When Tim Nelson and Sam "Bolan" Netterfield became bandmates, they weren't married, let alone out -- but they've documented their journeys of self-discovery in their songs.
Each month, Billboard Pride celebrates an LGBTQ act as its Artist of the Month. Our inaugural selection: Australian alt-pop quartet Cub Sport.
Cub Sport are definitively dog people. Married band members Tim Nelson and Sam “Bolan” Netterfield have two of their own, Missy and Evie, giant golden retriever-poodles mixes that they talk about like family members. For a recent stint of press in Sydney however, they've had to leave their two golden girls at home in Brisbane. Luckily, this is the only bad news they can give me.
We’re sitting in Camperdown Park, located just outside the bustle of Sydney’s city center. It’s mid-January, just a few days before the synth-pop group will release their self-titled third album, and the couple are brimming with an excitement that appears to be contagious: Before the interview begins, a seemingly lost dog wearing a collar with the name Elwood appears and cosies up to them. Both Nelson, soft-spoken and wearing a distressed Harley Davidson tee, and Netterfield, repping his own Cub Sport merch, start petting the dog instantly, looking up at each other and grinning like, well, an old married couple.
Band members being in love isn’t a particularly groundbreaking concept. There are so many examples in music history that it borders on its own cliche: The White Stripes, Matt and Kim, Arcade Fire, ABBA and of course Fleetwood Mac have all had the professional and the personal overlap, with some of it spilling directly into the music. But none of those are same-sex couples, which makes Cub Sport’s love story, and the way it’s unfolded in their music, an exhilarating discovery. And while queer representation in mainstream music has been flourishing in recent years, so many of pop’s new, out voices seem to have arrived fully formed, their identifies all figured out -- not the case for Nelson and Netterfield, who weren’t even out let alone married when they first started making music together. Since they confessed their love to each other in 2016, they’ve used their music to document their journeys of self-discovery in real time, inviting listeners into the beautiful melodrama of their relationship as they learn to embrace their own vulnerability.
“Everyday, we’re stepping more and more into our queer selves,” Nelson says, which is true of both their lives as well as their art. The group formed in 2010 under the name Tim Nelson & the Cub Scouts, along with keyboardist-guitarist Zoe Davis (who is also queer and came out a little before Nelson and Netterfield did) and drummer Dan Puusaari. (There original lineup had two other members who have since left the group.) They shortened their name to Cub Scouts the following year, put out a few singles -- including the U.S. college radio hit “Told You So” -- and in 2013 changed their name again to Cub Sport after Scouts Australia threatened legal action. By the time they released their debut album, 2016's This Is Our Vice, they had become darlings of Australia’s alternative scene, with “Come On Mess Me Up,” a disarmingly vulnerable song about the difficulties of pursuing a life in music, earning a prominent spot on influential station triple j’s year-end countdown in early 2017.
But while adoration and trust from Australian listeners came easy, they struggled to find those same feelings with each other. In 2007, “We were 17 at the very start of our relationship,” Nelson remembers. “We were together for a year, and at the end of that year I was way too scared to come out. I was like, ‘I just can’t do that.’ But I also didn't want to be hiding something. So we decided that we’d just be friends, and we did that for a number of years throughout Cub Sport, but I think it was just a case of me trying to be somebody that I’m not.”
Their relationship took a turn in 2016. First, Netterfield read A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara’s sweeping novel about queer love, friendship and masculinity that Netterfield credits with changing his life. “I was at a point where [I thought it] was just going to be me, by myself, forever,” he says. “I was pretty fine with that, because we had such an incredible family of friends.” But the more he read, the more he started to see parallels between the characters’ love lives and his own relationship with Nelson -- and the more he wondered why he wasn’t giving it a real shot.
Then, in June of that year, right after he finished the book, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando occurred, which forced him to think about his own life -- what he wanted out of it, what it would mean to live authentically and freely. “I read a post from Ed Droste from Grizzly Bear about Orlando,” Netterfield recalls, “and he was talking about how he came out later than most at 24. I was 26 at the time and was like, Woah, what am I doing? And that was it -- that was the change.”
Nelson remembers the relationship moving quickly from there: “That spurred him to tell me how seriously he felt, and then I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m the same.’ From there, it was at the end of a tour, and it was like, “Okay, we’re finally ready to do this, to be ourselves.”
