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It was shortly after 6:30 on a warm August evening that I sat down with Susto frontman, Justin Osborne. Leading up to the interview, I sat in the empty lobby of Winnipeg’s Park Theatre, eavesdropping on a run-through of ‘Jah Werx’ being performed in soundcheck while trying to look busy, shuffling papers and writing notes. Once the song wrapped up Osborne walked through half of a set of double doors and sat down to tell me a little about his band, Susto.
Undoubtedly the biggest contributor to the gain of popularity and success Susto has seen in the last year was being granted the opportunity to tour with The Lumineers across the United States and Canada early in 2017. When Susto first learned they would be openers for the mega band, they were in Niagara Falls, Canada, enjoying the scenery before their first Canadian show in Toronto. Drummer Marshall Hudson, who had stayed in Toronto to do graphic design work, was the first to receive the news as he was the only member with cell phone reception. It was on the way back to Toronto that one of the members who had gone to the Falls turned the data on their cell phone back on and found a message saying to contact management immediately. Asleep in the back of the tour van at the time, singer Justin Osborne was the last to hear the news. Upon first learning the band would be travelling with the Lumineers, Osborne was, to say the least, skeptical.
“They woke me up to tell me,” he said with a grin, “and I was like ‘that’s bullshit. There’s no way.’”
As they drove back toward Toronto and a stable WiFi connection, they received more details about the tour and the truth began to sink in. The shock and disbelief read clearly on his face even as he told me the story so many months later.
What shocked the members of Susto particularly about the whole scenario was they had no idea they were even in contention for the opening gig.
“It was a complete surprise to us. But apparently [The Lumineers] were diggin’ our new record before it came out” Osborne told me reminiscently.
What had happened without any of the band member’s knowledge was the booking agent for the Lumineers had acquired Susto demo tapes as a result of working in the same office as their own booking agent.
With their new album, & I’m Fine Today, being released in January of 2017 and the tour starting the following March, the timing of the tour was perfect.
“We got to be on national television before that tour and everything,” Osborne told me. “Everything was a really good PR storm.”
The fallout from this storm included a record deal in Canada before the tour even began, just for being a part of it. The wheels had begun to turn for the band that had made their first record -self-titled Susto, released in 2014- in a storage unit “because that’s what [they] did for fun.”
For Justin Osborne, performing and songwriting have been passions of his since he was in high school and well into adulthood thus far. Many of the songs written for Susto were penned in his mid-twenties, beginning around the age of 22. For him, songwriting is a manner of expressive creativity that can be used to channel raw emotion with poetic coherence. Some songs, including pieces off their new album, ‘Havana Vieja’ and ‘Hard Drugs’, have even helped him to mend the fragmented personal relationships that inspired their creation.
One song story Osborne shared with me comes to mind every time I’ve heard the tune since our conversation. From the album Susto, ‘Dream Girl’ acted as a rhythmic dreamcatcher for a recurring nightmare Osborne dealt with.
“I probably had it four or five times in a month. I was waking up from one dream and then I’d think I was awake. Then I’d realize it was kind of surreal. I would be held by this giant woman who had this motherly vibe. But then she would smile at me when I looked at her and she would start eating my hands. When I wrote the song, I never had the dream again.”
Osborne described how many of his other songs are expressions of him “working shit out” in his life. However, not all are based on his problems.
“Songs like ‘Jah Werx’ and ‘Waves’, those are more like mantras,” he explained. “It’s like I was getting out how I really feel and getting to sing that and yell that every night… it revitalizes the idea. The idea of approaching life in search of peace and understanding.”
For anyone who has heard the 24 songs Susto has released, there are many songs that touch on Osborne’s “very Christian” upbringing. This upbringing followed him into adulthood where, while in college, he was confronted by a roommate who asked him, “you don’t really believe this stuff, do you?” From there, Justin tumbled down a rabbit hole of questioning what he had been raised to believe. In a band he was in prior to Susto, Osborne says he can be heard questioning parts of what was then his religion. This period of his life lead him to meeting people and seeing places that no one who had raised him to follow Christianity had ever experienced before. Eventually, these new experiences and ideas culminated in what he referred to as being a moment of rejection.
Sitting at a stop light, with no one but himself, he said aloud, “Fuck you, God.”
“I would never say that now because it’s a dumb thing to say and there’s no reason to say “fuck you” to anybody who hasn’t done anything to you.”
He went on to explain how, in that moment, he realized for the first time that nothing was going to happen to him. “A lot of it was fear. I was afraid of what if I was wrong? What if I burn in Hell for all eternity? Then, eventually, I just stopped being afraid. I have close friends and family who are religious and I have a lot of respect for people’s religious beliefs. A lot more than I did in that moment at the stop light.”
From that moment, Osborne has been able to release the resentment he once felt towards anyone who taught him the religious life he had. He’s since come to terms with his upbringing, telling me “it’s not like they were ever trying to pull one over on me. They just really believe those things.”
As of now, Osborne is on tour in Europe, alone. The budget simply isn’t there yet to allow Susto to bring along the entire band. While across the ocean, he plans to “let the songs do their thing” in these solo performances with the hope of “opening up some new ears.” Upon returning home, Osborne will return to touring with his bandmates across the United States starting in Raleigh, North Carolina on September 9th. The hope for the future is to spread the word of Susto. So long as fans are willing to come out to shows, Susto will stay out on the road. Performing thought-provoking rock and roll and sharing a message of spiritual exploration and personal discovery woven into hymns for the religiously ambiguous is what this band of friends knows how to do best.
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