After nearly three years of inactivity, Austin punk/hardcore outfit Total Abuse is back from the dead and with new material to boot. Their latest 7-inch, Looking For Love, sees the band picking up where they left off, featuring three tracks brimming with their familiar brand of raw intensity. The songs are noisy and dissonant, wailing vocals falling over drastic tempo changes, moaning and pleading for a sense of redemption.
I caught up with singer Rusty Kelley outside their New York City show at Nothing Changes to talk about the new record, resurrecting the band and his struggle with addiction during their hiatus.
Can you tell me a little about the new record?
The thing about it is that we had stopped playing for a long time. We had broken up in March 2011 kind of due to the fact that I was really heavily addicted to heroin and I just knew that we couldn’t keep going as a band.
We recorded Prison Sweat, the last LP we did, in December 2010 and that literally just almost didn’t happen. It was just this hellish Texas winter, which probably isn’t that cold compared to other places, but everything was dark and insane. We played a couple of shows with a friend’s band in Dallas and barely got there. We drove there in my car and it was full of cockroaches and the whole thing hardly happened.
But this new record was us coming together again and saying, “Ok we’re all healthy and in much better places and states of mind.” None of us had stopped talking to each other but we were just in our own places recovering and getting better jobs and kind of growing up.
In September of 2013 we played a show together, an awesome show, and started writing the song “Looking for Love”. Then in February we recorded the 7-inch. All of our records are dark and noisy and about personal intent, emotions and feelings or whatever you want to call it. I think this record is the same but lyrically and otherwise it’s kind of about trying to let people know that you’re sorry for the things you’ve done and searching to move on.
Do you think the new 7-inch sounds different from the stuff you guys were doing before?
Yeah. Everyone’s kind of talked about the song “Looking for Love” as a brain-bombsy kind of jam. On every record we’ve done slow, sludged out jams, but I kind of sing on this.
When I was a kid I sang in the choir, I sang all the time, I was in musicals, so I think somehow it just came naturally. I don’t think there was a conscious effort to change anything up.
Three years seems like a long time to break up and then come back. What prompted you guys to start playing together again?
I was really addicted to drugs starting in September of 2010 and got clean in October of 2012. We didn’t get back together and start playing until September of 2013 so there was a year of me just focusing on myself, and I think everyone else was just trying to figure out what they wanted.
The guitar player Duncan [Knappen] and I started to call each other. He lived in Oakland and he would call me every morning at like 10 AM and we would talk for three or four hours about everything. Not even the band, just about books, movies, how life was going. I’ve known Duncan since the first grade. We discovered skateboarding together and punk together, everything. But we started to talk again and we talked for months and months and then it kind of seemed right. I said, “Do you want to fly to Austin?”
We called Matt [Lyons] our drummer who was living in New York and he wanted to do it too. When we started to play it felt like a really positive thing to do with our minds. I had done other bands before and other people had done bands before but there’s something about the one band, the thing that we do, there’s nothing like it. This is the thing that we do, the thing that we love.
Did you guys have other projects going on in the meantime?
Yeah I’m in a project called Captive that Emelia sings in that’s more like New Order, The Cure kind of stuff. We’re still together and we play shows and we’ve recorded a couple things. For many years I’ve also done an industrial sound-art thing called Breathing Problem that she’s a part of too. So no matter what, even when Total Abuse wasn’t happening we would play a Breathing Problem show every month. So I always had something related to music going on and the other guys in the band do different stuff too.
Total Abuse is known for being a controversial band. Why do you think guys have that reputation?
I think number one is that we’re really fucked up, psychotic, crazy people. I mean everyone in the world has fucked up shit and comes from fucked up places but I think that truly we’re all really weird people. A lot of times we can come off as assholes to other people. I think that our personalities from the moment the band started led us into conflicts with people on the road.
I think when you look at punk or noise or dark music there’s a lot of posturing. It’s fine to separate yourself and be like, “I play this music that’s strange and evil and dark but I’m a good, normal person.” But at the same time the things that we sing about and the things that we do… we’re not all nice people. We all get in fights with each other and get in fights with other people. I think this tour we haven’t pissed off many people, but there’s been so many countless times when bad shit has happened. But at the same time it’s like that’s the band. You’re not seeing us sing about harsh, fucked up things and then get off stage and just be a different person. It’s just ingrained in who we are.
