Charleston, South Carolina’s musical identity is forever tied to beach music, an endless revival of 1950s and ’60s rock, pop, and R&B. It’s called the Golden Era for good reason. Staples like Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby”, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ “Stay”, Billy Ward and the Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man”, and every glorious song by Brenton Wood are undeniable, loose, and carefree, perfect slices for a weekend getaway. Elsewhere in Charleston, Justin Osborne’s band SUSTO is creating its own version of life-affirming music. Often labeled as an Americana band, each new release finds SUSTO further escaping that tether. While the band’s records sometimes conjure images of old VW vans parked seaside, stereos playing Gram Parsons or Uncle Tupelo, SUSTO resembles more layered, modern contemporaries like Grandaddy, The Shins, and Frightened Rabbit. Wilco’s transition from alt-country releases like A.M. and Being There to more experimental fare comes to mind. Since 2014’s self-titled debut, SUSTO has followed a similar career trajectory, culminating in their latest release, Time In The Sun. The record pulses with pocket symphony ambitions, recalling a different sort of beachcomber– Brian Wilson. In Osborne’s and producer Wolfgang Zimmerman’s (Band of Horses) hands, the studio becomes another instrument, a means of realizing sounds that were once out of reach when the band first began recording in a storage space.
Despite the layers and heavyweight production, Time In The Sun never sounds synthetic, sterile, or desperately radio-friendly. Osborne never removes himself from the songs; he’s always side-by-side with the listener, his wide-eyed vulnerability juxtaposed with an earned, world-weary sincerity. “Time, Love & Fun”, the opening track, epitomizes SUSTO’s knack for the unexpected: the gentle, rustic guitar eventually gives way to a psychedelic blast, a sonic waylay, Jim Croce turning into The Flaming Lips at their most bombastic. There’s also the irresistible pop of the album’s first two singles, “Get Down” and “Summertime”. With each meticulous track standing on its own, Osborne demonstrates a talent for writing catchy melodies and hooks that belie the album’s more serious subject matter.
It’s September of 2021, and to many, it feels as if the sky is falling. Osborne isn’t selling snake oil or simple solutions; nor is he a Pollyanna singing empty mantras. Instead, he traffics in honesty and solidarity. He understands the difference between optimism and hope: optimism is the hands-off idea that the world will change for the better; hope is the belief that we are the catalysts for change. A product of its times, Time In The Sun captures our pandemic zeitgeist, staring down death and uncertainty, but it’s also a record obsessed with the sun and summer and their figurative and literal restorative powers. After cataloging turmoil and resistance, the album closes in a beautiful, aural prayer, “All Around the World”, with Osborne reassuring us:
All around the world
People singin’ out loud
About what’s goin’ down
They say a new day is comin’
SUSTO will be performing LIVE at Grant’s Lounge on Thursday, September 9th. Tickets are available now!
CF- I was new to SUSTO when my editor gave this assignment, so I’ve been on a deep dive, starting with your first record all the way to your latest, Time In The Sun. With each record, your sound gets more expansive, more epic in scope. My first question: How’d you get here? How’d the sound get so big?
JO- It’s been a bit of a journey. When the band started, I had been in an Americana/emo band back in the early 2000s, from like 2003 to 2012. It was very inspired by early alt-country records, like Wilco and Ryan Bingham, stuff like that. But lyrically, it felt a little juvenile. Then when I had the first SUSTO, in the middle of making it, I went to Cuba and was inspired by this form of songwriting, a very confessional style called trova. That discovery made me want to distinguish myself, leave my other band, and start SUSTO. Lyrically, that was a changing point for me where I started being a lot more open and addressing things that I’d been a bit afraid to address before because I didn’t want to turn people off. I was young. I didn’t want my parents to think bad of me.
But I was still approaching it from an alt-country vibe, so the first record, even though I think there’s definitely elements of other things, and we were trying to be experimental. Basically, our pallet was still very much in the alt-country tradition. A lot of that too was because of budget. We were recording in a storage unit (laughs)! I was basically trading things that I owned for recording time because I didn’t have any money. We were on a timeline. As that first record started to get some traction– and I had to work pretty hard to get in people’s ears, especially not living in a major music city– by the time it came to making our second record, we had a bit more time and budget to explore and experiment. That freedom progressed on to the next record and then this one. I think it’s this culmination of coming from this place where we didn’t have the resources to expand our sound.
