On the Road with SUSTO: Part 1
Editor’s note: In August of 2017, Canadian music journalist Matt Harrison sat down for an interview with SUSTO’s frontman Justin Osborne at the Park Theatre in Winnipeg, Canada. After the interview, Matt handed Justin a letter proposing that he come on tour with the band and write a story about it. Justin took Matt up on that offer, and in December of 2018, Matt joined Justin & crew for the second half of the SUSTO Stories Solo Tour. This is the first of six parts to Matt’s story of being on the road with SUSTO. They will be published once per week, every Wednesday, from now until the story is complete. Enjoy.
Charleston folks – SUSTO is playing a two-night Halloween blowout at the Music Farm. Tickets and more info here.
August 12th, 2017 – From the letter given to Justin after the interview
…I can go on now about how your music impacted me like no other music has since I was an angsty 14 year-old, sitting on the top-bunk of a second hand bunk bed, shot-gunning beers with the window cracked so I could do my best to smoke a couple cigarettes. Instead, I’ll save my wrist the ache and your eyes the agony.
…What I mean to propose, in a more straight forward fashion, is that if you are ever looking to have somebody come out on the road to write about you and your band, I’m the guy for the job.
I cost nothing and I stow anywhere.
December 5th, 2018 – Chicago, Illinois
I waited inside Schuba’s Tavern, pointing a blank stare out the window at the pedestrian traffic scuttering by the moonlit streets of Chicago. A lonesome drip ran down the neck of my Wellbeing Hellraiser, the non-alcoholic beer with the most appealing name on the menu. I couldn’t keep from drumming a nervous rhythm on my notebook with the pen from last night’s hotel while the barroom chatter carried on growing and fading.
“Matt?” the light voice of the waitress came from beside me, breaking my anxious concentration.
“Yes, hi,” I stammered, grabbing my backpack from the window shelf.
“Oh, thank God,” she said, her face painted with relief. “You’re like the fourth person I’ve come up to. The only instructions they gave me were that you’re wearing plaid and you’re Canadian.”
“Oh,” I said with a nervous laugh as I shouldered my backpack, grabbing my non-alcoholic beer and notebook. I followed her through the crowded bar and down a quiet flight of stairs that ended at the door to the kitchen. She pointed to a large door around the corner of the staircase. I stood outside it for a moment, took a deep breath, and gave a knock before I turned the knob and walked in.
When I entered the green room, Justin Osborne was midway through a bite of a burger. His eyes caught mine, and his eyebrows raised. “Hey man,” he said through a chewing mouthful. “I’d shake your hand, but I’ve got burger hands.” He reached over and gave me a fist bump, the word ACID tattooed across his knuckle.
Justin wore a week-old beard and a black long sleeved t-shirt. His sleeves were rolled up, showing the tattoos on his forearms, one of which is of his cat, Kiki. On his right hand, underneath his thumb, is a small tattoo of a guitar.
Justin introduced me to the few people sitting around the room, one of which was the opening act for the evening, Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, whom we called Pete. I had only just taken my seat at the edge of the room when a little blonde woman came walking in from another door.
“Jordan,” Justin said, leaning away from the conversation and his burger. “This is Matt. He’s the Canadian who’ll be ridin’ along with us. Matt, this is Jordan Igoe. We mostly call her Igoe, I think.”
“It’s gonna be cool havin’ you along,” Igoe said with her whiskey-splashed velvet voice. She carried a South Carolina accent only slightly heavier than Justin’s.
I shook her hand and tried to crack a joke, but all that cracked was my voice.
The green room door popped open, and in walked a slender, tattooed man with a pierced septum, long hair and a beard of an auburn shade.
“Got some paper and bottled water for y’all,” the tall skinny man said through his southern accent.
“Van, this is Matt, he’s the Canadian comin’ along. This is our tour manager, Van,” Justin said, pointing from Van to me.
