Touring in support of their second album, & I’m Fine Today, South Carolina band Susto make their debut Scottish appearance at Celtic Connections this week. Formed in 2014 by Justin Osborne, the band have rapidly gained a reputation for their live shows while & I’m Fine Today is a well crafted set of songs which explore doubt and the human condition and essentially ask the question, “Why Are We Here?” With beautifully delivered ballads such as Havana Vieja and more complex layers of sound as on Waves, the album is like a less manic version of The Flaming Lips with a dash of Wilco added.
Osborne grew up in a Pentecostal community and attended military school for a while. Rebelling, he dived into drugs, lost his religion and started a band, Sequoyah. When they broke up in 2013 he returned to college but eventually left and travelled to Cuba before forming Susto. On the eve of setting off to Europe (and on his birthday) Justin took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke.
First off, Happy Birthday to you. I believe it will be a busy day as you are flying out to Europe. Is this your first time over here?
Thanks. We actually leave for Europe tomorrow, first we fly to Chicago then to Copenhagen. I’m really looking forward to this, really excited. I’ve played solo before in Europe and in the UK I’ve only played London so I’m excited to be getting to some other places such as Glasgow to play at Celtic Connections. I hear it’s a great festival and that you get to meet lots of other musicians and I’ve always wanted to go to Scotland. We’re also playing some showcases in the Netherlands with some other musicians and I’m really looking forward to seeing Corb Lund and Colter Wall.
First off, can I ask you about the band name? I’ve read that Susto is a Latin American term meaning a sense of malaise or dread, kind of like an existential crisis.
It’s a bit of both really. I was an anthropology student when I first heard the term and it literally means that your soul is separated from your body but the more I read about it I realised that it has degrees, it can be as simple as a panic attack all the way up to a feeling that you’re not really yourself. When I first heard it I was like 24 or 25 and I thought it described how I was feeling but then I started to learn Spanish and I lived in a Spanish speaking country for a while and I realised then that it’s often just a colloquial term for a fright. But it still has this deeper feeling and I thought that it was an appropriate name for my band.
You lived in Cuba for a while?
Yes, I was in Havana for much of 2013.
Was it easy to go there? I know that the US back then didn’t really encourage tourism.
Well when I went there it was just before Obama relaxed some of the rules but the first time I went it was through an educational programme which was one of the ways you could legitimately visit the country. The second time I kind of snuck in, I flew to the Bahamas and from there I was able to get to Cuba. But then I got detained in the airport when I came home as they didn’t believe that I had spent all that time in The Bahamas and I was carrying all this Cuban rum. However I got off with a slap on the wrist so that was OK. The Cubans are happy to see you, it’s the US government who don’t want you to go.
You’ve said that your time spent there was quite influential. Was that in terms of you personally or was it more of a musical influence?
Both really but it’s not really an obvious influence on the sound. There’s so much music on Cuba and it’s so diverse. There’s the traditional dance music and there’s lots of rock bands and cover bands who just do Beatles songs but what really intrigued me was the singer songwriter tradition, called son truvo. They have this sense of sarcasm and they’re not afraid to sing about the darker side of humanity but kind of playfully and I think that has been the main influence, I came back really as a different kind of writer, using lyrics in a different way from before. It’s definitely on the first album and some of it spills into the current one. We’re not afraid of being sarcastic and we’ve put out little vignettes on some of our videos which I think shows that side of us.
That comes out on the song Chilling On The Beach With My Friend Jesus. Your idea of heaven is having a beer on the beach with your friends instead of seeing pearly gates.
I guess. I’m not religious but I come from a deeply religious family and part of my struggle over the past few years has been reconciling where my head is at now with the way I grew up and being able to communicate with my family. That song was meant to be like a bridge between people who had lost their faith and those who have the traditional beliefs. I don’t know if I succeeded in building that bridge, maybe I blew it up. The song was one thing but then we made a video for it and that made some people more upset, they didn’t like to see Jesus partying and drinking. The church I grew up in, there’s no alcohol so that didn’t go down well but I was told that I had a personal relationship with Jesus and I think if that’s true then you’ve just got to be yourself and not be like on your best behaviour all the time and that’s what we tried to show in the video. I don’t lose sleep over it, a lot of people had fun with the song and we certainly did but if you read the YouTube comments you see people writing, “You’re going to burn in Hell” and stuff like that but I just laugh it off.