Pushing on to where now it’s gotten… I don’t know what to say? Better? But we understand our process better. And by we, I mean myself and my producer, Wolfgang [Zimmerman] primarily, but also this revolving cast, people who have been involved since the first record and still come to help in the studio. Some of them play live with me sometimes.
With Time In The Sun, we recorded it at home studio, which meant that the budget could stretch further. We did it over the quarantine, so there were no shows, there was no wanting for time because we had plenty of time. All of a sudden, my calendar was open! We were able to get money from the government through the relief programs that helped fund the recording. While we were making it, we really didn’t know where [its] home was going to be. We were still in a deal with Rounder Records, which we kind figured we were going to get out of, but we didn’t know who was going to want to put it out. So we were just making it and having faith that it would find the right home. And then right when I finished the tracking, New West had heard about the record and was really interested. We formed this relationship that they have been really excited about.
As for the sound, I think we were able to flesh out this layered, lush sound because of all the time we had, and also for full disclosure, just the funds that we got from the government because we were actually able to pay musicians, who were otherwise out of work, to come in and work in the studio. We opened it up to a lot of folks in our orbit. There’s a long list of people who contributed to the record in some way in the studio. The two constants in that process were myself and my producer Wolfgang, who typically plays live with the band, but he plays drums and produces every record that we’ve done. He’s like a ghost member. Having that kind of time and also having the experience of making the last three records allowed us to envision and execute the textures.
And I’m glad you mentioned the subject matter being epic because at the same time, I lost my dad during the process of making the record, and also I became a dad right at the beginning of making it, and my producer Wolfgang also became a dad. We were both going through these epic phases of life, which also coincided with the fact that we’re kind of hitting our stride creatively, where we’ve got a few records under our belts, and we had both been in the industry for a while. It felt like we were really going after it with this record, and I’m really happy with it. I’ve been so involved with it for the last two years, and I can still listen to it all the way through and enjoy it. So that makes me proud!
Your story resonates with me, and it makes sense why these songs hit me so hard. Over the past year, I’ve experienced the same things, losing my dad and becoming a father. In “Be Gone from Me,” you celebrate the idea of family, banishing anything that threatens it. If it gets in the way of your family’s happiness, it’s superfluous. And “God of Death” opens with, “I don’t wanna think about my father dyin’/ I don’t wanna hear my mother cryin’/ I don’t wanna look into the mirror/ Tryin’ not to lose my shit.” Those songs are about as honest and vulnerable as you can get. It’s funny you use the word confessional. I figured it was a long shot, but I was going to ask if poetry was an influence, particularly the mid-century confessional poets. I’m an English/lit teacher, so that side of me comes out when I encounter lyrics that are more poetic. Your first records have that narrative, story-telling quality typical of country and Americana, songs like “Dream Girl” and “Vampire 66”, but then with your later stuff, the lyrics take that personal turn…
Justin: I’m not an academic in poetry, and but I’m a big fan of confessional poets like Robert Lowell and stuff.
Damn (laughs)! I was going to ask you about folks like Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and that bunch![Lowell’s] The Dolphin is one of the most influential pieces. People always ask, ”What are your musical influences?” And I definitely have a lot of them, but Robert Lowell… I mean, I’m a fan of Plath and the whole confessional cohort. When I was starting SUSTO, I was also studying American Poetry post-World War II, so I was being influenced by this confessionalism– and that combined with the professionalism of the trova, the songwriters in Cuba, I was just like, “I got to say what’s really going on!” If I want to connect with people, I need to be honest. And yeah, there’s a lot of criticism concerning, to a degree, whether honesty and confessionalism is productive and when it’s just narcissism, especially in the case of Robert Lowell.