“Good to meet you,” Van said with a firm handshake.
“We call him Van the Good,” Justin said, looking back at Van. “We also call him the Keeper of the Scrolls, but you don’t have to call him that.”
Justin sat in the center of the room, talking out the setlist with Jordan when Pete stood up with a bottled water in hand and walked toward the door.
“’Bout that time, Pete?” Justin asked, looking up from the half-filled page on the table.
“Yep,” he replied through his light Arkansas drawl, “just about.”
“Alright, man. Have a good set.”
Pete had only just stepped out the door when Justin turned towards me, carrying on writing out his set list with the paper Van had brought in. “I was workin’ in a kitchen at this place called the Royal American when I saw Pete singing with his band, Water Liars. Seeing him made think there are guys out there my age performing and touring. I had done some touring before, but that really got me back into the tourin’ life.”
I leaned in to ask something when the green room door opened slowly and a tall, skinny man with a full, thick beard and long hair of a matching oaky brown, peeked into the room. Justin jumped up smiling and rushed to hug the guy. The room came alive with smiles and laughter. Justin walked over to me with his arm around the newcomer.
“Matt, this is Johnny Delaware,” he said with a full, beaming smile.
Johnny Delaware, a long-time friend of Justin’s and former member of SUSTO, stood before me wearing a zipped-up sweater printed over with a photo of two white horses running through a river. The sleeves and back made up the trees and skyline in the background of the horses. We shook hands and the laughter in the room grew and carried on. It so happened that Johnny was coming through Chicago with his band, The Artisanals, and had come by on their night off to watch Justin and Jordan perform.
Come the time Justin and Jordan took the stage, I stood in the back of the room. This tour was called the SUSTO Stories Tour, and Justin began the show by explaining to the crowd how the night was to proceed.
“Hi there, how y’all doin’?” he said as he adjusted the mic with his guitar hanging from his shoulder. “We’re gonna play a buncha songs for ya tonight. We’ll play some songs off the first album, the second album, a bunch of songs that aren’t on any album. We’ll do some songs off our new album, too. I’m also going to be doing an obnoxious amount of talking about a bunch of these songs. Sorry about that, but we advertised it that way.”
The crowd laughed and Justin stepped into the first story of the night.
“My brother and I were burnin’ leaves this one time and we thought we put the fire out, but I guess we didn’t get the whole thing and it caused a whole lotta trouble. A buncha years later I was out at this bar and I was talking to this girl who I’d kinda known but didn’t know very well. It was going great until something clicked in her mind and she says, wait a minute, you’re the kid that burned my Grandad’s boatshed down like, 10 years ago. And I was like well, actually, me and my brother did.”
The crowd laughed, making Justin laugh along, too.
“So, that’s what this song’s about, and it’s called County Line.”
The chemistry between Justin and Igoe on stage was immediately apparent. The years between them, the friendship they carried, shone through in their harmonies throughout the 15 or so songs they played that night and every night after.
Once they came down to the last song of the night, Justin took a moment to address the audience. “We’ve got nowhere to hide so we won’t bother doing an encore, but if y’all wanna hear some more songs we’ll play ‘em for ya.”
The room answered with an overwhelming cheer.
“Alright,” he chuckled, “we’ll go ahead and just jump right into it. We’re gonna start off with a new song. It’s about knowing you’re doing the wrong thing but doing it anyway.”
With that, he strummed the first chords gently before stepping into the first line: “Ride with me to buy cocaine…”
As they said goodnight to the crowd, I slipped out the door and went down to the green room. Justin stayed upstairs for a short while talking to fans while Van the Good manned the merch table. I was sorting through my backpack when Igoe came into the green room.
“How do you feel coming off stage?” I asked.
“I’m glad to be done,” she said as she looked for her cigarettes. “It’s great being up there but I’m happy it’s over.”
