Well, we don’t want to jinx it, so let’s discuss the flourishing and fortuitous local band Susto in hushed tones.
Susto is about to release its second full-length CD, “& I’m Fine Today,” which comes out Jan. 13 on the Missing Piece/Caroline label. Then the band hits the road as a headliner for 24 gigs, followed by a 17-city North American tour during which Susto will open for The Lumineers, a folk-rock juggernaut responsible for the catchy chart-topping tune “Ho Hey.”
Let’s put it this way: In recent years, Charleston has been home base to two groups that made it big, Band of Horses and Shovels & Rope. Both have found an international audience. Susto is poised to be No. 3. Too bold a statement? You can judge for yourself. Susto is set to play the Charleston Music Hall on New Year’s Eve.
Other Charleston musicians certainly have enjoyed some success, helping to bolster the city’s reputation as an emerging hub of popular music. Jump, Little Children came inches from a national breakthrough moment in the early 2000s. After a top-six showing on American Idol in 2012, Elise Testone landed some good gigs, made a record, moved from Charleston to New York City with the hope of greater success. And singer-songwriter Eddie Bush has toured with some big shots, wowed audiences with his guitar prowess and recorded 17 albums.
A growing number of local musicians are grabbing attention at clubs, bars and special events, and on the stages of the Music Farm, Pour House and Charleston Music Hall. These bands include such ones as Brave Baby, Slow Runner and Hermit’s Victory, as well as solo artists including ET Anderson, Grace Joyner, Joel Hamilton, Bill Carson and others.
And let’s not forget Darius Rucker and Mark Bryan of Hootie and the Blowfish fame, selling 25 million records worldwide in the 1990s. Both call the Lowcountry home and keep busy producing music and mentoring musicians.
Susto has been riding this wave, and helping to build it up, too. But the band operates in collaborative circles, relying on the engineering talents of Wolfgang Zimmerman and the musical influences of local players.
Justin Osborne is the frontman of the group: lead vocalist, rhythm guitar player and songwriter. His key collaborators have been guitarist Johnny Delaware, who co-writes some of the tunes, and Zimmerman. Osborne thinks of them as co-producers, and he thinks of himself as the creative leader who lends continuity to the enterprise through his lead vocals, lyrics and scrappy physical presence.
Other members of the band are Marshall Hudson on drums, Jenna Desmond on bass and Corey Campbell on guitar and keys. The band name derives from a medical syndrome specific to Latin American culture and roughly means “soul-displacing fright.”
When Delaware told him a few months ago that he would be leaving the band to pursue his own projects, Osborne at first panicked, but soon realized that all would be fine. Susto is loosely configured anyway, and Dries Vandenburg is an excellent guitarist who has worked with the band as its videographer. He knows the vibe and can slide in effortlessly, Osborne said.
Delaware, who has been writing a lot of songs, many of which are not really Susto material, will soon record and tour with his new band, Artisanals. The two friends remain close.
John Kenney, booking manager at The Royal American, said Susto got off to a good start. It’s first record (self-titled) came out in 2014 and demanded attention, Kenney said.
“I thought it was the best record I’ve heard in five years,” he said. “The songwriting is so good, and really timeless. You could play it in the 1970s or 20 years from now. If you’d play that record for Tom Petty or Neil Young, they’d say, ‘Wow, what a good record.’ ”
Kenney doesn’t think Delaware’s absence will hurt the band. Susto’s 2017 touring schedule is sure to win them more attention and praise. When they open for The Lumineers, they’ll be playing larger venues, Kenney pointed out.
“That should be a real game-changer for Susto,” he said.
The Artisanals, meanwhile, haven’t yet played a gig, but they are already well-positioned to make a big splash. They will make their debut at The Royal American on Dec. 27, then open for Band of Horses in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 30 and 31, playing sold-out shows at the 9:30 Club.
Osborne grew up in Florence, part of a religious family. He attended a Christian private school, went to church every Wednesday and Sunday and was enrolled in a Christian summer camp. By high school, he was finding an emotional outlet in music, first Christian music, then profane rock ’n’ roll. His three younger brothers all played music.
His first band, Sequoyah Prep School, enjoyed some success: a few small hits, a big presence on MySpace, lots of touring and four records. Their regional gigs drew up to 200 people. It was like a dream come true for Osborne, he said.
