If you’re the type of person who loves gritty, filthy, scummy music – be it nasty hardcore punk, degenerate power electronics, grimy noise rock, whatever – chances are you’ve heard the news that Austin, TX-based smut mongers, Total Abuse, have a new LP dropping this year. So, I got in touch with Rusty Kelley, the band’s frontman, to wade through all of the fuzz and the muck, and to get right to the heart of what Total Abuse is all about, and to get a look at what they’re doing with their new release.
CN: I think that if people are reading this, they probably already know who Total Abuse is, and what it is that you do. They also most likely know about your new LP (maybe the article title gave it away). So, without the need for much introduction, let’s jump right into this interview.
Total Abuse began in 2006 and ended in 2011 following the release of the Prison Sweat LP. Then, much to everyone’s surprise, you rose from the dead in 2013 and picked up right where you left off. How have you managed to keep your original lineup this entire time? Most longstanding bands tend to have somewhat of a revolving door lineup as members get sick of each other or disagree about direction; what makes Total Abuse an exception?
Rusty: Personally, I feel like each member is irreplaceable; the band couldn’t exist the same way in terms of songwriting/aesthetics or morale (or lack thereof). We grew up around each other and were all friends first; we all related to each other because we loved the same bands/art/sense of humor. We all love to hang out with each other anyway.
I think each member adds a different and specific element: Matt Lyons loves post punk and no wave, Ryan Foster is a total Killed By Death / proto-punk fiend, Dustin loves amazing songwriting all over the board from Bathory to pop music, Duncan is a riff master and understands the total ins and outs of hardcore punk, heavy metal and rock music from every angle and era, and I am an industrial music / noise fiend. Like I said all these elements come into play. I think if you take one away something goes missing.
CN: Another rule you seem to be breaking is that you’re on your fourth LP. Since your demo in 2006, Total Abuse has evolved a great deal. The early material (the demo, Sex Pig EP, and s/t LP) was much more straightforward hardcore punk, drawing heavily from classic midwestern bands like The Fix and Necros. Then, Mutt brought a new weirdness and fierceness to your music, taking cues from stranger and nastier 80s bands like Mecht Mensch and Vile. The biggest jump can be seen on Prison Sweat, though, which feels like the sort of filth spewed out by Blight and Groinoids. Looking For Love sat at a point between Mutt and Prison Sweat, with some Brainbombs edge on the title track, and Excluded, the new LP, feels as though it combines the best of those two LPs as well. But, somehow, through all of these changes, it’s clear that you’ve remained the same band with the same core sound. So, my question – finally, after all that lead in – is how do you manage to keep things from getting stale? Most hardcore bands can barely get past their demo and first 7”, but somehow you’ve managed to churn out four LPs, each one more volatile and visceral than the last. What’s your secret?
Rusty: It’s interesting because even with the demo and Sex Pig we were hoping to showcase something beyond just traditional 80s hardcore revival. When we began and thought up Total Abuse, we wanted to combine the perfection and rawness of straight forward hardcore punk with an off kilter/weird/damaged/postmodern visual aesthetic and overall vibe. I think when we recorded the s/t LP, we had some interesting songs that went outside of the traditional scope of hardcore revival – specifically Secrets, Electrical Tape, Disease, and Eastern Thoughts. Of course with Mutt I feel we were finally able to fully create the songs we had been fantasizing about: a true mix of hardcore minimalism, post-punk sensibility, and a noise / industrial aesthetic. I think we have always tried to write solid SONGS, holding onto that strong importance in quality songwriting coupled with an extreme trashed / strange / warped sound. Prison Sweat was all about songs on the verge of falling apart and hanging on by a thread; Excluded is full of power and structure – the opposite in sound and theme to Prison Sweat.
CN: I mentioned earlier that there was a breakup in 2011 which lasted until 2013, and I’ve read that this was largely due to addiction. If it’s a difficult topic for you, I understand, but would you be willing to talk about that period – leading up to the breakup, during it, getting clean, and Total Abuse’s reformation?
