Music

Cub Sport Follows Fear to the Edge

Story by Brendan Wetmore / Photography by Mia Rankin / Styling by Kurt Johnson

There exists a relatively understated, yet monumental, line on Australian band Cub Sport's self-titled release that anchors the entire record. The chorus of the album's second single, "Party Pill," ends with a question: "Can I build my life around you?" It's a moment that enters and exits quickly, almost running into the line preceding it, but it's there — and that's all that really matters. While plenty of pop records have been put out over the past several years about queer love in the context of momentary flings or heartbreaks, only a handful have explicitly examined a relationship between two queer people as something so permanent. It makes total sense, then, that the song played in the background while lead singer Tim Nelson and bandmate Sam "Bolan" Netterfield signed their marriage certificate back in August 2018.

"I had a moment where I was like, 'Is it weird to play our own song at our wedding?' But it was such a proud, full-circle moment," Nelson tells me on the day of the release of their newest album. "It's our love story."

Nelson and Netterfield's story unfurls gloriously on Cub Sport as a fully-realized account of a years-long journey to radical self-acceptance and, of course, love. Although it might have been love at first sight for the then 17 year olds, it would take until the end of touring for their 2016 debut album, This Is Our Vice, for their romance to flourish unabashedly. The years in between would prove challenging on all fronts for Nelson and Netterfield, as well as for fellow bandmates Zoe Davis and Dan Puusaari. "I don't think we really had any idea how much personal development and musical development would happen over the years that we were playing music together," Nelson confesses. "We released our first EP in 2012 and we got a pretty good response to that. Then, we ended up signing a record deal and getting on a management team. We felt like we had these things happening before we really knew who we were or how to execute a creative vision that had been sitting underneath for a long time."

During this time the band was also waiting on putting out their completed debut album, which they ultimately believe is due to their label pushing back an official release. Unfortunately, Cub Sport's musical woes wouldn't be the only obstacle they'd encounter during the multi-year waiting game. "That was happening at the same time of Bolan and I fighting against what our hearts wanted," Nelson recounts. "It was a period where I was trying to be someone that I'm not."

The album would eventually see the light of day in March 2016, but what should have been a celebratory rollout for him was instead a rollout shrouded in self-doubt and shame. He points to the opening lyric from "Only Friend," a track off of This Is Our Vice, as the most accurate descriptor of his state of mind during this period: "Looking at the world is not inspiring, it's intimidating." The only inkling of romantic tension between Nelson and Netterfield on the 2016 album was its breakout hit, "Come On Mess Me Up." It's about the period of time when they fell in love with each other, back in their teenage years. While vague in intent and message, it was the most publicly honest song Nelson could write about the relationship at the time.

(Tim) Dress: Coach, Gloves: Max Mara, Shoes: M Hogan (Sam) Suit & Shoes: M Hogan, Singlet: Kenneth Pan, Necklace: Loki Patera

The sincerity was inspired by Leonard Cohen's record of flings with Janis Joplin in New York City on "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" — a song so brutally truthful about the confused eroticism of their encounter. Nelson says that he had been listening to "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" often prior to writing "Come On Mess Me Up." The lyric "Givin' me head on the unmade bed while the limousines wait in the street," was particularly striking to him.

"I remember thinking, 'He can just be so open. This is explicit detail. I wish I could even come close to expressing myself that honestly,'" he recalls. His moment to be fully honest would come soon enough, though. Towards the end of touring with This Is Our Vice, Netterfield approached Nelson with a proposition: "I don't want this to ruin our friendship, but I'm in love with you and I want to be with you." The two decided to move forward with their relationship and come out to their friends and families post-tour. Throughout this process, Nelson would begin to pen Cub Sport's sophomore album, BATS, a "half-before coming out, half-after coming out" catalogue of more defined desire.

