In susong’s single “Tinseltown,” ratcheting guitar and insistent electronic percussion set the wistful tune’s tempo as Matt and Michael Susong’s brotherly bone-deep blood harmonies soar bittersweetly overhead.
“Cables disconnected days ago, and the lights left us behind/ Pick the cap out of your feather, say your goodbyes we’re not leaving together…”
Songs about memories and goodbyes proliferate on the brothers’ entrancing five-track EP, we are in this together, but only “Tinseltown” expressly sets up the situation that spurred the brothers’ musical collaboration in the first place.
“I wrote that thinking I’d left Michael in High Point when I went to college,” Matt says, referencing the brothers’ hometown in the Triad. “It’s about reunification.”
The theme applies to the rest of the EP, but it’s also pertinent to how the project came to be. With Matt living in Charlotte and Michael in Winston-Salem, the Susong brothers had become separated by distance plus the demands of career and family. Nevertheless, Matt and Michael took a chance on collaboration, a musical dialog spanning 80 miles and many years apart.
The result is a hauntingly beautiful collection of intensely personal and specific songs that somehow build a musical bridge to the universal. The most lasting upshot of the project, however, was completely unexpected. Michael recalls how the multiple phone calls the brothers shared to shape the EP shifted focus.
“[They] opened up the lines of communication,” he says. “We might chat about a song for five minutes, but then it was 20 minutes about what’s going on in our lives. It opened up not only the music, but our relationship, too.”
Growing up, the brothers were enthralled with their father’s musical virtuosity. Playing guitar in faith-based quarter Legacy, Doug Susong instilled a love of music in his sons, but the boys didn’t really pick up guitar until Matt learned to play “Glycerine” by Bush. He, in turn, taught younger sibling Michael the chords for Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today.” They were hooked.
“It was like watching your head explode in the rearview mirror,” Matt says.
Michael explored the multi-channel possibilities of the Tascam 4-track cassette recorder and fell in love with home recording. Throughout high school and his first year at college, he played in local rock band A New Way Home.
Both brothers attended UNC Chapel Hill, though two years apart. After graduation, Michael moved to California, where he gigged as a solo guitarist and singer-songwriter. Matt moved to Charlotte in 2004. In 2014, he co-founded To Better Waters, a five-piece rock indie rock band that plays original material. Front man Matt says fans describe the band as “Morning Jacket meets Oasis.”
Matt traces the genesis of susong to the RPM Challenge, an annual time-based contest that challenges songwriters to write and record 10 songs or 30 minutes of music in February.
“It [takes place on] the shortest month of the year on purpose,” Matt says. “It’s based on the idea that constraint drives creativity.”
To Better Waters accepted the challenge for several years in a row, Matt offers, sparking creativity and camaraderie.
If RPM served as fuel for the brothers’ eventual formation of susong, their father’s death from cancer in 2017 proved to be a bittersweet spark. Both brothers were profoundly affected by the passing of the man who inspired their musical efforts, and they converged on the family home for the funeral. Matt found Michael working on a nascent tune he called “Colder Shoulder” in their father’s music room.
“Matt was throwing out ideas on transitions between verse and chorus,” Michael says. “We really clicked.”
Their mother Jody was also in the room.
“Mom asked, ‘Where does this come from?’” Michael says. “She didn’t understand at first that we were creating it in front of her.”
After this impromptu session, the brothers agreed to collaborate long distance. They learned to overcome not just the physical distance between them but also incompatibility on equipment and musical approaches. Matt is immersed in traditional four-instrument rock and pop singer-songwriting, working on his Mac with Logic studio software. Michael uses Windows, FL Studio software and has moved away from guitar toward electronic music and the endless sound possibilities offered by synthesizers.
These differences didn’t take long to overcome. Matt remembers receiving a remix Michael did on one of his tunes and playing it on his phone early in the morning before anyone else had woken up. He was transfixed.
“[Michael] took the song in a similar but completely different direction,” Matt says. “[He] gave it depth and more emotion, while at the same time making it more sterile.”
For a few years, Matt and Michael took the RPM Challenge, crafting their musical collaboration to the contest’s tight deadline and cranking out as many as 11 songs. At the same time, their bond deepened, rekindled by their recent reconnection. Matt feels the music they created, which the brothers placed on Soundcloud, has many highlights but feels like it’s not fully formed.
“It doesn’t have much cohesion because we were doing it for fun,” Matt says.
In late 2022, the brothers got serious. Matt dialed the target output down to five songs. He sent inspirational emails to Michael, sharing his thoughts and feelings about each song. Around that time, Michael’s schedule at his day job with a Raleigh-based marketing agency tightened. The brothers decided to jettison the RPM Challenge and its deadline, instead focusing on recording and releasing the cache of enthralling tunes they were creating.
They made the right call. Released in May, we are in this together boasts nostalgic and lyrical tunes about the impossibility of supporting all the people in your life (“Everyone Is on My Shoulders”), the unreliability and fallibility of memory (“Moby Jane”), and meeting a long-time antagonist face-to-face (“Fox Jacket”).
Underlying tension runs throughout the EP but is most explicit on the whirlpooling, folk-inspired “Death to Tennis,” which Matt says is about holding onto something far too long and being unable to quit.
The melancholy tune turns sinister thanks to Michael’s electronic wizardry, Matt says, with percussion that sounds like someone in heavy boots is stalking the listener.
“I hope people feel that tension, that build and release,” Michael says. “I’m an earworm guy. I would love it if somebody got annoyed that they couldn’t get one of these songs out of their head. That would be a triumph.”
That triumph is possible, the Susongs say, because they reconciled and reconnected through music, overcoming time, distance and divergent lifelines.
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