern Brewing Co.
December 16 — Mobile, AL — Callaghans’s Irish Social Club
December 17 — Birmingham, AL — Saturn
December 18 — Atlanta, GA — Terminal West

2022
January 12-16 — Todo Santos, Mexico — Tropic of Cancer Concert Series
January 21 — Mexico City, Mexico — Bajo Circuito
January 25-26 — London, UK — Americanafest UK
February 10 — Raleigh, NC — The Pour House Music Hall
February 11 — Farmville, VA — North Street Press Club
February 12 — Charlottesville, VA — The Southern
February 13 — Baltimore, MD — The 8×10
February 15 — Pittsburgh, PA — Club Cafe
February 17 — Toronto, Ontario — Velvet Underground
February 18 — Montreal, Quebec — Le Ministère
February 19 — South Burlington, VT — Higher Ground Showcase Lounge
February 20 — Exeter, NH — The Word Barn
February 23 — Cambridge, MA — Middle East Upstairs
February 24 — New York, NY — Mercury Lounge
February 26 — Washington, DC — The Hamilton Live
February 27 — Philadelphia, PA — Johnny Brenda’s
March 10 — New Orleans, LA — dba Frenchman
March 11 — Houston, TX — Satellite Bar
March 12 — Fort Worth, TX — Tulips
March 22 — Phoenix, AZ — Last Exit Live
March 23 — Palm Springs, CA — The Alibi
March 24 — West Hollywood, CA — Troubadour
March 25 — Santa Cruz, CA — The Catalyst Atrium
March 26 — Berkeley, CA — Cornerstone
March 29 — Portland, OR — Wonder Ballroom
March 30 — Seattle, WA — Tractor Tavern
April 2 — Denver, CO — Globe Hall
April 3 — Denver, CO — Globe Hall
April 6 — Davenport, IA — The Raccoon Motel
April 7 — Davenport, IA — The Raccoon Motel

 

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