When Brisbane dreampoppers Cub Sport were planning the release date for their fifth album, it was hardly a coincidence that they picked April 7, aka Good Friday. The record, Jesus at the Gay Bar, is named after a work by transgender performance poet Jay Hulme, and Cub Sport singer-songwriter Tim Nelson — who has processed much of his childhood religious trauma through his music — tells Yahoo Entertainment that reading Hulme’s poem was a lightning-bolt moment for him.
“Basically, it tells a story of Jesus partying at a gay bar, and there's a boy that comes up to Jesus and wants to touch his robe to be healed. And Jesus tells him, 'My child, there was nothing in your heart that ever needed to be healed' — something along those lines. When I read that, it really hit me so deep. That poem recast the world for me,” Nelson explains. “I felt so much hurt growing up, and I think if I had heard that message when I was younger, it could have made my upbringing less conflicted.”
Unsurprisingly, the album’s title and release date have raised the hackles of the religious right, and the band has received hate online. But Nelson, now 32 and in a happy relationship with his childhood friend/bandmate/husband Sam “Bolan” Netterfield for the past seven years, is finally in a place in life where he can handle it. In a recent Instagram post featuring Hulme’s poetic words juxtaposed with some trolls’ cruel comments (albeit not the comments deemed particularly “seriously scary and violent”), Nelson declared: “I’m fully aware that the name and release date of our new album Jesus at the Gay Bar could be read as provocative/controversial and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like that. But to me, the name of this album and the statement of releasing on Good Friday isn’t flippant. This name and imagery is really significant for me in coming to a place of peace with myself, my sexuality and also peace with feeling acceptance of who I believe Jesus to be (now) after the torment of growing up in the church.”
“As if I ain't Christian. As if I haven't got a whole theological essay on why I wrote the poem,” Hulme himself posted in Cub Sport’s Instagram comments.
“I don’t expect [the album] to be for everyone,” Nelson concluded in his Instagram caption, “but I think it’s going to be really powerful and healing for other people who have walked a similar path to me.”
Here's quick look back at that path, which ultimately led to the exultant Jesus at the Gay Bar: Soulmates/bandmates Nelson and Netterfield met at their extremely religious Pentecostal Christian school 20 years ago, secretly dated during their senior year, broke up, and then formed Cub Sport. However, it was only in 2016 that they officially came out to each other, to their family, to their fans, and to the world — when they finally processed both the external and internalized homophobia they’d grappled with most of their lives, realized that they were deeply in love, and decided to be together. The two married in 2018, shortly after gay marriage was legalized in their native Australia.
Each album in the Cub Sport discography — from This Is Our Vice, whose lead single “Come on Mess Me Up” was in hindsight the still-closeted Nelson’s desperate message to Netterfield, through 2020’s Like Nirvana, which was led by the cathartic, stream-of-conscious epic “Confessions” — has chronicled the band’s journey of self-discovery. (Another member, multi-instrumentalist Zoe Davis, is also gay and from a religious background, and she too came out relatively recently.) And Jesus at the Gay Bar is Cub Sport’s most celebratory and revelatory release yet, truly the sound of Jesus partying at a gay bar — in the best possible sense.
Nelson is how clearly living his best life: Cub Sport are about to play Los Angeles’s Outloud Pride concert with none other than Grace Jones, for instance. And while in L.A. recently to attend the Grammys as a nominee for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical (where Cub Sport gleefully, and actually semi-deliberately, landed on many Worst-Dressed lists for their irreverent, Britney/Justin-inspired denim-on-denim outfits), Nelson sat down with Yahoo Entertainment to discuss how he has come to define spirituality on his own terms — even as the proud Scorpio admits with a chuckle that “there’s definitely a vengeful side to” his band's otherwise blissful and healing new music.
Yahoo Entertainment: Let’s talk about the religious education you received growing up. Clearly it was a formative experience — but not necessarily in a good way.
Tim Nelson: The school I went to, from preschool through to graduation, was a school that was connected to the church. I also went there for youth group on Saturdays, and at least one and sometimes two church services on Sundays. I was there every day growing up, and the messaging around being queer was very clear: that it was wrong and a sin. I always felt like wanted to be “good” or whatever, and my mom was my best friend and she was a pastor, so it was a very conflicted upbringing. I was in a lot of denial. I felt like a part of who I was was just wrong. That's something that so many people had been through. And I think I put a lot of the blame for that on God and Jesus.
What do you mean by “blame”?
