In conversation with Cub Sport’s Tim Nelson

As Jesus at the Gay Bar exemplifies, queer coming out often resists categorisation as happy or sad; self-acceptance is not a linear process.

My beautiful child there is nothing in this heart of yours that ever needs to be healed.

When Cub Sport’s frontperson Tim Nelson first read Jesus at the Gay Bar, by trans British poet Jay Hulme, he says “it hit me really hard. I grew up in a very religious world and spent years praying that god would heal me from being gay … so reading this, I felt a lot of comfort for my younger self.”

It has been over a decade since Nelson started a hidden relationship with best friend — and now bandmate — Sam Netterfield. Nelson tells Honi that while this time “was really magical and joyous on the inside, there was so much trauma around it.”

That trauma was examined in depth in the band’s last album, Like Nirvana, which deconstructed the religious and gendered structures which impeded Nelson’s path to self-acceptance. The experience of doing so was for Nelson “so intense and really emotional.” Such was the emotional toll of that record, Nelson says he was “basically holding back tears at many points throughout [the band’s live] show.”

But as Cub Sport began the Like Nirvana tour, the pandemic happened, and the shows stopped. It was this forced stoppage which ultimately inspired the band’s latest release, Jesus at the Gay Bar, named after Hulme’s poem.

Nelson speaks at length about the energising power of playing live shows, “It’s a very magical thing, performing music … After nearly every show that we play, I come away just feeling really fulfilled, and like yeah this is what I’m meant to be doing.”

“To have that” taken away, Nelson continues, “that was the thing I think I found hard. “I think that was part of what inspired me to create [the new album.]”

Jesus at the Gay Bar provides that missing joyous energy in abundance. The album is a collection of beating electronic pop tracks, underpinned by Nelson’s ongoing process of self-acceptance and self-love; a process which began during Nelson and Netterfield’s budding relationship as teenagers.

“My vision was to create something that felt good and felt energising, but still had the same heart that all the other Cub Sport albums have had,” Nelson says.

The album opens with Always Got the Love. It’s a sign of things to come, offering an idealised depiction of queer love: Nelson sings “Like blazing in the sun, yeah// At the beach with your hands in my hair// Then riding on the highway// My hand on your thigh feels so right”, above a club-ready beat.

Matching the energy of Always Got the Love is the album’s sixth track Songs About It, a house song built upon beating piano chords. On the track Nelson sings “Blow off all of my friends// ‘Cause I don’t want this to end” in a nod to the album’s quest to provide listeners a moment of all-immersive euphoria.

When Cub Sport debuted Songs About It at Lost Paradise over the new year, Nelson says “the reaction was next level.”

“I think we haven’t really had such a straight up dance song before and getting to play that, at a festival where a lot of people are there because they want to dance, it was so fun.”

Nelson tells Honi that the pursuit of this more upbeat live experience was a key influence on his approach to writing the album. For the band, Nelson hoped the new album would “bring the same level of performance, … but for [there] to be more fun and joy coming through at the same time.”

“For me, but also for the audience to have a really good time.”

Songs About It was written within two or three days of the album’s other most energetic tracks, High For the Summer and Replay. Nelson attributes this to “working with new people,” including producers Simon Lam and Styalz Fuego, “and having an idea myself of the direction I wanted to go in.”

“Once I was in the right time and place for it, it just flowed,” said Nelson.

These creative flurries are something which Nelson notices as common features in his music-making — perhaps they tie in with the overarching approach Nelson takes to writing music. He says at the outset of the interview that “whenever I’m making an album, I’m just writing the music that I want to be listening to at that point in my life.”

It is this introspective current which has given Cub Sport’s discography a fluidity and adaptiveness that is unique among Australian artists. Whereas Jesus at the Gay Bar is a house-inspired project, the band has come from the soulful, genre-defying Like Nirvana and more indie-pop inspired albums This is Our Vice and Cub Sport. This is an evolution which has seen the band’s music grow stronger with each new release.

Nelson’s introspective bent is first apparent in this album on Replay. He sings “I miss it// but I don’t want it back” as the track reaches its euphoric peak, elevated even further by Fuego’s production. Although, as Nelson admits, “it sounds like you’re letting go of someone who isn’t good for you anymore,” he says it is as much about “letting go of a part of myself — or a version of myself. I’m allowing myself to move into this new energy [of euphoria and joy] … so that I’m not just doing the same thing over and over.”