Justin, Johnny Delaware, and Van the Good stumbled into the room, high on the excitement of the night. The group came in to grab coats and turned to head back out. Justin stopped at the door before they left.
“Hey Matt, we’re gonna go smoke a joint in the van, do you wanna come?”
With that, we all went back up the stairs and into the van. Justin opened the back doors and hopped in to roll a joint while the first joint did its rounds of the vehicle. I felt a brief streak of fear as the van filled with smoke. I quickly realized this isn’t the first joint smoked outside a music venue in Chicago, and, ultimately, these are professionals.
From the back of the van Justin told Johnny he’ll be a father by next summer.
“That’s great,” Delaware answered, glowing with excitement as he looked back over the seat at Justin who sat where the gear and merch would later be. “You’re gonna be a great dad.”
“Well, I know Meghan’s gonna be a great mom,” Justin replied from the back.
“Are you gonna find out what it is?” Delaware asked from the second row.
“Nah. We’ll find out when it’s born.”
“That’s great,” Delaware smiled, “there are so few surprises in life.”
Before Johnny Delaware left Schubas that night, he gave me a big hug and held it. He told me he was happy to have met me. The kicker is, it felt as though he meant it. The only time he didn’t look all that happy was while we stood outside for a cigarette. A man of the South, he wasn’t used to the humid chill of Chicago in December. His horse sweater, impressive as it may have been, did little to fend off the night’s chill.
While we smoked that cigarette, I told him how much he seems to radiate positivity. “I’m not always like that, man,” he said through chattering teeth. “When I’m driving around in the van and I just have to sit there, my blood feels still. I need to move around and engage with the world,” he said.
Once the crowd dispersed and it came time to pack the van, I asked what I can help with. The group was reluctant to put me to work but I insisted, and they eventually took my offer. It was the next day that Justin cut a deal with me to help load and unload the van for the remainder of the tour in exchange for him buying my meals.
“Sorry you have to help us, man, but we appreciate it,” Justin said as we lugged the vinyl and merch bins into the van.
Once the last piece of cargo was loaded, Justin, Igoe, Van the Good and I climbed into the van, and took off through the night toward our hotel in Indiana. As we pulled away, Justin brought up the maps app on his phone and looked back from the front passenger seat.
“We met right in the middle, bro” he said, showing me his phone. It would take 13 hours 40 minutes to drive to Winnipeg from Chicago, and 13 hours 30 minutes to drive from Chicago to Charleston.
We arrived at the hotel off the edge of the highway in Merriville, Indiana. Each of them had a couple drinks and rolled another joint to celebrate me stepping on board.
“Weed is a luxury,” Van the Good told me as he rolled the joint, “and it won’t be around every night.”
“Loud and clear,” I said, though his words would be proven wrong in the coming weeks.
Before we went out to smoke in the van, Justin got on talking about how excited he was to have me along. “You’re about to step into real Freedom out here. Once you get your nose into it, once you get a taste, that’s it, man. You’re gonna be hooked.”
I couldn’t tell if the author of the song “Cocaine” saw the irony of what he’d just said. Nevertheless, the Freedom carried out to the van where we smoked the celebratory joint and cranked the tunes before bed.
By 11:15 the next morning we were off and running toward Louisville. A band on the road needs to be a well-oiled machine, and newly appointed Tour Manager, Van the Good, is tasked with keeping this machine running at peak efficiency. His job encompasses many attributes, chief among them being in charge of keeping the crew’s head screwed on just straight enough to make every sound check and check-out on time.
“Alright, y’all,” Justin announced to the group before we pulled out, “we’ve got two joints ready to go for later on.”
“Oh my God,” Jordan said.
“Yeah,” he answered pridefully. “I’ve been workin’.”
A light snow fell intermittently between rainfall as we hit the highway. I took a glance out the window and watched the ice-glazed front end of a red Ford F-350 pull past us, momentarily hiding the half-frozen Kentucky hillsides that ran steep behind it. The crew decided to stop for lunch, so we pulled into a Waffle House in Columbus, Indiana, the birthplace of Cummins Diesel engines.