Dress: Coach, Gloves: Max Mara, Shoes: M Hogan

Suit & Shoes: M Hogan, Singlet: Kenneth Pan, Necklace: Loki Patera

BATS would mark the first time Nelson would be able to express himself to the public. This radical self-acceptance would garner the attention of thousands of new fans, including YouTube teen sensations Ethan and Grayson Dolan. The pair would end up reaching out to Cub Sport to help create and direct the music video for a beachy pop cut from BATS, "Hawaiian Party." The video has managed to amass over 6 million views on YouTube, and its popularity would prepare the now independent band for their biggest release to date, Cub Sport.

"It's our self-titled album because it feels like we've come from self doubt to self acceptance to self love," Nelson says firmly about the new record. "This is our identity now, it's the first time it really has felt truly like us."

Cub Sport's story, up until now, reads like a play in three acts — and Cub Sport is the long anticipated, full-circle finale for the entire band. The vague truthfulness of "Come On Mess Me Up," a mere extrapolation of a Leonard Cohen track, has now developed into "Party Pill," a song infinitely more explicit in aim and emotion. The second verse reflects this growth the most:

"He quit his job to spend the day with me/ Thought I was pretty, couldn't see my acne/ I slept two winters by his side and yeah, I let him come inside/ And yeah, I let him come inside."

"I don't think I've ever cried so much writing a song before," Nelson says of the track.

(Sam) Coat: Charles Jeffrey (Tim) Shorts: Charles Jeffrey, Gloves: Max Mara

"As Long As You're Happy" is another song off the new record that hits at the complexities of the fear that held Nelson and Netterfield back from going public with their love. The abandonment of fear can almost be heard in Nelson's tearfulness as he belts poetic line after poetic line about never wanting to hide again from his heart's desires. "As Long As You're Happy" is coincidentally one of the grandest tracks on the album, having been written to capture the scale of a decade. Nelson's production chops reflect this intensity; atmospheric tones create space in the verses for his potent lyricism to breathe before the bridge bursts into a shower of starry synths for him to deliver the paramount line of Cub Sport: "I tell you I'm with you past the end/ You tell me there is no end."

In a world where gay culture is now characterized in part by loneliness and vacant interaction, listening to a queer person sing about love as a happy constant is almost unheard of. Moreover, to conceive of queer love as anything but fleeting is to shine an optimistic light on an otherwise discouraging landscape. Grappling with self-love as grounds to explore shared love has practically become an Olympic sport for LGBTQ+ people with trauma-lined upbringings. Despite finding a partner for life in Netterfield, Nelson's adolescent narrative is similar to that of many other young queer people who internalize societal and familial pressures at a young age. "My whole childhood I was being taught that I am not deserving of happiness because of who I am," he says of his youth. "I think that created a lot of self-doubt and led to a fear of anyone finding out who I was, or a fear of having to open up to anybody. I think that it's quite a contagious energy." He adds that he grew up in a religious household that ultimately swayed his younger self towards such negative self-talk.

Sweater & Pants: Max Mara

Suit: Charles Jeffrey, Necklace: Max Mara

While he says that shutting out this fear was the gateway to unlocking the sounds and words that express his newfound self-love on Cub Sport, it appears his approach was less about ignoring fear and more about following fear to its edge. The phrase, "follow the fear," — an old improv comedy mantra — comes to mind when listening to Nelson speak about his personal journey, as well as the album as a musical journey. He emphasizes that his favorite song off the record (surprise, it's "Party Pill") is about his love for Netterfield shifting from once evoking a sense of shame to now filling him with a sense of pride. He's managed to trail what once scared him the most and create something totally fear-resistant. Similarly, he has begun following his fears in his approach to creation, a practice which would contribute heavily to the self-titled album's overall sincerity. Nelson tells me all about reflecting on his journey and just jamming out on a synth he purchased while on tour in Portland to get ideas for the lyrics and movements of the tracks. Leading with feeling rather than logic would also help him record the stream-of-consciousness opener, "Unwinding Myself (Intro)."

"I just pressed record and started singing. In those moments, where there isn't really time to figure out what you're going to say, but it's about letting something else flow. That's how a lot of my greatest musical achievements have come to be," he says, fully content with the outcome of the one-shot piece.

(Tim and Sam) Clothing: Kenneth Pan, Sneakers: Acne Studios

Arguably the most impactful moments on the record are these moments of abandon and spontaneity. "Come Out" is a notably catchy cut near the climax of the record. On the track, Nelson's filtered vocals muse about the problematic nature of the concept of coming out of the closet before a tidal wave of a chorus floods the soundscape. Then, he "comes out" about several things, confessing to listeners "I'm not okay," and "I struggle with my body and my mind from time to time." These confessions serve to warp the idea that being open about one's sexuality is the end to all personal shame — most of the time, it's only one of many coming outs. "Come Out" lives on the self-titled album as one of the more singular tracks, focusing on Nelson's personal development rather than the development of his relationship with Netterfield.

Not all of the space on Cub Sport, however, is occupied by Nelson. After doing a lot of production work on "Video," he was left with an empty verse that he then offered to one of his closest friends and rising hook-perfector, Mallrat. "I'm her number one fan," he tells me, excitedly. Although he admits it was the first time Cub Sport and Mallrat could exist in the same sonic environment without it feeling forced, the resulting track is the undisputed earworm of the album. Nelson reminisces through the chorus about the "good love that we made," before Mallrat enters to deliver a cool final verse about the taped encounter. On its own, it might reflect the emptier moments that accompany gay sex and temporary relationships, but when put into context it takes on a more heartfelt shape.

Coat: Max Mara

The ability to add new context to these relationships is perhaps what separates Cub Sport from the pack of indie synth-pop revivalists attempting to break into a refreshed market — thanks to the popularity of powerhouses like The 1975 and LANY. Some of these acts thrive most noticeably by linking moody pads and vocals to equally moody lyrics, while Cub Sport adds dimension to the same synths by telling of queer romantic triumphs rather than queer romantic woes. The emptier tones that these headliners use to convey loneliness or signal repression are instead viewed as unused space by Cub Sport, waiting to be filled with aspiration. These individual triumphs that unfold on Cub Sport should be celebrated, then, not just because they are triumphs for Tim Nelson or pop music, but also because they could be a young LGBTQ+ listener's musical foothold on a sense of interpersonal permanence. While certainly not the only queer narrative being told in music, Cub Sport's story is a unique one in that it's at once found in heterosexual love songs — infatuation, marriage — but flipped entirely.

Cub Sport is currently touring Europe and Australia, but U.S. fans will soon have a chance to hear them play their new record when the band embarks on the U.S. leg of their tour this summer. The band is excited to reveal the lineup exclusively for PAPER. View the full lineup, below, and go to cubsport.com for tickets and more information. Tickets go on sale Friday, February 15.

(Tim) Singlet: Kenneth Pan, Pants: M Hoga, Necklace: Gucci, Charm Necklace: Acne Studios (Sam) Singlet: Kenneth Pan, Pants: M Hogan, Earring: Loki Patera

May 8 Los Angeles, CA - The Echo

May 9 San Diego, CA – VooDoo Lounge

May 10 San Francisco, CA – Popscene @ Rickshaw Stop

May 13 Seattle, WA – Columbia City Theatre

May 14 Portland, OR – Old Church

May 16 Salt Lake City, UT – TBD

May 18 Denver, CO – Marquis Theater

May 20 Chicago, IL – Schubas

May 22 Boston, MA – Café 939

May 23 Brooklyn, NY – Knitting Factory

May 24 Montreal, QC - Esco

May 25 Toronto, ON – The Drake

May 28 Philadelphia, PA – Foundry

May 29 Washington, DC – Songbyrd

May 31 Atlanta, GA – Masquerade (Purgatory)

June 2 Austin, TX - Stubbs

June 3 Houston, TX – White Oak

June 5 Dallas, TX – Three Links

June 7 Phoenix, AZ – Valley Bar

October 17 London, UK - The Scala

+ more dates to be added!

Photography: Mia Rankin
Styling: Kurt Johnson
Grooming: Kye Reed
Styling Assistant: Millie Sykes

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