COLUMBIA — This September, in its eighth year, Raleigh, North Carolina’s Hopscotch Music Festival felt bigger than ever. Massively popular acts such as Run the Jewels and Solange (sister to Beyoncé) played booming shows in the city’s Red Hat Amphitheater, while a smorgasbord of trendy indie artists populated clubs across downtown. But the most eager crowd I saw during the entire festival showed up for Charleston’s SUSTO.
A line stretched down most of the block outside Kings. The soundcheck was long and grueling. Justin Osborne, leader of the country-leaning rock band, struggled to get his acoustic guitar to jibe with the sound system, eventually giving up and ripping through an all-electric set with inspired intensity. The crowd, which hadn’t budged or shrunk, responded in kind — shouting along, pumping fists, holding smartphones high to capture the moment.
SUSTO, which has been steadily ascending since releasing its first collection of vividly dark and insightful tunes back in 2014, has reached a new level since the January release of the sophomore album "& I’m Fine Today." North American trips supporting The Lumineers and The Head and the Heart and a European tour with Band of Horses followed, as have headlining dates across the country.
In total, Osborne says they’ve played about 180 shows this year, able to count on a draw of at least 100 or 200 people — even on the West Coast, which they didn’t visit until last year.
“We’ve seen ourselves become a real band,” the singer and songwriter says. “It’s cool to connect with people all over the place and have people really following the band. It’s been a lot of work. But I think having the record to promote is a talking point. People have connected with it to a certain extent. We’re not going to win a Grammy or anything like that. But people who like to find new bands or keep their ear to the ground for the kind of tour circuit that we do have found us and latched onto it.”
"& I’m Fine Today" feels made for this moment. It has songs that swell with arena-ready bigness — indeed, it’s easy to believe Osborne when he talks about how well the opening “Far Out Feeling,” with a cosmic reggae lilt that explodes with string-stoked opulence, played on big stages across the pond.
But it’s also a voracious record that makes room for gut-punch intimacy (the tearful outlaw dreamscape of “Hard Drugs”), infectious indie rock hooks (the skittering electro-garage enthusiasm of “Waves”) and psychedelic weirdness (the spacious, sparkling vision quest of “Mountain Top”). It’s a record as big and restless as recent works by My Morning Jacket, but it remains grounded by Osborne’s purposeful, clear-eyed songwriting.
Wolfgang Zimmerman, the Charleston producer whose studio has been the site for both of SUSTO’s records, attributes this balance between ambition and adventurousness to the fact that most of these songs were in process before the band really caught on, meaning there wasn’t much pressure.
“We were just doing what came out naturally,” Zimmerman recalls. “We were just having a really good time when we were hanging out. ... There was just different parts that would happen out of a moment of spontaneity where everyone would be busting out laughing, just these kind of random moments of us just having a great time in the studio.
“We (kept those) moments because they’re real, and it’s better than just giving people what they think we should give them,” the producer continues. “Give them these moments of authenticity, hoping that those things translate through the good time that we had while we were working on it.”
David Stringer, the Columbia-based editor and founder of the Palmetto State music blog SceneSC, has followed Osborne since his early days with the band Sequoyah Prep School. He points to the way this balance — between career-oriented initiative and organic expression — extends to the outfit’s branding. Early on, the group cleverly sold T-shirts and sweatshirts, not with their own name, but emblazoned with that of the Acid Boys, a fictional band from a song on the first record, imbuing SUSTO’s rise on the local scene with an almost mythic sense of cool.
The band extended this intrigue with compelling, high-quality music videos, such as the one for the non-album single “Chillin’ on the Beach with My Best Friend Jesus Christ,” wherein former member Johnny Delaware portrays the titular messiah with whom Osborne sings he wants to drink beers, “but not too many beers.”
“After that first album came out, everything started to click,” Stringer offers. “Here’s the Acid Boys thing that’s going to be synonymous with us. And then having Marshall (Hudson) being the drummer in the band and also being an amazing artist helps.”
Hudson designed the cover that adorns "& I’m Fine Today" around Peruvian artist Pablo Amaringo’s kaleidoscopic menagerie of rainbows and serpents.
But more than good branding and hard work, Osborne has songs that work in the here and now. Tunes like the wonderfully murky ballad “Gay in the South” and the bounding anthem “Cosmic Cowboy” grapple palpably with timely issues of social unrest and nonconformity, aligning SUSTO with groups such as Mount Moriah and Hiss Golden Messenger, distinctly Southern bands that speak to the fear and uncertainty shared by many of their listeners.
“I think people appreciate a willingness to stand in the face of a big wave coming at you and say, ‘No, I think this,’ just being willing to have a voice like that,” Osborne reasons. “I don’t know if we meant to take that kind of stand and be that kind of light in the fog or whatever, but it has been that for some people, and I feel really thankful to have connected with people on that level.”
This story first appeared in the Free Times Columbia.