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The Story of SUSTO and ‘Ever Since I Lost My Mind’

Photo: Sully Sullivan

When SUSTO’s Justin Osborne returned to Charleston after the last few shows of the & I’m Fine Today era, he shaved his head. That wasn’t just because his hair had grown out of control, either. When I sat down with Justin earlier this month, he told me that it was something he had planned to do for a long time, at least a year. He saw it as a symbolic way for SUSTO to introduce a new era: the Ever Since I Lost My Mind era.

“I wanted to represent the change that had happened, internally and creatively, with the band,” Justin says. “I wanted there to be a visual representation of that.”

SUSTO’s third album, Ever Since I Lost My Mind, was released on Friday, February 22nd. This is the band’s label debut after signing a deal with Rounder Records last year. It’s also the first SUSTO album that was written entirely by Justin Osborne. The album reflects a shift in the way that SUSTO makes music, and it’s also a reflection of the way that Justin’s life has changed over the last few years.

“I had a kind of traumatic experience making the last record,” Justin says. “It was a lot of people in a small room, and I really wanted to make the record I wanted to make [with] this album.”

The first two SUSTO albums featured a good deal of creative input and collaboration from Johnny Delaware, who played lead guitar and wrote songs like “Mystery Man” and “County Line”. Johnny left SUSTO to start The Artisanals right after the band finished recording & I’m Fine Today. That’s when Dries Vandenberg of Human Resources joined on guitar. Then, at the end of the & I’m Fine Today era, Jenna Desmond and Corey Campbell left to follow their passions with their new duo, Babe Club. These lineup changeovers gave Justin the opportunity to have full creative control over what Ever Since I Lost My Mind would become.

“That was kind of always my vision for it,” Justin explains. “Whenever I started SUSTO, I always thought it would be a stage name, you know? Like Cat Power. The way it looks on paper, and the way my name is spelled, and the name of my old band, at the time it felt like this manifestation of who I was, musically.”

Justin’s old band was called Sequoyah Prep School. They’re from Florence, SC, and they had a degree of local and regional success, but never really broke into that next level. It was around the time that they called it quits, as the classic SUSTO story goes, when Justin started to give up on music. In the years between Sequoyah Prep School fizzling out and SUSTO getting started, he went through that period of being lost that we’ve heard about since the first album. He was a mid-twenties student at the College of Charleston, trying to find his path in the world. Then he went to live in Cuba, and his experiences and the people he met there inspired him to keep making music. Not long after that, Justin started SUSTO.

“It’s my narrative, it’s my story, but it’s been cool that it’s been a bit of a rotating cast, on the road and on the recordings,” Justin says. “It’s made my narrative more interesting, because it gets pulled in different ways by the people I’m working with.”

When SUSTO released their self-titled debut album in 2014, Justin was living for cheap on Line Street in downtown Charleston, in a house dubbed ‘The Australian Country Music Hall of Fame’. The songs on that record reflect the kind of bohemian lifestyle that Justin and his friends were living over there. And what makes that record special, from a Charleston perspective at least, is that it depicts the city in a way that people can connect with. That record captures the feeling of being in Charleston, but not in the pretty part of Charleston that the tourists see. It’s the Charleston you see when you stay at the bar until they turn the lights on.

“It’s weird how my perspective of this city has changed, because I was just here all the time,” Justin says. “I was living my life here. I was on Line Street, spending so much time with my friends all the time. And also trying to make a record. And there was this dream of getting to… basically where we’re at right now. Then I started going away all the time. And coming back. And then going away for even longer. And then coming back.”

Justin, of course, is talking about leaving town to tour with SUSTO, and most notably the extensive tour that followed the release of & I’m Fine Today. SUSTO spent the better part of the past two years on the road, continuing to build momentum and returning home for short periods of time whenever their touring schedule gave them a break. Each time they returned home, Justin noticed that the city had continued to change in his absence.

“The city has changed and my life has changed with it, a bit,” Justin says. “When we were just being shitheads on Line Street and riding our bikes around on acid, the growth maybe had started, but it hadn’t really started spreading. Down there, across from the sheds we used to record in, you could just walk all the way to the alley, just across open fields and down the train tracks. Now there’s several buildings over there.”