Rusty: I can only speak for my own habits and issues. I became addicted to oxycontin in the fall of 2010, and became a full blown heroin addict by December. I became a shell of a human, completely sold over to the life or addiction and betrayal. By summer 2011, I was totally addicted to crack cocaine as well. For almost two years, I was in and out of rehab centers and detoxes. I stole and lied and destroyed; I have nothing but regret for those years. The band ended in March 2011 when I was in the beginning throngs of my addiction. I told the band we needed to break up, and everyone knew why. I was totally gone and broken. We had one member living in New York and one in Oakland, CA, so we were already spread out, but I was the one who really pushed it, though – the end of the band. But when I got clean in October of 2012, I started to call Duncan regularly to chat over the phone. We began to intensely talk about restarting the band and in September of 2013, Duncan and Matt flew down to Austin and we played a return gig. Both Matt and Duncan then moved back to Austin full time and the rest is history. I have been off heroin and crack cocaine since that Oct 2012 – 3 years almost. I have my partner, Emelia Mckay, and my brothers in Total Abuse to thank.
CN: Thanks for sharing that, many people have trouble talking about that sort of thing; but congratulations on cleaning up!
Kind of an abrupt shift in focus here: thematically, Total Abuse has seen a shift from Whitehouse-esque lyrics – focusing on misogyny, domination, rape, and other related topics – to lyrics which are much more introspective. Has it always been personal for you, or has your approach to writing changed?
Rusty: If you look at the demo, Sex Pig, and the s/t LP, almost all those lyrics are introspective and almost all about self hatred, although some of the demo and Sex Pig lyrics did deal with lashing out and typical hardcore mad the world type tracks. The song Sex Pig was the first TA track to really begin what would define my lyrical style for all the rest of the albums: a type of inward confessional set of lyrics. I wanted to focus on the multitude of obsessions that I deal with internally. Sex Pig of course was about how I watched pornography and isolated myself, living inside my sex fantasies and rejecting the outside world. Mutt was a total concept album from start to finish. These are the lyrical “Whitehouse” themes you might be referring to, but I would say they mainly dealt with introspection/confession and a look at issues of misogyny and pornography from a social standpoint. Mutt is thematically a conversation between a john and a hooker; both acknowledging the parasitic nature of each other, neither existing without the other.
Everything lyrically is personal…Otherwise why bother?
CN: It’s really cool to see that there’s depth to a lot of what you’re writing, especially since many of the topics you deal with manifest themselves in punk and noise music as a means to shock – playing into mainstream oppressive attitudes, rather than as a critique of those attitudes. I was spinning my copy of “Mutt” the other day and while I was looking over the insert, I noticed the quote from Andrea Dworkin; I was surprised, not just that I hadn’t noticed it before, but also because I was unsure of the relationship the quote had with what you were saying in the lyrics. Do you think most people who listen to your music, and that LP in particular, understand what you’re trying to do, or do you think they lump you in with shock value type stuff? Also, could you elaborate on some of the influences on your writing? I’m interested to see what else inspires you, especially since I’m sure most people wouldn’t necessarily expect you to be drawing from radical feminist writers.
Rusty: I have to give credit to discovering Dworkin to the writing and interviews of Peter Sotos. I had known many of the third wave feminists despised Dworkin, but it wasn’t until Sotos praised her writing that I dug into her body of work. She has a complex relationship to her subjects: she is extremely obsessive, and aside from her actual writing being incredible, the subject matter (and what you can read between the lines) becomes more about Dworkin’s own personal obsession and relationship with pornography and violence against women and the true state of “human nature.”
With Mutt, I began the insert with the Dworkin quote about pornography and ended it with a Ted Bundy interview (I think his last ever interview ) with him blaming pornography for his crimes. I wanted to bookend the insert with these quotes to showcase the idea that the “truth” about pornography, whatever that might be, lies in the complex relationships we as humans have with the material. Some would say Dworkin exaggerates the violence porn does against women, and some would say Bundy is making excuses because he wants to appeal to Christians and anti-porn crusaders. I think pornography is both benign and the cause of violence. It depends on how we interact with, use, and seek out the material. Images are important to everyone.
