At a club nestled in the culturally throbbing hub of the East Village in New York City, there’s a band playing from Georgia. Yes, Georgia. Photography by Steve Aycock, Summer Teal Simpson and Tim Willoughby.
The lead singer stands in a corner wringing her hands as she prepares to take the stage. Her raven hair, self-coifed into a pseudo-mohawk with blunt bangs, shades her heavily painted eyes. Her skin glows with perspiration from equal parts nervousness and the sultry, stagnant subterranean air of a New York summer night.
The ancient, gritty basement of the club regularly hosts post-punk and new wave shows, similar to those once held at the legendary, now-defunct club CBGB. This is just the second time the band is playing Manhattan, yet the narrow, deep room is packed with souls. Bodies thick down front, bodies standing on chairs — which means a lot, because it is so hot under the earth. So hot that the numerous photographers in attendance are struggling to keep their lenses from fogging. So hot that the only cool in the room comes from the whiskey and water in hand — at least until the ice melts.
Something special is happening here. These are the sights and sounds of a band breaking through. The lead singer greets the crowd. Their response is full-throated. Cusses take New York.
Fresh on the heels of a divorce, Cusses lead singer Angel Bond sold her cafe and left a sleepy south Florida town to spend her earnings in the care and feeding of those suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She would spend every dime and turn to singing on the streets of New Orleans to make ends meet.
To look at her now is to betray her humble beginnings. On stage, she is absolutely electrifying. It’s hard to fathom how such a gifted live performer has historically struggled with stage fright. Despite her undeniable Jagger swagger, were you to look closely enough, you can see her hands trembling before a show.
“My confidence has improved, but I’m still mad nervous before I get on stage,” admitted Bond. “I try to trick myself each show into thinking that I know what I’m doing. I don’t, but it gets me through the first song.”
This isn’t Cusses’ first rodeo. Drummer Brian Lackey has played with bands in Savannah, New York and Los Angeles and has toured in Europe and Iceland. In younger years, Lackey and Cusses guitarist Bryan Harder’s college band opened for minimalist, post-hardcore legends Fugazi back when The Jinx was known as the Velvet Elvis. It was this musical chemistry that would later entice Lackey to return to Savannah and serves as the foundation of Cusses.
“I have always loved Harder’s approach to life and that comes out through the music,” explained Lackey.
Lackey’s longstanding friendship with Harder and his personal relationship with Bond served as the genesis of the band. These same connections now act as the base for not only the trio’s stirring music but also for its business. (The group has fully supported and managed itself since day one.)
Cusses isn’t easy to define. One could argue that its sound is reminiscent of Siouxsie and the Banshees and evokes the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Bond’s soulful, audacious vocals also contain a touch of Pat Benatar. Yet despite how formidable a lead presence the singer is, Lackey and Harder possess their own signature styles that further define the band.
No one currently making music hits the drums as hard as Brian Lackey. It is an exhaustive labor by which he channels his energy to the audience through beat. Witnessing this firsthand, it is easy to see that there’s fire in his belly — an artist using his instrument as release.
“I see the faces of all the people I want to punch in the face, including myself five years ago,” said Lackey. “But I save it for the drums because it’s the only place I can’t get in trouble.”
Harder’s approach is equally hardcore. His guitar style and set-up tricks the ear, suggesting a bass line where none exists. Before Cusses, his approach had been fairly traditional: pair a guitar with an amplifier and turn it up. No longer.
“I have become fascinated with rock bands like Death From Above 1979 and White Stripes, who removed a fundamental ingredient from the typical recipe and sound amazing,” explained Harder. “I am pursuing that idea by providing two parts at once and delivering a full, hi-fi sound that can potentially knock someone over.”
Just two years into their musical courtship, Cusses is now tasting national success, with a swelling fan base and the probing interest of music industry insiders. Iggy Pop caught one of their Savannah shows and is rumored to be a fan.
Riding this momentum, the band took out a loan to finance its new album, recorded in late July 2011 at Echo Mountain Studio in downtown Asheville, N.C., under the guidance of esteemed producer Dan Hannon, recognized for his work with indie rock darlings Manchester Orchestra.
“We had been writing several songs each time we rehearsed,” explained Bond. “That type of pace makes for a huge catalog of unrefined tracks.”
Hannon helped the trio craft a fluid sound that at times departs from the existing Cusses tableau. Songs the band has played hard in the past were softened so that Bond’s vocals could emerge out front. Lyrics were fleshed out and revised. Three parts became unified into a more cohesive sound.