That’s the criticism of confessionalism– is it exploitation or art? Lowell caught hell for including excerpts from his personal letters from his wife Elizabeth Hardwick and real-world specifics and details about his family, kids, and friends…
I’m not a literary critic, I don’t have a concrete opinion on that. I just remain inspired by that because I feel like when you’re really honest about what’s going on, people can latch onto that because everyone is sharing similar experiences like suffering, joy, and struggling. It was inspiring to me to hear the songwriters in the trova tradition of the Caribbean and the poet’s that I was exposed to then. But I think lyrically, I have evolved a bit from being so specific about my own life because I also realize that while situations can be shared in a lot of ways, it’s important to not get bogged down in the specifics and try to reach an overarching theme that is more a testament to human experience.
It’s funny, the specifics and particulars can create this sense of tremendous intimacy with the reader, but that’s also the danger of being so personal– maybe you alienate when you get away from generalities. But seriously, I am blown away to have this conversation. From where I am sitting, I can see my copies of Lowell’s Collected Works, Life Studies, and The Dolphin.
That’s so cool! I drop these references all the time, and people usually don’t know what I’m talking about, so I’m stoked to hear that, that we can have this conversation!
Did you feel like you were writing for the world with this record? It seems like the “you” you are singing to goes beyond someone in your immediate personal sphere. Perhaps I am reading too much into that, as if everything I am encountering is someone’s response to COVID…
Maybe, subconsciously, yes. Some of the songs were written and some of the recording started before COVID. We started recording in January 2020, and we recorded on up to March or April. So yeah, a majority of the recording was done during the quarantine and pandemic. Some of the writing predated that, and it’s weird how, with COVID, some of the social movements that started to happen gained renewed traction during the pandemic as well. That meant that some of the songs– before we even got in the studio– started to have new meaning. Like the song “All Around the World”, or even “Feel Good Right Now”. They were written in 2018, 2019. I found that sometimes I’ll write a song that has a sliver of meaning to me, and I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that sometimes the meaning is really unveiled to me later. That has definitely been a real experience with some of these songs because the things behind them didn’t really fully come into view for me until we recorded them and until reality unfolded in the way that it did.
I don’t think I was trying to “write for the world.” I like the way you put that! I think there are instances where I was trying to write for posterity in the sense of being a parent and having a child that I couldn’t communicate with. My daughter is only two now, and communication is still very basic, right? Not trying to have this lofty, “This is how the world works! This is what I know!” But instead, trying to be like, “This is what I don’t know. This is what I’ve experienced in a nutshell.” I think that even though the intention behind that was very pointed at a specific person, because of that person being a blank slate, it kind of comes across and works as a broader message to everyone because a child, especially a child that can’t speak or at the time couldn’t even walk, is a blank slate, so it can really be any person in the world.
You say, “This is how the world works,” and it reminds me how your work is devoid of cliches. How do you resist falling back on platitudes, recycled speech?
Well, first of all, it’s a compliment that you’re asking me how I avoid them because it means that you think I’m avoiding them (laughs) because sometimes I think, “Well, maybe we’re going to let this one slide!” (Laughs) I definitely think there are moments that are cliché, and there’s a lot of -isms as far as phrases that seem like they at least walk the line of being cliche, but I think it’s a balance. You need to be okay with falling back on linguistic tools that are ubiquitous, but also not overusing things or overstating things that have been said a million times. I think I self-edit a lot. I’ve written a lot of songs. Before I started SUSTO, I had five albums with my other band and two solo albums in between, so I’ve been writing songs and getting to test them on the road, seeing what worked and what didn’t, having people straight up tell me sometimes, “Man, that one song you had is super cheesy.” Learning that over the years, it wasn’t like a light bulb turned on. That skill is like a stone in the river that’s been eroded, made smoother and smoother. I still am working on it. But I think there have been a lot of lessons learned through the years, through the like 10+ albums I’ve made before this.
I was wondering how you maintain hope. So many of your songs do espouse resiliency, but sometimes you wrestle with hope and despair. “Life Is Suffering” is a Buddha quote, and the song’s chorus, “If it all ends tomorrow, I had a blast/ It looked so beautiful, and it hurt so bad/ What a real good time, what a heartfelt world, what a fucked up place,” subverts Kurt Vonnegut’s famous “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” from Slaughterhouse-Five. How do you maintain, keep hope?
