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Cub Sport on their new album, the journey to self-love, & strength in vulnerability

22 January 2019 | 10:14 am | Michael Stratford Hutch

It’s been almost a week since I interviewed Tim Nelson and Sam “Bolan” Netterfield, one half of Brisbane-based alt-pop angels CUB SPORT, about their third, self-titled album. In that time I’ve listened to the album at least ten times completely through—it’s a revelatory body of work whose overarching quality and clarity of vision simply demands repeat listens. When situated in the progression from 2016’s This Is Our Vice and 2017’s BATS, Cub Sport is daring and climactic, rounding out this three-part arc in a deeply satisfying manner, charting with great sensitivity the shift from self-doubt, to self-acceptance, to self-love. The record is practically glowing from the inside out—it deftly manoeuvres between lush synth-pop, spacious RnB, and more experimental moments throughout (a definite highlight—and album wildcard—is the Golden Vessel-produced ‘Limousine’).

The centre of gravity for Cub Sport has always been Nelson’s powerful voice, capable of a great variety of tones and textures, and nowhere is this power and variety more evident than on Cub Sport. Overall, the caliber of Nelson’s songwriting has not so much “improved” from previous albums as it has been gorgeously refined, excavating deeper into his personal life, and spanning more sonic territory than ever before, yet doing so with clear intentionality and confidence. What’s even more impressive is that Cub Sport have been operating in one form or another for nine and a half years, are self-managed, and run their own record label.

2018 was massive for Cub Sport—on tour for the majority of the year, selling out some of the biggest shows they’ve ever played, growing their passionate fan community, collaborating with the Los Angeles-based Dolan Twins on the video for BATS single ‘Hawaiian Party,’ and then on top of all of that, Nelson and Netterfield got married, after sharing how they fell in love as best friends. Seeing the build-up and the developments they’ve been through as a band and a couple in the last few years, it’s clear that they’re on an absolute roll in terms of recording output, touring and the community surrounding them. When we got together on a sweltering mid-January day in Sydney, Nelson and Netterfield were warm, forthcoming and articulate. Our conversation touched on past successes, the new album and tour, and above all finding strength in vulnerability.

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So, first off I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. Now that we have fully transitioned out of 20gayteen, how was your New Year’s? I heard at one Falls Festival your marquee was apparently packed out 30 minutes before your set!

T: New Year’s was amazing—something about those shows felt different to the other festivals we played over the last few months, there was such a strong energy. They almost didn’t feel like festival gigs.

S: There was still that intimacy, like people crying, really connecting with the music.

And of course, before New Year’s wrapped up 2018, you had a massive year—probably the biggest year you’ve had so far, would you agree?

T: Completely.

S: Yeah, totally.

What were some of the highlights of last year that really stick in your mind?

S: Getting married!

T: Making the music video for ‘Hawaiian Party’ with the Dolan Twins, which had such an enormous impact. We couldn’t quite imagine how that would play out, but it’s brought so many new people to the fanbase.

S: Literally thousands of people were commenting, saying that the video had given them the courage to come out or to be themselves, which was incredible to see. We had our first sold out shows in London and LA, we did the biggest Australian tour we’ve ever done, which sold out. It’s been pretty much constant touring.

T: Which has also carried on into this year.

S: Yeah, in just under two weeks we start touring and don’t stop until June.

How do you think 2018 compared to previous years of Cub Sport being active?

T: It felt like this year that all the hard work and personal development started to come together, to unveil a clearer vision of what we were always meant to be.

S: Because it’s so linked with Tim’s personal journey the whole time, it’s been like peeling back layers over the years, clearing and clearing until we’re at this point.

Being self-managed and on your own record label, then getting the amount of exposure and success you have is no mean feat. How do those factors influence the kind of decisions you make as a band? You’re bandmates, but also friends and partners.

T: The whole model we’ve developed allows us to make decisions based on intuition and what feels right. I think we’ve managed to pull together a global team of people that really trust and believe in us how we believe in ourselves, which has allowed us the freedom to follow our hearts. Even if it isn’t necessarily the path the industry would plot out, we’re making a new model to allow ourselves to take our path.

S: We hope it opens the doors for other artists. It’s a huge amount of work, and we’re blessed to have the four of us committed, with a shared vision.

Coming into 2019—with a new album, touring, being married—what are some of the lessons that you’re bringing from 2018 into 2019, and what are you leaving behind in 2018?

T: The most concise way to sum up everything experienced and taken away from 2018 is that we’ve learned to live in love instead of fear, and have that at the forefront of every decision we make. Asking yourself, “Do I want to do this because I’m scared of what will happen if I don’t do it, or does it feel right and I love it?” That’s revolutionised a lot about how we function as people and as a band. That’s the number one lesson.

