Kaleidoscope Visions & Sonics: A Chat With SUSTO [INTERVIEW+PHOTOS] INTERVIEW+PHOTOS: SUSTO @ Mercury Lounge 1/24/17
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SUSTO‘s kaleidoscopic blend of rock, roots, and psychedelia is pushing the boundaries of the Americana genre. Fresh on the heels of the release of “& I’m Fine Today”, the Charleston band is criss-crossing the country in a four-month tour, both headlining and as support for The Lumineers.
“Susto” translates loosely as “fright” or “panic attack” — in some Latin American countries, it refers to a folk malady where soul and body are disconnected. But disassociation does not have to be a frightening thing, and indeed, SUSTO’s music shows the creative potential that comes from the beauty of dislocation and relocation of identities and ideas.
“& I’m Fine Today‘”s expansive sonics, from the spacey guitars and soaring emotionality of opening track “Far Out Feeling” to country-tinged rock “Cosmic Cowboy,” to the angular, propulsive “Jah Werx,” reveal the alchemical magic between the members of the band: Justin Osborne (vocals, guitar), Dries Vandenberg (guitar), Marshall Hudson (drums), Jenna Desmond (bass), and Corey Campbell (guitar, keys).
They played to a jam-packed New York City crowd (Mercury Lounge) where the fans shouted song requests and blissfully sang along. Afterward, Blurred Culture caught up with Justin about the new album and road life.
BC: First off — congratulations on & I’m Fine Today. It’s totally captivating — sonics and lyrics both. And thanks for taking the time to answer some questions! The cover art for the album is beautiful. Can you tell me about the conceptualization of that artwork — did you approach the artist with an idea or was it sort of a co-evolution?
Justin: The cover art was actually something already created that we stumbled across when looking for album art. We knew we wanted to incorporate imagery that included snake(s) as a symbol of continual growth and rainbow(s) as a symbol of being “fine today.” The artist is Pablo Amaringo, a Peruvian artist, rainforest activist and ayahuascaro. Unfortunately Pablo died a few years back so we were not able to speak with him directly, but we were able to get permission to use the painting from someone who was close to him and curates his legacy. The painting depicts a struggle with Susto (which is perfect), and is from the book “Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman”
BC: You’re about a third of the way through tour right now. How’s it going so far? Any highlights — pranks on each other, fan interactions, road stories — that you can share with us?
Justin: This tour has been pretty mind blowing. I toured for years and got nowhere, so it’s pretty surreal for me to be on a tour where we are packing out rooms in all these cities. It feels like all the years of work are finally leading to a break through, it feels so so good and I’m very thankful.
We have been having a lot of fun together, we’ve gotten some tattoos, seen a lot of wonderful people and just enjoyed ourselves overall. We are expecting to be touring most of this year so it’s nice that things have started out so well in the beginning. We’re all looking forward to what’s to come. Every day, every show, every town is a different experience waiting to be had.
BC: I’d love a glimpse into SUSTO’s road life. Who drives? What do you listen to — does someone DJ? Do you mix it up with podcasts? Books on tape?
Justin: [laughs] I hate to ruin the romantic notions of tour life to any extent, but the van is so boring. We all take turns driving and typically who ever is driving controls the main speakers while the rest either listen along or slip into headphone mode. We definitely switch it up between full albums, playlists, podcast, NPR and silence. Everyone is into something a little different along all those lines too. We all have our things we like to listen to and sometimes that’ll overlap and we’ll all listen together.
BC: Speaking of DJing on the road — what albums/artists have you each been listening to lately?
Justin: I can’t speak for everyone, but I know we all have some favorites from 2016 that we’ve been listening too like Jonny Fritz – Sweet Creep, JPKS – Constant Stranger, LOLO – In Loving Memory of When I Gave A Shit, The Weekend – Starboy, Angel Olsen – My Woman, Heyrocco – Waiting On Cool, and Whitney – Light Upon The Lake.
I’ve also been going back to some old favorites like My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges and a bunch of Spotify playlists that I made over the holidays [laughs].
BC: Ever since the story about Jack White’s manager’s guacamole recipe, I can’t help but ask — do you have favorite snacks on the road?
Justin: Marshall does yogurt and granola, Jenna loves ice cream, Corey is a chocolate person, I like Chex Mix, and Dries will eat anything.
BC: Can you explain a bit more about the band name? I understand it refers to a folk illness. Did this arise from your time in Cuba, from your anthropology studies, or something else?