In addition to these changes in Charleston and the growth of SUSTO, Justin’s life at home has been steadily moving toward the realities of adulthood.

“I left for one tour living at Line Street, and my girlfriend at the time, now wife, found this place, and just Facetimed and showed it to me,” Justin recalls, “So she moved in here with her brother and my friends helped her and then I came home from tour and this is where I lived. Life has changed in these incremental ways. And I was on tour for 9 weeks and came home and got married like a week later.”

Now, with Ever Since I Lost My Mind on the verge of release, Justin and the band are gearing up to hit the road again. Justin and his wife, on the other hand, are getting ready to bring their first child into the world. SUSTO will be on the road from the end of February right up until early May, and two weeks after they get back, Justin will become a father.

“It’s probably gonna make me wanna tour less. But also we talked about this before we decided to have a baby. This is my job,” Justin says. “She’s been supportive since day one. I want to be around as much as I can. But also once babies are bigger, they can go around. Meghan comes out with us all the time, it’s a blast. I can’t wait to be all over the place with this little one, maybe more.”

While it’s nice to know that SUSTO isn’t going to call it quits any time soon, it’s easy to see how these changes in Justin’s life might manifest themselves on a SUSTO album. Ever Since I Lost My Mind came out of this period of time where Justin was trying to balance everything going on for him. The songs, and the way that the album was made, reflect that.

“I’ve just been head-in to trying to make this band work. I’ve been out on the road, but I also have been starting a family,” Justin says. “So I’ve either been out on the road, playing, and really working, but missing home, or I’ve been at home writing about the realities of what this life is. And me kinda coming to terms with it. How to navigate life and love and everything when I’m living this lifestyle that’s super transient.”

This mindset is the one that Justin found himself in during the writing and recording process for Ever Since I Lost My Mind. This, coupled with the changes that the band had seen since the release of & I’m Fine Today, helped guide Justin’s decision making process for the new album. With the support of Rounder Records, SUSTO was able to go a bit bigger than the storage unit recordings of their past. That’s how SUSTO ended up making an album with the now Grammy-winning producer Ian Fitchuk, who co-produced the Album of the Year-winning Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves.

“Because this is the first album we’ve gone into with a label on board, it opened up all these different opportunities. I got to talk to a lot of people that I was a big fan of and respect, but Ian was the guy I vibed with the most,” Justin explains. “He had just worked on the most recent Kacey Musgraves record, which I was a big fan of, not just songwriting-wise, but also sonically, you know. Even though that’s not completely what we do, but I wanted that level of sonic fidelity involved.”

Justin remembers being at a coffee shop in Nashville with Ian, telling him about SUSTO and the frustration he felt while making & I’m Fine Today, and how he was afraid this album would feel that way, too. He had also been telling Ian about a specific time when he rode around the islands on a jet ski at a songwriter’s festival in Key West, and the freedom he felt doing that. Ian made a connection right away.

“He was like, ‘No man, recording should be like how you felt on that jet ski. It should be like the water and wind in your face, it should be fun,'” Justin recalls. “That actually dictated some decisions I made about how the record was made and who I made it with, and also solidified me knowing that Ian was gonna be a good guy to have in the room, you know?”

Ever Since I Lost My Mind was finished in just a short two-week spurt. First they spent a week tracking it out at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Recording, based on studio demos that had been made previously at Rialto Row with Wolfgang Zimmerman. The next week, Justin and Dries stayed in an Airbnb in East Nashville, smoking joints, microdosing shrooms, and finalizing the record at the home studio of engineer Konrad Snyder.

“Those guys were very psychedelic positive. You don’t get that a ton from Nashville people, certain music industry people,” Justin says. “It was these Nashville dudes who were rad, and then our crew who was rad, and we met at this neutral ground and just made a record. It was cool.”

The album, sonically speaking, does accomplish that level of fidelity that Justin was hoping for. The sound is big and full, and layered with textures that serve to accent Justin’s songwriting. Even on the songs that are quieter, more subdued, the production shines through. Because of this, Justin is able to clearly present the newest version of his story: the SUSTO story, Ever Since I Lost My Mind edition. This story is one of looking forward at new opportunities and circumstances, but also looking back with love for the past, and sometimes not wanting to let it go.

