Editor’s note: This is the third of six parts to Matt Harrison’s story of being on the road with SUSTO in December of 2018. In case you missed part two, find it here. Enjoy, and stay tuned for part four coming next Wednesday, October 9th.
Charleston readers – SUSTO is throwing a two-night Halloween party at the Music Farm. Tickets and more info here.
December 10th, 2018
“4:20 arrival,” Van the Good yelled from the driver seat, “we have to make that. Everybody, hold your pisses.”
The drive from Mobile to New Orleans is a little over two hours, which is nothing compared to the hundreds of miles we had thus far traveled. The sun baked the highway as we came into Louisiana while the bass of “House of the Rising Sun” rattled the windows. The bayou swamp grew thick and deep on either side of us before it receded, and we climbed into the belly of the beast called New Orleans.
The music cut out for a moment as Justin took a business call. He takes a few calls throughout the day, every day. With the release of Ever Since I Lost My Mind just over two months away, there are countless moving pieces he needs to be involved with. The silent talking in the front seat carried on for 5 minutes, then 10. He hung up and sent a couple emails. The music turned back up, and the ride carried on.
It didn’t take long for us to pull up outside the one floor walk-up where the show was scheduled to be. We did a quick unload and set up for mic check.
“I’ve truly never seen anything so beautiful,” Pete said through his Arkansas accent as he stared at the barn-style interior of the house. “I swear,” he would later say, “I’ve had dreams about places like this.”
After setting up and checking the levels, Justin, Igoe, Van the Good and I each took a sprinkle of psilocybin mushrooms and went next door to the Mellow Mushroom. Whether you’ve taken anything mind-bending or not, the art on the walls inside the psychedelic-themed pizza chain have melting frames, and a four-foot-wide eyeball greets you at the end of an upstairs hallway.
The mushrooms took a gentle hold of us while we sat around gnawing on pizza. We hadn’t taken enough to mould our skulls like hot putty, but still enough to feel the gaze of the warped portraits on the wall staring back at us.
“As if we ate mushrooms and came to the Mellow Mushroom,” Justin said in a moment of realization while he sent a curious glance about the room.
“Yeah, yeah!” I said, excited he arrived at the same thought I’d been carrying. “There’s something deep and poetic at play here.”
“Man, I hadn’t even thought about that,” he answered, chewing slower on his pizza.
“I’ve been thinkin’ about it the whole time, man,” I said with feral eyes.
Sometimes when you talk to Justin you forget he has the words ACID BOYS tattooed across his knuckles. Then you catch a glimpse of them, and you remember you’re talking to the King Kid of the Acid Boys, the head of something whimsically psychedelic. He told me at some point he was one paper away from finishing his anthropology degree when he decided to steer headlong into music, getting his knuckles tattooed as an act of commitment.
“When I got my knuckles tattooed people hit me up like, ‘Hey, are you alright?’ I guess it’s a pretty intense thing to do. It didn’t seem like such a big deal to me at the time.”
Before we went back to the venue, two fans from Fort Worth, Texas came up to the table and bought a round of shots for the group. They also offered a gift: a beautiful glass marijuana pipe, which was immediately dubbed The Gift Bowl.
The table threw back their shots before going back to the venue next door. We each took more mushrooms and hid away in the green room while Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster performed. We could hear him singing “False Dawn” through the walls.
“He’s so good,” I said to Justin about Pete’s singing.
“And we just get to sit back here and listen to him play,” Justin answered with a look of disbelief. “Pete’s honestly one of my heroes. I’m so lucky to be able to be on the road with him.”
Justin told me about a side project he and Igoe have with their friend Darby Wilcox. “We sing a cappella but we only do one song. You ever heard “Down By The River To Pray”? We just do that one over and over.”
“Maybe we should do another song,” Igoe suggested, between sips of her drink.
“Yeah, but we just keep crushin’ that one. If it ain’t broke…” he said, trailing off and shrugging.
The room breathed a quiet laugh as Pete’s singing continued through the wall.
