On an oscilloscope, the brash, no-frills sound of The Cusses probably looks something like a single-finger salute. Care to guess which one?
Founded in 2010, the Savannah, Ga.-based three-piece combines a bit of thrash velocity and punk energy with the, at turns, plaintive and fierce vocals of leading lady Angel Bond. The result is an insistently raw sound that guitarist Bryan Harder says he hopes earns an audience's attention through sheer force of will.
"We're not giving them anything watered down," Harder said during a phone interview from Denver, the latest stop on the band's ongoing spring tour.
"We just hit every note as hard as we can and give it everything we have. It's that simple. If you come see us play, you'll understand that."
Friday night, May 3, The Cusses will take the stage at JJ's Bohemia.
For the last two years, Harder said, the band has chased the Holy Grail of rock music, a sound of their own, one by which fans could identify them by within a power chord or two. That quest came a little closer to completion with the independent release last year of a self-titled debut.
The album was recorded in Asheville, N.C., at Echo Mountain Recording Studio, a repurposed church that has been used by artists ranging from The Avett Brothers and Zac Brown to Band of Horses and Justin Townes Earle.
In the high-ceilinged sanctuary-turned-studio, Harder and drummer Brian Lackey laid down a thunderous foundation for Bond. When it was released, the album represented a significant step toward their dream.
"Our goal was ... where you start listening to a song and know who it is within five seconds, like AC/DC or Nirvana," he said.
Because of its fighting-weight lineup and rejection of production tricks in the studio, the band also is able to play shows that closely mirror the record, Harder said. If they've heard the album, audiences should know what to expect, but even if they haven't, he said, the live set makes for a fine introduction to their undiluted approach to the genre.
"We just want them to realize that rock 'n' roll is not dead," he said. "Playing music live, loud and raw is really what's sacred about music, and that's what we cherish."
Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Bryan Harder, guitarist with Savannah, Ga.-based three-piece rockers The Cusses, about his aversion to synthesizers and why they’re nicer than they look.
Q: How has the year treated you so far?
A: The spring months have been good. The touring has been going great so far. We're having a good time. We're experiencing some crazy weather right now. It's snowing right now in Denver. Yeah, it's kind of crazy, but it's been a good time. We're planning our summer right now. We're sitting down right now figuring all that out.
Q: Do you have anything solid lined up yet?
A: We're excited about playing new music, so we're focusing on making new music, and we're talking about touring and recording. It's all up in the air, but in general, that's what we're planning for the summer and fall.
Q: Walk me through the band's origins. How and when did you get together?
A: Our first show was in February of 2010. The idea really wasn't necessarily what it is now. It was more about the other Brian and I getting back together to play new music after not doing it since some time ago. Brian and Angel had met and were living in Los Angeles before they came back to Savannah. Brian and I started playing music again and dragged Angel into the rehearsal space. After six months of touring around and writing music, we developed Cusses, and it grew from there.
Q: How were The Cusses different from what you and Brian had done before?
A: It was maybe different in the packaging. We're just a three piece with an awesome frontgirl with an awesome voice, and the backbone is guitar and drums. Brian and I have been in a couple of bands in the past, and Angel has been in bands in the past. The common thread is playing honest music that's about what we feel, not mimicking something, but playing what we feel and recreating what our pasts are and our idols were.
Q: Who were your idols?
A: All our roots are in rock 'n' roll. We grew up listening to a lot of classics like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and Pat Benatar. We were all kids growing up in the '70s, '80s and '90s, so rock 'n' roll in any blend of genres is what we like — loud guitars and loud drums, stuff that isn't made with computers. Honest music is what we like, like Queen or even Iron Maiden before they introduced synthesizers. It's all over the map, but anything that requires human contact with instruments is what we're big fans of.
Q: Queen had that note on their albums early on proclaiming that the music was made without synthesizers. Are you making a similar pledge about your music or do you think there's room for a little computer-aided music in the future?
A: You know, I've learned to never say “never” and never say that things will never happen because who knows. We're all pretty true to playing our instruments and not having a crutch. That's how we play it and think it and perform it both live and in the studio. Right now, there's playback, no computer, no guy hiding behind the speaker pressing buttons to make us sound the way we sound.
Q: Having just released your first album, does playing without all that production wizardy make it easier to do a 1:1 live performance of your recorded material?
A: Yeah, we've found that. Some people are surprised at how big the sound is for just the three of us, which is great. Other people look at us and say, “You all are too nice to produce this kind of music.” In Oregon, we sat down with a little radio station, and the program manager looked at us and said, “There's no way that you three are on that record because you're all too nice and down-to-Earth.” I guess the transformation happens when we get on stage; it's like sitting in a psychiatrist's chair.
I've learned in the past that one of the big disappointments with live music, in general, is when the live performance sounds nothing like the studio version or too much like the studio version. It has to be somewhere in between. It has to be raw; there's an element of danger that needs to be present live. It doesn't need to be perfect, but it has to be pulled off perfectly. That's what we're going for.
Q: What's the trick to balancing expectations with an element of surprise during a show?
A: That's a tough one. In general, it's hard to figure out what motivates people, but getting people to participate and be involved is a big thing. If they're going to come see us play, they'll expect to get a little rowdy and sweaty and be forced to clap their hands and stand up front and participate. The way that a live performance gets better is when everyone in the audience participates.
