‘We were secretly in love, but running away from it’

Sunday is Coming Out Day, and there may be no better way to observe the holiday than with possibly the Greatest Coming Out Story Ever Told™: that of soulmates/bandmates Tim Nelson and Sam “Bolan” Netterfield. Though the two have known each other for 18 years and formed the Brisbane dreampop band Cub Sport a decade ago, it was only in 2016 that they came out to each other, to their family, to their fans, and to the world — when they finally realized that they were in love and wanted to be together. A year later, they got engaged, and two years ago, they married in a rock ‘n’ roll ceremony with their internet-famous dogs, Missy and Evie, as ring bearers.

“We were 12,” Nelson says, speaking with Yahoo Entertainment the morning after the couple’s second wedding anniversary, as he recalls the first time that he and Netterfield met at a local mall. “We remember really clearly seeing each other across this juice bar. And it’s so bizarre, because it’s such a clear memory. I can almost see Sam standing there, almost like [he had] a spotlight on [him] — like, this glowing light. It makes sense now, why the first time that we actually really noticed each other was such a moment.”

It’s a coming-of-age love story that seems straight out of a queer John Hughes rom-com — but it’s a story best told through the Cub Sport discography, which includes heady, kaleidoscopic “transdimensional genrequeer pop” of Like Nirvana, one of the finest albums of this year and the band’s most successful yet (it debuted at No. 2 on the Australian chart, just behind Taylor Swift’s Folklore). Like Nirvana can best be described as the sound of falling in love; the record in fact opens with Nelson ethereally chanting, “I love you, I love you, I’d die for you, I’d die for you,” over and over. The band’s funkier, poppier full-length debut, 2016’s This Is Our Vice, was recorded under very different circumstances, while both frontman Nelson and keyboardist Netterfield were still closeted and in denial about their true feelings — but even then, Nelson was expressing the “massive crush” he’d had on his bandmate and best friend since he was about 15. (“I think Sam’s used to hearing songs about himself now,” Nelson laughs, while Netterfield humbly describes the sensation of listening to those tracks as “beautiful” and “immense.”) 

“I had a longing in my heart to write genuine songs that I felt really connected to. I think I was telling myself that I was being more cryptic in my lyrics than I really was, because when I look back on it now, I was just, like, outright saying what was happening,” Nelson chuckles. “But I’m really grateful that I did open up in that way, because it was a very important part of our journey. … It was the way that Sam figured out that I was in love with him, because we would never talk about it. I started to open up more in the songs, and I more or less outed myself, in letting him know that I was in love with him, just through playing these demos.”

Netterfield, who like Nelson was raised in a strict Pentecostal Christian family “and had a lot of homophobia around and a lot of internalized homophobia,” was dealing with his own sexuality and secret crush on Nelson. He admits that “at the time that the first album was being written, I was definitely not in a place to be receiving any hints. Or even if I thought something might be there, I don’t think I would have believed it. It was more around the second album writing, when Tim was showing me these demos and stuff, that I started to get the hint that the way I was feeling might be reciprocated.”

Nelson recalls one still-unreleased song with the rather blatant lyric “what if I died tomorrow and I never told you that you’re the one I was living for?” But it was a track off the band’s sophomore album Bats, “Chasin’” (key lyric: “I miss you when I’m gone/Is it worth being alone for so long?”), that was the catalyst for Netterfield. Nelson penned “Chasin’” after a monthlong writing sabbatical in 2015 — the longest that he and Netterfield had ever been apart — and he explains, “I was used to being with Sam every day, and I really started to become aware of how much I missed him and how much I needed him to be a part of my life. … I think that that was a bit of a telltale sign.”

It took a year before Netterfield worked up the nerve to have “the conversation,” on the final night of Cub Sport’s summer 2016 North American tour. “I had just read a book called A Little Life, and it has a storyline that I really, really related to,” says Netterfield. “I had come to terms with the fact that maybe I wasn’t going to find someone. I don’t think I was going to look for someone other than Tim, unless maybe it was 10 years down the track or something. And I was really happy and perfectly resigned to that fact. … And then I read this book. These friends go through such a similar sort of journey through their life. There was a relationship in that storyline that felt very parallel to Tim’s and mine. And you see them get together; they had their golden years. One of them dies, basically. I was thinking, like, ‘How could I go on if that happened before we got together? I would never forgive myself. I have to just say how I feel, even if it ruins our friendship. I have to get it out.’ And that’s pretty much exactly what I said to him. I said: ‘I don’t want this to ruin our friendship, but I am in love with you, and I want to be with you.’”

“I was probably taken aback, a little bit. Like, I think I did know that it was coming, but I guess once it’s actually happening, it’s pretty huge. But I just said, ‘I feel the same. Let’s be together,’” says Nelson — who of course later wrote a song about this pivotal moment, 2019’s “Crush.”