A train wailed in the near distance and it was time for Igoe and Justin to take the stage. A wire outline of a bull’s skull hung above the bayou-themed stage.
“Hey everybody. Thanks for comin’ to hang out. It’s good to be in New Orleans tonight,” Justin said to the crowd as they took the stage. “This story actually involves this guy whose walkin’ down the stairs right now,” Justin said, watching his friend Nick Woodley come down the stairs.
“Fuck you,” Woodley said, laughing as he stepped into the room and took his seat.
“Proper,” Justin said with a smile. “Woodley and I used to live together in a house with about a dozen other people. Around that time, I started getting to know my granddad. I knew he was a shithead, but I thought maybe he was cool. The thing about my grandad is he’s a world class Shag dancer. Every Friday night he’d go down to this place called the Circle Fountain and shag.”
“One night, me and Nick were there, and we went outside with him to smoke a joint. He says, ‘Now boys, the reason why I smoke a little marijuana before I dance is because it helps me feel the beats between the beats. Now that’s deep, that’s far out.’ We’re just like, yeah, Larry, far out.”
“This song is also a medley because at the time I was single as hell. This is so embarrassing to say, but I was creepin’ some people on Facebook. You know when you wanna talk to someone, but you never do? This song’s partially about that feeling of never sending the message. So, this song is about those two things that have nothing to do with each other, but they worked well as a song. It’s called ‘Circle Fountain’.”
As the show went on, I felt the mushrooms peak. I knew it wasn’t real, but I feared with a psychedelic certainty I would feel every person standing behind me if I ran my fingers through my hair.
Before long the show ended, and we retreated into the green room.
“Great show, man,” I said once Justin stepped into the room.
“Guten tag, dawg,” he said, cracking the top off a Budweiser.
“I was fucked up while you guys were up there,” I said.
“So was I, dude,” he said, turning toward me with wild fear in his eyes. “I wasn’t even sure if I was playing the songs right for a while. The mushrooms had me feelin’ real anxious up there.”
You could tell at the outset, as he told the first story of the night, that he was tuned into the room at a different frequency. But Justin Osborne is a professional, and as the night carried on, he shook those psilocybin jitters, and put on another unforgettable show.
We all chewed up a bit more mushrooms, and Justin grabbed an acoustic guitar and strummed the chords to “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”, singing along with the small group standing around him.
“My aunt used to make so much fun of me when I would sing that song,” he said once he finished. “It was one of the first songs I ever learned to play and sing, and it was just bad.”
An hour or so later we left the venue, smoked The Gift Bowl and took more mushrooms before arriving at a bar that sent bass vibrations through the wall and down the street. The dance floor appeared immediately as we walked inside, and the drummer on stage carried a smooth rhythm. The piano rode his groove like a wave and the bass player at center stage leaned into the mic as he sung us a question through his raspy voice: “Lord, can you feel that it’s true?”
“That bass player,” Nick Woodley leaned in to tell me, “he’s from a classic New Orleans band. His name’s George Porter. He was in a group called the Meters.”
Woodley would later tell me, “That’s one of the things about New Orleans; everywhere you go, the musicians are top notch. Do you feel that? It’s that New Orleans funk. It hits you right in the soul, man.”
Once it came time for last call, Igoe, Justin, Van the Good and I piled once more into the van and rode through the deceptively quiet streets of New Orleans. The neighborhood we spent the night in seemed somewhat shady, so we did a full unload when we pulled up to the Airbnb.
“Should we get the groceries n’ shit?” Van asked after the last guitar case hit the floor.
“Nah,” Justin replied. “If someone breaks in over that, fuck ‘em.”
Pete was already in bed when we arrived, so the four of us sat around the living room. Justin took a seat in an absurdly large yellow chair, looking happy as can be in the thing.