Do you want to talk a little about going through the struggle with addiction and recovery?
I was straight edge from age 14 to 19. I wish I drank or something because I broke edge and drank beer like a 12 year-old kid and kind of experimented with whatever. But when I was, I guess, it was 2010 so I was 23 or 24 everyone started doing OxyContin and, just like a million other people, I started doing dope and it took over all my shit. There were a lot of other people who I don’t want to name or anything, but it took over a lot of people’s lives. It was something where I had a lot of pain and a lot of people have a lot of pain and that was the way that I dealt with it. It felt like the answer to a lot of shit that I felt like was wrong with me and I hated about myself.
I went to rehab and all that stuff over and over again and finally just like anyone says I got to rock bottom. My friends had given me like a million chances and I’d done so many stupid, idiotic things, shitty horrible things and the thing that freaked me out the most wasn’t that no one wanted to hang out with me but it was that everyone was like, “Man, Rusty’s a joke. He always says his shit’s getting back together but it’s not.” It was beyond, “I don’t want to hang out with you. “It was, “You’re a joke, you’re a fucking joke.”
So in October 2012, this person Emelia [McKay] (of Dauphin Blue and Captive amongst others), I met her at the exact same time and she of course did not do heroin and she supported me a lot—a lot of people supported me, but she was number one—and I got clean and haven’t done heroin or crack or any of that stuff since then. It’s a really personal thing for anyone to tell their story but I think there are a lot of people, and it makes sense, but they’re so ashamed of that. They don’t want to talk about it and they want to pretend like I’m cool now, and I actually never had a problem. Or if they do they go to AA or NA and that’s where they deal with it and that’s totally fine, but I feel for any person who’s fucking suffering.
When I was a drug addict I didn’t care that anyone knew that I was a drug addict. I didn’t really try to keep it from anyone, didn’t care, “I was like I’m fucked, I don’t give a fuck.” But most people try to keep it hidden, which is a normal part of it, especially with dudes. It’s like you’re not going to talk about your feelings with your friends probably anyway, so to have to say to someone like, “Yo man are you struggling with addiction?” and for them to be like, “Yeah I am, it’s horrible.” It’s hard. I think in this country as a whole, heroin and opiates have come back so hard and it’s killing a lot of people.
As a kid they tell you that cigarettes and marijuana are bad, but heroin and crack is the stuff that will kill you. What’s the thought process like as you move along that path towards addiction?
I think that… it’s really a little thing. It’s like, “Well I did coke two years ago and I’m not addicted to coke. I do it on the weekends.” I probably was addicted to coke. “I do it on the weekends, people said you’ll get addicted to coke, but it didn’t happened to me.” And then you start taking Vicodin every once in a while, it’s like, “Everyone said you take Vicodin and you just get addicted, didn’t happen.” Then you start taking OxyContin and you’re like, “I’m not addicted yet, it’s been like three months and I just do it every weekend.” Then it’s like, “I just do it every four days.” Then there’s this moment, at least for me, where I was like, “Woah, I’m fucking addicted to this shit. If I don’t do it, I’ll get horribly sick and I’ll throw up and shit everywhere.” And I remember being like, “Well I’m addicted to this drug, but it feels so good.” I know for some people there’s this intense denial process where they’re like, “I’m still not addicted, I’m not an addict, I can stop whenever I want.” But for me very early on I was like, “Yeah I’m definitely addicted to this stuff, ok great, how do I keep getting it?”
The way I dealt with it was to do cocaine on the weekends with heroin because I didn’t want to just fall asleep. And then at some point you realize that cocaine is cut with a lot of shit and it’s really expensive, but crack isn’t. So they go hand in hand. By that time I was such a heroin addict the idea that, “Man this other thing is pretty bad” just didn’t happen. It’s kind of obvious but that path of, “I didn’t get addicted, they always tell you when you’re in Elementary school that if you try weed you’re going to addicted. I didn’t get addicted to that, I know plenty of people that didn’t get addicted to that.”