The hope comes from a conversation like this where you’re picking up on nuggets from a person who’s picked up nuggets their entire life and tries to put them into something. And the fact that you’re picking up on all this stuff is giving me hope in this moment. When you started picking those things from the album, I got chills. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m actually having a conversation with someone who’s listening to this record and found these things!” And before I say anything else, I just want to thank you for that. We pour ourselves into these projects. These albums are our long-term, creative, emotional, but also architectural projects. Those little pieces are put in there purposely to make it interesting, to give you points of reference to understand the song better or understand what the message is.
As far as influences, I’m naturally pretty curious. I’m not super into spirituality. I grew up very religious, so I have a lot of faith, Christian language tucked away in my head that comes out– Biblical lore. I’m also interested in the mythical, like references to Avalon. There’s also turning away from religion where there’s a realization, or perhaps more of a decision to view the world as chaotic, not under any control, an unequal balance of suffering and joy. Some of that is through stripping layers away with psychedelics, which I don’t do so much anymore, but I did in my mid-20s. You can take too much LSD at once. You can take too many mushrooms at once. You can definitely drink too much alcohol at once. But there should still be acknowledgment that some of these substances, especially psychedelic substances, can be beneficial in coming to terms with reality. I don’t know how to quantify that or how to even explain it. But I just know anecdotally from my own life experiences and experiences people close to me that it’s had real change in people’s lives.
So as far as influences go, I think my psychedelic experience and how I’ve interpreted life through that is definitely an influence, and I feel compelled to try and share that and try and promote that in as safe a way as possible. Whenever I lost my religion, for lack of a better phrase, there was a hole, something missing, and it never got filled, but the experiences with psychedelics helped me understand the hole and start to see it in a different way. And it also started to give me an appreciation for the environment and where we kind of stand in the universe, just being able to okay with feeling really small and out of control and realizing that maybe, luckily, there’s no one in control. I don’t know if you would call that an influence, but I think it’s a state of mind that definitely influences my perspective. And my perspective is what comes out in the writing.
I am curious about your relationship with The South. Is it a complicated one? In songs like “Black Jesus” and “Gay in the South”, you’re at odds with what some would say is the traditionally Christian south. Like you, I grew up in the south and have my own similarly conflicted relationship with the region. I would flinch when someone booked a show for us and described us as a “southern” band. That distinction is quite loaded, and I didn’t want the baggage or the misconceptions. It seems like you’re in a similar position. I listened to your SUSTO Stories, and you say you aren’t religious, but your albums are full of Christian imagery and stories. The Bible is an inescapable influence. It’s up there with Shakespeare, Milton, and Dante. There’s no way around it if you’re a reader or creator. And like those guys and their works, it’s a beautiful document at times. How do you reconcile all of this?
I think it’s really appropriate to ask those two in the same question because they’re baked into each other. You get it. It’s in everything, right? Leaving religion has caused me to lose a lot of my Southern identity because when I stopped participating in the conversations around religion, I started realizing then that I could not avoid pretending to be something I wasn’t if I was going to have any sort of conversation with someone who still believed what I formerly believed. Talking with my parents would become impossible because we would get to a place where it’s like, “What’s the decision here? What’s the takeaway?” And they say, “Well, we’re just going to pray about it. God’s in control,” and I’d think, “I can’t leave it there.” And when I came out to my parents about being an atheist, or at least agnostic, it meant that they didn’t even try to have this conversation after a while because I had to defend my point and that eventually led to the conversations going away completely.
So I don’t have a full relationship with my family and because of that, I don’t really have a full relationship with my heritage, to the place where I grew up, my culture. Most of the friends I had to find had the same world view as me, were either transplants that lived in the south that didn’t have that much of a Southern identity even though they grew up here or people from abroad or elsewhere in the country. That’s changed through SUSTO as I’ve gotten to meet others like yourself, other people who grew up in a similar situation as me. And we can still like revel in the things we love, like vinegar-based barbecue, and like, I fucking love camouflage, and four-wheelers, and shit I grew up with. I never want to lose any of that! I just wanted to lose the religious context. I didn’t realize that one comes with the other in most cases.
