Cub Sport | photo by James Caswell | courtesy of the artist
Fumbling Towards Enlightenment: Cub Sport’s Tim Nelson on living your truth, learning from darkness, and journeying towards the light of Like Nirvana
For the Austrailian pop four-piece Cub Sport, each album has been a step in a personal journey. The band’s 2016 debut full-length This is Our Vice found frontperson and songwriter Tim Nelson reflecting on depression and self-doubt through effervescent, infectious melodies. The following year, the introspective Bats was a crossroads of joy and pain, paralleling the story of Nelson coming out and sharing that he and his bandmate / longtime best friend Sam Netterfield were a couple, while also processing the trauma that comes with years of self-denial. 2019’s buoyant self-titled album sprinted to a high-energy electronic pulse, as Nelson fully embraced the anthemic, uplifting power of self-love.
Having traveled that road to Cub Sport’s majestic new album Like Nirvana, it seems that Nelson should be singing from a perspective of pure happiness here. And he is happy; he and Netterfield have been married for two years, he’s able to live his dream of being a full-time musician, he’s become a queer icon in his home country with a growing community of fans around the world looking to him as well.
But as 2020 has taught all of us, nothing in life is simple, happiness in particular.
Amid Like Nirvana’s angelic atmospheres of shoegazey guitar and spectral drums are lyrics about continued self-work and personal discovery. Nelson smashes traditional ideas of masculinity and the gender binary, and sings in celebration of the inner light we can all look to. He also voices a different kind of existential dread than we’ve heard in the past from Cub Sport – the kind that creeps in when you’ve found exactly what your heart was searching for, and realize that having it means eventually losing it, or maybe learning that you weren’t worthy of it in the first place. “Drive” finds Nelson in disbelief that newfound happiness is real; “Be Your Man” and “Breaking Down” are songs about a love so perfect it hurts, of a feeling the song’s narrator can no longer stand.
Then again, this isn’t Nirvana, it’s Like Nirvana, alluding to an ideal that is always being worked towards, and Nelson broke down this non-linear path to personal joy in a transglobal video call the week before the album’s release. From the living room of he and Netterfield’s home in Brisbane, Nelson and I also spoke about the sonic textures of Like Nirvana, the band’s social activism – which first appeared during the Australian movement for marriage equality, and continues this year with the Black Lives Matter movement – and how he and his bandmates (also including guitarist / vocalist Zoe Davis and drummer Dan Puusaari) are keeping hold of the album’s momentum, even amid a pandemic.
The Key: I want to start off by asking about these beautiful videos you posted a month or so ago of the Glass House Mountains. You were there on a plane trip with your dad, right? Can you tell us, for folks who aren’t familiar, what that part of Australia is like, and then also talk about the significance of that trip for you?
Tim Nelson: I live in Brisbane, which is on the east coast of Australia, and just north of Brisbane, there’s a bay called Moreton Bay…and then just in from the coast is this area of lush forest, and there’s some mountains through there called the Glass House Mountains. My dad has his pilot’s license, and he took Sam and I out for a flight a couple of months ago.
[My dad] was an orthodontist before he retired and I, before I was focusing on music, I was studying dentistry, ‘cause I thought I wanted to follow in his footsteps. But he encouraged me to follow my dream, and when I wanted to drop out of dentistry and devote my time to pursuing music, he was right behind me in that. And that inspired him to get his pilot’s license, ‘cause his dream was always to be a pilot, but I think he got a scholarship or something and so he just followed this path and became an orthodontist. He said that me following my dream inspired him to follow his dream, and so it was pretty special going up this flight together.
TK: There’s a lyric on the record that kind of reminded me of that, which is why I wanted to start with it. On “Best Friend,” you sing “I thought I’d be a dentist / Thought I’d work with smiles” Do you see that song as reflecting the same themes of chasing dreams?
TN: That song is about the time when Sam and I first started hanging out when we were seventeen or so, and Sam got accepted into a dance school on the other side of Brisbane and I was sure that I was going to become a dentist, and that’s what I was working towards. And about two weeks out from when Sam was going to start his first term at this dance school, I basically convinced him not to go, and that’s kind of the inspiration behind [the song]. It’s wild to look back a decade later and be like “we thought we had this idea of what our futures were going to be,” and how these decisions that we make, just following your heart at a young age, can have such a wildly big impact on the trajectory of your life.
TK: When you were seventeen and you thought those were the paths you planned to take — dancing and dentistry — were you happy with those choices, or did you think more, “oh, I think this is something that makes sense to go into?”
TN: I don’t know. I thought that it was what I wanted and I thought that it was going to make me happy, but I think I just really liked the idea of following in my dad’s footsteps. All of my siblings are health professionals, and I’d always just imagined that that’s what I would do. But I think that when I actually started studying it, I was just so not into it, it became pretty clear to me that music would always be my passion, and the thing I should dedicate my time to.
