CULTURE ABUSE: LIFE’S NOT ALL SUGAR
illustration by nathan morse
Bay Area band Culture Abuse released their sophomore full-length Bay Dream last June on Los Angeles-based Epitaph Records. It’s more rhythmic and upbeat and deliberately strays from the band’s hardcore roots, but it’s somehow more punk than ever before. That’s thanks to writer and frontman David Kelling’s commitment and belief that the band can write how and whatever they choose to and the result will always be genuine. I spoke with Kelling about California, life on the road, and living with cerebral palsy. They perform on Fri., June 7, at the Teragram Ballroom with the excellent Tony Molina—get tickets here. This interview by Bennett Kogon.
I’ve always identified Culture Abuse as being a very California band. Which is a great thing. Does it feel that way to you?
David Kelling (vocals): It’s not a conscious thing. It’s just like … I write a song and we play it. And people are like ‘Oh, it sounds so California-y.’ And we’re like ‘Oh, okay.’ As long as they like it. Or even if they don’t like it. It is what it is. We’re very authentic, so I guess it would come out that way. I’m very proud of being from here. Growing up going to punk shows on the West Coast compared to going to punk shows on the East Coast. Our scene was like Trash Talk, Sabertooth Zombie, Ceremony, Life Long Tragedy. All that stuff that now you’re like, ‘That’s fuckin’ California.’ Now it’s a whole new wave, I guess.
You’re definitely in that category. It seems that with the internet, musical geography can be kind of nondescript. You can be from anywhere in the world and that doesn’t necessarily matter.
David Kelling: When I lived in the Bay Area, it was like, ‘I’m gonna create using as much shit as I have [physically] around me and with as many like-minded people around me as possible.’ If we lived in Omaha, we’d be doing as much as we could with the people there. It’s really cool and rare to find things that you can really be proud of. Being from California—a beautiful place—we know we are very lucky and I guess that is good. But it’s also hard to go on tour and everyone’s paying half of what we have for ten times more than what we have. So then you’re kind of like, ‘Fuck this.’
Especially in a place like San Francisco.
David Kelling: Oh my God, yeah. Now if I talk to someone and they’re like, ‘I’m moving to San Francisco!’ all that comes to mind is like, ‘Oh, you’re a techie fuck.’ I mean—two of the dudes in the band are still living in San Francisco. One of them is living in a green room at a venue, and the other one’s living in a van and he just drives out to the beach and sleeps in the van. Two other dudes live in Oakland. Even the room that our guitar player is living in, he took a corner of someone’s living room and built a little wall to make a triangle—and that’s his bedroom. Our drummer has his shit together super hard, so he is doing fine. I moved down to L.A. because at the time I just bounced around on couches in between tours, and a room opened up down here. There were no other options anywhere else at the time. So I just moved down here.
Some people know what touring is like and others do not—as much of a fantasy it is to play shows all around the world, I know it can also suck. What are things you do to deal with life on the road? Loneliness and stuff like that?
David Kelling: It’s crazy. You get to see the world by looking out a window. Every day is spent watching the world fucking pass you at 75 miles an hour. People don’t realize what an emotional and physical toll it takes on you. It actually fucks with your head and you get like PTSD from it. It makes you feel like you’re not a real functioning member of society. The thing is … especially as I get older, I realize sleep is key. If I’m not getting enough sleep, that’s when everything makes me want to cry and break down and flop on the ground and have a temper tantrum. Also eating—if you eat like shit all day every day, you feel like shit. So most of the time we feel like shit. But at least we’re trying to get a little bit more rest. That’s the only thing that I can confidently say that I’ve been trying to do. Like, ‘OK, fuck—we have to be on the road by 6 AM, so I’ve got to get some rest somehow.’ And drink water.
It’s humanizing to hear that. It’s easy to fantasize about the rockstar lifestyle without actually thinking of people when they’re off stage.
David Kelling: Also—at the same time—no one is forcing us to go on tour. Or at least no one was because now we have a booking agent, manager, etc. Every time I see a band and they’re like, ‘Man, touring is so hard, it’s so rough.’ I’m like, ‘Then just go home.’ No one is forcing you. I hate when you see a band and they try to act like that. If you come here, you better be having fun. If not, then you don’t need to be here. So yeah—we’re playing shows because we want to be playing shows and getting this music out there and into the world. We’re doing everything that we can to make this possible. If it gets too painful or uncomfortable, then we’re not gonna do it. Which might be sooner than later, but for now, it’s fine. And the bands we get to go out with, I love.
Let’s talk about your new record. It’s different from the last one. Which is awesome because you wrote what you wanted to write. What changed between the release of the last record and this one?
David Kelling: If anything, it’s just being able to dive further into the direction that I wanted to. Not saying that it’s fully realized or fully captured. When we were making this record, I was freaking out all the time, literally on the phone with Brett [Gurewitz] from Epitaph wanting to scrap the record. And I would think about making Peach and how easy it was. But then I go back and listen to it and remember that was not the case. I’m a fucking psycho with my music, and Brett came in the studio and helped us mix. I was there every single day. Every time anyone touched that record, I was there—fucking going crazy with it. It’s weird because a lot of shit in our lives continued and we had to deal with a lot of rough shit. I don’t think in life there’s ever a time where it’s not like that. Life’s not all sugar.
People say that the record is more positive.
David Kelling: I don’t know. It’s weird because I was so angry at the outside world and wrote a couple songs to express those feelings. And everyone was like, ‘It’s so positive!’ We just got out of the studio today and recorded a dub/reggae mixtape with Lil Ugly Mane that sounds nothing like anything we’ve ever done, so everyone’s going to continue to be like, ‘Wait, what?’ I kind of wanted to write like … a bedroom record. Something that you could just put on with some headphones and have some alone time, if that makes sense. Especially with the vocals in my head, I was trying to push to the producer and engineer like, ‘I want a Paul Simon!’ Listen to ‘Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard’ and it’s just like … the vocals are a smooth wave rushing over all the music. I wasn’t thinking about the live element of it or how it was different or anything. I was just like, ‘No, I want these songs to be smooth.’
It feels like no matter what, Culture Abuse will always be a punk band. How does punk and hardcore—or anything related—transcend the music that you’re actually playing?
David Kelling: I think that’s just who we are. It’s the same as saying your band’s very California. If we’re writing a song that’s genuine, real, and coming from us … if I write a song that’s my song to sing, then it’s going to be what I am, who I am, and where I am. So I am a punk rocker and every song that I have will be punk rock song. That’s who I am, and who’s gonna tell me that it’s not?
People have certain expectations of what they get out of a concert experience. Not a lot of people know you are a frontman with cerebral palsy—not a lot of people even know what cerebral palsy is. How can people better sympathize with your experience as a band member and as a human being?
David Kelling: It sucks to be on tour having cerebral palsy, but it also sucks going through life having cerebral palsy. It doesn’t matter what I do about it, too—unless we tear down all skyscrapers, all stairs, and make the whole world flat. Also no cracks in the sidewalks. But it’s always going to be horrible unless I’m sitting and playing guitar or eating food. We’d be on tour and I’d see bands posting like, ‘This venue doesn’t have multi-gendered bathrooms!’ We were following this band on tour, and they would complain about that all the time and it’s like … these venues all have stairs that I can barely even walk up. I can barely even get to the show. We’d get to the venue and there’s like two flights of stairs to get to the green room, or it’s in the basement. You grow up watching all of those punk bands’ lead singers jump into the crowd and go wild. If people bump into me, I’ll fall over. Sometimes when I’ve walked out onstage, people have said that I seem drunk. It’s literally every second of every day. I would hope that someone—regardless of their gender or race or anything—has a spot that they feel comfortable in. But for me, walking around the house is even hard. I can be stiff and sore and sometimes it’s even hard to get up.
Many of us take our bodies for granted. It’s so important to be inclusive, but you’re right there are a lot of limitations in this world that often aren’t addressed. You’re doing it though—you want to make music and tour, and you’re not letting anything stop you.
David Kelling: That’s the cool thing about music. You really don’t need anything to make music. No one can ever tell you what or what is not music. To have that—to know that I have an outlet or something that makes me feel like I have a purpose—it’s the one thing that I feel like I can do. I might not be able to ride a bicycle or even run for my life, but I can write a song. We’re just more about trying to have fun because … do you really want to get into it? Because we can get into it, but otherwise let’s just play music and have fun. I want to try to have as much fun as we can.
CULTURE ABUSE WITH TONY MOLINA, ENTRY AND DARE ON FRI., JUNE 7, AT THE TERAGRAM BALLROOM, 1234 7TH ST., DOWNTOWN. 8 PM / $16-$18 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! CULTURE ABUSE’S BAY DREAM IS OUT NOW ON EPITAPH. VISIT CULTURE ABUSE AT CULTUREABUSE-UNCENSORED.COM.