Charleston’s SUSTO takes winding route to bright future in indie scene

The new lineup of SUSTO practiced for the first time last week in lead singer Justin Osborne's storage unit on Line Street. From left to right: Justin Osborne, John Kuiper, Jordan Hicks, Marshall Hudson, and Corey Campbell. (Abigail Darlington/Staff).

Just over the railroad tracks on Line Street sits a storage complex that’s not much to look at in this semi-industrial part of town. But if you’re nearby at the right time, you can catch a distant melody from some local musicians, crammed into one of the units, rehearsing or recording until they get it just right.

For SUSTO, whose name stems from Latin folklore, this has been the humble backdrop of its budding success story.

Recently, band leader Justin Osborne summoned the latest lineup of SUSTO members to the small unit he rents with other local bands. It was the first time the new group rehearsed together before hitting the road next week to play several shows, including one at the coveted South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.

Before getting started, Osborne lit a cigarette outside and pointed across the lot to a larger, climate-controlled unit, noting that’s where the band recorded its self-titled debut album released last year.

Here, in this dingy stretch of concrete garages, is where SUSTO’s masterful blend of Southern folk, Americana, and catchy indie rock was born. And since then, the band has been building a following across the country, and even gaining attention from some pretty lofty figures in the indie scene.

A pivotal moment came not too long after the release, when Osborne got an email from Ben Bridwell, leader of Band of Horses, one of the most critically acclaimed bands in the American indie genre. He praised SUSTO’s music, and offered to help in any way possible.

“I was floored when I got the email from him,” Osborne said. “I grew up loving Band of Horses, I mean Ben Bridwell was one of my idols.”

Bridwell lives in the area with his wife and kids, as does his dad, who actually heard SUSTO first when he was in the Royal American bar one day. He’s the one who got Bridwell to listen to the band’s album.

“I fell in love with the album immediately, without even thinking about the Charleston connection,” Bridwell said.

After that, he invited SUSTO to open a few Band of Horses concerts in the Southeast last summer. Then, he helped orchestrate the official showcase spot for SUSTO at South by Southwest this month, which Osborne said would have been difficult to do otherwise.

For the past two decades, the festival has been a proving ground for many up-and-coming artists, and it’s a rare chance for smaller, independent bands to get in front of top talent scouts.

As the mastermind and often sole player behind SUSTO, Osborne regularly puts together a backing band from friends in local groups such as Brave Baby, The Royal Tinfoil and others.

The current lineup, for the South by Southwest showcase and a few others, is: Osborne (guitar, vocals), John Kuiper also known as Johnny Delaware (guitar, vocals), Corey Campbell (keys, guitar), Marshall Hudson (drums) and Jordan Hicks (bass).

Some of those characters, as well as Bridwell, play with Osborne on SUSTO’s forthcoming live album, “Live from the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame,” which is a jokey code name of Osborne’s aging house on Line Street. The album is being released April 1.

With more than a decade of industry experience under his belt, Bridwell has certainly been helpful getting SUSTO in the pipeline for music industry connections, Osborne said. The group now uses Band of Horses’ lawyer, and they have other deals in the works, although Osborne said he couldn’t talk about that yet.

Bridwell said he simply wants to help the music succeed because he believes in it.

“That album, for me, was so full of great hooks and great storytelling that I was just a fan,” he said. “That’s all it was, and that’s all I remain, more than trying to help or be a mentor, I’m just fan, man. I just love the music so much.”

SUSTO’s music is no doubt catchy. But the mellow rhythms, intricate melodies, those are just the beginning. What’s really at the center of SUSTO’s infectious music is Osborne’s coming-of-age story, how he uses song writing to reconcile his adolescent decisions, to rebel against his conservative upbringing and to question the religion he once clung to.

As Bridwell put it, “it’s like, once the album is done, you want to start it all over and hear the whole story again from start to finish.”

Growing up in a small town in rural South Carolina called Puddin’ Swamp in Clarendon County, Osborne learned the value of storytelling from his extended family, who has lived in that area for as long as he can remember.