TK: So, Like Nirvana: there’s a lot that I really love about the record, and one thing that really struck me when I first listened to it is how it’s sonically very open and atmospheric and dreamlike, a contrast to the self-titled record — which was more trancey and dancey. It felt like maybe self-titled was more designed for the club, where this one seems more like those reflective moments at home, so to speak. Why did you choose that approach sonically for this set of songs, and what was it like kind of shaping that sound with the band?
TN: I feel like the music that I am drawn to create is kind of just what I feel like I need in my life at the time. This year’s being kind of quiet in terms of travel and touring, obviously, but last year was really busy, and I feel like I was really wanting that kind of time for reflection, and I think that because life felt like such a whirlwind when I was creating, it was really about connecting with myself. It was my way to process everything that was happening, and I think that, when you really push yourself close to burn out, which is what I feel like we did last year, I feel like that kind of intensifies emotions. It felt like I was starting to see and feel things that I’d been pushing down for a while more clearly, like it was time to kind of bring those things to life and actually work through some things that had felt easier to ignore previously.
Sonically, I would say that, I guess with every Cub Sport album, I always want it to sound different to what we’ve done before. I never want to repeat myself, and I think I was just really drawn to kind of more organic sounds this time around. The last record was quite synthy and there were a lot of kind of electronic beats, and there’s obviously those elements on this album as well. But I think there’s just something about how it felt hearing more guitars and live drums and, I don’t know exactly why, but those sorts of elements and textures just felt right for this next chapter.
TK: On the song “Drive,” is it you singing lead, or is it Zoe or Sam? And if it’s you, why did you choose to present your vocal that way?
TN: So in the choruses it’s Zoe and I singing together. The first section of the song, that’s me, but I’ve got a Forman effect on my voice to make it sound like it’s pitched up, and so it kind of sounds to me more childlike, or naive and innocent.
On our last album, the song “Limousine,” I used that same effect, but I had it wound down, so it made my voice sound a bit deeper and darker, and when I was recording the vocal ideas in “Drive,” I turned the Foreman on and wound it up and was just singing into the mic and I loved how light and innocent it felt, and then I like that, as the song progresses, I switch back to my natural vocal, and I think the vocal delivery gets stronger and more sure of myself.
And I think it’s kind of reflective of — that song is inspired by my love with Sam, and I feel like it’s kind of reflective of entering in this kind of childlike naivete where we barely knew ourselves, and then it’s kind of just been like this growing journey of becoming more sure of ourselves and feeling stronger in ourselves and together in our love and everything.
TK: On the subject of your journey, and this kind of turns to the lyrical side of things, I love how each Cub Sport album kind of feels like a progression along a personal journey, from depression to coming out to learning to love yourself and finding happiness. But even in the songs on Like Nirvana, it feels like happiness is never 100% happy. Is that where you’d say it’s at on the journey?
TN: I think so. I thought I could see the progression of the story and the albums really clearly when I was first writing songs after releasing the self-titled record: it felt like the first album was the self-doubt, second album was learning self-acceptance, third-album was learning self-love, and then I felt that the fourth album would be another step further into the light and into the joy of living your truth basically. And then, as I was kind of living the last year out, I was feeling there were all these other things I hadn’t really acknowledged in the year before that were coming to the surface, and I think I came to realize that the journey to finding yourself or finding peace or joy isn’t this linear process, like accepting yourself and casting your fears aside.
It’s a great way to live and approach life, but it isn’t as straightforward as just doing that all the time. Alongside the light, there always exists a darkness and the shadows that the light casts as well. I heard an analogy that, the closer you get to the light, the bigger the shadow forming behind you gets. I feel like this album is kind of like, a more whole reflection of what the journey really feels like. For me, in my experiences, even when there’s love and joy and dreams coming true, there’s also the shadow side that exists alongside it, and I guess it’s about not ignoring it but kind of learning from it and just navigating the duality of those two that kind of flow together.
TK: Even kind of the album title even reflects that. It’s called Like Nirvana. So it’s not exactly enlightenment, or perfection, it’s something like it, almost there, but not 100%. Do you think that’s something that is ever attainable, or do you think it’s something that we should always be kind of looking towards?
TN: I think it is attainable. There are obviously people who get there on their journey, and I feel like it’s something that our souls kind of work towards over various lifetimes. I feel like I am, through acknowledging the things that I feel and I guess just trying to learn more about the universe and where I sit in there, I feel like I’m getting closer, but I feel like true nirvana is still a long way off for me, so “like nirvana” will do it for me in the meantime.
TK: There’s definitely an activist side to Cub Sport, and I think that really came through this spring when you were posting on social media about the Black Lives Matter movement. I think that the messages you shared were really powerful, because it wasn’t just showing solidarity with the uprisings happening in the States, you kind of took it a step further and reflected on what it means where you live in Australia, and the First Nations people. Which was kind of eye-opening for me in a way, because I tend to view Black Lives Matter as a mostly U.S. thing, at least as far as the epidemic police violence going back to the roots in slavery. But obviously, reading the stuff that you were posting about, it kind of makes you think no, systemic racism is a thing that needs to be fought everywhere. Do you think the spring was an eye-opening thing for you as well?