“Any of you guys ever been arrested?” he asked after the conversation died down a bit. “One time I pulled a gun on this guy and I almost got arrested for it. I got detained in the back of a cop car for a while. That’s what the ‘shotguns at my chest‘ line is about. One other time I was coming home from Cleveland and they stripped the van. That guy let me go, but I thought for sure I was going to jail that day. I’m not very cooperative with cops, though. Except with the gun, because they had guns and I had to make sure I gave them no reason to shoot me. It was my fault, though.”
The next morning, we packed up and headed into the French Quarter. The sun glowed brighter than any other day on tour, making it the perfect day to get stoned and walk around New Orleans. Justin took a business call once the van was parked. The lighter flicked as soon as he hung up, and the van filled with smoke. The doors flew open and a reeking grey fog billowed out as we took deep breaths of the morning heat.
“I can already hear the tubas n’ shit out here,” Justin said as we stumbled out into the streets.
We wandered a few blocks in no particular direction before stopping at a random restaurant on a random street. When we stepped inside, the stink of weed still hung fresh on us. Accordingly, the server put us in the back in a separate room. “VIP seating,” Justin said with a glossy-eyed charm.
We met up with a friend from the night before and started to share stories about our experiences with edible pot.
“I have a buddy who’s afraid of edibles,” I began. “One time he was at a fishing tournament and he took some edibles and sat in his boat in the middle of a lake, surrounded by 30 other fishermen. He started worrying about how he would react if he caught a fish, so he reeled his lure to within 2 feet of the boat and sat like that for two hours so he wouldn’t catch anything.”
“Yeah, man,” Justin laughed. “One time me and a friend ate a medical candy bar and we had no idea what we were getting into. We were in Denver and I started having a panic attack and I couldn’t breathe. I was all stuffed up already. She was out of her mind, too. She said she just kept doing math problems in her head.”
“My sister never smoked weed and she texted me one day and said she took a half a candy bar that said 100,” Igoe said, and the table grew to a nervous hush. “She had a blast. That woman has the tolerance of a linebacker. She said she was so high she was at a kiosk to buy snacks and she turned around and everything on the shelf knocked on the floor. She just looked down at it and smiled and walked away because she was so high.”
“Run away!” Justin laughed.
We payed up and walked out, into the warmth where musicians were hidden away around every corner, the echo of their instruments ricocheting off every building. We wandered elsewhere, the sounds of these silent daytime streets broken only by the fading noise of the brass bands and the cuh-clop of horse carriages.
We met up with some others from the previous night’s show before stumbling upon the “Oldest Bar in America“, which we had apparently parked next to. By mid-afternoon, the van hit the highway with New Orleans jazz turned all the way up. Igoe passed The Gift Bowl and a cigarette to me over the seat while we tore through the first part of what would be a seven-hour drive.
This felt like an important place to be; with good people who shoot the straight and narrow, the parameters of which they define for themselves. To them, that’s a life deep within music where they are good to each other, and good to the people around them.
Trucks of all sizes flew past us down the highway and we drove until the sun cast a horizon light. We’re headed as far tonight as Opelika, Alabama.
“Everyone’s got a small pecker compared to God,” Justin said, not quite out of nowhere.
“God is the beginning, brother,” Van added at the heel of Justin’s observation.
“God is the beginning and the end, dude,” Justin said in a tone of ecclesiastical correction.
“Yo, there’s a hawk or a falcon or somethin’,” Van said, pointing out the window.
“Yo, I believe in those kinda signs,” Justin answered. “People really wanna think that they know what’s going on when they commit to believing in God. What you have to commit to is not knowing. Just try to feel the vibrations and ride the wave and try to make life, which I believe ends at death, as good a ride as you can.”
As he finished his thought, we pulled into the parking lot of an Outback Steakhouse and piled in.
“Hi,” Justin said to the host, “we have a family of four.”
Once we hit the table, Justin and Van fell into a conversation about merch distribution.
“Actually, you shoulda been on these calls” Justin said referring to an email chain Van was seeing for the first time. “We thought we’d just tell you about it, but you shoulda been in on the calls.”