“I’ve always been really fond of the way my dad and his side of the family talks and tells stories. ... We all just have this sense of humor that’s very particular to where we’re from,” he said. “I feel compelled to bring that kind of candid conversational type of storytelling to songs. But also keeping it melodic, with a hook, so that hopefully when it’s over, people take away some kind of metaphorical lesson or literal story.”

That’s the beauty of SUSTO’s songs, according to Ryan Zimmerman, who recorded the first album.

“Justin has this ability to say things that actually happened and make it sound like a metaphor, but he’s actually telling the truth,” he said.

A number of songs illustrate that, which at first, sound like they’re referencing some Southern gothic novel’s take on the dark underbelly of religion. For instance, the first track, “Black River Gospel” talks about singing in a church and feeling like a sacrifice to God.

But listen closely, and that song and many others become Osborne’s personal story of what it’s like to come from a life devoted to Christianity and family values in a small, Southern town, and trade it all for some nomadic, starving-artist lifestyle with nonstop exposure to new ideas and cultures.

Music started playing a leading role in Osborne’s life when the family moved to Florence.

A Christian clan, a lot of their time was spent in church, which Osborne said he never minded. Church was a place of refuge, where he learned to play and perform his songs on violin, piano and later, guitar.

In his Junior year of high school, he started a band with some friends called Sequoyah Prep School, and SUSTO’s current bassist Jordan Hicks joined the group at one point. But it was much different from anything they’re playing now.

Riding the wave of that emotional punk-pop era of the early 2000s, the group found a fruitful niche playing angst-ridden anthems about star-crossed lovers, heartbreak, and the like.

With the help of burgeoning social media networks like MySpace, the group quickly became a viral hit among teenagers across the country. In 2009, Atlantic Records took notice and offered the group a chance to record a new album on their label.

For a variety of reasons, the deal fell through, and soon, Sequoyah Prep School grew apart from their fan base. After seven years of playing cross-country tours and recording several self-produced albums, the band members were no longer teenagers. These were their formative years, and they naturally started craving new ideas and musical styles.

“We started ... really taking it seriously, and learning a lot as human beings and as musicians and our world views were changing,” Osborne said.

The band threw in the towel in early 2013, and it’s around that time when the inklings of SUSTO were born in Zimmerman’s makeshift studio on Line Street. Some of the Sequoyah members recorded Osborne’s new songs such as “Dream Girl,” a graphic yet poetic song about a nightmare he kept having of a pretty girl eating him alive. It was in every way a departure from Sequoyah Prep School’s light-hearted pop hits. Osborne actually called it “the most SUSTO song there is.”

Today, it’s hard to imagine Osborne as a church-going conservative kid who sang with a breathy whine in a pop band. He’s rough around the edges, his eyes are piercing, his voice is gruff. He smokes, drinks and curses at any opportunity. But he’s incredibly introspective — he sensed this shift in himself, this departure from religion and everything else he had grown up to be.

“I had years of going out and seeing different places and how people thought differently, and I just felt this abrupt change,” he said. “I abandoned not just my faith, but the world view of everyone where I’m from.”

Pair that with the crumbling of his long-time band, and the struggle Osborne often writes about becomes clear. His mid-20s were tumultuous, and his chosen path continues to strain his relationships with his family in Florence. But it’s this point of tension where he draws the most meaning and fuses it into his music. In fact, that’s how he landed on the band’s name.

“Susto is a folk illness in Latin America, meaning whenever you go through something traumatic, your soul gets separated from your body for a certain amount of time and you’re just sort of lost and can’t make decisions,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing with myself, so it just felt like an appropriate name.”

After spending some time in Cuba, which is another story entirely and will likely make some cameos in SUSTO’s new album due out next year, Osborne returned to Charleston in late 2013 to finish recording his new music. A few former members of Sequoyah played with him, along with some new friends such as Kuiper, the guitarist who Osborne credits with refining the riff-heavy character of SUSTO.

“I still really like the record, and I don’t really like saying this, but sometimes I just listen to it,” he said. “Because I still feel like I had a lot to say about that period of my life when I was restless and wandering around, falling in love, doing drugs, trying to figure out who I was, and it’s really fun to listen to. When I listen to it ... I feel like we did me justice. And that is a really powerful feeling. I’ve never made anything that felt like that before.”

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail

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