I am usually uninterested in shocking people. Punks and noise heads alike are easily entertained and shocked. I am interested in sharing these things inside me that I am obsessed with, to confess. Maybe others have similar interests and tastes, maybe not.
CN: Speaking of lyrical themes, what’s the driving force behind the lyrics on Excluded? Prison Sweat seemed to focus on addiction, the Looking For Love 7” appeared to be somewhat of a return to form, and Excluded feels like an entirely different monster all together.
Rusty: Prison Sweat was about everything that was ripping me apart, an album about showcasing and showing the world my addiction and self destructive habits, an album asking the question if confessing and spilling all these secrets made any change or “helped” anything at all. The song Hogg specifically asks this question.“Show the world you’re scum! It doesn’t mean a thing!” Prison Sweat implied that catharsis and transgression don’t really exist. You shower yourself in filth and hatred and addiction and document it all and sing about it and it doesn’t change anything, internally or externally. Excluded is the opposite. It is about trying to define yourself after you get off drugs, after you chose to end your cycle of self destruction, after you decide to change your life. Excluded is about separating yourself from everyone and everything and trying to create another identity; Excluded asks the question, “Who am I when I’m not singing about self destruction?” The album hopefully answers that question.
CN: There’s another aspect of Excluded which really seems to set it apart from its predecessors: the production. It feels bigger and badder, but has lost none of the of the grime and fuzz. What was different about the recording process for this LP?
Rusty: We really decided to go all out on this album, to push things away from the total lo-fi arena which we were used to, and to move into another direction which allows all the sounds be out in the open full force; nothing hidden. We kept all the noise and filth but were also able to showcase our songwriting in a huge way. We employed a producer on this album. We got in contact with David Williams, and he really took our sound and pushed it in a place none of us knew it could go to. I can’t stress just how incredible and talented David is! We recorded in Austin, TX at Ohm Studios; and the owner Chico was just amazing. This recording session was truly incredible.
CN: This question really has nothing to do with you as a band, but moreso your opinions on the state of punk. What are some trends happening right now that you can’t wait to be over? Is there anything you want to see more of? Anything you feel was too short-lived?
Rusty: Punk is always about cycles and trends. When I got involved in punk in the year 2000 at the age of 13, I witnessed the end of the youth crew revival of the late 90s; I also saw the 80s hardcore revival begin and by the time total abuse began in 2006 that revival was dying. I think we have tried to exist beyond whatever little trend is big in the punk world. We have tried to exist outside of punk. We hopefully appeal to all types of freaks. We have played noise gigs, indie rock bills, hardcore shows, and anything else we could hop on – instead of playing to an isolated closed punk audience we decided to try and appeal to whoever was interested. I think the punk world is all about this kind of masturabtorial civil war reenactment, perfecting this obsessive aesthetic which the trends define and then showcasing it to a relatively small subset of people. I think Total Abuse is all about creating interesting and original sounds. We might write a track that uses a hardcore template but then purposefully shift it around and fuck with it. I always just scratch my head when i see a group of kids trying to recreate some hardcore fantasy in their mind, dressing up in a costume and trying to sound like a tape from 1983 instead of trying to strive for originality and freedom. Oh well.
CN: And now, the cliché final question: what should we expect from Total Abuse in the future? Will there be a tour for the new LP? Are there any more releases lined up?
Rusty: Total Abuse will be touring extensively through the west coast in summer 2016, and also playing some shows in the winter and spring to promote Excluded. We have also been talking about writing a 7” to come out after Excluded. We aren’t done…
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for…Prepare yourselves to be obliterated by this cut from Total Abuse’s upcoming Excluded LP: Chew On The Cage.