Cub Sport lead singer and songwriter Tim Nelson vividly remembers the day he chose to be baptised. After walking through a small stage door at his church in north Brisbane, he approached a large pool with cameras trained on its surface. He was asked to accept Jesus into his heart before being dunked beneath the pool’s waters.
“I think I just really wanted to get in that pool, to be honest,” Nelson tells NME. “I made the decision to get baptised and be a born-again Christian when I was six.”
Nelson’s life in the church may have begun innocently, but as he grew older his experience with institutional religion and education at his church (and at the attached Christian school) would have profound implications on his life, from suppressing his queer identity to reinforcing stigma about his body and masculinity.
Years on, Nelson has found a balm in his band and their music. On Cub Sport’s new album ‘LIKE NIRVANA’, he reconnects with spirituality on his own terms and unshackles himself from masculine, heteronormative power structures (Nelson identifies as ‘free’, saying his gender experience most likely falls under the term ‘non-binary’, though “using an ambiguous term feels more appropriate for me right now”).
‘LIKE NIRVANA’ was recorded quickly, with its first song coming to life around the release of the band’s self-titled 2019 album. But its creation was also the product of what Nelson describes as a cocktail of tiredness, anxiety and joy. The band had been kicking goals: selling out more than 10,000 tickets on an Australian and New Zealand headline tour, completing headline tours of the UK and the US, and performing at major festivals including Life Is Beautiful in Las Vegas and Falls in Australia.
But returning to normality in Brisbane left time for self-reflection and introspection that led Nelson to face personal issues he’d buried for years.
“I feel like a pretty big theme that came through when I was writing [the album] were feelings of inadequacy around being a man,” says Nelson. “I was going to this church seven days a week and everything about the culture and values there was conservative. The men that were popular and respected were always these very alpha male, masculine, physically fit and strong men. Anyone who had a higher voice or was more feminine – mainly queer guys who couldn’t actually say that’s who they were – just came off as weird or embarrassing.”
“It was also tied into a religious world where it felt like being a good person was also tied to these other conservative views and ideas of how you’re meant to be,” says Nelson. “It’s this weird struggle of feeling like I just wasn’t good, as well as being embarrassed about how I would act and how I looked.”
Breaking bonds of shame and self-loathing is hard when it’s all you’ve known. Nelson attended both the school and church for his entire pre-tertiary education and describes being bullied by his fellow students for his weight and mannerisms.
In one traumatic incident in Year 7, an older boy found Nelson trying on an extravagant hot-pink tulle dress in the school drama room. He dragged Nelson out the front of the school tuck shop to shame him in front of the other students.
“I remember that being a pretty hectic moment of feeling very embarrassed… but also still not looking at what [that person was] doing as being terrible but more like, I was doing something embarrassing,” says Nelson. It’s only in the last few years that Nelson has managed to break away from wanting to fit in with the kind of men that once ridiculed him, he says.
“The truth is I don’t wanna be one of the boys / The truth is living by a gender makes me feel annoyed / The truth is I still feel like I don’t fit in anywhere,” sings Nelson on the album’s opening song ‘Confessions’.
That tulle dress feels analogous to the sonic textures on ‘LIKE NIRVANA’, which play with opacity and its capacity to obscure or reveal. In harsher moments, like on ‘Confessions’ or ‘Best Friend’, the songs feel like they’re reverberating through a chain link fence, a barrier that can alternately imprison or protect.
At their most delicate, like on the album’s stunning seven-minute centrepiece ‘Break Me Down’ featuring Mallrat, the songs are filtered through a lace of Auto-Tune. Sometimes, like on the album highlight ‘Be Your Man’, the veil is lifted completely, allowing Nelson’s voice to burst forth and refract through an emotional prism into multitudes of love.
Nelson’s husband and bandmate Sam Netterfield remembers recording ‘Be Your Man’ in an Los Angeles studio at the end of the band’s 2019 US tour, which along with ‘18’ were his first major writing credits on a Cub Sport album. Netterfield sat down at a Rhodes piano and began playing two simple chords. Nelson began improvising lyrics, resulting in a moment of blinding majesty that’s the very same take you hear on the album:
“Baby I’m so tired / I know you feel it too / I’ve been feeling everything, the changes with the moon / But baby I’ll hold onto you / No matter what, you know that I’ll hold onto you.”
“It never gets old, that feeling of knowing a song’s about you. I love it, I love the fact that I have someone who writes such beautiful songs about me,” says Netterfield. “I hold them very dear to my heart but I also try and keep them as their own separate part. I don’t let them dictate how I feel about any moment in time, or our relationship, or either of our self-worth. I like to hold them as this separate entity that’s a reflection of our love and not internalise it.”
Netterfield’s other album credit, for ‘18’, came from a writing session halfway through their last US tour while driving from Salt Lake City to Denver. It was the middle of summer, but suddenly a snowstorm engulfed their tour van. Netterfield quickly laid down chords and pitched 808 drums before passing the instrumental to Nelson.
“At that point of the tour, you’re in a rhythm that’s super exhausting of repeat and rinse, the same thing every day. I remember feeling the snowstorm was beautiful, peaceful and exciting, but also quite raw. It felt like a beautiful encapsulation of how I was feeling. I felt like I was writing that storm,” says Nelson.
“It never gets old, that feeling of knowing a song’s about you” – Sam Netterfield
Although the lyrics on ‘LIKE NIRVANA’ are specific to Nelson’s personal experiences and emotions, they often resonate in the experiences of Netterfield and Cub Sport’s multi-instrumentalist Zoe Davis. All three band members went to the same school, where they lived through a culture that suppressed their true identities. The bullying Cub Sport’s members experienced can happen at any school, but when homophobia is reinforced at a curricular level, its effects can be even more damaging. The trio say they were taught that same-sex relationships are wrong, and Davis remembers a speaker once telling the congregation that they had “gay thoughts but just pushed them aside”.
