Moments with Hugo Costin
Moments with Hugo Costin
Annabel Blue: Art, music, literature and love. We caught up with Hugo Costin to discuss all the moments in-between.
Hugo Costin is a singer-songwriter based in the hinterland of Byron Bay. His affinity to music, literature and cinema has guided his practice as an artist, moulding his musical endeavours from early on. From Hardcore to Charles Bukowski, to artistic practices and imagery, Hugo runs us through his inspirations and the history of how his creative world came to Be.
Hey Hugo! Let's start off by talking about your background in hardcore, your old indie band Toy Boats and your latest acoustic project Hugo Costin - do you find that despite a shift in genres, there’s still an overarching theme that guides your music-making?
My first musical love was metal and hard rock. At the time, I would save up enough to buy a CD and I’d go for the compilations like “40 Classic Hard Rock Anthems” with covers of smoking old revolvers and roses wrapped in barbed wire. Something about the imagery appealed to my twelve-year-old mind and uncovering the mystery of these songs was a massive rush.
I loved the heavy songs on these compilations but the ballads like Nothing Else Matters by Metallica, Every Rose Has Its Thorn by Poison, Don’t Stop Believing by Journey and Coma White by Marilyn Manson hit me on a deeper level. I could feel the passion and pain, the lives being lived through these songs. They were full of the promise of experience to come and the wonder of a life not yet lived. I would pour for hours over the pictures of these larger than life characters in the CD booklet with teased hair and all leather outfits. These songs and the people playing them made the future seem so exciting. They served as an escape from the small rural town I was growing up in and they filled my life with passion. I knew that somewhere out there, there was a world that could create these songs, and I was going to find it.
I dyed my hair black as soon as I could and would play Iron Man by Black Sabbath incessantly on one of the high school’s nylon-string acoustic guitars. Through one or more of these actions, I ended up in the same circle as kids who were starting to go to hardcore shows in Byron. I’d heard stories about shows and they seemed full of excitement and danger. When I got asked to go to one, I was thrilled and thought maybe this is the place where the promises made in those compilation CD’s will be fulfilled. The show was at the Byron Youth Activities Centre (YAC) and Carpathian were headlining. In the first song I got smashed against the roller-door by a guy 3 times my size and as I scrambled to get to my feet amidst the barrage of bodies running and jumping off the roller door inches from my head, I knew this was the place. I was hooked.
After a few months of baptism by fire, some older guys took me under their wing and introduced me to a bunch of bands I’d never heard. Some of these bands were Modern Life is War, Killing the Dream and American Nightmare. These bands addressed similar themes to the songs I was listening to on the compilation CD’s from a few years ago, but the emotion was so much more intense.
I had played drums in some hardcore bands, but these bands made me want to sing. I started a band called The Dead Ends (taken from the Killing the Dream song “We’re all Dead Ends”). We would play a similar style to these bands and cover them. This was the first time I had seriously written lyrics and the process was so exciting to me. The bands we were inspired by were much more literary than the ones on the compilation CD’s. Modern Life is War had lines like “I’ll assassinate all the stars of all of your bad dreams” (Young Man on a Spree) and their song D.E.A.D.R.A.M.O.N.E.S summed up my life and introduced me to counter culture antiheroes like Larry Clark with the line “death is more perfect than life” lifted from Clark’s photobook “Tulsa”. American Nightmare had lyrics like “I turned myself in for crimes that I didn’t commit, I needed to feel truly innocent” (We Killed It) and reading Wes Eisold’s (American Nightmare’s singer) interviews introduced me to writers like Bukowski and Celine as well as bands like The Cure and Antony and the Johnsons. These bands opened up a deeply passionately world to me and remain some of my biggest influences.
It was around this time that City and Colour had put out his first album and singer / songwriters like Fences were really big in the hardcore scene. I would be playing their songs on guitar in high school and felt a real affinity with their writing. After I graduated and the bands I was playing in broke up, Tumblr was really big and people were posting covers on there. I thought it would be fun to record some City and Colour and Fences covers on Photobooth and upload them. This led me to start seriously writing my own songs in that style and to eventually record a demo in my friend’s loungeroom which became the first Toy Boats release.
What I wanted to express in Toy Boats was the same as in The Dead Ends, it just took on a different sonic tone. This was somewhat out of necessity, because the people I would play music with were doing different things at that point and I had to find a way to do it on my own. That way turned out to be an acoustic guitar and my voice.
The years when Toy Boats formed a band were some of the most meaningful in my life and when it ended, I was incredibly lost. I tried doing other projects, but they never felt right. I think I had really lost who I was for a while. I even tried to stop playing music all together because I was very depressed and feeling completely hopeless. In that darkness the ideas for the songs that would become Oranges started coming, almost forcefully. First was “The Sun and The Moon” and it was the first time I had allowed myself to be unguarded in years. The more I was blessed with that song, the more I started to feel like myself again.
A vulnerable, unguarded quality is something I look for in music. I’ve had people say that the music I listen to and make is “so sad” but I’ve never seen it that way. Songs that are deeply emotional might have an element of sadness, but they are multitudinous. They give me strength and prove that there is more to this existence than the material world.
As for an overarching theme, I have a line in a new song “Op-Shop Dress” that goes: “a beautiful world that rests against ours hidden.” My music and the music that I’ve adored all reflects and honours this hidden world as it appears in our most profound experiences.
A lot of your imagery and creative direction features old English, wreaths of flowers, crosses and waterfalls – what attracts you to this imagery?
