In many ways, California’s Culture Abuse are a quintessential punk band – a union of like-minded outsiders. But they don’t fit that box so easily. With positivity instead of righteous anger, genre-hopping music, and a singer suffering from cerebral palsy, using music to make sense of the world, this is a band willing a place in the world, on their own terms.
Frontman and songwriter David Kelling is currently speaking over the noise of the road, from their tour van, on the line from the US, explaining their insane touring schedule. “We played a festival in Canada last night, so we have to get back across the border and now we’re driving seven hours to get to the airport and fly over to the UK and then play a show.”
That ‘show’ is a filmed magazine showcase event, right off the plane before the band embark on a UK tour taking their pop-melody-infused, positive punk rock across the nation. It’s a tall order, but one that the sheer will of Culture Abuse will overcome. They have no choice, this is what they live for.
Emerging from the Bay Area, Culture Abuse are a punk band in the loosest sense, crafting inspiring mini-manifestos from elements of punk, grunge, hardcore and ska, all with the revolutionary fervour of the genre and as real outsiders telling their own unique tale. 2016’s Peach captured this perfectly and its promise saw them take to the stage with likes of Green Day and storm festivals like Riot Fest and Reading, winning over crowds worldwide.
This is a bigger feat when overcoming perceptions and prejudice. Kelling has cerebral palsy and this music is his outlet. Catching the band a few days later in Nottingham it is easy to see how the band (completed by guitarists John Jr and Nick Bruder, bassist Shane Pitt and drummer Ross Traver) are 100% invested in what they do, immersed in the creation of the music. Live, there’s a sense of joyous survival with each tune performed, like they are battling negativity.
In a packed venue, with branded colourful balloons floating around the crowd, the band prove themselves as vital a live proposition as you’ll see right now. Tight musicianship but delivered with pure energy and a sense of abandon. Those balloons promoted the brilliant new record out on Epitaph, Bay Dream, the current manifestation of everything Culture Abuse is about. The pushing through expectations and pushing the positive is paying off, connecting with people in real terms.
“Lately, I feel like a lot of people are just proud of us. It’s been going on for over a year, almost two years, of being officially signed to Epitaph and we’re still doing the same shit that we did before, we’re always going to make the band what we want it to be. So, I think that people are noticing that and are being more supportive and everyone wants to see the underdog see its day. Especially, since we’re not going to change from doing what we do. We’re very hands-on with our band,” explains Kelling.
This hands-on approach harks back to a different time, as Kelling explains how he makes art on old Xerox machines; everything is DIY and handmade in the world of Culture Abuse. “I just like actually doing things with my hands. When it comes down to it, we’re a guitar-rock band and when you play guitar you play with your fingers. You sing with your voice. We’re not writing songs on a fucking synthesiser or anything, we’re not writing on our laptop keyboard. It’s a physical thing, so everything that is attached to it is also physical.”
Control of their entire output, Kelling says, is central to the band’s existence. “It’s the only way I see us doing it, the only way that in my mind makes sense, to have a band. Knowing other bands that don’t have direction whether it’s on album covers, or art, or t-shirts any of the extra-curricular shit. Even with the sound when going in the studio, that blows my fucking mind. We started this, no one else started it for us so how is anyone else going to have an idea of what we are trying to do? There’s a reason that I don’t listen to Drake all the time. Drake doesn’t even write his own songs, so why would we ever want to be a band that doesn’t have full control over our band?” he adds.
Writing for Kelling is an elemental need, a way of “sorting things out in my head and articulating them.” Living with disability, he has a worldview contrary to most artists in the public sphere and something different to articulate in a space where there are few visible role models. On top of his own constant ‘living with pain’, his mother has suffered from a terminal heart condition for the past decade, when most people die within the first three. Overcoming pain and adversity is in Kelling and this band’s DNA.
Having stated in the past that he grew up with few people to guide how he could ‘do anything’, the question arises as to whether he feels he can fill that space? “I don’t want to necessarily fill that gap because growing up without an example or anything you’re made to feel like not even a real human, so I don’t feel like I am worthy of filling that gap because outside in society makes you feel like you’ll never be worthy of it. But with all this going on I’m the one you’re interviewing right now and other people will read it, so I can only try and do my best.”
Of course, when listening to the music this disability isn’t apparent in any way; this is simply a good band, with good songs, doing what they do. But this doesn’t mean that prejudice can’t surface, even in the supposedly progressive punk scene. How does Kelling feel his cerebral palsy is treated in general?