“I’m excited to take you to your first Waffle House,” Justin said to me as we hopped out of the van. “I hope it doesn’t kill ya, bud. We’ve developed something of an immunity to it.”
We piled into the restaurant quick, and left a little slower. The cook and the waitress each took interest in what we were coming through for. Before we left, Van left a copy of both SUSTO albums with each of them. Ultimately, interactions like these are another opportunity to move product and make fans of anyone.
“You really got the full Waffle House experience for your first time,” Jordan told me once we’d left. “Good food, good service, and a waitress who likes to talk.”
The snow still fell as we pulled out, but not nearly as much collected in the ditches and up the hillsides. It quickly turned to rain as we passed a sign declaring 82 miles to Louisville.
We pulled into a rest stop a few miles outside Louisville to orient ourselves and spark a joint. We were surrounded by trees on all sides. It felt as though we were in some wild paradise with a strip of pavement running through the heart of it to allow for comers and goers, sinners and otherwise. We puttered back out onto the highway and carried on until we arrived at Zanzabar, the venue for that night’s show.
The show in Louisville was the first time I saw Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster perform. He sang to a gently half-filled room, strumming his 1965 12 string, strung with only 6 strings to avoid the hassle of maintaining all those strings on the road. Pete’s singing and songwriting are beautiful and smooth. His finger picking style and his voice roll like fog through a forest; poetic and revealing. Justin stood next to me through the performance, singing along to every word.
Once Pete finished performing, Justin and Igoe waited for their time in the green room, taking swigs from the bottle that each of them carried. He drank tequila while she drank Jack Daniel’s. Before long, showtime had arrived and the two of them walked on stage.
Justin started the show with the same song and story he told in Chicago, the same song and story every show started with throughout the tour. Justin would tell stories for eight or so songs at each show. Some stories he told at every show, some stories only popped up a few times. Louisville was the only city he told this story:
“There was this reggae hour in Charleston and all they would play was reggae music. I went through a three-month period where all I listened to was reggae. I went to our producer and I was like the next record is gonna be all reggae. It’s the only true music. Nah not really, but all these reggae songs were always talkin’ about Jah Werx. So, this one time, I was with my wife and a friend of ours, and it was the end of the night and we were just gonna try writin’ a song.”
Justin began softly strumming the chords to Jah Werx and he sang the story to the tune of the song. “I sang Jah Werx, and my wife goes and I’m fiiine today, and my buddy goes at the same damn time, at the same damn time, at the same damn time.“
“There was this one time I got to play with The Wailers in Austin, Texas. A little while later I ran into them in an airport and they remembered me because of the song Jah Werx! Jah fuckin’ Werx, man!” Justin said with a tequila-scented smile.
“Now, they might not know what it means, and I don’t either, but I know it’s real. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.”
With that he jumped into “Jah Werx”.
Later, when Justin and Igoe stepped off stage, I met them behind the doors that led outside. Justin’s face was warped with worry and anxiety. He kept saying he didn’t put on a good enough show and that nobody wanted to hear these stories. He had been loose during this show, chattier with the crowd than he was in Chicago. Only a few steps off stage, panic hung in his voice as he explained his fears. Igoe talked him down, reassuring him. His breathing leveled out and after a minute he came back down.
“I can’t believe people are willing to listen to this shit,” he said to Jordan with a laugh.
“Drop it,” she answered curtly. “Do what your heart and soul want to do. Speak to people through music.”
“You’re such a good friend,” was all he could say.
We packed up and packed out after the show, sticking around no longer than need be. We came back to the hotel and sat in the parking lot to pass a joint around. Justin sat in the front passenger seat while he told me what he can remember about the two times he’d come through Winnipeg.