In retrospect, how do you feel that your first two records, This Is Our Vice and BATS, have changed over the time they’ve been out?

T: They’re all parts of the same continuous journey, all quite autobiographical. As I’ve become more comfortable with my identity I’ve been writing solely about own life, whereas I used to take inspiration from people around me as well. I think there are certain songs that have always resonated with me more than others, like ‘Only Friend’, ‘Come On Mess Me Up’, and ‘Runner’ are three we still play all the time. The three albums follow the learning curve of living in love versus fear. Like, the opening line of ‘Only Friend’ [from This Is Our Vice] is “Looking at the world is not inspiring, it’s intimidating.”

How would you say BATS built on that curve of change?

T: BATS was turning the whole thing around in another direction, away from a darker perspective of everything around me. If you run through the song titles from This Is Our Vice there’s ‘I Feel Bad Now,’ ‘Only Friend,’ ‘It Kills Me.’ It feels weighed in a heavy perspective—I thought my life was just one big struggle, and that the longer I lived, the more I’d have to struggle with. I think BATS was a big turning point where I learned to accept myself and I wrote half before coming out, half after coming out, so it’s a step into the light with one foot in the darkness.

It makes sense then that Cub Sport feels fully in the light—you’ve stepped into it, embraced that lightness of living.

T: Yeah, I feel that Cub Sport is the progression from self-acceptance to self-love, and learning that when you can actually love yourself for all of the things that you like about yourself, as well as all of your struggles. It completely shifted the way I saw every experience and interaction in my life.

Tim, you said that “this record lays me bare” and that “an overarching theme…is a new level of confidence.” I think that’s a powerful juxtaposition of those two things—vulnerability and openness, yet strength and confidence not in spite of those things, but because of them and through them. In light of these two forces, how would you say the album lays you bare?

T: Throughout the creation of the album I didn’t allow thoughts or worries to water down the inspiration that flowed through me. I just let what truthfully came out of me just be, not thinking about who might hear it and what they’d think. I feel like it’s the purest deepest form of creative expression that I’ve ever been open to. ‘Party Pill’ is the story of when Bolan and I first fell in love, but I was so scared of what would happen if anyone in my life found out I was gay or that we were together. So, I said that we should just be friends, and then we were for years. I felt like I was getting better and better at being who I thought people would think was cool or whatever, but really I was just getting darker and darker within myself. It hasn’t been until the last six months or so when I feel like I’m making progress constantly in terms of letting go of the shame and fear I felt before I came out. It isn’t as simple as coming out and then you’re free from it all—it lingers, and you have to keep working through it. This is the first time I’ve felt confident enough in myself and proud enough of our story and my identity to share that whole part that was never spoken about or anything, until this moment.

Were you ashamed of it?

T: Yeah, and super embarrassed about hiding it from everyone as well. Another thing I realised was that I grew up in an environment where I felt I couldn’t share it for my own wellbeing. Why should I then also carry the shame of not talking about it when that was how I was conditioned to act in that situation? I feel like writing that song and actually celebrating that incredible time for what it was, acknowledging the heartbreaking reality of it as well, was so freeing. It comes back to strength in vulnerability, when you embrace everything and celebrate it all for what it is, and be your full self, there’s a power in that, because you’re drawing on something that’s real and true. I feel like vulnerability and power really do go hand in hand.

So it’s this process of excavating the past, but rather than doing so in a darker way that you would have in the This Is Our Vice era, it feels like you’re bringing it into the light, and refusing to have shame and fear be part of it. It takes such courage I think, especially to share that kind of stuff to an international audience. Where do you think that confidence is coming from, to be open in such a way?

T: I think the community that’s building around what we’re doing is hugely inspirational for me, and we get messages from people constantly, saying that we’re helping them love who they are, helping them to come out. I think when you are your whole self and show that you’re proud of who you are, it gives permission to others to do the same. It doesn’t really feel like a responsibility as such, but I can feel the effects of loving myself and being my whole self and letting myself go, and immersing myself in everything I’ve always hoped I could be, and seeing the positive response to me doing that inspires me to go deeper. A huge part of this growth is the people who are growing with us and allowing us to grow.

The three tracks you’ve released so far—‘Sometimes’, ‘Summer Lover’ and ‘Party Pill’—all conjure up this dream-like, crystalline atmosphere. They feel almost “saturated” in the best possible way. How would you characterise the rest of the album in terms of mood?

T: I feel like there’s a lightness throughout it, even in the darker moments. There are rises and falls in intensity in the album, but listening from start to finish it ascends to a lighter place, and the energies of all the songs combine as a body of work to reach that point.