“I always wanted to tour, I’ve always been drawn to the travel part of it,” he said.
After Osborne was enrolled at The Citadel, Atlantic Records signed Sequoyah to a development deal. So, at 21, he dropped out of The Citadel and went to Los Angeles to record in a real studio. Nothing much came of the Atlantic arrangement, though, other than valuable experience.
“I learned a lot,” Osborne said, putting a positive spin on what others might consider a burn.
Osborne was leaving his religion behind, writing thoughtful songs, touring almost constantly, and wondering what would be next. On the road, he was developing romantic notions of revolutionary politics as he read travel books, texts by Che Guevera, Fidel Castro, T.E. Lawrence and an occasional novel such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita.”
He read as much J.D. Salinger as he could, usually inside air-conditioned New Orleans strip clubs because there he could find a respite from the summer heat, he said.
Soon he would take a respite from music, enrolling at the College of Charleston where he studied anthropology and joined Professor Doug Friedman’s study-abroad program in Cuba. He was four months on the forbidden island as a student then decided to stay another month. He could not keep the music away for long.
In Cuba he started performing again. He also made a solo record called “Vampires in Havana.” He found a girl, married and quickly divorced (they’re still friends), then moved back to Charleston. But his half a year in Cuba gave him new perspective and rekindled his creative fire.
The songs he’s made since his return feature darker subject matter, he said. Through music he works out a lot of private issues, such as his religious upbringing and atheism, his profound connections to family and friends, his existential angst.
“Songwriting is always a way to deal with what’s going on,” he said.
Consider “Hard Drugs,” a song about a troubled friendship, LSD and a medical emergency. Or “Cosmic Cowboy,” which is Osborne’s manifesto, affirming who he is yet questioning his place in the universe.
This is my first life. Or is it my last life? Am I ever going to make it to nirvana, am I ever gonna see God? Is space really expanding? Am I getting bigger in my chair? I want to know it all and see it all, too.
The lyrics can be coarse, with epithets and curse words and references to drugs, but no one can say they’re not honest. Osborne’s parents have had some trouble with all this, of course, but now they just avoid certain topics and find ways to sustain a relationship. They understand now that Osborne is not floundering, that he knows what he wants and knows how to pursue it.
“I think they’re proud of me,” he said.
Dan McCurry, a local musician and record producer, has known Osborne for a decade. McCurry’s band Run Dan Run used to play gigs with Sequoyah Prep School in 2007, McCurry recalled.
Susto wasn’t the result of a deliberate effort to put a new band together, McCurry said. Rather, it emerged and blossomed, fed by the soils of Cuba and Charleston and watered by the collaborative local music scene.
“But it made sense, though,” McCurry said. “He’s been in the industry, been burned by it before. He has a strong DIY ethic. Justin booked everything up until a year ago. ... He’s really good at developing relationships with everyone. He hustles. ... He’ll play a show and be up next morning at 9 a.m. busting out emails. He takes it upon himself to connect with his fan base.”
Some of that is changing now. Susto has national management that likes to control things. And as Susto’s fan base grows, it will become unrealistic for Osborne to keep up the DIY approach.
“They’ve just done everything right up until this point, and they put themselves in this position where they have a real shot breaking out on the national level,” McCurry said. “They will do it, it’s just a matter of how big a national band they will be.”
Serving the song
Osborne has been enjoying a bit of R&R the last few weeks. Between tours, he’s hanging loose in Charleston with his girlfriend and his pals. He’ll wake up in the morning, smoke a little, then walk around the house strumming his guitar and coming up with new material. He’ll record snippets with his iPhone or, if the tune is more worked out, make a demo.
In the recording studio, some of the songs are more or less written through by him when it comes time to record them, others are based on ideas that the rest of the musicians help flesh out.
“Our philosophy is not to be hemmed in, to serve the song,” he said.
Once the album is done, Susto will prepare for live performances by rehearsing a lot in an effort to mimic what was recorded, he said. Osborne already has the third record conceived and mostly written.
“The important thing for me is there’s a certain amount of validation right now,” he said of the band’s successes. “It’s not about how big Susto gets. I know I’ve accomplished something.”
But don't repeat that too loudly.