Culture Abuse’s David Kelling Wrote an Album to Let His Mom Know He’s Sorry
The frontman talks about the San Fran band's posi-vibed sophomore album, 'Bay Dream,' and how touring makes him homesick.
All photos by Alice Baxley
David Kelling hopes his mom likes his band’s new record. Not just in the usual way sons aspire to earn their mothers’ approval—there’s something more at stake.
“She has a terminal heart condition called pulmonary hypertension,” Kelling says of his 67-year-old mother. “From what I read online, 50 percent of people die within three years of being diagnosed. And from what we know, she’s had it for at least ten years.”
It’s been hard being away from her while his band, Culture Abuse, is on tour, and they’ve been on tour a lot lately. In 2016, they released their debut album, Peach, a thoroughly impressive showing of grimey yet infectious fuzzed-out rock, and things took off pretty quickly for them. Over the last two years, they’ve jumped on tours with The Story So Far, Nothing, and Touché Amoré, opened for Green Day in London, played festivals like Riot Fest and Reading and Leeds, made their way to Italy, Amsterdam, and Hawaii, and became hometown heroes in San Francisco, all while collecting fans in high places.
The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn counts himself as an immediate and proud member of the Culture Abuse fanclub. “What’s awesome to me about Culture Abuse is the sense of possibility. They seem like they can be whatever band they want to be, and all of it will be cool,” says Finn. “There’s both an ambition and a positivity that makes them super exciting to see live and be around.”
As Peach caught on with more and more people, the band found themselves touring the world so fast that they had trouble maintaining a steady lineup. Some nights they’d be scrambling to find a fill-in drummer and others they’d have three guitarists.
“It’s weird when you spend your life wanting to have all these opportunities and these moments, and then they start presenting themselves,” Kelling says. “It took a while to figure out how the fuck to handle it all.”
Kelling’s mother liked Peach, and has been encouraging of her son’s talents as a singer. “My whole life she’s been like, ‘You have a beautiful voice. You need to sing!’ And I was like, ‘Mom, you don’t get it, I’m fuckin’ punk!’” he laughs. She enjoys reading articles about her son’s success, too. But, if she’s reading this, he hopes she skips over this next part.
Kelling and his bandmates were in a bad place while making Peach. They’d lost two friends, Sammy Winston, who perished in a housefire, and Tim Butcher, who went into a coma a few days later and died shortly after. The band members also got priced out of their homes and all five of them moved into their practice space in Bayview, a windowless 15-by-15 room with a bathroom down the hall. And then there were their problems with drugs, both using and selling, and generally doing whatever it took to get by in an increasingly unsustainable city.
What came out of this formative period for Culture Abuse was a cathartic debut. Peach was an album at war with itself, pronouncing its good intentions up front, to “let there be peace on earth; let love reign supreme,” but struggling to adhere to its own credo throughout. There was optimism to be found in its lyrics, but it was always tucked behind hard-headed nihilism, constantly falling back on a “whatever, dude” attitude. On one song, Kelling pondered the futility of trying to be an artist in San Francisco, and ultimately said meh: "There's no future, but I don't mind living in the city.” He shrugged his shoulders even higher when thinking globally: “There might be a war, well I don't care.” It was like someone in the middle of a mental breakdown, helplessly repeating their calming mantra over and over again.
But the more time Culture Abuse spent traveling the world with Peach—seeing new places and making new friends—the better life started to feel for Kelling. Unlike earlier experiences with playing music, where he felt pressured to fit the archetype of a guy in a rock band, Culture Abuse let him feel more comfortable in his own skin.
“Being in bands, you’re made to be someone else for people to think you’re cool and hip,” he says. “And I’d just be like: Wait, no, I’m a fucking fat cripple kid.” (Kelling has cerebral palsy.) Culture Abuse was simple. It was fun. It was without rules or guidelines. Sometimes the band would write a song with only one riff, just so they could jam in the practice space all night.
“It’s a crazy thing when you are made your whole life to not really feel comfortable or feel OK with being who you are, and seeing all these other people who are not you, and being made to feel like you should be more like that,” says Kelling. “And then you do something that’s yours and see that people relate to it. And you think, ‘Wait, I can just be myself and have fun and say what I want and what I feel?’ I didn’t realize how much of a dark place I was in until I got to the other side.”
Peach must’ve been an exorcism on Culture Abuse’s soul, because there’s not a trace of aggression left on their follow-up, Bay Dream. The album is a complete 180, the greatest musical about-face since… well, it’s hard to even name a comparable example. While Peach was defined by its thick, punishing guitar tones and Kelling’s visceral gnarls, Bay Dream sounds like it was made by hippies who’ve been hanging out by the beach and listening to Wavves too much. It’s an album Kelling says he hopes people will blast in their car on a sunny day and just cruise around.
Bay Dream kicks off with a Looney Tunes sound effect of a pop gun being fired, as if all the bad vibes are immediately being dashed away, replaced with something cheerier and sometimes downright saccharine. You can almost hear Kelling smiling on one song as he doles out life advice, “Be kind to the bees, be kind to the bugs, be conscious of others, be careful with drugs,” before topping it off with a self-care reminder: “Be kind to yourself, even though it gets hard, don’t let the distractions stack up to the stars.”
At its core, Bay Dream is Kelling’s love letter to his mother. Even though being in a touring band has opened him up to new worlds that have allowed him to turn his life around, he laments the time with her that it’s cost him.
“A lot of it is me trying to tell my mom that I love her and I’m sorry that I have to go on tour,” he says. Kelling also recently met a woman and fell in love, and having a partner has only made it more difficult to be away from home. Much of the record’s ten tracks capture Kelling’s love/hate relationship with being on the road, which he memorialized with a tattoo on his forearm that reads “homesick/sick of home.”
Unlike Peach, whose writing and recording process was crammed into a scant two months, Culture Abuse took their time with Bay Dream, and made use of the resources afforded to them by their new label, Epitaph Records. Zac Rae, who’s played with everyone from Lana Del Rey to John Legend kicked in on keyboards, as did Roger Manning Jr. who’s done work for Beck and Morrissey, and the whole thing was given some pop polishing by Carlos de la Garza, who’s been Paramore’s go-to producer. It was such a refined shift from their grimy beginnings that at one point, Kelling wondered: Have I gone too far?
“I was fucking losing my mind making this record. Just losing it,” he says, noting that he considered scrapping the entire thing right before it went to press. “My fear is: Is it too much, too soon for people? Should this be our third record? It’s the other people that get inside my head.” Ultimately, though, Bay Dream was the record Kelling wanted to make, not to meet anyone else’s expectations, but just because Culture Abuse is, and always will be, whatever he wants it to be.
“Peach was for the people. This one’s for us,” he says. Actually, there’s one more person this one’s for. “After I wrote the demos, I sent it to my mom. She called me and said, ‘You did it again!’”
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.