Perhaps the defining moment of Ever Since I Lost My Mind is the fourth track, “Manual Transmission”. The song is very much about challenges within the band, but it also ties in with the challenges that Justin is facing outside of the band. The lyrics point to making a conscious decision to move on, with full knowledge that you could easily go back to something that isn’t right for you. This is Justin offering us a peek at what was going on inside his head during that long tour in support of & I’m Fine Today, and it’s done in a way that is relatable, even if you’re not in the exact same situation. The nostalgic feel of the song’s arrangement plays into this, and the lyrics spell it out for us: “I tell ’em like a cautionary tale / I wish I could say I’m doin’ well”.

“That tour in Europe was really hard. It was really cold,” Justin says. “I was fed up with everybody and I went downstairs into the basement of this venue and I just played that song. It just came out in one thing. Then I was in this one hotel room by myself for three days after that and I worked on it more, but pretty much the whole song came out immediately.”

While “Manual Transmission” might be inspired by a specific memory, the surrounding headspace is one that can be felt throughout the album. Since the songwriting on the album is entirely Justin’s, his mindset while writing and choosing songs for the record is closely tied to the way the album sounds, and the stories that exist within it.

“There was this headspace of just being in a band, being traveling, and having a really great home that I missed,” Justin explains. “It’s hard to describe where it was or what it is, but I feel it. To me, the record feels like a little scrapbook of these moments, emotionally, that I’ve had over the last few years. They’re all real moments.”

“House of the Blue Green Buddha”, another standout track on Ever Since I Lost My Mind, is written about the house where Justin lives with his wife, a place that he always misses when he’s out on tour. The lyrics tell a more mature side of the late-night debauchery that Justin has sung about since the first album: “Baby says it’s alright / If I come out and play / Just don’t be out all night / Come back this way”. It’s almost as if Justin is looking for a permission slip to go out and party with his friends. In the past, he likely wouldn’t have thought twice about it, and the first two SUSTO albums are evidence of that.

“My life has already changed so much in the last few years. Going from being a shithead at Line Street, to being in a band, and because of that running a small business,” Justin says. “And being married, and now about to be a Dad and all this stuff. I don’t know if I ever thought I would be capable of it all. But I feel really at peace with it, and it feels nice.”

This isn’t to say that Justin is going to stop partying, but he is trying to become more conscious about it. Having a nice place and a loving wife to come home to certainly helps. Now that he’s about to go on the road again, Justin is trying to mentally prepare himself to enter that world of tour life again, and to deal with the challenges that it will bring.

“I’m trying to not let it magnify as much when I’m on the road. A lot of times it can get really long, and the only way to get through it is just to get fucked up as soon as you get to the venue,” Justin says. “I got to a point on a few tours where we would get to the venue and I would have to have two or three tequila shots just to feel alright. I’m trying to dial back that, because it’s a slippery slope. It makes my vocals worse, it makes you feel shittier. It’s not that I don’t want those tequila shots. I’m trying to maintain my health to be able to function in a way that is professional. I’m growing up, like I’m paying my student loans and shit. But I’m still a shithead. I can’t help it. It’s like why I do this. I like to do that. I’ve always liked to just sit around and smoke and drink and shoot the shit. But I also like to do business, and I like to play music, and I like to travel.”

Justin’s career choice and lifestyle of constantly being on the move has also presented other challenges for him, including creating a distance between him and his parents and brothers. His family comes from a background of being very close, even working together. Since he hasn’t followed the same path, there is a disconnect between them that has grown over the years. Justin addresses this with the album’s title track, “Ever Since I Lost My Mind”.

“My family, my dad and his brothers all worked together and were really tight, and we saw my uncles all the time,” Justin recalls. “My brothers kinda expected that, and that’s just what we know. And I’m not there, you know? I’m not working with them.”

The song has sad overtones, but at its core a hopeful message. It feels like a letter written to his family, inviting them to reconnect along the way. He sings about being on the road, touring, and missing people from his past. With “Ever Since I Lost My Mind”, Justin seems to be looking for a way to bridge that gap and get closer with his family. This comes from that same headspace of longing for the past while looking at the future that fueled the creative process for the album.

