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CUSS The X-Press Interview

They might only have a handful of releases to date, but local act Cuss already have a sound of their own. With jangly guitars, irresistible hooks and playful lyricism, the four-piece have stitched together elements from their idols like The Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan with obscure garage acts old and new to make something that sounds as fresh as anything in 2020. BRAYDEN EDWARDS caught up with songwriter/guitarist Lewis O’Donnell and drummer/producer Jordan Shakespeare to find out how it all came together and what they have in store for us on the other side of isolation.

For those not familiar with you, how did Cuss come together? It looks like there are a few of you we might recognise from other local bands…

Lewis: My other band The Feast of Snakes was having a bit of a slow period. Everybody was pretty busy with other projects, and the slow drip of gigs, jams and rehearsals was starting to get to me. In October of 2017 I got to play at Camp Doogs with the Adelaidians, David Blumberg and The Maraby Band when they came to town as a third guitarist and it lit something up. Over the next few months I played a couple of solo shows and it was exhausting. I wanted to be playing some quick new music with other people. Then in the first few months of 2018 Jordan asked me if I wanted to work on something together.

Jordan: I remember when I first thought of the idea, I’d been thinking about being in a new project because my other band Dumbleachers wasn’t gonna be gigging anymore and I needed another project and was trying to think of someone I could make another project with and I couldn’t think of anyone. Lewis came over and was sitting across from me in my lounge room and we were talking music. I basically told you I wanted to start a band and I had zero songs and I made you write them all. I wanted to be in a good band and said “you do it.”

Lewis: (laughs)

Jordan: I remember you were willing to be collaborative in the beginning, you said “what you got?,” and I showed you and you said these aren’t really songs, just loops (laughs). I’m getting better-ish. I knew how insane it was to start a band, vividly.

Lewis: Well I suppose it’s good I wanted to be the one writing the songs!

Jordan: We’d seen Indigo in another band, and I was good friends with her and she had the right vibe for our band. I don’t think she’s ever made a mistake in her entire life. She’s amazing.

Lewis: Jordan was recording James with his band The Worms. I was sitting in the lounge room, waiting for Jordan to finish up so we could go jam, or do some Cuss planning or something. We’d been trying to figure out who to get on keys and I was listening to them record and he was really good. Jordan came out after and I said “let’s get that guy! Who is he?”

And what kind of music do you listen to that inspired your sound?

Lewis: Straight away on asking what we should be doing Jordan sent me Tim Presley and his band White Fence. It was a good direction to move towards, it put us on a similar path of thinking about the production, which was something I had been wanting to explore more, on account of being pretty unfamiliar with recording processes, my main focus by then had been on trying to write songs.

So with that first step, I also brought up Os Mutantes, a Brazilian band, with a great self titled album from 1968. Like the Beach Boys but Brazilian I reckon, they have that produced liquorice stick quality. Dylan is always on my mind, how to capsulise what I’ve learned listening to him, nothing new, everyone does that. The Velvet Underground. THEM the band. Lately The Paragons and The Jesters for singing.

Jordan: Tim Presley was a great starting point. He somehow manages to achieve a full warm sound using very small sounding instrumentation, which is what we do as well, the drums are small and thin. Lew’s guitar is also quite thin, most of the time, sometimes there’s a big full boy in there. The vocals are very thin and crisp. Not that it probably comes out that way. But yeah, Lew was into older garage, I was into newer garage.

Capturing that sound must also be something you are mindful of in the studio too. How do you go about doing that?

Jordan: I feel like we’re very very particular. I would say much more particular about our recorded material than our live stuff. Our live stuff can be more fluid on stage and become its own thing, but in the studio each part has to be exactly what we want. We do what’s called Hybrid mixing, which is a mixture of analog and digital recording/production methods.

What most people do in the studio is put everything to tape and then bounce it to digital, but we do the complete opposite so we have more flexibility. We do it all digital and then move it to analog, so we can adapt it to what the song needs and get the warmth we want at the end.

I had to do a bit of digging to even find the original version of Mainland (by Tasmanian band Foxy Morons), where did you hear it and what made you want to cover it?

Lewis: Me and Olivia, my sister, who is in The Feast of Snakes, were in Tassy a little while ago, and we went to The Brisbane Hotel, a great local music hub. That night was the night of the Community 4 launch, the fourth in a series of compilations of local Hobart music. We got to see them play alongside Mount Trout and All the Weathers. Both stuck out, but me and Liv had a really special moment watching the Foxys.

There was a cheekiness to it all, it didn’t seem serious, which was true also of the entire gig, there was no sheen or professionalism to anyone on the line up. It was people from a small city making music, really good music, but in their own way without a commercial bone in their body.

You can find that show on YouTube thanks to a very dedicated Hobart filmmaker. Pretty sure you can hear me wooing throughout the gig. The songs stuck with me…Ex, Under the Sea. It was very hard to choose which song we wanted to cover.

Jordan: It sounds like each player is in a complete world of their own. But somehow that binds it all together.

And have you heard from Foxy Morons at all? What did they think of what you’ve done to it?

Lewis: I met them briefly after the show, said thanks. I got to know Celeste the drummer a little over the world wide web and eventually asked her if the band and the writer, Edith, would mind if we covered the song. I think they liked it because they gave their blessing. Edith ended up coming over here and playing a few shows with us and we had a great time and sung the song together in a fantastic moment as two representatives of two little towns singing about distance.

And how about Little House Down by the Beach? Was that a favourite local tune of yours?

Lewis: Doctopus are of the same stripe as my experience of the Hobart show. A band all to themselves! Playing for each other and with each other. There’s this quote in the commentary on The Last Waltz. I don’t know who said it or what it was, but it amounts to, “they dared each other on stage to keep up with each other.” There’s a joy in seeing that amongst friends on stage, that’s what I want out of a gig.

Jordan recorded that Doctopus album, Double Dog Days. And I listened to it a lot in my car driving down to Fremantle from my place in Guildford. It’s a rising sad song full of hope and blues. Emlyn Johnson would cover Little House a lot that year, at a few house shows and when I’d visit him he’d play it a couple of times. I came up with a slight change to it. I’m glad the fellas didn’t mind. I love em!

Jordan: Just seeing them a lot when I was coming up on the scene, they were on every line up, and blew the fuck out of it. They’d always fit in no matter what the line up was and that’s pretty special. Also, they’re legends. Actually I feel the same way I do about them as I do about Foxy Morons.

I had a good time producing that album. Their work ethic is the complete opposite of ours, me and Lew are very fastidious, Lew does a lot of takes. Doctopus do one or maybe two takes. All live. They said “let us know when you’re done mixing” I was like what?? It took us twice as long to set up!

What have you been up to during the last few months, writing any new music while in quarantine?

Lewis: My quarantine practice consists of singing into my phone on voice memo, oohing and moaning while playing bung notes, staring at the wall. Turning it all off suddenly. Singing The Jesters and The Paragons in the shower. We’ve been slowly picking away at an album. That’s in the works, stuff mostly written but now we’ve come to understand with producing, things will change a bit. I’ve been working on The Feast of Snakes album with Pete and Liv for a year or more, but before quarantine it was moving like a 1950 iceberg. Now its moving like a 2010 iceberg, really going!

Jordan: Not much musically, we’ve both been working on other projects. There’s a bunch of new Supernaked songs, almost a new EP. That’s my other band. I write with Beth Commons from Pool Boy.

And any plans for releasing anything new yet?

Jordan: Before the album is complete we have a split single in the works with one of our favourite bands from Perth which we’re super excited for and will be released pretty much as soon as we’re allowed to book shows again.

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