So there’s that narrative of leading up that learning curve and finally reaching this apex. ‘Summer Lover’ is the last song on the album, isn’t it?

T: Yeah.

I always find it really interesting when bands release the last song on an album as a single, because it makes you think “so this is the point that the album is leading to,” which then makes you wonder how the album is going to get you to that point. And if that’s the ending track on the album, we’re going to such a good place! I know you were touring all of last year, so how did you go about recording an entirely new album of 15 tracks during all of that?

T: I recorded some of it at end of 2017, after BATS came out, and there are parts of it that I worked on while on tour as well. I think because writing and recording are such effective ways for me to capture what I’m feeling, when I can really get into a place where I’m just letting it flow through me, there’s an honesty and truth that comes through in the songs that I probably couldn’t put into words, like in a journal. I tried to write and record with any spare moments I had, and those are the moments that this album came from. I worked quite closely with Max Burn (aka Golden Vessel) on a bunch of songs over the last year, and five made it onto the album. So whenever I had a spare day, I’d go hang with him and work on songs.

How does that compare to the recording process of the past two records?

T: It was a pretty similar process. I feel like I’ve developed a lot as producer over years, and as I’ve been learning to believe in myself, believe in my ability to get a song to a place where I feel it’s ready to be heard.

Something I’ve also noticed is you reaching that next level of sophistication in your songwriting and production. Other than that end goal idea, in what ways do you think you’ve grown and changed as a songwriter and a producer?

T: I’ve grown to believe that creativity comes from your higher mind, that it isn’t something you can just think up in your head, thinking “Well I know that we did this, and people did that, and this is what’s popular at the moment. How can I come up with a formula in my head to bring that together?” When I’ve tried to approach songwriting like that it hasn’t really worked. I’ve gotten better at clearing myself of expectations of what I should be writing, opening up to the idea that we are greater than just these bodies we exist in, and concepts of the energy that we give out and receive, the connectedness of everything and how everything fits together. I feel like that’s all inspired a more open process to letting creativity flow.

There’s always been that autobiographical quality, but now it feels that there’s this confidence in your songwriting—it’s always been there, I think, but now it’s reached a point where we’re really not fucking around anymore. I remember listening to ‘Sometimes’ for the first time and I had a full body reaction, hair standing on end!

T: Thank you!

I know there’s going to be a few features on the album, did you want to speak to those a little bit, and how they came about?

T: We co-wrote and produced four songs with Golden Vessel, and he produced Limousine in entirety. He’d already recorded it and I just put vocals on. Now it feels like it’s a cornerstone of the album.

Is it more kind of Golden Vessel vibe or was he producing with you guys in mind?

T: He wasn’t doing it with us in mind, he pulled it up because he wanted to see what I do with it. I feel like it doesn’t really fit with a classic Cub Sport or Golden Vessel world, but something about the combination and where it ended felt like its part of something we could be. At first we thought “Is this okay to be Cub Sport?” and then we listened to it a bunch and thought, “This cannot NOT be a Cub Sport song.”

It’s always great to have those wildcards, to show you the kind of doors that are open to you, maybe next album. How did the song with MALLRAT [aka Grace Shaw] come about?

T: I was just writing that song at home, and I had the second verse empty. I was going to try and fill it with something, but then I thought Grace would be so perfect. So I sent it to her, she came round, we worked on it, and that’s also how I got introduced to Max, through her. Grace recorded her verse really early on, but ended up changing it before we locked it all away. I loved the old verse but when I heard the new verse I was like “Holy shit.” I almost cried, it was so beautiful.

And another person you worked with was Al Wright, from Cloud Control?

T: We’ve been massive fans of Cloud Control for so long—we followed them on tour in 2015.

Oh, wow. Like, followed them?

T: They played a few shows in Brisbane, and then Sunshine Coast.

Roadtrip girls!

T: We booked a hotel at the Sunshine Coast to go see them play!

S: I would do it all over again.

T: We ended up hanging out with Al after we rocked up to four shows in a row. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and ended up hanging out in middle of last year. We realised that we had been on really similar paths, different but similar awakenings, and he said he would love to work on music together. So I sent him ‘Acid Rain,’ which had outro section not much else going on. He recorded his part, sent it back and again, I got full goosebumps. That was also kind of a last minute addition to the album.

And I believe there was one other, the producer Calvin Valentine, who’s worked with some pretty huge names such as Nas, and De La Soul. 