“When we were in Winnipeg with the Lumineers, I had to go to the mall right by the venue to buy some dental floss. I just remember feeling like it was kind of, like, dodgy. Like I wasn’t safe bein’ there.”
“Oh,” I answered with a laugh, realizing he had walked through the infamous heart of Downtown Winnipeg to Portage Place, “that’s because you weren’t.”
“I like places like that,” he said between hits of the joint. “You have to keep your head up and know what’s goin’ on around you. You have to use situational awareness and you can’t just tune out and stare at your phone.”
The night ended soon after that joint, and the next day we drove through the snowy Kentucky hills, Nashville bound. As we drove, they played the new album for me, which was still unreleased for another two months. I fell into the rhythm of it as we tore into Tennessee.
One moment I was staring into the forest beside the highway and the next we were right on top of Nashville. The city spread out far and wide in every direction underneath us as we pulled in. We wriggled down a few streets before we came to the parkade at Concord Music.
Our footsteps echoed through the tall corridor inside as we found our way over to the elevator. No one had much to say as the elevator purred while it carried us up. As we stepped onto our floor and walked up the hall into Concord Music, “Friends, Lovers, Ex-Lovers Whatever” by SUSTO played over the sound system.
“Oh my god. What a welcome,” Igoe said as the four of us walked toward the reception desk.
We were brought into an office where the conversation revolved around distribution strategies and the best way to get the new album off the ground once it’s released. When we left Concord, Justin and Van went to have a meet and greet with someone on the business end. This being Van’s first tour as Tour Manager, he was meeting all these people for the first time. After that meeting, there remained no further work to be done in Nashville, so we swung by the AirBnB to drop off our bags and went to 210 Jack, a ramen noodle place, for dinner.
The restaurant was alive with chatter as we took our seats. Today is the day “Homeboy”, the first single off the new album, was released. The group ordered a bottle of Saki to celebrate.
“Cheers, y’all,” Van said, raising his glass of Saki. “Happy single release day.”
“Guten tag,” Justin said, raising his glass.
As we were leaving, Justin pointed down the street toward the coffee shop where he played his first Nashville show many years ago while on tour with his now-wife, Meghan. We swung by a grocery store on the way home and bought some snacks for the night.
We sat around the kitchen table of the AirBnB while the Trailer Park Boys theme song twinkled in the background.
“I might wait a bit to have another drink because I just crushed that sleeve of Oreos,” Justin said with an exhausted expression.
“Everybody calm dewn,” said a googley-eyed bastard on the TV in the other room.
“Fuckin’ bubbles,” Van says shaking his head.
“Lahey was always my favourite,” Igoe said, walking over toward the living room where the TV was playing from.
“I am the liquor,” Justin said, looking up from his full drink and empty sleeve of Oreos.
As the night rolled on, more joints were rolled with it. We went out to the van to smoke one and Van proved why one of his many names is Keeper of the Scrolls. He pulled up videos on his phone of SUSTO performances from over the years. He pulled up a video of “Cigarettes, Whiskey, and Wine” from December 19th, 2015, the day of my 21st birthday.
“This one’s for you, brother,” Van said to me as he put the song on.
Van put on a video from the night prior in Louisville: “This is another new song,” Justin said. “It’s about knowing you’re doing the wrong thing but doing it anyways. Which I don’t recommend.”
Igoe sat in the seat behind me and played softly along to the video of “Cocaine” on a little guitar, stopping when the joint came back around to her. She sung gently behind me while the recording played. Justin coughed in the front seat as the smoke turned to a cloud and the joint continued its rounds.
“Let me blow Matt’s mind real quick,” Van said, scrolling through the videos in his phone.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I got was a live version of “Mountain Top” from May of 2016 played on a closed street under a tent on a night in Charleston. This video showed the psychedelic vortex of the song coming to life. This was true and pure rock and roll. Justin screamed the final verses into a megaphone while the band carried the beat beneath his breath.