“I don’t think people have a problem with it. They like listening to it [the music]. Maybe live I’m not the lead singer that someone wants, not living up to an expectation. But there are a lot of people with more severe cases than me, so in some cases, I almost feel guilty being the one that says ‘I am disabled and I can relate’, because I am not in a wheelchair – so I can’t relate. I can relate to being stared at but there’s so much more shit. Everyone goes through something that no one else can really relate to. It’s not like we are one thing, we’re like a fuckin’ Rubik’s Cube.”
Despite his reluctance to be a role model, he does have an impact, in his own way proving that what you go through doesn’t define you. He relays one recent story, “There was even this guy, in a walker, I think he had Cerebral Palsy as well, and he stage dived and everyone was carrying him around, it was fuckin’ cool.”
“It’s really cool in the moment, when we are playing and everyone’s there with a good positive vibe. It’s fuckin’ awesome. It helps me not feel alone and hopefully makes them not feel alone or inspired or whatever the fuck they want to do. But then there’s still the people who think I am just wasted.”
When delving into the lyrics of Bay Dream, it’s hard not to relate and to not feel inspired in some way. Take the line, “Be kind to the bugs / Be conscious of others / Be careful with drugs / Be kind to yourself even though it gets hard”, from ‘Bee Kind To The Bugs’ as a highlight of how Kelling’s personal positivity can be a wider blueprint for good.
Does the music of Culture Abuse aspire to speak to the wider context of our world, or is it simply personal?
“I was talking to a friend, he’s the general manager of Epitaph – his name’s Matt McGreevey – when the Brett Kavanagh trial was going on and all this stuff, and I was kinda like: ‘You see so many things going on in the world always, but they’ve always been going on and they will always continue. You see so much stuff that you want to change or fix and the next day you hear about something else.’ I was asking him: ‘Where do you even start?’ I mean, fuck, I want to help and fix things, what do we do, what do you do on day one. I know how to do a band, but I have been doing this for years. He was, like: ‘Dude, it just starts with yourself and how you treat the people around you.’ That’s the only thing I can say to be encouraging is that is starts with how you treat your brother and sister, first,” explains Kelling.
“There’s a lot of stuff that comes up that positive and it kinda makes me want to be a brat and go: ‘Fuck this, I don’t always want to be a positive band’ because there’s plenty of days that you don’t feel positive. When writing the songs I always start with a problem, as we are writing them we process it.”
Recently, Kelling’s worlds shifted in other ways that would affect the creation of Bay Dream, when he moved from the Bay Area to L.A.
“As of late, I’m feeling like I am more scrambled but moving down to L.A. is really fucking nice! The sun’s shining every day. You don’t notice what the sun can actually do for your overall mental health. Also, Epitaph’s down there and they are so down to help with any idea that we have. I’m not good with email or texting or anything so I can just go to their office and talk or use their Xerox machine for art. There’s always something going on, always bands coming through, artists and so many things to help you feel inspired or encouraged. There’s a lot more going on that shows you the greater potential in life.”
Bay Dream sounds like a band finding the great potential in what they do, with pop hooks, ska inflexions, and slacker-rock playfulness infusing songs throughout the record. It constantly feels like Culture Abuse could surprise everyone with a new direction, such as their recently dropped cover of The Clash’s ‘Police On My Back’ (in turn a cover of The Equal’s original), which adds their own take.
Speaking to Kelling later at their Nottingham gig, him wearing a jacket adorned with an ‘Upsetters’ patch, he waxes lyrical about his love of The Specials. He explains the boundary-breaking, genre-hopping of bands like the Clash is exactly what he wants from a band. This is where Culture Abuse’s ambitions lie.
“I wanna get to the point where no one has any expectations of what we’re going to do. I mean, we just recorded a nine-minute dub reggae song and had our friend rap over it. I want to get to the point where people respect us as musicians rather than as a punk rock band.
“I want to get to the point where if I say I want a horn player on this track, no one shoots down our ideas. Where we have full creative freedom,” says Kelling. This freedom he says will definitely include working with a full orchestra.
Obviously, there’s so much more inspiration to come from Culture Abuse. With the creative freedom offered by one of the world’s biggest punk labels, a skilled songwriter with something vital to express, and musical ambitions outside of their immediate, and expected realm. They are the positivity punks wanting to give; all we need to do is receive.
Bay Dream is out now via Epitaph. For more information about Culture Abuse, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit their official website.
Photo Credit: Dan Monick