Smile Politely

SUSTO’s Justin Osborne gets candid about creative courage

A group of individuals are standing close together against a graffiti-covered wall, appearing to pose for the photo. One individual is wearing a bandana around their neck, another is in a floral shirt, and the rest are in dark-colored clothing.

Indie rock outfit SUSTO has been on a wild, genre-defying ride for a solid decade, and they’re nowhere near hitting the brakes. With a live album set to drop this fall, marking their ten-year run, frontman Justin Osborne got real about the band’s eclectic roots, their ever-changing sound, and what keeps their creative engine roaring.

Osborne’s musical destiny forever changed during his immersive stint living in Havana, Cuba in his early 20s. Initially drawn by political ideals, Osborne ended up even more enchanted by Cuba’s rich musical traditions.

He specifically connected with the raw, confessional ballad style called “trova” originating in eastern Cuba. “I was coming at it as a singer-songwriter, so it kind of struck a chord,” Osborne said. Trova’s candid lyrics and tongue-in-cheek bravado informed his own songwriting evolution. “It culturally inspired me to take a more unapologetic approach,” he described.

Trova greats like Silvio Rodriguez showed Osborne the power of fearless musical storytelling. Seeing how integral music was to everyday community life in Cuba left an indelible mark on the young musician. Osborne emerged from Havana transformed, with a renewed conviction to bare his soul and push boundaries in his songs. SUSTO’s origins sprung directly from Osborne’s inspirational Cuban sojourn. “It was like a creative wake-up call,” Osbourne states. This Cuban adventure led him to a bolder approach to songwriting, summed up in SUSTO’s early mantra: “Be brave, no matter the cost.”

Hailing from Charleston, SC, SUSTO is a musical cocktail, blending Osborne’s trova inspiration with a dash of heartland rock, indie flair, psychedelia, and a sprinkle of Americana. “We’re like a sonic Venn diagram,” Osborne quipped. He credits the band’s unique vibe to the dynamic trio of himself, guitarist Johnny Delaware, and producer Wolfgang Zimmerman.

Raised in the church, Osborne’s religious roots inevitably shaped his artistry. “Culturally I’m a southern evangelical Christian — that’s just what I was raised with,” he reflected. But he also rebelled against his indoctrination through “blasphemous” songs like “Chillin’ On the Beach with My Best Friend Jesus Christ” and “Hyperbolic Jesus” (a personal favorite), an earworm off their latest album My Entire Life. Though Osborne regrets the backlash he received from a few fans, he stands by artfully exploring that tension. His spiritual quest continues as an ever-unfolding process. Spirituality continues to be an evolving journey for Osborne since his youth. “I don’t claim to really be anything,” he said regarding his current beliefs. While no longer identifying as the atheist he once defiantly declared, Osborne remains open-minded in his personal spiritual seeking.

Psychedelic exploration in Charleston proved pivotal for Osborne’s creative awakening. “We were all between 21-27 when that was in its heyday, and I discovered psychedelics being broke and living in these 200-year-old houses,” he recalled.

Tripping became a communal activity, bonding SUSTO’s members during their formative years. According to Osborne, “It definitely impacted my philosophy” by opening his mind. He credits psychedelics for helping him connect more deeply with nature, especially through meditation-like experiences by the ocean. The profound realizations and mystical moments ultimately shaped his songwriting.

Though Osborne has matured, he still gleans inspiration from those pivotal psychedelic trips. “I’m grateful that my 20s got to be spent that way,” he reflected. Osborne encourages society to explore these substances responsibly, seeing immense untapped creative potential. His own catalog brims with inspiration from explorations into altered states.

But Charleston wasn’t just a hometown; it was a muse as well. Living in the city’s historic neighborhoods, Osborne felt the heartbeat of Charleston’s rich musical tapestry. “We’d just hop in the car, guitars in the back, and hit the beach,” he reminisced about the band’s formative years. Places often inspire them, as they even made a pilgrimage to Mexico to capture a certain mystical mojo for their latest album, My Entire Life.

Fast forward to now, and SUSTO’s got a solid five albums to their name, each one a new chapter in their musical story. Osborne highlighted the tight-knit core that’s always been there in the studio. “It’s always been me, Wolfgang [Zimmerman], and Johnny [Johnny Delaware],” he said. And speaking of Delaware, Osborne was amped to have him back after a pandemic pause, injecting a fresh burst of energy into SUSTO’s latest musical effort.


Their latest album, My Entire Life, is SUSTO at their most dialed-in, according to Osborne. “We took a hard look at what we excel at and just ran with it,” he said. The album also delves into Osborne’s personal life, navigating the emotional rollercoaster of a pandemic breakup. But it’s not all heavy; tracks like “Mermaid Vampire” show off SUSTO’s playful edge.

For My Entire Life, the band divided their studio time between their Charleston base and sessions in Asheville and Mexico. The end result? An album that’s as tight as it is eclectic, a real testament to the band’s chemistry.

That same chemistry electrifies their live shows. “This tour’s been a total blast,” Osborne said, giving a shoutout to hidden gem venues like Codfish Hollow Barnstormers in Iowa. “The place is otherworldly, and the crowd? Off the charts,” he added. For Osborne, the live gigs are a chance to vibe with true music aficionados, not just the casual listener.

As they celebrate a decade in the game, SUSTO is already eyeing what’s next, kicking off with their live album recorded at Codfish Hollow. “We’re just gonna keep pushing the envelope,” Osborne concluded. And if their track record is any clue, the road ahead for SUSTO is filled with uncharted territory and untapped sounds.

SUSTO will be playing at Rose Bowl Tavern Friday night as part of PYGMALION. They are touring extensively this fall with up-and-coming indie rockers Brother Elsey in support of most shows. 

SUSTO with Divino Niño, Friko, The Afro-Caribbean Jazz Collective and many more
Rose Bowl Tavern (outdoors)
F September 22nd, 8:30 p.m.
$10 – $130 (PYGMALION)

Music Editor

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