SUSTO - Justin Osborne Interview

A refreshing and original crossover of Americana & indie rock, Susto’s 2017 release & I’m Fine Today featured in Lonesome Highway’s most loved albums of 2017. The vehicle for songwriter Justin Osbourne, the band have grown from relative obscurity to sharing the stage with Band of Horses and a stadium tour with The Lumineers over the past few years. They made their European debut at Celtic Connections in Glasgow earlier this year with a dazzling performance at The Mackintosh Church, Osbourne also played a solo gig at the festival. The band embark on an extensive touring schedule over the coming months in The States, followed by some solo shows by Osbourne in Germany, Holland and Belgium. A hectic schedule for the recently married Osbourne but one that he appears to be revelling in at present as the band go from strength to strength.

All of a sudden, the word is out on SUSTO! So many crack bands and artists remain undetected and under the radar simply because of lack of exposure. What got you noticed?

Man, to be honest I really don’t know. I guess it’s been a mixture of luck and hard work. We've been very lucky that since the beginning, people have really latched on to the music and supported us. Everyone we work with came to the band as a fan of what we are doing and has worked really hard to get the word out. Also, we’ve found a lot of incredible fans all over the place who have been spreading the word and supporting us. It’s an incredible experience, we are having a great time and it’s been cool to see the fan base grow from our home town, to towns and cities all over the world.

You’re pushing out musical boundaries in different directions from Americana to Psychedelic Indie, which can catch a very wide market both in age profiles of audiences and their listening preferences. Is this a musical path you intend to follow?

I think the creative process for this band has just been one of fearlessness. We try to be ourselves and also let ourselves grow. Americana, Psychedelic, Punk Rock, Gospel … I could name tons of genres that I think are some piece of what we are, and I think as long as we continue to stay true to ourselves and allow ourselves to be brave, we’ll be on the right path and all these different types of influences will continue to come out.

The album title & I’M Fine Today and much of the material suggests an artist in a good place at present. Was that a personal disposition or a reflection of the band in general?

That was definitely more of a personal reflection, but the title is really meant as more of a personal mantra I've had, just to keep myself going. I think lots of people deal with hard shit in this life, we all do in various degrees, and even just being alive can be such a struggle sometimes. "Jah works and I’m fine today” is something I have been saying for years now, to myself to keep myself going when the going is tuff, and also to remind myself to appreciate the moments when things are really good. It’s sort of a tool for living, which is why I would describe it as a mantra.

Drawing down from topics such as homosexuality, religion, drug use and mental illness appear to be somewhat more taboo in the Southern States of America than they would be in Europe. Has that been your experience?

Yes, you know I guess I kind of knew that would be the case because I was aware of Europe being more post religious than parts of the US, but I definitely noticed in a more up close and personal way when I met people and told them stories of how I grew up … people were just really shocked, it was hard for them to comprehend. But, I think regardless of whether or not talking about these things is more taboo in one place or the other, they are still relevant issues that people everywhere are aware of. The American South isn’t the only place where people have ridiculous ideas about religion and politics, and I think a lot of people in a lot of places are interested in talking about these things

Hallucinogens implications repeat on the album. Do they enhance the creative writing process? 

Sometimes, during the making of & I’m Fine Today, we were micro dosing LSD. This is an experience that I wouldn’t describe as hallucinogenic, it’s more of an overall mental boost. You are taking a trace amount of LSD so it’s a very lite experience and you are just having a great day. You hardly notice you have this boost until after its completely gone and you look back and realize how productive and creative you were. So, some of us did this several times over an 18-month recording period, just to keep things moving. I will say, although we don’t take enough psychedelics in the studio to trip, some of us do like to have a larger dose periodically. It resets your psyche and keeps the mind fresh. So yes, I think Psychedelics enhance the creative process, and life in general…but they should be used with caution and respect.

The cover artwork on the album is stunning and very much in keeping with the musical content. Tell me about it?

The cover artwork is by Pablo Amaringo, who was a renowned South American artist and conservationist. His paintings depict visions he experienced from drinking Ayahuasca. The name of our band, “susto” is a Latin American term for fright, but also its a spiritual illness that literally translates as “soul loss”; when someone is experiencing on going trauma, depression, anxiety, etc. all these things can be attributed to susto. Ayahuasca is used to combat susto, and this painting really spoke to us. The snake gods are symbols of rebirth and cyclical power, the snake is our symbol also and appears on a lot of our designs for T-shirts and posters. Pablo’s painting seems like the perfect reflection of what we are trying to describe to the world with & I’m Fine Today and I’m really glad we were able to use it as our album cover.

Do you consider yourself as a ‘journal’ writer, where your output generally reflects where you are personally at a given time?

Yes, I would consider myself a confessional writer. I’ve always used song writing as a way of processing my emotions and because of that, my songs are personal and confessional. When I look back on albums that I’ve released with Susto, solo albums, and records with my old bands - all of them are reflective of certain time periods in my life. My dad keeps a journal everyday so he has books and books of notes from every day for the past few decades, I just have albums that come out every few years.

The members of your band vary in age profile, musical background and indeed gender, in many ways the perfect mix. How did the current line up come about?