TN: Definitely. I think that this time has really brought about a lot of conversations that were easier to not have previously. It’s really great to see these long-standing issues coming to light and people demanding change, and having a strong community response. It even inspired me to further educate myself and it’s quite shocking to face your privilege head-on. I was always aware that I was privileged, but learning more about systemic racism and the way that it isn’t just a problem in America, it’s definitely here in Australia in a big way. It’s heartbreaking and very eye-opening and I want to help educate our audience as I’m educating myself.
TK: I wanted to ask about your experience with touring the U.S. It’s been really exciting watching your audience grow every time every time you come back through, and it’s something I feel is gradual, but it’s definitely also noticeable how many more people are at each show. What’s the experience kind of building your audience in the U.S. been like on the Cub Sport side of things?
TN: It’s been really exciting. We started touring the U.S. when we put out our first album in 2016, and at the time we were advised to just stay home, because there was nothing going on there, there was no one for us to play to. They were basically like, “honestly, don’t waste your time and money.” But we’ve always wanted to share what we’re doing with as many people as we possibly can, and we’ve always had a yearning to tour the world. It’s what we want to do, and so we did our first tour in 2016 and we played some shows literally to two people.
It’s been really cool to see: last year we started selling some shows out, and they’re obviously much smaller shows than what we play here in Australia, but I feel like our U.S. fanbase is really — there’s something special about it, since we haven’t had massive radio support in the US, and the people who have found us, it’s often been through, like, interviews and through people telling their friends about us. It just feels like the connection is very personal. It’s like the people who know about us and come to the shows, it’s like a very special, highly-engaged group.
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TK: The new album ends on the song “Grand Canyon.” Did you name that for the Grand Canyon in Arizona, or was it a general phrase? And is that somewhere you got to visit when you toured the States?
TN: Those lyrics kind of just came to me. It wasn’t really something that I had thought about prior, it was just kind of, like, what came through me when I was recording. And then about six months later, we had some time at the end of the tour in the U.S., so it was about this time last year, we got to go see the Grand Canyon, and it was just so breathtaking. Have you seen it?
TK: Once, a very long time ago, and when I went, it rained — it was this very short, intense thunderstorm, and the whole thing, from the bottom up to the rim where we were, filled up with fog. We had to basically sat where we were until it dissipated, since you couldn’t see where the edge was anymore. But then it dissipated, and it was this majestic sunset.
TN: I was definitely taken aback. I was just looking around, and it goes on for as far as you can see. I think I was taken aback at the magnitude and the beauty, and it just feels enormous, and I think the lyrics in the song, “You’re a mountain, baby, grand canyon,” it’s like, when you look at the wonder of those things, it’s like we’re part of this incredible world as well, and the power of that scene, it’s in all of us as well. I think that’s kind of the message of that song, and going there and experiencing it after having written a song called “Grand Canyon” was very special.
TK: Obviously the pandemic threw the brakes on everybody’s plans for 2020. How has Cub Sport adapted, and have you figured out what you’ll do as far as the release of Like Nirvana, and then stuff in 2021?
TN: A lot of it is still up in the air. We’re very fortunate that where we live, in Queensland in Australia, we haven’t had any new cases for a while, and so the social distancing and the restrictions and that sort of thing have relaxed a lot, which means we can work with production crews and that sort of thing again. We’ve been able to shoot a proper music video again, which is really exciting, and yesterday we shot a live video of the album font start to finish, and we got to go in beautiful studio space. So that’s kind of what we’ve done so far, and I feel like that’s going to be really special.
From the Cub Sport studio albums to the live show, there’s a different feeling, and it feels like it comes to life in a different way, and that’s something that I’ve been feeling kind of sad about, that we don’t get to experience that with people around this album coming out. But shooting it yesterday, it felt like, even though there was no audience there to connect with, it still felt like there was that kind of like different energy that happens when it’s all happening live. So that’s kind of our answer to not actually getting to play shows with people now: doing the next best thing and having the album start to finish in a live setting still.
But I think that we’ll probably keep making music videos for some of our favorite songs on the album, and I think we’re just going to vibe it out and do the absolute most that we can do with the given circumstances, and hopefully we can tour again, I hope in 2021. 2021 is starting to feel kind of close now, is this really going to be all wrapped up by then?
But [playing the new album] came together so naturally, and it feels so good to play, and so I’ve just been longing to play shows more than ever now. But the time will come.
Cub Sport’s Like Nirvana is out now on all streaming services; physical copies and merch can be ordered from their webstore.The band is doing a Reddit AMA tonight, and details on the video livestream of Like Nirvana performed live will be announced later this week.