Denver Band American Culture Welcomes Back One of Its Own | Westword

Lost and Found: Denver Band American Culture Welcomes Back One of Its Own

When Michael Stein was mugged and beaten in Las Vegas, he had "given up on struggling with" heroin addiction. Now he's celebrating two years sober.
American Culture's Michael Stein (left) is lucky to be here. Bandmate Chris Adolf (right) knows that, too.
American Culture's Michael Stein (left) is lucky to be here. Bandmate Chris Adolf (right) knows that, too. Courtesy American Culture
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Michael Stein’s journey to hell and back isn’t as romantic as the one Dante Alighieri outlined in his fourteenth-century epic Divine Comedy.

Rather than circles of damned sinners, the longtime local musician describes a more contemporary metropolitan underworld of concrete tunnels bubbling just beneath the hedonistic excess and neon allure of Sin City. A place where the hopeless and otherwise discarded must fend for themselves or perish in the struggle.

Stein nearly succumbed to this personalized Inferno in the summer of 2022. He’d battled with heroin use for years, including since joining Denver group American Culture nearly a decade ago, and once again gave into the addiction. He essentially “fell off the face of the Earth,” he says, and wound up in Las Vegas, where he became part of a subterranean subculture full of junkies and vagabonds.

His bandmates and family knew nothing of Stein’s whereabouts. After filing a missing person’s report, his loved ones waited three months before hearing word that he’d been found alive, though badly beaten from a recent mugging.

“We thought he was dead,” says Chris Adolf, American Culture's guitarist and vocalist, adding that the night Stein’s father called and told him the news, “I shed tears.”

Stein returned to his hometown of Orange County, California, to live with his parents in November 2022. He's been clean since then and is excited about celebrating two years of sobriety this year. But he can still remember the wretched reality he ultimately accepted as his fate during that time in Las Vegas.

“I thought I was never coming back, and I'd given up on struggling with the addiction. I surrendered to it because I spent a really long time trying to want to be clean, which is a really hard thing to do. It sucks,” Stein shares.

“For one, when I was out there in Las Vegas after being robbed and all this shit happened, I just thought I wasn’t going to come back. I chose to stay there after a while," he continues. "Trying to quit something that you don’t want to quit sucks, completely. For a year I tried to figure out a way to stop doing something that I not only wanted to keep doing, but felt like I needed to keep doing and made my life better and can’t live without doing. That’s the struggle."

Adolf visited his longtime friend in California in early 2023 to see how he’d been holding up. American Culture toured a little without Stein, but Adolf kept open the possibility of the guitarist rejoining the group, which also includes bassist Lucas Johannes and drummer Scott Beck.
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Denver's American Culture is back with a new, optimistic album.
Courtesy American Culture

During Stein’s stint in hell, it seemed that making music with American Culture would be a part of his past. He figured his bandmates wouldn’t want anything to do with him when, or if, he resurfaced.

“Regardless of my own health, I also thought I was not in the band anymore, just because I flaked and was a missing human being for three months at the end of that,” Stein confesses. “Prior to that I had been a drug addict, so I had thought the band moved on without me. I definitely had worn out all of my trust and patience that any normal person would fucking have for somebody by the end of it."

But Adolf’s visit became the start of something that neither of them could have imagined at that time: a new American Culture album, Hey Brother, It’s Been a While. Released by local label Convulse Records on May 3, the record is the result of the turmoil Stein and his friends endured, and overcame, during those dark days.

American Culture will celebrate the album's release with a show on Saturday, June 8, at D3 Arts with Wave Decay, Angel Band, Cherry Spit and Elaine. “On so many levels, overcoming everything that happened and being on the other side of it really came into the sonic aspect of the record for me,” Stein says.

Stein penned the songs “Body Double” and “Survive,” which deal directly with his journey to recovery, while “Lost Puppy” and “Human Kindness” were written by Adolf and employ a concerned friend’s point of view.

“There’s a big sense of relief. Then he’s clean? That’s like a double rebirth," Adolf says. "Not only is he not dead, but he’s clean and not on heroin. That’s huge."

Given the somber source material at the core of Hey Brother, It’s Been a While — the title a nice nod to welcoming Stein back into the band — the album is an upbeat, if not optimistic, offering filled with the type of DIY indie, punk and jangle pop American Culture has become known for since forming in 2015. It certainly does not exude the doom and gloom that you might expect after hearing such a tumultuous backstory.

“The happiness of the other side of it shows through more than the dark side that preceded it,” as Adolf sees it.

Stein can’t exactly put his finger on why he decided to stop using for good, but “something clicked when I got back, and not intentionally, but I didn’t want to do it anymore,” he says.

“It made life so easy after that. I swear, if I had gotten back and been like, 'I should really stop doing heroin after all this fucked-up stuff happened,' and I still wanted to do it, I don’t know if I would be able to do that,” he continues. “Not wanting to do it is like the most relieving thing in the fucking world. It opened up all these things where our relationship was able to be better. The way I approach music is obviously more efficient, too.”

The nationwide DIY network continues to be Stein and Adolf’s self-built community, particularly in Denver, where American Culture was born from the remnants of various bands. Stein has long been a part of the DIY community, and was the first artist showcased at Squirm, which opened in the former Rhinoceropolis last year. The freedom to make whatever music the bandmates want, whether that’s psychedelic punk or ’60s-inspired garage rock, is what truly keeps the four-piece going.

“I think a lot of people feel this way, but I don’t feel connected to the normal world. It just gets sicker all the time, but my community and world is underground DIY music. I’d feel really disconnected from humanity if I was disconnected from that,” Adolf says. “It’s our whole social fabric. Like Michael has said in the past, it’s almost like a religion. People go to church for that social fabric in their life. This is our own version of that.”

“It’s community. It’s our own artistic expression, the way that we get to do something that I think in some ways is helpful to other people,” Stein adds, while admitting that his addiction spiraled when the scene shut down during the pandemic.

“It’s pretty much everything other than a steady income,” Adolf says, bringing some levity to the heavy conversation.

“It’s almost like once it gets in you, you don’t recover from it,” he continues. “Once you understand that there’s a whole world of creation that is creation for the sake of creation, not necessarily to sell, it’s too addicting. It’s like, this is the way society ought to operate, so I’m just going to live in that one instead of the real one that kinda sucks.”

The past two years feel like a “blur” to Adolf, but he’s excited to have his bandmate and brother back in the American Culture fold.

“The subject matter is dark. It’s a dark thing to happen,” he says regarding everything surrounding the latest album. “But then it’s like, ‘Wait, we’re sitting here making music even though you should be dead and this band should be ended. We still get to do this. How awesome is that?’ So the music is happy.”

Other than the release show, Stein isn’t sure when he’ll rejoin his bandmates back in Denver. Not that it’s necessary at this point: The D3 concert will kick off a tour through the Pacific Northwest for the month of June, and American Culture plans to proceed with making more music on the back of the band’s fourth album.

“We’re already on to the next record. ... We’ve got demos written and stuff cooking for the next one,” Adolf says, adding that American Culture "was a slow-moving band for a long time.”

But not anymore, according to Stein, who says, “This definitely feels like more of a launching point.”

American Culture, 7 p.m. Saturday, June 8, D3 Arts, 3632 Morrison Road. Tickets are $15 at the door.
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