Justin: Yeah, so I discovered the concept of “susto” as an anthropology student, before I moved to Havana. It literally translates as “soul loss” and has a deeper spiritual/psychological meaning in Latin America. The closest definition in English would be a panic attack, but it’s really more than that because it’s a state of being that can last for a long period of time and it’s wrapped in all this spiritual potency. When I started the band, it felt like the perfect word to describe what I was going through, and what I still experience in my life. Sometimes I get lost and depressed and afraid, that’s SUSTO. We all experience it from time to time, it’s part of living. There are different words for it in different languages.
BC: How do you think of music in relation to these grander questions — dealing with meaning, identity, loss, friendship, etc.? I know this is a pretty sweeping question, so I’ll try to make it more specific. For example, Justin, I’ve read that you spent some time in military academy — and some of your songs explore religion. Do you approach songwriting with a conscious intent to grapple with these questions? How do you find your audience reacting to it?
Justin: I think for a lot of people, myself included, music is a means of dealing with experience and making sense of how you feel about your life. We write songs that deal with real life experience and feelings, that helps me personally because it helps me get things off my chest and unpack situations and facets of my life that would otherwise stay buried somewhere in my psyche. I wouldn’t say that I approach writing with the intention of dealing with these things, it’s just more of a natural part of the process. I don’t know how to make things up for songs, so I just reach inside; I think back and explore things in hindsight and sometimes that sheds light on the present too.
BC: What are you currently reading / or what’s a favorite book you recently read (assuming you’re able to find time to read on the road)?
Justin: I don’t read as much as I used to in my early twenties, Corey and Jenna are both pretty avid readers, but I’ll be honest that I’ve become more attached to other mediums like podcasts, book on tape, and film. But recently I have been into Larry Brown. [He’s] an author from Mississippi that I relate too very much, it’s dark and real and southern, which is how I feel I guess. I do have a few all time favorites that I go back to from time to time when I’m home. Robert Lowell’s “The Dolphin” is a book of confessional poetry that has been a huge inspiration to me as a writer. Also, Salinger’s 9 Stories, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude and The Master & Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
BC: I’d love to hear more about the process behind & I’m Fine Today. I believe this is your second album with Wolfgang Zimmerman. How did you come to work with him, and how would you describe the evolution of the album? For example, did you come to studio with most of the lyrics and arrangements already fleshed out, or did they evolve organically in studio?
Justin: This is actually the fourth album that I’ve made with Wolfy, but the second for SUSTO. The process is honestly very different for each song. Sometimes I come to the studio with a completed song and clear vision for the production, sometimes I come with an idea and the other help me finish it, sometimes we’ll take someone else’s idea and I’ll expand on it lyrically, sometimes we make something completely new in the studio, and there is even a song on the album “Diamond’s Icaro” that Marshall wrote and the rest of us just kind of produced. We try to keep an open mind about the process and just let the songs reveal themselves whenever and to whomever they do.
BC: Where does the track title “Diamond’s Icaro” come from? (It’s such a lovely, contemplative song — I’m hard-pressed to pick a single favorite from the entire album, but that’s one favorite.)
Justin: Marshall first wrote that for a family friend’s funeral. It’s like a eulogy in song, but from the perspective of the deceased. I was at his house one day hanging out when I overheard him playing it and I was blown away, it’s one of my favorite songs we’ve ever recorded. Wolfy really took it to the next level with the groovy/trippy production. And “Icaro” is a song sung in Ayahuasca ceremonies, often to combat Susto. I think the songs takes a really dark theme, death, and interprets it as a beautiful and transcendent part of existence.
BC: You’re joining up with The Lumineers for some shows. Do you know the folks in that band or is this going to be a new adventure all around?
Justin: The Lumineers tour is going to be a whole new adventure for us in a lot of ways. We’ve never met either of the bands we’ll be touring with and we’ve never played in venues as large as we will be playing in on this tour. We are very excited though, The Lumineers are one of my favorite contemporary bands and I love their songs. We were handpicked for the tour by the band so I’m confident we will all get along well. We’ve heard nothing but good things about them and Kaleo both. It’s an exciting time and we are just looking forward to playing our best and reaching more and more people with our music.
BC: Thank you again for taking the time to answer these questions. I really appreciate it!
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Vivian is a Texas-raised, NYC-based photographer. She writes about critters by day and music by night. Find her on Instagram (@Lithophyte) and at www.LithophytePhoto.com.