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INTERVIEW: Culture Abuse's David Kelling
James McMahon , November 29th, 2018 15:35

For all the turmoil 2018 has seen, it’s easy to forget the strides independent music has made in breaking down barriers and making a more diverse scene. So why then are there still so few disabled people visible in music? James McMahon met Culture Abuse singer David Kelling to hear his take

It’s fitting that in a year whereupon independent music has shown a renewed commitment to thinking about themes of representation, showcasing a variety of voices so frequently denied theirs in times prior, that San Francisco’s Culture Abuse have become one of the buzziest bands in DIY punk.

Now three albums in, much of the credit for their rise to prominence lies with this year’s superb Bay Dream album, a hyper-charming dollop of indie-rock-like-what-they-used-to-make, that owes much to the likes of The Ramones, The Replacements and even lesser populated names like The Posies and Red Kross.

Singer David Kelling has spent his life afflicted with cerebral palsy, making him one of a depressingly low number of people living with a disability to be active within a music space. Here David discusses what went right for his band in 2018, the difficulties disabled people in music face as well as why being on the road with Culture Abuse is actually breaking his heart.

It’s been a brilliant year for Culture Abuse. How are you feeling about everything?

David Kelling: Everything about what is happening to our band is crazy to me. Even the idea of going into an actual recording studio to make an actual album of music is crazy and doesn’t quite feel real. I struggle to think of people who like our band as fans. When I meet them at shows I almost feel indebted to them. They’re the ones who through buying our records and merch are letting us live out our dreams. I don’t ever want to make anyone feel like there’s a difference between them and us or like anyone in this band would ever take them for granted.

That’s a sentiment that’s expressed right across Bay Dream. As is the promotion of empathy and kindness. I love the lyric in Bee Kind To The Bugs: “Be kind to the bees, be kind to the bugs, be conscious of others, be careful with drugs”

DK: We try. We come from a scene where so many bands are so consciously apathetic or detached or too cool for school. I’m so over that. I want to find ways to connect with other humans. Something real. And what I mean by that, is making something that’s real to us. I think there’s a big distinction between making something for yourself and for other people. I think when you’re making something for other people, you start overthinking things and you lose that connection.

The thing I like about that song, is that the lyrics veer from the idea of trying not to squish micro-organisms to, in a later verse, participating in self-care. I think the thing that’s forgotten about empathy, is that it works best when you’re not selective in who should receive it.

DK: Well, when I was growing up, with cerebral palsy, but around people who didn’t have it, I spent a lot of time feeling very alone. My parents were great in that they’d tell me that everyone is dealing with something. I didn’t believe them at first. I didn’t believe that the cool kid at school was suffering! But them reminding me of that helped me not look at other people with any bitterness, like, ‘well you don’t have what I have, you don’t have this pain.’ It helped me become interested in people and trying to understand them better.

You brought up your cerebral palsy. Representation of disabled people is so poor within music, what’s your experience of having a disability within this scene?

DK: It literally effects everything I do, every single second of the day. When people aren’t paying attention I have it. I have it off stage. I have it when I’m not in the van. It’s always there. It’s great that people are speaking up about so many things now. Like, speaking up about getting more women involved in punk music. Or having conversations about gender roles. But it’s crazy in that all those people already have a community. I’m just trying to get through the day. I’m just trying to get up the stairs to the venue where we’re playing that night.

Do you have much contact with other disabled musicians?

DK: I was on a podcast recently and I asked the guy hosting it to think of one other disabled musician in our scene, and he couldn’t think of one. Some people have been, like, Stevie Wonder is blind! Or Neil Young’s son has cerebral palsy, which isn’t like Neil Young having cerebral palsy, so whatever. It’s like they’re trying to prove me wrong or something. But here’s the thing, I don’t want to be right. I don’t want to be the only one. I just want to play music. It’s not something that’s empowering in any way. It’s not like being gay or black where you can be proud of it. My condition, there’s no positives.

Is the only positive that it might make someone who felt like you when you were growing up, feel not so alone?

DK: That is literally the only positive. And we’re definitely getting more disabled people at our shows. But the crazy thing is, depending on how severe your disability is, most disabled people can’t even come to the show. They can’t even get in the venue. There’s been a lot of noise about bathrooms for all genders, and rightly so, but I can’t even get to the bathroom! And there’s a million other people who feel the same way.

You’ve said elsewhere that you wrote Bay Dream as a kind of apology to your mum. You said she’s very sick.

DK: Yeah, she’s been diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, which is a terminal heart condition. That was three years ago. The fact there’s no cure for it sends me crazy, and I read that 50% of people with it die in the first three years. We’ve been touring non-stop during that time and I just feel so bad being on tour. At the same time, there’s four other guys in this band who for them, it’s their living, and if I’m not there as the singer, they don’t get paid. Also, my mum doesn’t want to feel like she’s stopping me from doing the band. She’s the biggest influence in music I have. The biggest lover of music I know. But what happens is that I’m stuck on the road, away from all these people I love, not knowing how long I’ve got with them.

Have you ever considered packing it in and just going home?

DK: Yeah, a lot. But at the same time, I want this band to be special. I want it to matter. I just feel stuck. But this band is literally all I think about. When we’re not on tour, me and my girlfriend are in the Epitaph Records office using their photocopier every day making flyers or designing merch or drawing album sleeves. Using our hands. We want everything we do to be special. And I feel this stuff about wanting to be at home, but when we play the shows, I’m so grateful that I’m there. Nothing makes me feel as alive as I do at our shows.

Culture Abuse’s new album Bay Dream is out now on Epitaph. You can purchase it here