I grew up moving around a lot and feeling very alone. Maybe as a result of this, I got really into fantasy novels and things like Warhammer because they offered a world that stayed the same when mine was perpetually beginning again. This imagery was used a lot on the boxes of the miniatures and book covers that I had. In this imagery, there was death and glory, romance, excitement. The characters felt more like friends than a lot of the people around me because I didn’t stay long enough to form any meaningful connection. In this imagery, there was beauty and the suggestion of something more to life than what I was experiencing. The Ann Demeulemeester Faun collection was a big influence and I love the romance and myth that Sebastien Meunier brings to his designs. The way he transports the viewer to another world on the runway is something I’m really inspired by. I think it’s exciting to have an element of theatre or performance in art.
How do you determine when one of your songs or albums has been completed?
I know it’s complete when every change I make only muddies the magic. I think creativity at its core is divinity and I take it very seriously. If the muses bless me, I want to honour them as best I can.
I know you have a passion for books and literature, you even dabbled in learning to be a librarian - can you share with us who your favourite writers are, and a passage of their work?
“…And the best at murder are those who preach against it
And the best at hate are those who preach love
And the best at war – finally – are those who preach peace…”
(The Genius of the Crowd)
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
(The Myth of Sisyphus)
“It’s so nice
to wake up in the morning
and not have to tell somebody
you love them
when you don’t love them
anymore” (Love Poem)
Have you encountered any definitive moments that have changed the course of your life?
What do you want to see changed in the world and why?
I would like to see art and culture get the respect it deserves in this country. I feel like there’s a profit at all costs attitude at the moment and the road that leads to is one of a really soulless and empty society.
You’ve recently put our your new LP ‘Oranges’ on Vinyl! Can you call us a little about the process of making this record?
Moving from a small town like Byron to Melbourne, I got lost in the city. I guess I tried running away from myself, or was scared to accept myself and thought everyone else was in on a secret that I didn’t know, like everyone else had it figured out and I wanted to see what that secret was. For the last few years, I’ve felt like somewhat of a stranger in my own skin, but a harmony instated itself when I was in some peoples’ arms or with some friends, listening to certain music, looking at certain art, watching certain films. “Oranges” is a result of following that harmony that came in those moments and is in some way my attempt to hold onto it, to let it know that I want it, asking it not to leave. I recorded Oranges live as part of 15 songs the night before I left Melbourne with Sam Johnson at Holes and Corners Studio. I wanted it to be as intimate and close as possible, so each of the songs is the first take with little to no editing and no overdubbing, completely raw. I wanted the lyrics and emotion of the performance to be paramount. I moved home the day after recording Oranges to help mum out because her chronic fatigue had become really bad (thankfully she’s getting a lot better now). She’s been an oil painter for most of her life and suffering from CFS meant that she couldn’t paint for a while. She’s now picking up the brush more and completed a series this past year. I’m super grateful for this time with her because we got to connect on a deeper level now that we’re both adults and I feel really proud and privileged to use one of her paintings for the cover of the record.
Your affinity to cinema has had a large place in your world, can you tell us how cinema has impacted you and would you say your love for cinema has trickled into your music in some way?
When I was 18 I started working at a video store and I’d work most shifts alone watching movies on this 12”x12” box TV until late at night. I started realising consciously how much emotion an image can contain and how most of my favourite songs I loved for their images as much as for their sound. Songs like “I will follow you into the dark” by Death Cab for Cutie. I think that's why I like symbolist poets and painters so much too. It was cool working at the video store because I got to see which images resonated with people all day. Stranger’s would come in and I’d get a glimpse into who they were by the movies they’d rent. Byron is a really small town and most of the customers I’d seen around for most of my life but never spoken to. I would feel kindred spirits with the people that would hire Rushmore and Enter the Void etc. and marvel at the very specific taste of only renting movies with girls holding machine guns on the cover, rented by the guy I'd see seemingly endlessly riding his bike around town. The customers' movie picks were like a private language between us.
I loved the idea of getting together with friends, lovers, or on your own to enter another world through film. This entering a world is something I really value in songs. Working at the video store gave me heaps of time in-between customers to write as well, and sometimes the customers and my imagined life of them would enter into stories and screenplays.
It’s not so much a conscious thing but my songs are very visual and they don’t feel right to me unless they have strong images. The landscape of where I live and the memories I've attached to it have impacted the album I started recording this week greatly. All of the places referenced are real and I can take you there if you come visit, or hopefully through the songs as well.
I went with some friends to see a double feature of Sexy Beast and Beau Travail with some friends at Goma and it was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I think at this point music, films, art, literature and lived experience are synonymous to me in terms of inspiration. I think I'm inspired by them all equally. Though the songs I write and the characters I write about mostly come from my lived experience. Principally what I care about is emotion.
There's that Godard quote that goes: "The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires". I love that and I think music does the same. A big difference with music, though, is that a musician can’t control the images of their songs. I can say “the way she danced in that red summer dress by the swimming hole where we’d go to rest” and though it's a very specific image for me (because I knew the girl and the swimming hole is five minutes from my house) it’ll be completely different to everyone who hears it. I think this is one of the main strengths of lyricism. It means the song can be infinite. The image in a song multiplies to as many images as there are people and allows multiple images per person depending on their lived experience. Those images change and grow with the listener.
I think the best songs are like ever-changing private films dancing in the heads of dreamers.
What does freedom mean to you?
Being allowed to develop the skills and resources needed to achieve one’s full potential.
You an pre-order Hugo's 'Oranges' here.
All images by Jaiden So
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