T: Yeah, he produced the Ryan Beatty album that came out last year. I had been DMing with Ryan, and we were going to  work on some music together, but there were last minute plans that changed, and it didn’t end up happening. We ended up linking up with Calvin in LA, and we did 3 songs, and ‘I’m Not Scared’ was the last of those three. It was another situation where it just continued to flow until the whole song was finished.

Who would you say that this album is for?

T: It’s for anyone who is struggling to find their light. I think that, for me, writing and recording a lot of these songs has felt like a healing process in a way. It’s allowed me to unlock and release a lot of things I didn’t realise I was holding onto until I recorded these songs, and started to think “Oh why did that come out?” I hope that there’s something about the songs and the energy that has gone into them that could hopefully unlock and release the same types of traumas for other people, even if they’re really different.

Do you think that the target audience of your music has shifted over the last 5 years or has it remained constant?

T: I think for the first album I was trying to figure out how I could make my creative vision fit into something consumable, or into my idea of what people wanted to hear. I feel like now we’re realising now that there’s a lot of people like us, and we’re making this project the exact thing that if we found it we’d be obsessed with it. Sonic and visually it’s what we want it to be. The more we follow that path, the more we realise there’s a lot of people who want the same things as us.

The visuals surrounding this record to me are that same balance of dreamlike and crystalline, where you’re laid bare and confident as well, and particularly the cover art, which is breathtaking, that was shot by Natalie Jurrjens.

T: Thank you!

Hearing what you’re saying now I think the cover art is the perfect encapsulation of what we’ve been talking about, where it’s just such a tender portrait of you two, and it really sums up a lot of what your relationship is—holding each other in a really positive way.

T: Wow. I’m covered in goosebumps.

How do you think you’ve evolved visually as a group since your first two records?

T: I think we’re more confident in what we can pull off, and I think now rather than looking or imagining if we did this or wore this, even playing shows with my shirt off, now we’re like “let’s do this.” It’s about having the confidence to pursue the vision we’ve always had.

In terms of performing with your shirt off, I noticed that when you started doing that it’s been part of this new era almost, of vulnerability and the strength that comes with that. I personally am in awe of anyone who can perform like that. Does that come from that same place of wanting to hold yourself in that light, and open yourself up?

T: I think it comes down to the vulnerability and strength again. I’ve been so self-conscious for my entire life, and I’ve always felt ashamed of my body and who I am. Shame infiltrated every part of my life, and so it’s another way of being proud of myself, just putting myself out there and embracing everything about myself.

I think we’ve touched on it, but perhaps in your own words—what’s the takeaway from the album?

T: I think it would be something about the power of love in all of its types, but mostly the power that comes from loving yourself.

I read that your first show was 9 and a half years ago, you played to about 10 people in Brisbane at a place called The Hive, and now you’ve announced a huge national tour kicking off in April, a collaboration between yourselves and triple j. How does going from playing to 10 people to playing to potentially thousands of people at sold out shows shift the way you operate as a band?

T: I think this tour is the moment that we’ve all been working towards, since the start. It’s the reason that the four of us have all stuck together through a lot of challenges along the way. There have been moments where it feels like it’d be easier if we’d throw the towel in, but we kind of knew we’d get to this point if we worked hard enough and believed in it. So it’s a dream come true and more. We’ve got some big stuff planned.

The first time I saw you live was back in 2016, at the Republic Bar in Hobart when you supported Saskwatch. The live show has both stayed the same at its core, but the energy is markedly different. How do you feel the live show has changed since then?

T: Coming out was a huge moment, and the first shows we played after that was with The 1975, the first shows that I was out from behind keyboards or guitar, just singing. I think without having an instrument there, there was an immediate relationship with the audience. As I become more open in every way, I become more open to being able to feel people’s energies. It feels like everyone is sharing in the same energy field. Sometimes there are specific people that I can feel I should sing certain part right to them. I think I’m much more present on stage now.

S: There’s no hiding.

T: Yeah, no hiding. It feels like there’s more happening than just singing some words and playing some notes. You can feel our four energies on stage combined.

Do you know yet what kind of material you’re going to be playing on this upcoming national tour?

T: I’m really excited to see what the set list ends up being. There isn’t a single song on Cub Sport that I don’t want to play, so I hope that we end up playing pretty much the whole new album, and we’ll obviously still play our favourites from other albums. I think we’ll be playing ‘Come On Mess Me Up’ for the rest of our lives—that’s still one of my favourite songs, ever.

Well, it’s become the anthem, hasn’t it?

T: Yeah. I’m really excited to piece together the parts of our albums that feel like the strongest version of the Cub Sport story so far.

Cub Sport are touring Europe in February, and Australia in April—full tour dates via their website.

Photo by Jacqueline