SUSTO is farther along than most bands at their level as they already have a system in place for sales and merchandise production. The two of them weighed the benefits of changing or keeping various attributes of merchandise distribution. They talked for another 10 or so minutes, getting Van caught up on what he missed and what their options are moving forward. The conversation changed when our food arrived, and “Jingle Bell Rock” came on over the restaurant speakers.
“Holy shit,” Justin said, staring at his phone. “I just got a text from my mom that says, ‘I just wanted you to know how much I like your new song, Homeboy. It’s catchy and I’ve been singing it to myself all day. Love you and hope you’re doing well on the road. Stay safe.’”
He put his phone down on the table and looked around at us with a look of shocked disbelief. “She has never said anything like that to me about SUSTO.”
Once we were back in the van and ready to clear out, Justin said, “I can’t believe my mom texted me, man. It almost scared me.”
We got up to the usual business when we got to the hotel that warm night in Opelika. Van the Good and I stayed up a little later than Igoe and Justin. We sat in the van with the music turned up, passing a joint back and forth while the music carried through the night.
We cleared out of the hotel by 11:15 the next morning, and we arrived in Columbia, South Carolina by late afternoon. Justin and Jordan played a few songs for Scene SC in a large warehouse attached to the White Mule that was once a taxi garage. The warehouse held a damp chill and the show lights cast a dim ray from the open ceiling beams.
At this point I refused to accept there would soon come a day where I would be back home, my real home. I found myself clinging desperately to the trip and the excitement of being on tour. I rejected the thought that my life is anything other than what it had been for the two weeks I had been there. Though it hadn’t even been that long. It only ever was 13 days.
Justin, Igoe, Van the Good and I sat around the green room at the White Mule when Pete came off the stage.
“Man, there’s some people out there,” he said of the sold-out room.
“Were they nice to ya, Pete?” Igoe asked.
“Well, no one said anything mean or unkind.”
“Does that usually happen?” she asked again.
“No, but I’m just up there a-pickin’ and a-singin’ so their attention is the least I can ask for.”
“I’ll need a couple bottles of water and a shot of tequila,” Justin said to Van before it was his time to hit the stage. “Up there, can I get a glass of water and a shot of tequila. A Budweiser or something, too. Something light. Maybe two waters.”
“How do you feel at a time like this?” I asked as Van left the room to place Justin’s order, minutes before show time.
“I feel pretty fine. I’d probably be more anxious if I wasn’t more anxious about being home. Tomorrow I’ll probably be a wreck. Now that you mention it, I’m starting to get nervous. Closer to home, the harder it is to separate my anxiety. Once I’m up there I’m fine, it’s just leading up to it I feel like this.”
He paced back and forth in room, rubbing his hands together. “It feels like a tease to get to go home for just one night.”
Van came back with Justin’s pre-show order while the rest of the order waited for him on stage. He threw back the shot before Van lead the way out of the green room. The noise of the crowd grew as we came closer to the door. The house music thumped along as we walked down the cement corridor, turned right, and entered the show room. The few people who saw Justin come in looked at him with excitement. A few people whistled when the house music fell silent.
Justin strummed a couple notes on his guitar and the chatter of the crowd fell away.
“Hey y’all. How ya doin’?” he asked before the crowd cheered, raising half empty drinks as they did.
“We’re gonna play some old songs, some new songs, and I’m gonna talk a lot, which y’all should have expected, because that’s how we advertised it.”
When I came down south, countless SUSTO songs reminded me of people I know or situations I’ve been in. As I watched these many shows, and heard these stories, I realized how much I had taken Justin’s music as if it was my own. Not that I ever thought these songs were written about my life, but I had somehow lost sight of the fact these songs were written about someone else’s real experiences. Throughout this tour Justin’s music was reclaimed from my greedy mind. It put real faces and real names to these stories. These songs, these hymns of hard times and “Hard Drugs”, these are pieces of Justin’s life.
