Total Abuse Talk About Band’s Implosion and Plans for New LP – Exclusive Interview
Rusty Kelley hangs out in front of a house in Far Rockaway, N.Y., a suburban neighborhood 25 miles outside of Manhattan, smoking a cigarette. He’s getting ready for a show in the basement of the house, a DIY venue called Red Light District that serves as a home base for various NYC noise acts. His band, Total Abuse, is finishing up a summer tour zigzagging across the entire eastern U.S.
Kelley’s talking about the time, three years ago, when Total Abuse totally fell apart.
He had led the Austin band — which also features Matt Lyons (drums), Ryan Foster (guitar), Duncan Knappen (guitar) and Dustin Pilkington (bass) — since 2006. Their music fused speed-freak street punk with sludge-y hardcore and later industrial noise — an extreme sound that crossed multiple genres. Their unclassifiable music, along with Kelley’s propensity to lash out at the restrictive norms of hardcore, isolated the band from the Austin scene.
Kelley dwells on the ugliest aspects of humankind with the eyes of someone who sees the worst in everyone, including himself. That’s particularly the case on the band’s latest LP, 2011’s ‘Prison Sweat.’ He sings from the perspective of someone stalking a cell block, peering between the bars at assorted acts of sexual depravity, hysterical mourning and self-mutilation – humankind at its most despicable or pathetic – returning home at the end of the day to confront the fact that he’s no better. “All the self-loathing means nothing,” he sings on ‘Hogg.’ “Tell the world you’re scum.”
Now Kelley is on a mission to confront the dark months around the time when the band fell apart. Says Kelley of the time following ‘Prison Sweat,’ “I became a drug addict, and I started to die. And ultimately I had to ask myself, Do I want to be this person who feels sorry for [himself] all the time, and just die? No, I had to choose to stay alive, and make amends to the people I f–ed over.”
Total Abuse are back with a new three-song EP, ‘Looking for Love,’ and are currently getting ready to record their first LP since ‘Prison Sweat.’ Kelley chatted with us before their recent show at Red Light District.
You guys are having a bit of a comeback.
Yeah. We broke up two years ago, basically. Not speaking for anyone else, but I was totally messed up on drugs and knew we couldn’t keep doing it. We didn’t really talk about it much. South by Southwest was coming up that year, March 2011, and I just said, “This needs to be our last show, we can’t keep doing this, I’m totally messed up.” And so we decided to stop it then. When I got better and clean and sober in October 2012, we started talking, and Duncan lived in Oakland and Matt Lyons lived in Brooklyn, and we said, “Let’s do a show in Austin again,” and everyone flew down and it was perfect. Duncan said, “What if we moved back to Austin?” So everyone moved to Austin. It just made sense to do it again.
Apparently, you guys had a show in Brooklyn before you split up where there was a big brawl.
The worst brawl was at that 538 Johnson place. We’d played a great show with Failures hours before as an early show, and a ton of people came out and we had a great time. But by the time the late show started, everyone was not in a good mood. We got there and could just feel that no one wanted us to be there. We started playing, and things didn’t go well and people started jumping into the crowd. But it was also one of the funniest times ever.
Was that just par for the course, or was that a sign that things were starting to fall apart?
No, that was actually when things were fine. [Laughs.] We were always the way we sound in our music. We’re not messing around. If we don’t like you, we’ll let you know. But at the same time, we love telling jokes and making each other laugh all the time. So there’s always that kinda vibe. But we do get into weird stuff. Things will always be surreal and strange things that follow us everywhere.
You posted something on the Total Abuse blogspot about feeling like you have one leg in the hardcore scene and one leg out. Is that how you’ve always felt?
Yeah, yeah. It always was. Me and Duncan and Ryan were in this kid hardcore band when we were 14 called the Snobs that got big in the hardcore world. It was like, even at age 14 or 15, we felt there was a creative block that existed with punk and hardcore. This thing we thought was full of endless potential, we saw that, “Oh, no, it only goes this far, we don’t like things that go outside the line of what we like.” So, when we were teenagers, we got into post-punk and noise and all kinds of weird music, and when we got to be older — 19, 20, 21 — that’s when Total Abuse started. And we wanted to take those elements of post-punk and noise music and unbounding creativity, and see what we could do with it. We’d play shows early on, and people would be bummed out, not expecting us. Which was fun, messing with people’s expectations. But the powers that be in Austin, the people who book the shows and book the fests, hated us from the beginning. They said, “We’ll never book you guys, we’ll never accept you.” You know, we had those kinds of confrontations early on. So, we always felt like we were fighting that status quo Civil War reenactment vibe, while embracing the aspects we loved.