I felt like it was God's decision that being gay was wrong, basically, rather than realizing that it's a group of people's interpretation of something that's been mis-translated however many times.
What other harmful stuff were you taught — stuff that you had to unlearn?
There was a lot of homophobia, and it was quite misogynistic too, which was always very scary. There were so many layers and so many problematic things. Like, the sex education was terrible. They didn't teach us about protection or anything; it was only abstinence. So many girls from our school got pregnant super-young. There was a girl in my grade who had a baby when she was 14, and the school expelled her. There was no support, no guidance — just basically lying to a bunch of kids about what the world is and how to exist in a world outside of this school. A lot of people kind of stayed in the bubble, but there were a lot of people who had to reckon with so much shame — not just gay people, but women being told that if they had sex before marriage, no one's going to want them and they're like an unwrapped present. There was another analogy that they’d be like a used toothbrush, and nobody wants a used toothbrush. Just really heavy, awful things for young people to have to carry with them.
Were you teased a lot?
I was definitely considered effeminate. I was a very late bloomer. I was basically still a child when I finished high school. I was a boy soprano up until I was 16. When I graduated school, I didn't even have underarm hair. I was like a baby, just out in the world! I think that's something that I was taught to feel a lot of shame around. There was one time at school when I put a dress on in the drama room — there were a bunch of costumes, and I put on a dress. And then a guy from a couple of grades above me grabbed me and dragged me out up to the canteen where there were a bunch of people, so that everyone would see me in this dress. There were a few times when I quickly learned that it was embarrassing for a guy to be feminine. That's something that I've come to terms with, and I feel fully comfortable now with presenting however I feel and wearing whatever I want. It makes me really happy to look back to my younger self who went through all of that and be like, “Now I can do whatever I want, and no one's stopping me.”
And this is the school where you met Sam, your future bandmate and husband. But you both spent so many years denying and suppressing your true feelings for each other, presumably due to your indoctrination there.
Well, there was a teacher at the school who told some clearly gay students: “Don't do it. Don't give into it. Push it down. Life is much better if you just ignore it.” I think that was quite a strong message. It was like, “OK, these feelings might come up for people, but if you're a man being attracted to a man, that's the devil, and if you give into it, then you are a sinner and you’re going to hell. But if you don't give into it, then you're OK!”
One of the songs on Jesus at the Gay Bar, “Zoom,” seems to touch on that, when you sing, “I kind of wanna ruin my life…”
Yes, that was how it felt — like, “If I give into this, I'm going to ruin everything.” But there was this feeling when Sam and I were first getting together where I was like, “I've never felt like this alive. I think I kind of want to ruin my life and just go with this.”
“Keep Me Safe” is also about those teen days when you were secretly dating, right?
Yeah, that was shedding more detail on that period of time when we were first getting together. Just the synth sound and how nostalgic it is, it made me think of night drives. I think for a lot of queer people or anyone that's in some sort of secret relationship, when you're young and you get your license and suddenly you can go wherever you want, it's your first bit of independence and privacy. So, I wanted to lean into that, because that was very much a theme for the start of Sam's and my relationship. I wanted it to feel more like a celebration of the start of something so huge. It was my first relationship, and I was just like, “Wow, so this is what it's like to have a boyfriend. This is what it feels like to be with your soulmate.” I never really got to talk about that with anyone or celebrate how special that was. It was a really magical time.
Your love story still boggles my mind — that Sam was your first crush, your first relationship, really your only relationship, and then you broke up for religious reasons. But now here you are, together all these years later.
Yes, I realize more as time goes by, I cannot believe the way that this worked out for us. Like, this is not normal! I just had this massive crush from high school and then followed it. Even during the years in between when we were not together, neither of us wanted to be with anyone else. We still hung out every day. I guess we are incredibly lucky that it worked out.
You mentioned your mom is a pastor. How did your parents react when you and Sam came out as a couple?
It went better than I could have ever hoped for. They've actually been really supportive — right from that moment.
So, did you experience any kind of self-flagellation afterwards, when you were like, “Damn it, why didn't we come out years ago? What was I so scared of?” Like, a feeling that you’d wasted so much time, when you could have been together all along?
No, not really. I don't think I was really ready for it up until the moment that it happened. I think also it was a journey that Sam and I were on as individuals; we both grew a lot in those years when we were kind of fighting being together. I think by the time we actually had the conversation and got together, we'd grown a lot, and it just felt like the right timing. I mean, sure, there was a feeling of like, “Oh, we could've been enjoying life together,” but I truly believe that the connection we have feels like a true twin-flame kind of thing, so it probably would've worked out at any point. I do think it happened at the perfect moment. I kind of feel like it's our destiny. I really feel we're in this lifetime together to achieve something important and great together.