Yes, everyone has a bit of a different story in our band, which I think can be helpful. When I released the first self-titled album it got popular in Charleston pretty quickly and I was able to meet other musicians and creative people in town that I’d never been introduced to before, suddenly people knew who I was and got familiar with Susto. Once that happened, I started meeting people who were interested in being a permanent part of the band. Corey was first, he joined around June 2014, only a few months after the release. The friends I had recorded the album with were all busy doing their own projects so I was doing a long solo tour of the US & Canada, but I had a big kick off show in Charleston + a couple shows opening for Band of Horses where I wanted to perform with a full band. Corey was a part of that line up and then as we started doing more stuff as a band he remained part of the line up, then Marshall our drummer came in early in 2015 when we did SXSW (it was also around this time that my friend Johnny Delaware re-joined the band. He had a part in making the album). We had people filtering in and out playing bass until late 2015 when Jenna joined as our permanent bass player. After a long year of touring in 2016, Johnny decided it was time for him to go back to pursuing his own songs, so he left and started The Artisanals, who are great and I highly recommend checking out! When Johnny left, we asked Dries to join the band. It was an easy choice for us because he had already been touring with us as our videographer so we were all very comfortable with each other, and he happens to also be a great guitar player. So that’s the short version of the story of our line up ha-ha. Everyone kind of ended up in Charleston at different times and for different reasons, but it’s a small tight knit musical community so we all found each other gradually, and it’s been great traveling and getting to be like a family these last few years.

I can’t start to imagine what’s on the SUSTO playlist in the touring vans to cater for all tastes. Are there musical common denominators or do you feed off each other’s tastes?

Everyone definitely has their own tastes in our band. Some folks lean more towards pop or R&B, while others have a draw to heavier or folkier things. We do have some common denominators though. There are a few records that we can put on in the van and everyone will listen. We all really enjoyed the latest War On Drugs Album, we all like Bob Marley and we are all huge fans and followers of JPKS’s album Constant Stranger. We also learn a lot of new and old music from each other, which is very nice and keeps things interesting.

The opportunity to support The Lumineers on tour gave you exposure to larger audiences which can be beneficial but also damaging. Did the experience pay off and how did the experiences of playing in arenas work for you?

We honestly had an incredible time on that tour. We made a lot of new fans and got to play in some really incredible places. Playing arena’s is such a cool experience, you really have to rise to the occasion and play to a room of thousands, this can be daunting but for us it was a scenario we loved and learned a lot from. The whole crew on that tour was so good to us, everyone was so nice and excited about us, it felt really good to be appreciated. We would roll into the venue with our van and trailer, meanwhile there were like 12 buses on that tour plus 8 or so semi-trucks, so we felt very small at first but we learned to love that role as the little siblings, we learned a lot and I think we became better performers because of that tour.

Your showcase at Celtic Connections in Glasgow took place in The Mackintosh Church, possibly not the ideal venue for a live band! The previous night you played a solo slot at The Oren Mor. You put your heart and soul into both performances. Do you see Europe as a significant target market for you?

Yes, Europe is important to us and we plan to continue touring in Europe regularly as long as the band is active. This past tour was our first in Europe as a full band, so we were playing all sorts of places, Celtic Connections was definitely a highlight. I was glad I got to do a solo show at Oran Mor, and also that we got to perform full band at The Mackintosh Church. For that second show, we definitely had to lean into the setting, so we played a bit more reserved and curated our set list to fit the church, which is fine and definitely allows a certain side of our band to shine through. I hope when we come back to Scotland we can play a show where we can let the rock shine through as well, it’s a big part of our live show that we weren’t really able to show everyone at any of the 2 shows at Celtic Connections. Regardless, we had a wonderful time at the festival and were treated really well. I was happy with both of our performances. I think at The Mackintosh Church especially, we played a very clean “Nashville” type of set, and I remember that being really fun for us.

You’re doing some solo dates in over here in the summer. Will you be performing all SUSTO material or have you a Justin Osborne solo album in mind in the future?

Yes! I’m excited to be getting back to Europe so soon. It’s funny to think about a solo album, because that’s really what SUSTO was supposed to be in the first place, a solo project after I left my old band. But yes, it has definitely become more of a band experience over the last few years. I will be playing SUSTO songs on this tour. I have a couple solo albums I released on band camp back in 2014, but I don’t really perform those tunes much. I get to have a lot of freedom and control over the song writing and production of SUSTO, so I don’t really feel the need to do solo stuff. Who knows, maybe one day, but for this tour you can expect to hear SUSTO songs, possibly some new ones.

You’ve been quoted explaining how touring previously led to burnout. Does your current profile and the attention you been generating make the stress of the endless tours more bearable?

This is definitely a different experience than I had before, because now I believe in the music more and also I’m making a living doing this now, which feels nice and helps me keep good spirits. Touring does take a toll though, and I’m trying to be careful not to let myself get burnt out. During a long tour, it can feel overwhelming but I’m currently home for a while with only a few shows a month, and it feels like a nice break. It’s a balance, I know I’m going to be doing this for a while now because I’m enjoying it and its working pretty well, so I’m just going to try to be careful about how much I take on, because I really don’t want to feel burnt out again. I think we’ll keep touring pretty hard for another few years, another couple albums then maybe I’ll step away for a bit and try some other things. I don’t know, just trying to keep things open ended and interesting. I don’t want to find myself chained to the cycle of recording and touring, there are other things I want out of life too and I’m going to pursue those things at some point. For now, I’m enjoying the ride, and really enjoying working on our next album which I’m very excited for.

I look forward to seeing you in Europe in July!

Thanks for the questions! Looking forward to being back, hope to see you all at Static Roots.

Interview by Declan Culliton