Even the guitar tone and song structures on the album’s more upbeat tracks like “Last Century” and “Homeboy” seem to pay homage to the past. “Last Century” has an especially throwback feel to it, and sonically I would place it somewhere in the ballpark of Wilco’s Being There. According to Justin, the comparison to SUSTO that he hears most frequently is actually Wilco. When you listen to a song like “Hard Drugs” off & I’m Fine Today, it’s easy to see why, and “Last Century” certainly isn’t going to put an end to that comparison.

“Probably my inner Wilco just shining bright,” Justin laughs. “Wilco has always sort of just bucked the system a little bit. That was written in the period when I had a bunch of songs, but then the label and one of my managers was like, ‘Just keep writing’. They’re great intentioned and they mean the best, and they do a lot of good for me. The artist in me gets pissed a little bit when they’re just like, ‘Keep the radio in mind’. I get it, because I remember being a kid and growing up in the 90s, I did love everything that was on the radio. I still love Counting Crows, and Sublime and Oasis and shit like that, and that was on the radio. I guess I was trying to write a like, ‘Fuck you and your radio shit,’ but also channel the songs, you know. I’ve been to the 90s.”

Ever Since I Lost My Mind also honors the Hispanic influence at the core of the band with the song “Esta Bién”, which is sung entirely in Spanish. Justin says the song spawned out of a time when the band had a day off in Los Angeles, and they were all hanging out at an Airbnb.

“Corey and me were sitting around and the sun was going down, and we just started writing a song,” Justin says. “There were no lights on in the room, because it had been daylight, but we kept writing and it was dark. We hadn’t stopped to turn the lights on. We had just gotten the chorus. We were drunk and shit, you know, it was fun.”

After that drunken songwriting session with Corey, Justin continued to work with the idea of writing a song in Spanish, and eventually came up with “Esta Bién”. He was inspired by the idea of music as a way to learn language, and explains that his friend Camillo from Cuba learned how to speak English by watching movies and listening to music.

“There’s something really special about having a conversation in a different language,” Justin says. “I wanted to see if I could do a song. I’m not fluent in Spanish, but I’m getting better.”

SUSTO has already played “Esta Bién” live a few times, and they even threw it into their set when they played in Mexico City earlier this year.

“Obviously it sounds like a gringo song to anybody’s who’s a native speaker,” Justin says. “My pronunciation, I tried as best I could, but it’s not perfect. It’s gonna sound like I’m from South Carolina, probably.”

The idea of appealing to people in different parts of the world is a musical decision, but it’s also a business decision. Mexico City is the streaming capital of the world, and there were already Spanish-speaking people listening to SUSTO before the release of “Esta Bién”. This is part of the next era for SUSTO, which Justin says is one where he hopes to reach even more people with the music.

“We want the band to get big, you know? That’s what everybody on the team wants. That’s what we’re all working for,” Justin explains. “Hopefully with the resources we have now, and by that I mean a label, we’ll be able to push a little bit further.”

Justin goes on to explain that while he is happy with where the band is right now, he’d like to have more time to spend with his family and friends at home, especially since he has a baby on the way.

“There’s bills to pay,” Justin says. “I’m having a blast, and everything’s fine right now. And it can stay how it is. But the bigger the shows, the less of them you have to play. That would be nice, because then I could be at home. I want it to get it bigger, so then I could not have to be out there doing it so much. And just live my fuckin’ life, you know. It’s requiring a lot of attention and energy right now. It’s fine, you know. I’m young, and I want it. So I don’t mind doing all the work. It’s mostly just being gone. Being able to be home and be around my wife and my kid.”

For now, though, Justin is prepared to hit the road and give Ever Since I Lost My Mind the attention that it deserves. This means touring, doing the press run, and being away from home. The Ever Since I Lost My Mind era has begun, and SUSTO is ready to run with it.

The tour starts on Thursday night at The Windjammer for a hometown album release show, where they’ll be joined by Charleston’s Mel Washington and Nashville’s Frances Cone. Christina Cone is actually from Charleston, and she will be sitting in with SUSTO on backup vocals on the road, after Frances Cone plays to open the night. Also joining SUSTO for a two-week run in April is Illiterate Light, who we just interviewed at the Pour House last week.

See full SUSTO tour dates here, and listen to Ever Since I Lost My Mind below.