And what’s that important thing you want to achieve?
Changing people's lives through music.
The Cub Sport love story should be a movie pic.twitter.com/re0oeYv37Y
— Cub Sport (@cubsportmusic) April 4, 2023
I imagine you get a lot of messages from your fans, the Cubbies, saying you’ve done just that.
We've had countless messages from people, from something as simple as “You've made me feel more comfortable with who I am because of seeing you two” or “I had the confidence to tell my parents that I'm gay because of you,” to people saying, “Your music has literally saved my life.” That’s something that I don't think I can fully even comprehend, but I'm so grateful for that.
What about support from your old alma mater? I wonder if your success feels vindicating — or even vengeful at times?
Oh, absolutely! I'm a Scorpio and there’s definitely a vengeful side to it! [laughs] It makes me pretty happy that now I'm a Grammy nominee and a pretty successful musician. The school I went to would never acknowledge it, but I think they're still just so homophobic and backward that they would rather just turn away from it. I do get messages from queer people that go to that school saying, “Thank you so much for what you're doing, because it is truly helping those of us who are still here facing these things. We can look at you and know there is a way out and it will be OK.” … I do want to say that I did have an incredible music teacher, though. He was one of the good ones there, and he really invested a lot of time and energy and love into both Sam and I and was super-encouraging. So, while I really did not like the school, I loved my music teacher. I do think he had a lot to do with me recognizing how much I love music and pursuing it. But other than that, Northside Christian College gets not a good word from me.
So, you were taught daily lessons there about homosexuality supposedly being a sin. At what point did you really start to question everything you’d been taught?
Probably towards the end of high school, because so much of [scholastic life] was about music and praise and worship, and for me that was an opportunity to be on a stage singing into a mic. I was even a worship leader and on the worship team, and hearing my voice reverb, going through a church, I was like, “OK, this is incredible.” I think it can be confusing, because the power of music is spiritual and it can move you to tears, and when I'm performing, I feel super-connected to everyone in the room and to something greater. It’s such a powerful energy transfer. So, it could be confusing, like, “Am I feeling this Christian god, or am I just loving the music?” But I think towards the end of high school was when I started to realize that I wasn't straight and that a lot of what the pastors and teachers were saying felt wrong.
It surprises me a bit to hear you were once a worship leader — but at the same time I’m not that surprised, because a lot of Cub Sport’s music has a euphoric sound and references religious iconography. Angels are mentioned quite a bit.
Yes, being in a kind of spiritual environment, even if it did come with a lot of difficult things and a lot of lies and everything, there is still something kind of pure about it. I believe in angels, and often think I can feel angels. I'm very drawn to a lot of religious imagery. It does all kind of tie together.
Do you consider yourself religious now, in any way?
I definitely don't consider myself religious, but definitely spiritual. For a long time, I had a lot of bitterness towards [my upbringing], but I think in the time since then, I've kind of made peace with it a bit more. I think I understand more where Christians are coming from, in some ways. After I came out, I swung hard in the other direction and was like, “No, God's not real. None of it's real!” But then in the years that followed, as I became more comfortable with myself, I started to feel more connected to myself and just to the whole world and the universe, and I started to feel maybe there actually is something greater. I feel like a lot of religions are just different ways to interpret this greater thing. And so I kind of empathize now with all kinds of all religions and how it's about trying to make a connection with something greater.
Every Cub Sport album seems to represent one part of your personal journey, as well as your journey with Sam as a couple. Do you feel any closure with Jesus at the Gay Bar? It is much more joyous than Like Nirvana, which was so introspective and moody.
I think with Like Nirvana, I got out a lot of heaviness that I'd been carrying for my whole life. I said a lot of things on that album that were hard to say, that I'd avoided facing for so many years. I remember after our third album, I had this idea that the fourth album would be another step into light and joy, because I felt that was my trajectory — but then when I was trying to write those songs, I was like, “This doesn't feel genuine.” I couldn't create anything that felt like it had actual heart in it. So, that was when Like Nirvana came to be. But I feel on the other side of writing that album, I released myself from a lot of that heaviness, and with Jesus at the Gay Bar, I was finally ready to write the euphoric album that I'd been wanting to — but just wasn't ready to write yet.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: