Nihilism, Punk Rock And Cerebral Palsy: In Conversation With Culture Abuse
There’s no question that, with their new album Bay Dream, Culture Abuse have made one of the best of 2018. Perfect for the summer (and for bringing back memories of the sun long after the season has gone), it’s a glorious, heady record that shimmers with a sense of naïve innocence, a far cry from the band’s raucous hardcore roots. Yet ask frontman David Kelling about this sonic shift and he’ll tell you that, really, it’s just a natural development: that it’s nothing particularly deliberate and that its songs were written in exactly the same way that the quintet – who recently moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles – wrote everything else before.
The other thing that’s remained a constant for David and the rest of Culture Abuse – guitarists John Jr (aka June Bug) and Nick Bruder, bassist Shane Pitt and drummer Ross Traver – is the sense of nihilistic chaos that pervades their lives. If that seems in direct contrast to the sunny strains of Bay Dream, it kind of is, but it also makes sense. Because, as David explains, although Culture Abuse is the reason behind a lot of his existential crises, it’s also simultaneously the solution, whether that’s dealing with his cerebral palsy and his mother’s health, or – as on 2016’s debut album Peach – the death of close friends and the band members having to sell drugs to make money. This is just a fraction of the involved and honest conversation…
Bay Dream isn’t as heavy as some earlier Culture Abuse stuff. In fact, it’s really quite beautiful in places. What took you in that more mellow direction?
I don’t know. It’s hard, because even with Peach, that in a sense stems back to when I first got into punk rock. All the local bands were hard and fast and just yelling. It was crazy. I grew up listening to the Sex Pistols, who are amazing, but they’re not super fast or hard, and there’s the Ramones and The Clash and Rancid and Operation Ivy and all these bands you could listen to, but then when I got involved in the punk scene and started going to shows, all the bands were either super fast punk rock or super hard hardcore. So when we actually started playing music, the only shit we could actually see that was tangible was super hard. I never sang in any band I was in – I just screamed my head off. With Culture Abuse, I wanted to do something different, but then it was so hard to stray away from that. Well, not stray away, but the songs that are on Bay Dream, I’ve written like that my entire life. I’ve just been way too scared to sing them in front of anyone because there’s no-one around me doing that. Even with Spray Paint The Dog, I wanted it to be more melodic, but I was insecure and thought that it had to be hard. And with Peach, it was kind of like, ‘I’m going to sing’ and I was trying to do that more, but I was masking it. So this record, I feel is very vulnerable.
It sounds, then, very much like a natural progression rather than a deliberate, intentional move away from anything – but also as if you decided to stop being who you thought you had to be.
Right. For the first time in our lives, we’re just playing shit that we want to do. We’re writing it with no outside influence at all. When we did Bay Dream, it was just like, ‘These are the songs that I have.’ Usually, I’ll just demo and it’ll be two guitar tracks and four vocal tracks and these really soft, pretty songs. And then I bring them to the guys. I write everything on a nylon string acoustic guitar. Every single Culture Abuse song has been written that way. Then we add in June Bug and he cranks up the distortion – and that’s what Culture Abuse is. When we started learning the songs for Bay Dream, we were in Italy. We had flown over and done Hyde Park with Green Day and we played the Old Blue Last [in London] and then we flew over to Italy and stayed with my friend and practiced in this old farmhouse learning all these demos that I had. Then we flew to Amsterdam and we actually demoed them out. We were at both places for almost two months and it was just the five of us, so we’re making these songs with literally no-one. I’d send them to my girlfriend and she liked them – but she pretty much likes everything that I do, so I never know!
We were just trying to make these songs sound how we wanted them to sound. Like not really going in a different direction but just continuously going, but without influence. We didn’t show anybody the demos. There were multiple times where I’d be on the phone with Brett Gurewitz saying, ‘I don’t know man – this is crazy. I don’t know if we went too crazy.’ And he’s like, ‘We can scrap it if you want? It’s going to cost me a fortune, but if you want to scrap this record, we can.’ And I’d be like, ‘No, I like it, but it’s just scary.’ But there was never a conversation about how we were going to make a change, and it’s still open to where one day we could still put out a record that’s harder than anything we’ve done. It’s all an going emotion and going with the flow of how we feel without thinking about what anybody else wants from us. Because if you ask five different people you’re going to get five different answers, so we may as well just do what we want.
Isn’t that the ultimate definition of punk anyway?
Well, right. I mean, that’s the thing. It doesn’t matter what we make – I’m a punk rocker and I’m going to be a punk rocker until the day I die, so it doesn’t matter what comes out. It just is.
You don’t seem like the kind of person who’d be changed by any of the success you’ve had.
Oh no. Hell no. Nothing’s ever going to change that. There’s the theory that every song that you write is already written and you can feel when it comes out and it’s natural and it just flows out of you and that’s how I feel. That’s how I like to write songs. I just want them to flow out and if you do that, it’s never going to be anything other than real. And shit’s been so crazy and non-stop I don’t feel any different from making Peach to making this record. Nothing is different except instead of getting in an argument with my friend about the sound, I’m getting in an argument with a GRAMMY-winning producer. We had this dude Zac Rae play on the record. He’s played for Elliott Smith, Leonard Cohen, Lana Del Ray, he plays in Death Cab For Cutie. With Peach, all the organ and everything was just me fumbling around, but for this record we got to bring him. And he just listened to it and went bam bam bam! And at the end, he’s like, ‘I have to play on so much shit, but I like this!’ And that kind of shit is crazy, but it’s the same battle. I feel like making a record is kind of like war. Because you have these ideas and you’ve got to fight to always make it how you want it to be.
Let’s talk a little about the difference between making an album and playing live. You can be such a brutal band live that if someone who didn’t know your band saw you, and then listened to Bay Dream they’d probably wonder if it was the same people involved. Are these two very separate parts of who Culture Abuse are?
Yeah, totally. Making a record, I want to go crazy. I want to fucking dive into any and every idea and every feeling and everything. And then when you play live, I don’t want to get up there and do some cookie cutter shit or be like a puppet or have an on-off switch. Every time that you play it should feel different. Live should be a feeling. I hate when you see a band or go on tour with a band and they say the same shit between every song. That seems fake to me. I want to make music and write songs and record forever. I want it to be fun and I want it to be an outlet for emotions right in the moment, so I want to be that band where it’s like, ‘I’m going to see Culture Abuse and I don’t know what the fuck it’s going to be like.’ I want it to be a thing that you don’t know what to expect, because I want every show to be different and I want it to be genuine and for everything to have feeling. I understand now that we have to tour a lot to get our name out there, but eventually I only want to play only once in a while. So I do want there to be a difference and I do want there to be this thing where if you see us live first and then get a record, you won’t know what to expect.
Live especially, there’s a strange balance of you guys being incredibly nihilistic, but also really funny and jovial.
That’s how I feel every day. And then you play and it’s this beautiful thing where we’re giving so much of ourselves to be doing this. You have a booking agent and a manager and a label and all these people who sign you up for things, but they’re not there and you just have to do it. On tour, I miss my family, I miss my mom, I miss my girlfriend. I miss everything. And so much of it is hard and it’s like a battle, but then you get up onstage and you get the love back from it and it’s amazing. But our lives are just so fucking crazy all the time, I don’t know when we’re going to have a breakdown. It’s amazing, but it’s also just a battle. But that’s what life is.
It seems like you were in a better place this time around than you were when making Peach, when you had to contend with the death of two friends and a whole lot of other fucked up stuff.
It’s still fucking crazy. I mean, a lot of the situations are a lot different, but… The last record had all that shit, but this record, it’s like my mom is… Right around when we were recording Peach, my mom had this seizure and went to the hospital and they found this blood clot. So, we’re dealing with that while recording the record, and then when we’re on tour she got diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, which is a terminal heart condition. And in the meantime I fell in love with Barbara, who is one of those things which always should have been and always should be, and the band have settled into what we are now and it’s great. But then my mom… I don’t know how much time there is. It could be years or it could not be. But we’re told you’ve got to do this tour and then do this and go record and I’m leaving, and it’s such a fucked up situation. Like, here we are on Epitaph and it’s a dream come true, but we have so much to do and there’s no time to just be there and I don’t know what to do. So it’s this weird inevitable thing where you know that one day it’s going to just be fucked, but I don’t know when it’s going to happen and I don’t know where I’m going to be and I don’t know…
You just toured with Touché Amoré in the States. Did you talk to vocalist Jeremy Bolm about any of this? Because obviously he was away when his mother died. Was he able to alleviate your fear at all?
It’s kind of one of those things where I’m trying not to think about it, really. My mom is the most positive person that I know and it’s almost like this thing that if we put positive thoughts towards everything… I don’t know. When does it feel comfortable to finally talk about it and have an open conversation about it? Even though it’s inevitable. But at the same time, we’re about to drive back to LA – we could get into a fucking car accident and die and it doesn’t even matter what we did. So for the most part, I’m just holding it all inside and it feels like I’m just trying to get through everything. It’ll slow down eventually, and when it does I hope everything will still be there.
So making Peach was fucking crazy, making this record was fucking crazy and I can only imagine making the next record will be fucking crazy. That’s the thing – nothing stops. Ever. And my mum has to have some surgery and it’s crazy because I’m like, ‘When are you going to have your surgery?’ Because I have two weeks in May that I could offer to be there and two weeks in July and it’s just crazy. And it’s all positive, because I’ve been in bands where no-one gave any fuck or offered us any tour, let alone too may tours, but before you know it they’re talking about a year of your life just planned out, and I don’t even know what to do. And being in love and being in a relationship and then being gone and going to different countries where there’s a time difference it’s just like, ‘What am I supposed to do if I’m on tour in Europe and something goes wrong?’ And then I also have the responsibility of at least four other people, not including people behind the scenes – it’s like, ‘What would happen if I couldn’t do this?’ And then even if I decide to go home and be with my family, it’s like, for how long? I guess sometimes you just have to put your head down and do what you’re feeling. And that’s why it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or expects us to do. Why live for someone else?
Having cerebral palsy is obviously a huge part of who you are. How does it affect your approach to life?
People complain about a lot of things and it makes a lot of things seem a lot more silly. But then also, most of the people I’ve met with cerebral palsy have it way worse than me, so that even makes me feel silly for even saying that I have cerebral palsy. Everyone has something they’re embarrassed about or ashamed of and they’re going to have to deal with something they never asked to deal with. There’s all kinds of shit, like the classic tale of the kid who beats you up in school is actually getting beat up by his parents. So it made me more aware of people and how they interact with me. When you’re forced to deal with something every day – every fucking second, because I’m always dealing with it – it just makes me a little bit nihilistic. Just the idea that shit’s fucked either way so you may as well just try and have some fun – because I could literally just flop down on the ground and fucking cry and kick and scream and it’s not going to change anything. So when you see people who are just having tantrums over shit, it’s just like, ‘Get up – what the fuck?’ It’s inevitable that we all die. We’re all going to fucking die so what do you want to do with this thing that you have? You could give up right now or you could just keep going and you’ll still die. So as fucked up as it is, you might as well try to have a good day every day. Because what else are you supposed to do?
Bay Dream is out now on Epitaph Records. Check it out on the stream below.
Culture Abuse return to the UK in July. Head to this link for more info.
And check out our feature on David’s photography here.