Photo: Chelsea Muehe
On the morning of July 4 in Echo Park before the sun was pushing shadows out of the countless Italian Cypress-lined streets of houses, garages, and 7-Elevens, there was a house fire on Alvarado street. Sammy Winston ran back inside to save his roommates. Twenty seconds later, five of them were on the sidewalk and Sammy wasn’t. He was a poet and an artist, a door man at The Echo, and a musician whose favorite book was The Outsiders. He was 40 years old. Ten years earlier and 400 miles north, David Kelling was seeing Winston’s band, All Bets Off, play sets in Berkeley's own 924 Gillman.
This past February in Oakland, Kelling’s band Culture Abuse was on the bill for a show in remembrance of another friend, Tim Butcher, who had passed away before the end of the same year that took Sammy. The combined loss shot through punk venues, houses, and backyards throughout California as if they were all sitting on the same fluttering fault line. Both were beloved equally for the way they navigated existence with an unconcerned buoyancy, as they were for their prolific output. Butcher was always in a handful of bands at once, even including two he had started in South Korea.
Culture Abuse would rather the circumstances be different but are nonetheless willing to carry the same torch. Still living in San Francisco, they’ve embraced the rotten romance of being an artist in impossible circumstances and sacrificed a normal life for the shot at the truth their heroes lived and died for. Before the release of their full-length, Peach, and the upcoming schedule of nonstop touring began, they all moved into their practice space, giving the middle finger to a city and its best efforts at forcing them out.
Noisey: What’s it like being a band trying to survive in San Francisco?
David Kelling: It’s crazy, it’s impossible. Anyone who’s doing it has to have money coming in from something else. The Mission used to be where the artists could live. Then the art just made it OK for all the yuppies to move in. It’s not possible.
So you all moved into your practice space?
Yeah, it’s in Hunter’s Point, Bayview. I’m outside in the van right now but everyone else is in the practice space. I lived with my girlfriend for a while in an old skateboarder house that was rent-controlled for years. Since she’s been tour managing us and all of these tours keep getting offered, we were like, "Fuck it, let’s just move out." Our rent did go up and that was the final straw, but it was more just because of tour. We booked a tour in march and right after we agreed to do that tour, we booked a tour in April and after we get back from that we’ve got one in June into July. There was just all of this stuff going on that didn’t seem like it was going to stop and it still doesn’t, so it seemed to make sense.
There was one time when our guitar player had just broken up with his girlfriend and we lived in the practice space for like a month so that’s how we knew we could do it. Now it’s our own little headquarters.
Is living there approved or you just do it under the radar?
No, it’s totally illegal. The whole building just smells like weed, there’s gotta be some other people living in there. One guitar player lives in LA, but yeah there’s five of us in there. There’s five of us in a 15 by 15 room with no windows. There’s a bathroom outside, down a hallway, past the owner’s office. It’s crazy. There’s a bunch of rappers that we’ve gotten to know, there’s one called Tay Assassin. Toy Guitars and Swinging Utters practice here too, other than that it’s just metal and rap. There’s 30 other spaces in there. Like half rap, half metal coming out of every room.
I don’t want to say too much but I know a lot of the bands who live here and they all either have money from family or work whatever job way more than they actually play in their band. In Oakland you can still find some cheap spots but even that’s changing. This is basically our only chance. We pay $550 to live in the space and that’s still a “fuck-ton” more than how much practice spaces used to be.
Are you guys working when you’re home?
Shane works at this bar when he’s home. Most of us are selling drugs just to make ends meet and still have free time to commit to this. That’s all that most of us can do.
[This is the part of the interview where David and I started swapping different tour scams back and forth as a way to make some money. Best Buy, Target, Whole Foods, etc.]
I’ve heard from other musicians in San Fran that to continue living in the city you just have to accept a lower standard of living…
I grew up in the middle of nowhere in a one-bedroom cabin thing so I’ve never really needed much. Murphys, California, by Yosemite. My parents still don’t get internet or cable.
Do you still go out there?
Yeah, they have a trailer in the backyard so when I come to visit I have my own space. There’s no cell phone service. My parents don’t know what Netflix is. My dad’s never sent a text.
So, given that background, how did you end up in the bay and how did this band come together?
Just music. I’ve played in bands since high school and after high school it was just “well, we have to tour," but everyone else in that band just wanted to stay home or go to college. I had to go though. I met Mike Fenton, who’s now in Creative Adult, and he had a room open in Ukiah. So I moved up there and we started All Teeth. We made our way down into Santa Rosa, even closer to the bay and met our drummer and guitarist who lived there and played in Strike to Survive.
We got to know Junebug through art, making zines, art shows, doing a bunch of drugs on the weekend. He said, “I play bass,” and we said we already had a bass player, so he said, “I play guitar." It’s very much a rag-tag, not-meant-to-be thing.
The California punk scene has taken a couple really big hits in the past year with the loss of both Timmy and Sammy. How has that affected you and the band?
Those two people had everything invested into this. Into music, into art. We were just sitting around living a cush life, getting coffee every morning and now it’s like, fuck that. Let’s go do it as hard as we can while we can. Sammy would call me all the time and chew me out for not being on top of it. One of the last phone calls I had with him was right when we started working with the Kenmore Agency and he said, “You need to listen to everything they say and say yes to everything. Stop self-sabotaging and just go for it.”
He was saying "don’t be punker than thou, let someone help you?"