That breakthrough arrived in the middle of the writing process for their second album, 2017’s BATS, and as a result, the songs -- lush, Troye Sivan-esque alt-pop tunes -- vividly capture the before and after of a transformative moment in their lives. Nelson wrote “Chasin’” about realizing he was in love with Netterfield; “Crush” pulls directly from the night they revealed their feelings to each other; and the gospel-tinged “O Lord” details Nelson’s anxious realization that finally getting everything you wanted -- coming out, entering a relationship -- also means you have, for the first time, something to lose. Their newfound comfort in their own skin showed on stage, too: Where Nelson was once comfortable hiding behind a keyboard, bandmates at his side, he dyed his hair blond and carried himself on stage like a proper pop star. “I’ve been so self conscious my entire life,” he says. “I’ve always had in the back of my mind, ‘What are people thinking of me?’ Which held me back really going for it musically and on stage.”
In 2018, the couple celebrated two milestones. First, they tied the knot in a "low-key and chill" ceremony. “It was everything we wanted it to be, and more,” Netterfield says. Their first dance was, ironically, to Frank Ocean’s “Solo,” a song about being alone they chose because his Blonde LP was released just weeks after they got together in 2016; the couple had the record on repeat during that particular, special time. “Everytime it would play we would just look at eachother and cry; like nothing was real,” Netterfield recalls. They now both have matching “Solo” tattoos that they gave each other on their triceps.
The other was a slot at Splendour in the Grass, Australia’s version of Coachella. Just before the gig, Netterfield gave Nelson another tattoo: a dove in flight tattooed on his abdomen. “I love that the dove is a symbol of love and peace. It can be messenger, and it feels like that ties into everything that we’re trying to do as a band,” Nelson says. “Once I had it, I thought, ‘This is going to change my life.’ Our next show was Splendour, and I felt completely different when I was on stage --”
Netterfield interjects: “That show and that tattoo felt like the start of something new, the beginning of a new era.”
In a way, it was. The gig marked the live debut of “Sometimes,” the first single off of Cub Sport, a 90s-style ballad that explodes into a club-ready chorus and finds the group embracing their pop sensibilities more than ever. It’s about how living openly and putting your whole authentic self out there can be thrilling but also overwhelming, and it’s something of a mission statement for the band’s current chapter. “If the other album was about self-acceptance, this one's about self love,” Nelson explains. “I think that it's been an ongoing process since coming out, of feeling so much more open in every single way. It’s opened me up to the whole universe. My perspective of who I am and how I sit amongst everything has completely changed over the past year.”
Nelson explores similar ideas on “Come Out,” a woozy, euphoric dance track in which he addresses how declaring or labeling your sexuality is just the tip of the iceberg in the coming-out process. “Once I realised there was so much more to me that I was hiding, other than just my sexuality, I realised that society has a pretty specific idea of what’s normal and what you should believe and should do,” he explains. “For me, that song is about coming out as your whole self, not just one part of you, and learning to embrace everything and be proud of it.”
Queer artists are often heralded as “rebellious” or “defiant” or “unapologetic” when they release a record that’s explicitly personal, when all they’re likely doing is expressing and manifesting their thoughts and experiences the same way straight artists do. Cub Sport have had similar labels foisted on them, but they don’t subscribe to that philosophy. “I think the word is transformative rather than rebellious. I think we have the opportunity to transform the mainstream,” Netterfield says. “There are components of what we’re doing that goes against a lot of set rules and expectations of a band, or even in terms of the music industry -- the fact that we’re self-managed and that we’re our own label. I feel like we are breaking down a bunch of walls.”
“I think we can be pop stars,” Nelson offers. “I feel like we could be a new type of pop star. I don’t think there’s someone we can look at and be like, we want to be like them. I believe we can totally exist in that realm but as something completely new.”
And why shouldn’t they dream big? Five years ago, Cub Sport hadn’t released their debut album, all three queer members were closeted and Nelson and Netterfield hadn't gotten together in earnest. Now stands a band that is so at ease with themselves, it’s hard to fathom that they were anything but. In another five years? “I think that we will be playing in arenas,” says Nelson. “We’re going to be in a very happy place in five years. It feels like we are stepping into that now for the first time.” As he talks, Netterfield gazes at him across the grass. “I don’t think we’ve ever felt this limitless before.”