On the ‘Prison Sweat’ LP, there are some real noise tracks. But no one would say you’re a noise band either.
Yeah, yeah, totally. On this tour, we played big shows where our band and Rectal Hygenics, who we toured with, were the only rock or punk bands. But it still felt like it fit.
How sincere is your new song ‘Looking for Love’?
It’s a very real song. All three of the new songs are sort of about saying, “OK, we’re back. Here’s where I’ve been in terms of my emotional place,” trying to beg for forgiveness and search for happiness and love with a person. But [in ‘Looking for Love’] there’s also this sort of disconnected narrative of this taxi driver in old Times Square searching for a hooker, a strange story. There’s a true, earnest, feeling of I’m searching for love and meaning and true positivity and happiness in my life, and then you can flip it and just sort of see this movie in your mind.
This song has a different sound than the rest of your stuff. Especially with the vocals – it’s almost like you’re singing.
Yeah, yeah. It wasn’t like, “Hey Rusty, you should sing differently!” When I was a kid, I did tons of musical theater, was in choir, took singing lessons. There wasn’t a conscious decision to sing differently, but it felt like it fit. Who knows, maybe we’ll come out with more stuff that sounds like that.
So you’re working on your new LP now?
Yeah, we have three or four songs written, and when we get back we’re gonna write the rest. It’s a good mix of all kinds of stuff. We never thought, “Well, our last record sounded like this, so we need to change it up like this.” We never want to repeat ourselves, but we just sit down and write, be creative. In the world of hardcore, it’s rare that a band will put out as many LPs as we have, and that’s the vibe we want to project. There’s this idea with punk bands, that you release a demo and maybe a seven-inch, maybe another one and maybe an LP. And then you go start another band that is probably just going to sound exactly the same. And that’s as far as it goes, because we have to follow a formula. No, I think you stick with one thing and push it as far creatively as you can take it.
Your cover art really goes along with the music. Like the cover art for ‘Prison Sweat’ – it’s spare but also disturbing.
Yeah, yeah – our friend Jamie Fletcher did the painting. As we were doing the record, she took a cell phone picture and posted it and said, “I just painted this painting!” It somehow just worked, like “This is it! This is the cover of the record!” And yeah, it’s beautiful and strange and weird and it works.
Does music have to be confrontational for you to connect with it?
No, not at all. Dude, I truly love like Britney Spears and pop music. Because I don’t necessarily write the music, I always want songs to be catchy and have hooks to a certain extent. I was drawn to harsh noise, industrial and power electronics because the sound and the way it was presented spoke to me in a really personal way. So those elements were put within our music. But then there are other members of the band who like other stuff, and all that molds together. I don’t really like when people are confrontational, like when you go to a show and there’s that one guy getting in the audience, touching everyone, punching them or whatever, and it just feels like forced and bad.
Like a schtick, like a GG Allin kind of thing.
Yeah or like wrestling or something. Where people hit themselves on the head, or like in wrestling, when you get a razor and cut your forehead to see if it bleeds. That’s fine, if people like to perform that way, but any time that we perform, I try to channel something that’s real. And I’ve never had to kneel to those kinds of bad, silly tricks.
Well, the violence in your music has always been self-directed, instead of sort of outwardly violent.
Yeah, we rarely have songs [that are violent toward other people] – maybe one of our first songs, on the first seven-inch – but for the most part, they’re all about my feelings about myself, or telling a story that’s a narrative and kind of disconnected. But I was never about singing the hardcore, like, “You stabbed me in the back, man,” “my friend f–ed me over,” “I trusted you, bro” – it’s always been like, I’m the one who f–ed up. But ultimately the question on the new record that I want to ask is, “What does it mean after you acknowledge that you’re a piece of s—?” There’s a song on ‘Prison Sweat’ called ‘Hogg’ that actually deals with that. What does it mean to acknowledge you’re a piece of s— and you’re disgusting and you’re a drug addict and a pervert? Like, how far can you take that? I became a drug addict and I started to die, and ultimately I had to ask myself, do I want to be this person who feels sorry for [himself] all the time and just die? No, I had to choose for me to stay alive and made amends to the people I f–ed over, and hopefully that’s what the new record will be about.