How did you guys end up working with Deranged again for this record?
We did the Sex Pigs 7-inch and the self-titled LP with them. After that our friend Dean [Spunt] who runs this label called PPM and also plays in No Age asked us to do a 7-inch with him, but then that 7-inch turned into the Mutt LP. Then we did another LP with him. We just had new material and it wasn’t like there was ever any reason why we left or didn’t release a record with Deranged. It was always a good experience, just good vibes.
You had a zine series that you were doing for a while too…
For a long time I did this thing called Breathing Problem zine and it was like copy machine manipulation stuff. I used to sell some online and back when Hospital Productions was still a storefront I’d send copies there. I’m sure someday I’ll do another one but for a time period I really discovered the images that I wanted to make. I’d basically Google search images of families or whatever and then decontextualize them through copy machines. So instead of an image of a family together that was really normal and nice, I’d copy it over and over again until you don’t know what’s going on and it becomes a very scary thing. I think that’s something that you can see with anything once you take it from its context and really see what it is.
How does it feel to be out on tour again, do you guys still have the same following that you did when you broke up?
If anything it’s way more positive. There are all kinds of people coming out to the gigs like, “I didn’t get the chance to see you guys ever, I discovered you when you were broken up and I never thought I’d get to see you live.” And I mean that’s flattering and amazing and nice. I guess all that we can ever hope for is that some people want to check it out and have some connection to it and like it and I hope they do.
I think one thing that’s weird that I wanted to mention is that we’ve never gotten along with the local Austin punk scene, not because we tried to alienate ourselves from it, but because the person that runs and does all the main gigs in Austin has always hated us and has kind of viewed us as posers because of whatever from really early on. So we just dealt without that person’s support. But there’s a whole group of younger punk bands that are doing cool stuff in Austin. There’s Recide, Glue, and Blotter and they’re all doing stuff.
But right before we left for tour that band Blotter made a flyer that said “Total Abuse is playing August 3rd in Austin, but if you want to see a real punk show go to this show the same night.” I’ve talked to these kids before, seen them at shows been nothing but cordial and nice. So I talked to this dude like, “Why did you do this, I’ve never said anything bad about your band?” And all the guy had to say was, “Well, you know, you guys have talked shit about punk and hardcore before.” “But I’ve never talked shit about you guys, punk is an idea, it’s a concept, what does that even mean?”
On our first tour, a lot of people came and saw us because our demo and our first 7-inch have a pretty traditional 80’s hardcore kind of vibe. But they would come and hang out with us and talk to us and be like actually shocked at what we were listening to, like minor stuff, what we were listening to in the van or what was on our iPod or what our vibes were and were like weirdly bummed out.
And I think what we kept talking about was wanting to see more bands that took those elements that are amazing that exist in punk and hardcore and fucking with them and changing them. Our idea was to take something that we loved and to change and to mutate it and try to push it forward. Whether that failed, whether it’s still a failure, that’s for other people to decide but our intent was to change these elements and fuck with them, not that we’re special or were the first people to have that idea at all. But I think that people get really touchy about that and I think it’s weird that still there’s this kind of flack and strange passive aggressiveness. These bands in Austin who view us as these assholes who want to destroy punk.
What are your plans for the future? Being back where do you see the band going, what do you want the band to be?
We’ve already written a couple songs, we’re going to write and LP and record it for Deranged. I just hope that we can keep making interesting records. In a way there’s not that many hardcore bands… well there are, but I feel like we kept putting out LPs and trying to push it and not just repeat ourselves.
You guys have definitely produced much more music than the average hardcore/punk band.
All I can say is I hope that we’ll keep trying to write interesting stuff and hopefully people like it and dig it and we’ll keep playing.
Do you want to be a band that’s on the road all the time?
I don’t think so. The way we talk about it is to do it every four months or something like that, but not too much.
Pick up Total Abuse’s 7-inch Looking For Love out now on Deranged Records and keep an eye out for their forthcoming LP with the same label later this year.