When Nelson and Netterfield came out to their religious families back in Australia about a week later, they were pleasantly surprised by the reaction. “I feel it’s very normal for there to be a bit of an adjustment period, but it was literally like one or two days,” says Nelson. “I remember after I came out to my parents, it was like, ‘Oh, we’ll invite Sam to family dinner. That’s happening on Monday night.’ That was like two days later. I couldn’t really hope for a fast change or whatever, but it was really, really lovely.” (Meanwhile, Netterfield was shocked that his family had never suspected that he might be gay, since he did musical theater and dance as an “openly camp” child and he had even once been told by his theater teacher that he was “playing the character of Elton John in a school play as ‘too camp.’”)

Cub Sport’s first queer-themed music video was for the yearning, gospel-tinged Bats track “O Lord,” depicting the new couple draped all over each other in a passionate, vulnerable, almost desperate embrace. “We were making sure that the visual was very queer and made it very obvious where we stood. Painting the right picture around that song was really important,” says Nelson, who admits that it was “scary” to share the “O Lord” video, especially with his family. “I remember my dad saying when he saw it that he was a bit shocked by it, but that he really liked it. And we’ve taken it so much further since then!” he chuckles. 

Nelson isn’t exaggerating. Subsequent PDA-packed Cub Sport music videos have definitely opened the floodgates — like “Crush” (in which Nelson and Netterfield take a steamy shower together), “Hearts in Halves” (in which they kiss on the dance floor of the Beat Megaclub, the local gay night spot they used to sneak into with fake IDs as teens), and especially the racy “Air,” which is basically a three-minute makeout session. “I think my mom turned ‘Air’ off partway through, and I was like, ‘That’s good, you don’t need to see it,’” giggles Nelson. 

Nelson had written “O Lord” shortly after he and Netterfield started dating, about his fear that now that he’d finally gotten everything he wanted, he might lose it all. “I always had this feeling that when something good happened, something was going to take it away; it felt like everything was too good to be true,” Nelson explains. But it turns out he needn’t have worried. On the night between the two days of shooting the video, Netterfield spontaneously proposed to Nelson while they were lying in bed. “We were finally at this point where we were creating stuff that we probably couldn’t have imagined even a year prior — that we would be doing something so openly queer,” says Netterfield. “It not only sounded different, but looked completely different. We were stepping into this skin for the first time in like 25 years. Everything was pointing to this one thing, and it just felt right that night.”

The Cub Sport love story would obviously have a happy ending right there, but here’s the flashback plot twist of this would-be John Hughes movie: When they first came out to their fans, Nelson and Netterfield claimed that they were just best friends who’d “gradually fallen in love over the course of eight years.” But it was 2019’s Cub Sport track “Party Pill” — a song that actually played while they signed their marriage certificate on their wedding day — that they told the whole truth about their clandestine love affair at age 17.

“We dated for a year, from the end of high school,” Nelson reveals. “And then we both worked for a year and saved money to go on this trip to Europe. We did that, and then it was at the end of that trip, when we were about to go to university and it felt like we were starting to get our ‘real lives’ on track or whatever, that we made the decision that it would be easier and better if we just continued as friends and tried to get girlfriends and literally lead the path that it felt like people wanted us to. … The band started a couple of years after that, and then it went on for years — that sort of in-between where we were secretly in love, but running away from it.” 

“The pull was strong, as it is now still,” says Netterfield, who — as detailed in the Like Nirvana track “Best Friend” and in “Party Pill” — opted not to attend an out-of-town dance school and quit two different teenage jobs so he could spend more time with Nelson. When asked if it was torturous to be in a touring band together during this “in-between” era when there were so many “blurred lines,” Netterfield muses, “I feel like we had a lot of practice at doing that. Growing up queer in an environment where you can’t really express that, you get pretty good at pretending to be someone or something that you’re not, and it becomes second nature. … So, it was definitely weird and sad and hard and confusing, all of those things, but it felt like it had been like that for a while. And we also lived together. We did everything together. We basically shared money. We were like the best of friends that you could possibly be — and we didn’t have other relationships through that time. It was like a true in-between state of being.”

As for why they waited to put out “Party Pill” to tell their full love story, Nelson explains, “When we first came out, I just felt really embarrassed about living so much of my life in secret. I felt guilty for lying to so many people in my life. But by the time I wrote ‘Party Pill,’ I was getting to a stage where I realized I shouldn’t be ashamed of our story and the way that it unfolded. I feel like it’s more of a reflection on the environment that I was in and the fact that I felt like I had to hide, rather than it being like a bad thing that I did by lying to people. That was something I did to protect myself, and I think that there are a lot more people that go through that experience than is really spoken about. And now I feel like [our teen romance] was such a magical time in our lives, and it needs to be celebrated and shared.” 