“There’s a lot of stuff in the music from before we knew each other as well: formative years as children, but even in those I see so many parallels,” says Netterfield. “We had the same upbringing in different homes, the same Pentecostal Christian environment and a lot of the same childhood experiences.”
Nelson and Netterfield both came out after high school to the support of their parents. On the other hand, the derogatory way queer people were talked about by Davis’ fellow students meant she didn’t acknowledge her own sexuality until she was 18. Four years later, during which time she’d been in a same-sex relationship, she was still afraid to come out to her parents.
“I was a bit too scared to come out while I was living at home because I’d seen other kids who went to the school get kicked out of home when they came out. I was living in a bit of fear that would happen,” says Davis, who was accidentally outed by another parishioner with a gay son. She found out her parents knew while waiting at Los Angeles airport to return home from Cub Sport’s 2014 US tour, and spent the flight home crying in fear.
“It was a long journey from there dealing with it, and having my parents come to terms with it,” says Davis, who’s now engaged to her fiancé Bridie. “They’re great now, they couldn’t be prouder, which is nice but it was pretty hard for a while.”
‘LIKE NIRVANA’, Davis says, is “a continuation of the journey of evolving and becoming more of who we really are… There are parts of the album that feel more vulnerable than the other albums, [parts about] learning to become at one with your feelings and accepting the highs and the lows of that.”
In embracing vulnerability, Cub Sport have flourished. “It’s nice to see your friends just be themselves,” says drummer Dan Puusaari, who is straight. “One thing I really like about Cub Sport is that there’s an element that’s a lot bigger than ourselves… it gives young queer kids something to look at and go, ‘Oh wow, three-quarters of this band are queer and look what they’re doing’.
After coming out, Nelson spent several years as an atheist before undergoing what he describes as a “religious reckoning” and conceptualising spirituality for himself.
“In the years that followed that hard swing to atheism, I started to feel much more connected to the universe… the idea that you keep being reborn into the world in these different combinations,” says Nelson. “It just feels like a much bigger concept, I guess, than just being born into this body and then dying and you’re done.”
“Finally admitting to myself that I was queer and in love with Sam, when I was 25, that was definitely somewhat of a rebirth” – Tim Nelson
On ‘Saint’, Nelson sings about freeing himself from the constraints of institutional religion and – reconnecting with spiritual forces in the process:
“I’m done with that now / I’m done, I’m out, I’m out, I’m out / I’m never coming back / My mum seems kind of sad / Scared that I’ll end up in hell / Don’t you see that’s where I’ve been? / Don’t you see that’s where we fell? / So I’m raising myself up now / I’m living in my own god power / I’m moving like a tidal wave / I am on a mission to save.”
That song, Nelson says, “sums up my experience of throwing out the idea of God and spirituality that made me feel really shit about myself… where I’m at now with embracing that power within [to] empower and uplift myself. I feel like there’s a lot of guilt tied to religion that doesn’t need to be there with spirituality.”
In Dharmic religions including Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, achieving Nirvana – a potted definition: a state of blissful emptiness, perfect quietude and freedom – requires liberation from samsara, which refers to the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth. Nelson and Netterfield, who insist they’re still at the beginning of their spiritual journey, are quick to note they’re not claiming the concept as their own.
“I don’t feel like I can really speak to the experience of people in religions that are heavily based around achieving Nirvana. To me it’s about transcending the heaviness of life and finding a more peaceful, content state,” says Nelson.
Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha was an influential book for him, Nelson says. The novel tells the story of a young wanderer who decides against following the teachings of the Buddha, and chooses to seek out his own personal truth – which feels much like the journey Nelson set himself on since leaving institutional religion. Years after he was first reborn at six in a pool, Nelson has since found that rebirth can happen far, far beyond the walls of churches, temples and monasteries.
“‘LIKE NIRVANA’ is very much breaking any chains of expectation – of what is expected of me, or what is safe or sensible” – Tim Nelson
“I think finally admitting to myself that I was queer and in love with Sam, when I was 25, that was definitely somewhat of a rebirth,” says Nelson. “I guess going from a place of feeling like I had to filter and hide basically everything about myself from everyone in my life – to then being like, ‘This is actually who I am, I don’t want to feel like I have to hide anymore’. That felt like the start of a new life.”
And ‘LIKE NIRVANA’ is its own rebirth, Nelson says. “It’s very much breaking any chains of expectation – of what is expected of me, or what is safe or sensible.” That applies, too, in the sonic sense: The record marks a drastic shift away from the glossy pop of ‘Cub Sport’ to something more textural and impressionistic. A confident and daring expression of creativity, ‘LIKE NIRVANA’ feels unconcerned with accommodating the music industry’s capitalist logics.
‘LIKE NIRVANA’ ends with the hymn-like ‘Grand Canyon’, which was actually the first song written for the record. Its synthesised church organ and layered, crystalline vocals shine down like light refracting through stained glass. Nelson says without realising it he’d written the song about a friend, another queer person from a religious upbringing, who’d recently gone through difficult personal circumstances.
“At the time, it was kind of just coming through me. I realised that I was writing it as an encouragement [of] the strength and power that I see when I look at her,” says Nelson. “And it’s also ended up serving as that same sort of boost for me as well: It can be a good reminder of the greatness and the power that every living being has inside of them.”
Cub Sport’s ‘LIKE NIRVANA’ is out now
CREDITS: Hair and make-up by Ginelle Dale
Clothes supplied by Contra