Q: Now that The Cusses have a couple years under your belts, has the band evolved in the way you would have expected or are you in a different place than you might have expected to be?
A: We've just grown. I think the beauty of playing every night to different people is that you become tighter and better performers and communicate on stage with each other better. That's part of the goal of doing this. One thing that makes us happy is to play music. Whether that's at home or on the road, that's what it's about. I don't know if our course has changed at all, but we've been trying to map out what we want to do next, and we're on par with that.
Q: You mentioned communication, and it seems like, as a three-piece, that's easier for you than a lot of larger bands.
A: Yeah, you're right. That's basically why I think The Cusses is just the three of us. Brian and I worked well together in the past. When Brian first moved back into town, we wanted to pick up where we left off about 10 years ago. We brought different people in to practice to see what we would sound like with a different bass player or if I were on bass or something.The idea of a three-piece always intrigued us because you can't get more raw than that without sounding full. After a while, we figured out that if the two of us just rocked out, we worked really well together and it came out really fast, like musical diarrhea. Instead of putting a cork in it, we decided to let it flow.
Q: Was it a surprise after having worked with Brian before that Angel slotted in so well and completed the triangle, so to speak?
A: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, who would have thought? Brian would always say that she had a great voice and that we should drag her in here, and that's what we did. It just worked out well. That's just another element on top of this heavy, borderline-dark music that brings it all together and puts a bow on top of it. That part wasn't necessarily spontaneous, but unseen, when we started the band.
Q: One of the first thing that strikes you when you put on a Cusses song is Angel's vocals. Have you found that the expectations are different when you have a female lead singer?
A: [Laughs.] There are a lot of answers to that. One is that the rock 'n' roll we're doing is a world full of dudes, and putting Angel up front there catches people's attention. Call it what you will, but it's a great thing for us. The reality is that we're just blending this cup of coffee that has different elements in it than what you're used to. We've seen a lot of bands playing on the road, and quite a few of them are a mix of guys and girls and quite a few of them were female-fronted, and the story's not the same for everyone. I think we bring something new to the table, musically and visually.
Q: What is your musical philosophy when it comes to performing live? What do you want people to take away from your shows?
A: We just want them to realize that rock 'n' roll is not dead. Playing live, loud and raw is really what's sacred about music, and that's what we cherish. We just put a lot of emotion behind it. We're not giving them anything watered down. We just want people to realize that you can put your heart and soul into something and people will get it and feel it.
Q: Have you gotten feedback from fans that indicates that they get that?
A: Yeah, people always say, “That was amazing. Thank you so much. You've confirmed rock is alive.” When the sound guy buys your record and asks you to sign it, that's a compliment. Sound guys, especially, hear a lot of crap every day of every week, so that's a huge compliment. Just someone buying your music and supporting your cause and your art is a great feeling.
Q: What is the key to pulling off a live show that is energetic and undiluted?
A: It's the energy and the commitment. It doesn't matter the size of the crowd we're playing to. We just let it all out and play our hearts out. The music is just powerful and straight forward with lots of riffs. We just hit every note as hard as we can and give it everything we have. It's that simple. I know it sounds cliché, but hearing that answer from us and then hearing it from a band that doesn't seem as passionate, it has two different meanings. We give it our all. If you come see us play, you'll understand that.
Q: Where do your songs come from? Who writes or do you all write? What do you draw on?
A: It's a group effort. The music generally comes before the lyrics. I have a big Rolodex of riffs and parts and pieces that I come up with on a daily basis, so that part comes together first, and then we get together to talk about melody and arrangements. Then Angel and Brian will consider the lyrics, and we'll all get together and consider it further. It's a group effort, but it just comes from our lives and what we love and hate with and what we've dealt with - past relationships and present day woes and everything in between.
Q: Tell me about the self-titled album that came out last year. What were your goals going into the recording process? Do you feel like you achieved them?
A: Our goal was to put out an awesome debut record and capture maybe a signature sound, something where you start listening to a song and know who it is within five seconds, bands like AC/DC or Nirvana. That's what we're trying to capture.
We tried to mix the record with old songs and new songs at the time. We wanted to record it in a great facility with a great producer because the more help you have, the more heads you put together, the better the product is.
We recorded up in Asheville, N.C., at Echo Mountain Studios that was a church that has been converted into a recording studio. It's a beautiful space. We recorded all the drums and guitars right in the sanctuary, so it has that big room sound. We had Dan Hannon who produced it. We approached it as doing our favorite songs at the time and putting them together on a record that's great and different but but reminds you of the music you loved of the past and packaged it nicely and delivered it with a smile.
Q: Of course, the most difficult thing about a good first album is that you have to follow it up without the benefit of the years you had to prepare the material going into the debut. Have you given thought to a follow up yet?
A: You know, we actually were thinking about the second release when we were recording the first record. We have a lot of songs in the bag just waiting to come out. I don't see our second release as being a challenge at all because those songs are done already, and a lot of them were songs we wrote before we finished the first record.
There will be more old and new on our next release. It will be even better than the first one. We're not worried about that. Maybe our fifth or sixth record we'll start to worry about that. When you start to hear synthesizers, then you need to worry. [Laughs.]
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...