But I’m also trying to change that. I have not left. They can’t get rid of me. People have said, “Move to Nashville!” Yeah, it’s still in the South! “Move to New York, move wherever.” No. I live in South Carolina. I like it here. I found a way to still do this for a living. I want to stay because this is where I feel comfortable. And I’m not the only one. Obviously, there’s a movement to reclaim Southern identity in a way that is truthful and acknowledges the dark history surrounding the South but also reapproaches religion either in a more accepting way or just in a straight-up religious way. It’s an ongoing process for me, coming into my own identity, and I think for the South in general. I am proud to be from the South, not proud of everything that the South represents or what kind of imagery it brings up in people’s heads. But I love it so much! I love myself! I was raised here with my family. There are a lot of things that I don’t agree with, and a lot of things I would change if given the chance. It’s an ongoing process because I have to explain myself and where I’m from to other people. But I am so frustrated with so many of the people that I’m surrounded with! But I’m also privileged, right? I’ve been to college. I’ve been able to travel all over. I have a perspective that a lot of people aren’t privy to, and I get that. I try to dial back the hate that can come up pretty easily and try to think of ways to mitigate it by meeting people where they are. I hope that music is a way to do that. That’s the point of introducing some of this stuff in the songs. It’s to get people thinking about things without it being abrasive.
Why stay in Charleston and not make “the industry push” in New York or LA?
I don’t think I really realized in the beginning how much harder it was to make it or break through in any way when you don’t live in a city where there’s a musical infrastructure. I’ve learned that there are opportunities in those places because you know that’s just where people are working behind the scenes, making the whole industry happen. So I definitely understand why people do move. I think some of it, my staying, to be completely candid: It’s nice to be appreciated. Charleston is the biggest city in South Carolina, but it’s still not a huge city compared to other cities on a national level, so it’s easy to be noticed and appreciated and on the community level.
I get access to conversations going on in our community because I’m also really interested in environmental science. I’m going through a master’s program right now, and I’m actually hyper-interested in incorporating electric vehicles in the music industry and trying to eliminate carbon footprints from the vehicles used for transportation on tour, and through that, I’ve gotten to be a part of the graduate program here at the College of Charleston. I get to have a seat at the table because I’m respected culturally as far as an asset to the community. It’s the big fish, small pond thing, but I don’t claim to be a big thing. I mean, like I live in the same town as Darius Rucker! So I’m not a big fish, but they’re just not as many fish in the pond. I get to have more of an impact in my community. I get to be where my friends are. I’m close to my family.
I love the low country and the ocean and there’s a lot of different reasons to be here for me, but I think when the first SUSTO record came out, the city of Charleston is what really gave SUSTO a start. Anybody who had moved here from a different city started sharing the record with friends elsewhere. Even our current relationship with New West was started by Atlanta and Athens transplants in Charleston pushing the music back to them, being like, “Check out this band.” Also, bands like Band of Horses and Hootie and Shovels & Rope have been mentors and examples to follow. It’s like a community. It’s just like being in a classroom: You’re going to get more out of it if there’s less students.
Now you’re finally able to play some shows again, have you reevaluated the importance of your live show and touring? What is something you took for granted after all of the years when it might have become more of an obligation than fun?
I know I took it for granted because I was burned out before the lockdown too. So I also didn’t know what it meant to not be on the road because since SUSTO came out in 2014, I had not spent more than six weeks at home at one time. And then I spent a year at home. It was amazing! Especially the time having my daughter who was six months old when I started being home. I got to witness first steps, you know, all these things that I was sure I was going to miss. And so it made me appreciate both. It made me appreciate not grinding all the time, but it also made me appreciate what I was with. The real point of that grind is what it’s like to go out and be on stage and connect with people. And I think it made me realize that balance is really important. Even though we’re getting geared up to get back out there–and that’s the goal– it’s important to balance that with time home because it influences you creatively, but your spirit can’t take a lull every day. As you know, it’s truck stops, fast food, and green rooms. It made me realize how much I was putting my body through the wringer. You mentioned you don’t drink, and I just stopped drinking three weeks ago. I realized the habits I’d really drilled into myself from being in a different venue with free beer every day when I was younger. It’s a lot easier to notice them when they’re piling up on the coffee table in front of you at night while you’re watching TV with your wife and it’s like, “Damn, I just drank five beers!” And you look in the mirror and it’s, “Wow, they’re staying there.”