The album’s final track, Magic in U, is what Nelson describes as a “hype up sort of thing… like a little hug for the end of the album.”

Nelson repeats on the track “I know that you’ve been down// Feels like they don’t believe in you// On the shower floor now// I can see the magic in you.” He says this was because, “I found myself [during the pandemic] doubting what I was doing more than before … so I wrote it to be like what I would want someone to say to me.”

“But it’s like subtly banging as well.”

In Replay and Magic in U, we see that Nelson’s has made progress towards self-love, after long being afflicted by self-doubt. When Honi asks Nelson if he thinks he has finally reached a place of happiness and euphoria, he says, “I think I know better now than to think that I’m ever going to.

“I’ve definitely been there before and been like, ‘I made it. I feel good now,’ and then I realised it’s very much just one continuous journey.”

While writing Jesus at the Gay Bar, Nelson also wrote another album. That album is more “sad and experimental, and more like Like Nirvana.”

“I really love that collection of songs, and I still don’t know what is going to happen with it, if I’ll put it out as a Cub Sport album at some point,” he says.

“I guess we’ll just see what happens.”

Nelson’s progress towards self-acceptance is clearest in the tracks about his and Netterfield’s furtive relationship around the end of high school. This is clearest in the contrast between how Jesus at the Gay Bar treats these moments and the way the band’s past albums — particularly BATS — address them.

The moment Nelson and Netterfield confessed their feelings for each other was explored in BATSCrush, where Nelson sings “And you whisper to me ‘Why are you crying?’//I think it’s from the years of trying// To try and push you from me// I didn’t know who I was meant to be.”

The pain and uncertainty so emotionally delivered in BATS is still there in Jesus at the Gay Bar, only it is now delivered atop upbeat music and viewed through a new lens of hope.

The lyrics of Hold, one of the first songs written for the album, are remarkably similar to those in Crush. Now Nelson sings, “Baby it’s hurting// Won’t you lay it on me// I already see it on your face// Baby be honest// We both already know it I’m just trying to hold it.”

The difference is now that these feelings are contextualised by a portrait of self-acceptance and growth which the rest of the album provides.

As Jesus at the Gay Bar exemplifies, queer coming out often resists categorisation as happy or sad; self-acceptance is not a linear process. Nelson acknowledges this, saying “I think it’s really hard to write lyrics that are entirely happy. The album still deal[s]with emotions and feelings and experiences, without shying away from how it really feels.”

Instead, the benefit of a decade’s reflection and a sonically positive album is that the full range of those feelings and experiences can now be given due attention. Though Nelson experienced intense self-doubt and repressed emotions as a young adult, he now reveals on Keep Me Safe his 17-year-old self’s belief that “I could lose it all, whatever// I just wanna die in our Heaven and on Zoom acknowledges he was “zooming in on photos of your face, on your eyes// I’m planning our whole lives.” 

“This album touches on moments from the whole journey,” says Nelson. “I think that a lot of it is reframing [the journey] in a way that does feel a bit more celebratory.”

“I think that a lot of my writing has been about the hard parts of what I’ve been through. And I wanted this album to fill in parts of the whole journey [by] zoning in more on the bits that have felt good.

“I wanted to go back and share … how good it actually was and fill in [the] spaces.”

Jesus at the Gay Bar is a celebration of Nelson’s progress towards queer joy. While there is still self-doubt, Nelson’s internal struggles are now set to euphoric house sounds, musical representations of the joy which Nelson hopes he, and indeed all queer people, can enjoy. Cub Sport has gained a cult following, due to their candid expression of common queer experiences and their ability to progressively develop their sound beyond the confines of a single genre. In Jesus at the Gay Bar, these strengths are reinforced. It is an uplifting and fun album given life by a new sound. It maintains this positive quality even though — or maybe because — the hints of sadness across the band’s discography are still present in the album’s lyrics. 

Cub Sport’s music has always felt real, only now the possibility of queer joy is incorporated into that reality: present amid the self-doubt, the steps forward, and in the imagined end-state of total fulfilment.  

Jesus at the Gay Bar is out now. Cub Sport are playing at the Enmore Theatre on August 24.