Cub Sport’s Tim Nelson and Sam Netterfield on their wedding say in 2018. (Photo: YouTube)

And as for that adorable line in “Party Pill,” that says Netterfield was the first person Nelson ever kissed? That’s all true. Their first “proper kiss” took place in a spare bedroom in the Nelson family home at the end of their senior year of high school, though they can’t quite recall who initiated it. “It was mutual — but I think it might’ve been you, because you knew how to kiss,” Nelson tells Netterfield, blushing.

Interestingly, Cub Sport decided to beep out the word “shame” in “Party Pill,” censoring it as if it were a curse word, but guilt and shame are common themes in Nelson’s lyrics. For instance, he sings about hating himself in “Hearts in Halves”; in “Crush,” he asks, “How am I so lucky that you waited for me?” and “Did I hurt you on the way?/Did I crush you with the things I wouldn’t say?”; in “Drive,” he marvels, “I still can’t believe you give a damn about me”; and in “Solo III,” he sings, “What did I do/Do I deserve you?”

Nelson explains that such contrition comes from realizing that he was “very much the reason that it took so long [for him and Netterfield to get together]. I think I had a lot more fear around what people would think of me, and what my life was going to be once people found out that I was queer. I feel if I had been ready earlier, [Sam] probably would have been ready to just, like, go for it. Even now, when I look back on those years, I wouldn’t change anything, because I know that it has all played out exactly as it was meant to, to bring us to where we are now. But there are definitely times when I look back and realize how much pain my fear of what would happen caused for both of us.”

Now the two are seemingly the very picture of domestic as well as musical bliss, which is reflected in the blissed-out “I Feel Like I Am Changing” off Like Nirvana (sample lyric: “I used to hate these mismatched houses, now they make me smile.”) Says Nelson: “I wrote that song about being home in Brisbane, because I grew up here with so many triggers for homophobia; a lot of the time that I spent here growing up, I’ve got weird memories of feeling ashamed. For me, that song was about being back here after coming back from lots of touring and starting to see it differently and starting to redefine what this place means for me, replacing memories — of being bullied about being queer and feminine and overweight, just weird memories from school and that sort of thing — with memories of, like, walking the dogs with Sam. I guess it’s replacing my mindset of ‘I wish I had something different’ or ‘I wish I was somewhere else’ with realizing the abundance of blessings that I have here. It’s about a big shift in perspective in how I feel about my everyday life.”

But elsewhere on Like Nirvana, Nelson grapples with his mental health and identity, like on the unhinged, stream-of-consciousness “Confessions,” in which he says “living by a gender makes me feel annoyed,” or the epic, questioning glam ballad “Be Your Man.” Nelson, who recently came out as gender-free, explains, “I’ve always struggled with the idea of what a ‘man’ is meant to be. I feel like a lot of that was tied into the conservative, religious world that I grew up in. I’ve had a lot of struggles with self-worth and just feeling inferior, because I wasn’t ever as masculine as I felt like I was supposed to be. I felt like I needed to suppress a lot of my more feminine traits in order to protect myself. And so, through writing these songs, those themes were popping up. I felt like I needed to give myself like true freedom to stop that sort of internal judgment.”

Cub Sport, whose lineup also includes multi-instrumentalist Zoe Davis and drummer Dan Puusaari, have released four albums, a three-song EP, and several one-off singles and collaborations over the past four years, a creative whirlwind that reflects the speed of Nelson and Netterfield’s personal evolution. While Nelson is “still writing heaps” and says he already has enough songs for a fifth album, he predicts that, as he and his husband turn 30 and adjust to a slower pace of life during the pandemic, the pacing of the band’s output will slow down a bit as well. “Creating is a really important part of how I process my life and understand what I’m feeling and experiencing, and it feels like the last four years have almost been happening in double-time; so much has happened in such a short time, so many huge changes. There’s been so much to process,” Nelson explains. “Now it feels like for the first time, basically since we started [the band], we can take a deep breath and chill a bit more now. I feel like it’s the right time to let the Like Nirvana wave roll in. I don’t feel like I need to like tell the next part of the story as urgently now. It feels like this is the time to just breathe and enjoy what we’ve built.”

As for whether Netterfield ever wonders what might’ve happened if he hadn’t had the nerve to broach “the conversation” and come out to Nelson that fateful night four years ago, he answers, “I’ve never gone down that line of thinking. I do think we would have gotten together — but when, I don’t know. We’ve made such a conscious decision over the last few years to fiercely and only follow our heart, and that was really the beginning of it around that period of time — doing it consciously, at least. And I feel like if you’re living that way, the right things that are meant for you are going to happen. So I feel like it would have just happened, maybe at a different time.”

“It’s pretty amazing how it’s all panned out,” Nelson sums up with a grin.

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Portions of the above interview are taken from Tim Nelson’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.

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