But I think it gave me perspective in a lot of ways. It didn’t make me want to just jump out and play 365 days a year. That’s for sure! But it did make me understand the privilege that I get to do that for a living and just to be able to play in general. Even if I wasn’t getting paid, there’s nothing like playing a show to a crowd that is there for you, with you, singing the lyrics. It’s a nice replacement for that church void that we mentioned. But at the same time, I think the time off– and I think most people in my position feel the same way– it was just really needed and it kind of gave some clarity for the future as far as pursuing balance.
Most bands I’ve talked to about this feel the same way. They were never in a position to be able to take a break from performing, even if their well-being was screaming out for it. With the pandemic, they had no choice, and they didn’t have to worry about whether or not they looked tough enough to stick it out to others. So often, there’s the pressure to perform no matter what because, “Hey, it’s just music.” What do you bring back from the road that strengthens you at home?
I think perspective. Going back to the way I’ve changed my worldview from the time I grew up, I think touring had a lot to do with that because from an early age, I thought, “How can we book an out-of-town show? How can we book an out-of-state show? How can we get into a different region of the country” You figure these things out, and when you go to these places, you inevitably meet people who are different than you and who have different perspectives. Having a more outside-of-the-bubble perspective is what I bring home. And I think that’s something that can be an asset, not only to my family, my friendships, and my own life but also to my community in small ways. Then also, in big ways. I mean, when you go to the Netherlands and you see canals and people living with high sea levels, and then you come home to Charleston where it floods on a weekly basis, like unnavigable flooding downtown, you start to have ideas. It gives you more to contribute as a community member. Also, connecting with people, seeing the hurt people have and all the joy that they have, it just makes it easier to understand that there’s a person behind every face. Your home is someone else’s tour date. I started to realize that too.
So many of your songs deal with a search. Do you know consciously whom or what you are searching for? Who’s helping you along the way? Is it finite or perpetual?
I don’t know consciously what I’m searching for. I think I just want to be happy, and I want to be good and fair to the people in my life. I don’t want to cause pain in other people’s lives, especially people who are close to me. [I want to avoid tragedy] the best that I can, like, which is unavoidable on some level. I definitely want to understand. I don’t think I’ve learned everything there is to learn by having a completely enlightened perspective. I want to learn more. I want to speak other languages. I want to become an expert in fields that I’m just interested in at this point. I just want to keep learning. I want to keep my mind open. And the people who have helped me do that are the people who are still close to me in my life. Like, my wife is the most important piece of that puzzle because she helps me keep the wheels on, you know? She is my rock and keeps me grounded in a way that allows me to do what I’m doing professionally and also just inspires me to be better and is a confidante and someone who shares my perspective. Then also, people, musically, believing in what we’re doing, and that’s my bandmates, my label, my booking agent, the whole team around SUSTO, I’m grateful for. They have facilitated so much not just for me career-wise, but for my development as a human being. But there are also my academic mentors and community mentors. I’m very fortunate to have a lot of really cool people that I’ve become acquainted with or even close friends with in my life that have had some sort of an impact.
And some of those people are from years ago! My roommate at military school was like, “You don’t really believe in that stuff,” when I was talking to him about the Bible. We don’t even talk hardly anymore, but he started something that changed my life. And whenever I was in Cuba, like my friends who exposed me to trova and confessional songwriting… I’m really grateful for the cacophony of voices that have pushed me, or nudged me in different directions, or enlightened me in different ways. Some of them I see every day, like my wife and my daughter. I’m sure you understand too as a parent, there’s nothing more inspiring than a little life that you have a lot of responsibility for. So I’m grateful for all those challenges and all the help from everybody. Trying to narrow it down would be too difficult. I mean, there are also negative people too, but hopefully, I’m getting better at steering away from those relationships.