He said to me some forgotten night before he took to the stage that telling SUSTO Stories feels like telling ghost stories. Each night, as he tells these stories, he resurrects the spirits of his past for the hour he’s on stage before the amps cool off and these memories are laid once more to rest.
“Alright, we’re gonna do something special now,” Justin said, looking over his shoulder as Van the Good stepped on stage with his own guitar. “For this next song we’re gonna bring our Tour Manager Van onto the stage. Van lives right here in Columbia, and for his hometown show he’s gonna play with us on stage.”
Van gave a nod, and together, Justin, Igoe, and Van the Good played “Wasted Mind” for the sold-out room.
They finished the show on “Homeboy”. The crowd screamed and applauded as Justin and Igoe left the stage, leaving through the same door they came in through. They stopped in the back hall and decided what songs to play for an encore while the crowd roared louder and louder. The two of them came back through the door, the room erupted, and the show carried on.
The show finished with a two song encore. “Is this my first life, or is it my last life? Am I ever gonna make it to Nirvana, am I ever gonna see God?” Justin sang at the outset of the last song of the night, “Cosmic Cowboy.” The whole room raised their drinks and sang along as he sang the final chorus: “Always screamin’ fuck the cops! I’m a Cosmic Cowboy.”
“I’m so glad you guys are meeting,” Justin said, pointing from me to a gentleman named John Roberts while the three of us sat around the green room after the show. “John is the official psychedelics provider for SUSTO. You two have a lot to talk about.”
Just after we shook hands and fell into a bit of small talk, a drunk young lady stumbled in. “I didn’t mean to come in here,” she said, slowly.
“Hi, yeah, you’re really not supposed to be back here,” Justin said with a light smile, sending a glance my way that said I’m not sure what’s about to happen.
“I was just trying to find the bathroom and yet here I am,” she said.
“Yep, there ya are,” Justin said with a nervous laugh as she slowly walked toward him.
“I didn’t mean to come in here, and here you are,” she said, alluding to premonition of some sort.
“We’re actually in the middle of a drug conversation right now,” Justin said pointing at John Roberts who, judging by the reaction that crossed his face, didn’t expect that level of honesty to come about.
The young lady was harmless and just happy to be there. She showed Justin a tattoo she had on her ankle that, if memory serves correct, said ACID GIRLS. A few minutes after her came another fan who was equally shocked to have come into the green room through the door.
“You inspire a lot of my songwriting,” he told Justin once he’d settled into the room.
“That’s a big honor,” Justin said. “There are a lot of bands that have been a big inspiration to me, so to be that for you means a lot.”
The young man played a song he wrote called “Rusty Knife” and sang with a powerful and passionate voice for Justin, John Roberts, the ACID GIRL and I.
Van the Good came in for a minute, confused and ready to throw out the newcomers. Justin gave a brief explanation of the situation, telling him all is well. As Van left the room, he told me, “Make sure everyone’s out in five minutes.”
“Sure thing,” I said, unsure of how to clear the room but thrilled to have been promoted from Roadie to Bouncer.
I leaned against the green room doorframe while the two vistors talked to Justin, hanging on his every word. Down the hall, a woman in her 20’s rounded the corner. She looked at me the way a drunk tiger might.
“Is Justin in there?” she asked, a hip cocked in my direction. I looked into the room at Justin and his already full hands.
“Nope,” I said with a shrug. She stared at me a moment longer before she wandered off to become someone else’s problem.
After the two people left, John Roberts and I went for a walk about the venue. We talked about some books each of us had read and he explained to me the role LSD plays in his meditative practice.
“I would offer you some, but I don’t have any in my hotel room,” he said. He looked somewhat disappointed.
I had wondered if the chance to try LSD would come my way while I was on the run with the Acid Boys. This appeared to be my answer, and I was just fine with it.
John Roberts helped me pack the van and I told him I looked forward to seeing him at the show the next night. Van the Good stayed in Columbia for the night while Justin, Igoe and myself smoked a joint and hit the road for Charleston.