There’s just this crazy self-sabotaging style game with anyone who’s creative. You overthink and you don’t trust. It wasn’t about being punk it was just, this is my baby, this is my band. And now there’s other people saying, "You should do this, you should tour with this band," and I’m thinking, “Well, is that actually good? Will people be into that?” You just overthink everything and before you know it the chance is gone and you didn’t even leave your fucking house. So let’s just say fuck it and do it. Maybe afterwards we’ll say, “Well that was stupid.”
I just want to be successful or at least take advantage of every situation I can because Sammy helped me out, big time. I didn’t know half the people in LA before Sammy put us on. We played The Echo downstairs and he was working security for a “cooler” show upstairs, but told every person coming in they needed to check out Culture Abuse downstairs. He got everyone to come watch us play.
He paved the way for us. He rooted for the underdog. None of us were cool. I have cerebral palsy, it’s crazy to have someone like Sammy take interest in the art I was creating. Someone who’s so well respected and lived life his own way.
What’s your experience being in a punk band with a disability?
It’s a good people-tester, in a way. The people that are comfortable with themselves are totally fine, but then in a way you sense it in people when they’re uncomfortable with themselves who seem weird about it. On tour sometimes, just walking around the show beforehand, looking at local merch or something, they can act a little weird and just try to sell me merch and don’t put it together that I’d also be playing. You just get treated differently.
People don’t talk about it, which is interesting. I want to address it more. Everyone’s talking about all these issues, but when I was growing up there was no one for me to look up to or say, “You can do this."
Was there a moment or person that opened things up for you?
Punk in general was appealing because it was like, I’m already a freak, no matter if I dress in the new Kanye line, I’m still a freak so I might as well just go with it. Everyone’s already looking at me like I’m a weirdo so I might as well just spit all over myself and throw a tantrum. It’s like a giant experiment. “You guys let me do that and now there’s another tour so let’s try that." I just don’t think about it until I walk down the street not with my friends and notice people looking at me.
When I’m in a good mood I won’t notice but it depends on my mood. Some guy at SXSW wanted to meet up for an interview, but I get in this weird headspace and start thinking, well, we’re never going to be that big of a band. I mean how many other successful bands have singers who have what I have? Most of the huge bands are all good looking, with good genes and money. Meeting people in general I just get the sense that I’d let them down.
I know I make some people uncomfortable, but those are the people I wouldn’t want to be friends with anyways.
Does any of that come through thematically on the new record?
The theme on the new record is “do whatever." I’ve been writing songs about anxiety and depression, of course, everyone knows that. It all just ties back in with Sammy and Tim, just do whatever you want. If you want to care about the presidential campaign, go for it if you want to study fucking frogs, go for it. Who knows how long we have to do anything so might as well do it. I don’t give a fuck if I have money. If I’m doing exactly what I want to, then I’m happy. The fact that we’re leaving for tour tomorrow and barely have a month home after that before the next one, where we just get to play music, that’s all I care about.
Lukas Hodge will sell you Whole Foods gift cards that are totally legit. Follow him on Twitter - @lukashodge
Peach is out on April 8. Order it here and catch Culture Abuse on tour. Dates below.
04/05 Little Rock, AR @ Metroplex +
04/07 Burlington, VT @ Higher Ground +
04/08 Quebec City, QC @ Salle Multi *
04/09 Montreal, QC @ Club Soda *
04/10 Toronto, ON @ Mod Club *
04/11 London, ON @ London Music Hall *
04/13 Des Moines, IA @ Woolys *
04/14 Winnipeg, MB @ Garrick Centre *
04/15 Regina, SK @ The Exchange *
04/16 Calgary, AB @ Marquee *
04/17 Edmonton, AB @ Starlite Room *
04/18 Vancouver, BC @ Imperial *
04/19 Spokane, WA @ Knitting Factory *
04/21 Boise, ID @ Knitting Factory *
04/22 Reno, NV @ Jub Jub’s *
04/23 Chico, CA @ Senator Theatre *
06/05 Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair ‡
06/07 Toronto, ONT @ Lee’s Palace ‡
06/08 Detroit, MI @ El Club ‡
06/09 Cleveland, OH @ Now That’s Class ‡
06/10 Chicago, IL @ Subterranean ‡
06/11 Minneapolis, MN @ Triple Rock Social Club ‡
06/12 Omaha, NE @ Slowdown ‡
06/14 Denver, CO @ Marquis Theater ‡
06/15 Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court ‡
06/16 Boise, ID @ Neurolux ‡
06/17 Seattle, WA @ Tractor Tavern ‡
06/19 Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios ‡
06/21 San Francisco, CA @ Slim’s ‡
06/22 San Diego, CA @ Soda Bar ‡
06/23 Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo ‡
06/24 Tempe, AZ @ Yucca Tap Room ‡
06/25 Albuquerque, NM @ Sister Bar ‡
06/27 McAllen, TX @ Yerberia Cultura ‡
06/28 Austin, TX @ The Sidewinder ‡
07/02 St. Petersburg, FL @ Local 662 ‡
07/03 Orlando, FL @ Back Booth ‡
07/05 Durham, NC @ Motorco Amphitheater ~
07/06 Richmond, VA @ Strange Matter ~
07/07 Washington DC @ Rock & Roll Hotel ~
07/08 Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer ~
07/09 New York City, NY @ Bowery Ballroom ~
# w/ Self Defense Family, Strange Wilds
+ w/ The Story So Far, Elder Brother
* w/ The Story So Far, Comeback Kid
‡ w/ Nothing, Wrong
~ w/ Nothing