“At the end we felt we’d made an album that reflected rock ’n’ roll before hairspray got involved, one that departs from what electronics has done to music today,” said Lackey.
Upon finishing recording, Lackey and Bond traded in their car for a van and hit the road to play dates in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Boston, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Asheville and Greenville, S.C. Harder and his wife Kim packed up their two young sons and brought them along for part of the tour.
For musicians, the road is a state of perpetual motion: pack the van, cover countless miles with as few stops as possible to save both time and money, arrive at a club, load in, hope for free food, support opening bands, do sound check, play set, pimp your wares at the merchandise table, watch headlining bands who likely helped book you, load out and hit the road to the next destination. Rinse and repeat.
With the exception of a group of elite rock stars, touring is not glamorous. It is a grueling slog and largely unprofitable. Yet Cusses understand that the process is a prerequisite for achieving success, that touring is the best way to promote its new album, that playing shows and selling merchandise is the only shot a young band has at pulling in money in the age of iTunes.
Notes from the Road
Aug. 5: Lit Lounge. The East Village, New York City.
Opening night happened in the midst of a sweltering heat wave. Despite this, the scene was a veritable reunion of old Savannah friends — those visiting New York and those who had made their home there. But this was no neighborhood show. Cusses was noticeably more anxious yet somehow fluid. They had just spent weeks together recording an album. The sense of solidarity was palpable.
In the crowd were members of the Brooklyn-based band Country Mice, a four-man Heartland rock outfit who met Cusses during the 2011 Savannah Stopover Music Festival. Just previous to the tour, Cusses helped book the Mice at The Jinx in Savannah, opening for Athens’ legendary band The Whigs.
“The (Cusses) shows at Stopover were definitely crowded, but the Lit Lounge show was something else,” said Country Mice guitarist Ben Bullington. “Packed with Savannah expats. Tons of energy. I think Cusses have proven a lot to themselves. I’m excited to see what putting this album out there does for them.”
Saturday, Aug. 6: The Legendary Dobbs, Philadelphia, Pa.
Cusses made the relatively short trek from NYC to South Street in Philadelphia. The Legendary Dobbs is a Philly staple that has gone through various name changes since it opened in 1974. Renowned filmmaker and former Dobbs owner George Manney was at the show and loved it, so much so that he bought the group’s poster, had them all sign it, and stuck it on the wall next to a Nirvana poster.
“That girl can sing,” he exclaimed. “She’s like Kurt Cobain with (breasts.)”
Friday, Aug. 12: Arlene’s Grocery, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Angel’s high school friends came out in force. Arlene’s used to be a Puerto Rican bodega and butcher shop that was converted to a bar and music venue in 1995. The sound at Arlene’s was tight and full, and, consequently, the show was amazing.
“It was one of the first times I could hear myself!” enthused Bond.
Fans were rowdy, singing along, head-banging, some even started slamming into one another in a quasi-mosh effort. After the show, a handful of the band’s friends packed into the van to hit the second show booked at a basement warehouse party in outlying Bushwick. After the 30-minute drive, they were met by a locked basement door and a pool of drunken people headed home.
“That’s how it goes,” said Lackey. “But it was alright. We were tired.”
Friday, Aug. 19: The Pour House, Charleston, S.C.
Cusses opened for another Stopover band, The Shaniqua Brown. The band took comfort in the familiar sights of moss and palmetto. It also didn’t hurt that the crowd was littered with the bands’ friends from Savannah who made the trip to show their support. The crowd projected an encouraging vibe, and the band fed off of it, a bit more loose, becoming comfortable again in their Southern skin. They were almost home, and it showed.
“Man, after each tour, we’re as exhausted as we are revved up,” explained Lackey. “We expend so much on the road, but we get amped to see so many friendly faces and new cities.”
Home feels different after you’ve been gone. Back in town for some much-needed downtime, the band members have adjusted to a slower, more domestic pace. They raise their children and walk their dogs in the park. They play The Jinx on Friday nights. And they stay hard at work practicing and preparing to promote their highly anticipated album release, slated for late fall. If one is to trust the considerable buzz surrounding the band, this is merely a period of calm before the coming storm.
Yet assuredly, each remains committed to Savannah — the place, the people and the music scene in which they are so heavily invested.
“I’ve moved around so much in my life. Savannah is one of the few places I’ve called home,” said Bond. “We are committed to bringing music to Savannah, and Savannah’s music to the world. After all, music is all about family, and this is the best community I’ve ever been a part of.”