You mentioned setting up little vignettes or stories for several of your videos
In a way it’s really just giving people something to chew on. I mean we can’t put out a new record every couple of months so we add a little bit to a song. It’s mainly for people who are really into the band, who are interested enough to search us out. We don’t do it with every song, there are some that I’m not comfortable talking about but it’s more or less a way to orientate people and let them know where we are coming from. We’re kind of giving people a different way of hearing a song and it’s been fun to do but listening to music is a personal experience and some people just want to hear a song and some want to know more about it and I think the listener has a right to choose which way they go about it. We don’t want to push a song’s meaning down anyone’s throat, it’s really just to keep the interaction going.
Having said that, some of the songs are quite obvious. Gay In The South for example tackles attitudes towards gay people with family and friends saying they will go straight to hell. Some parts of the South have always had a reputation for being intolerant but do you think it’s worse today?
I was up late last night just talking about the way this country is going and there are lots of conversations like that going on all over the place. When it pertains to gay rights, women, minorities and such I had hoped we had moved on a little bit but when I go home to my family and the place I grew up, it’s not just my family but people in restaurants and most people around you and it’s like they all voted for Trump. It’s not the case in Charleston where I live now, it’s a more progressive town, but back home you start to think, why, where did we separate? Guys I grew up with, played sports with and could probably still have a beer with, but when it comes to politics there’s a very big rift. With my parents I cannot talk about politics at all, it would just blow up even though they’re people I love. Before Trump there was already a lot of animosity, us and them, but Trump is the great divider, the wedge that’s making that split much wider. It’s sad because basically I love people and I Love my family and where I’m from but I can’t reconcile with their views.
Can we talk about your experience of microdosing with LSD?
I got into LSD when I was at college, not microdosing but going on a trip trying to get that psychedelic experience, it felt like it was stripping away the layers of bullshit and seeing the world in a new way. Maybe that was just us going crazy, I don’t know but it didn’t really feel like that. I started hearing about microdosing when I was in Sequoyah, as a band we weren’t tripping all the time, maybe just a couple of times a year. But by then I had a song called The Acid Boys and I’ve got the word ACID tattooed on my hand and so some fans would give me some LSD and I started to think about microdosing – the government’s definitely listening in on this but it doesn’t matter because I’m clean right now!
I didn’t want to go back down the whole ten hour acid trip but remembering the changes it brought out in me I started microdosing in the studio for the first record, it wasn’t just me but our guitar player at the time and our producer. And we got a lot done. We were taking just trace amounts and it wasn’t as if you felt you had any substance in you, it was just like, “Wow, I’m in a great mood today, I’m firing on all cylinders.” It just raises the energy levels but it’s not like caffeine or any kind of amphetamine, I hate that edgy feeling, it’s just a very clean feeling of energy. I don’t do it all the time and although we did do it a couple of times when we were making & I’m Fine Today there was a lot more times when we weren’t doing it. I’m not like saying to everyone, go do acid, but for me personally it’s helped me deal with bouts of depression, helped me deal with the changes in my life.
There’s a song on the new album, Cosmic Cowboy. Did you grow up listening to psychedelic country records?
I’ve been a Grateful dead fan for a long time. I’m not really into jam music, bands like Phish although a couple of the guys in the band like that. I’m coming more from a punk rock and singer songwriter background, I went to military school right after high school and while I was there I just fell in love with the imagery of The Grateful Dead, the Steal Your Face look, I’m even wearing a Dead T shirt right now. I was drawn to them through the graphics and although I wasn’t smoking weed or anything I started to fall in love with their music. It wasn’t because of them that I started taking LSD however, that was just boredom
You said earlier you had studied anthropology and with your interest in Latin America I wondered if you know much about the culture and drugs of indigenous South American tribes
Well I’ve never used a drug like Ayahuasca which some Amazonian tribes use but that culture is represented on the album cover for & I’m Fine Today which is a painting by Pablo Amaringo. He’s deceased now but he was a shaman from the Peruvian Amazon, a rain forest preservationist and an amazing artist. Our drummer is a visual artist and he brought me some ideas for the album artwork including this. It’s supposed to be a representation of this inner battle that can happen and I thought it was a great way to represent the concept of Susto. When Marshall brought that to the table I couldn’t believe that a piece of artwork like this could exist. Because again, the reason the band is called Susto is because of that ongoing battle internally and I just thought the painting represented us. We spent a lot of time making this album and we were always adding little things here and there, maybe we added too much stuff but the album sleeve, it’s like you can look at it and keep on finding new things and I think it’s like listening to the record, you can keep on finding new things in the songs. I’m really grateful to Pablo’s estate and to the Universe for putting that artwork in front of me.
Susto are playing two shows at Celtic Connections on 3rd and 4th Feb. All tour dates are here.