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WHO OR WHAT ARE CRIMINAL HYGIENE?

 

It can be all kinds of thankless, this rock band thing. It’s not just one big party. It’s a hard job. The odds are stacked against you. And reward can be fleeting. But still, knowing all that, there’s nothing else the boys in Criminal Hygiene would rather do.  

 

Formed in 2011, Criminal Hygiene are a Los Angeles-based quartet comprised of founding member Michael Fiore (vocals, guitars, keys), Michael Hiller (vocals, bass, guitars) and Sean “Birdman” Erickson (drums, percussion) and bassist Cameron Ward. Fiore handles the lion’s share of the songwriting though Hiller is responsible for several gems too. Over the period of a couple years, they wrote-recorded-practiced and performed their asses off, releasing 5.5 singles, an EP and an album. They’ve played literally hundreds of local shows as well as 60-some national dates with the likes of Twin Peaks, Together Pangea and The Whigs, among others. In early 2018, they caught the ear of venerable indie label, Dangerbird Records and were quickly signed. Their 2nd album, Run It Again, is set for release March 1st, 2019.  

 

Run It Again is 10-song album that shines a fresh light on a raw sort of garage rock, full of melody, smart lyrics and hooks for days. Recorded at Future Shock studio in LA, produced by Alex Newport (Death Cab For Cutie, Frank Turner, Bloc Party), there’s an artful flow to the collection of songs. Though the band recognizes that for many listeners these days it’s an a la carte world, Sean Erickson (SE) states, “We put a lot of thought into the song order.” And it must be said - these guys really know how to sing. In particular, lead vocalist Michael Fiore seems able to effortlessly cram or stretch syllables at will. 

 

As opening tracks go, “Hardly News” is what’s called a grabber, kicking in with charging guitars, a tuneful, upbeat vibe, and a brain-twister of a first line: 

 

“If every person has people to be 

Then currently I’m some form of me”  

 

Ward feels the song is about “seeing yourself from an angle that you can’t necessarily portray to other people.” Michael Fiore (MF) confesses part of the lyric was inspired by a Wilco song he loves called “Wishful Thinking.”  

 

“Breaking Out The Stained Glass” is another stomper, with a thoughtful lyric and a lively riff. MF: “This one was very influenced by R.E.M.’s ‘Losing My Religion.’ It’s about how people follow things blindly, which I think can be a dangerous thing.”  

 

A slow number called “Thankless” comes third, with a musical intro that’s sophisticated, almost prog-ish. A song at least partly about writing a song. MF: “It’s actually a direct quote from a small blog - ‘The art of a songwriter is sometimes a thankless job.’”  

 

Rocker “Dangers of Convenience” follows. MF: “Plainly stated, it’s about being in relationships with people for the convenience factor.”  

 

“Rearrange Me” is an updated recording of one of their signature tracks, one that the whole band agrees has always been a favorite of everybody’s, fans included. And it’s the only song on the album that fades out. A nice touch for the vinyl as this track ends Side One. 

 

“Greetings From A Postcard” is an album highlight that has a different feel from the rest and features a cool, structural twist. MF: “I like when songs have a line that ends on what would be line 2 of the verse and carries over. On a lot of songs I don’t write the melody first. I’ll write a bunch of words that I like and see how they work when I sing them out. It’s almost a mathematical thing, where I figure out how they’re gonna fit in, if there’s too many or not enough. It’s an observational song, about desperate boredom. I wrote it coming off of a tour.” There’s a distinctly Big Star-ish element to the chord progressions and arrangement. It also contains arguably the most poetic lyrical phrase on the record, “Gilded wishes from a copper guy …” 

 

MF: “I wrote “Private Screening Heroin” the day Philip Seymour Hoffman died (there’s an acronym in there). It was shocking news.”  

 

MF: “’Young and Obscene’ is another older song that’s been reworked maybe 8 different times. I think I wrote it in high school. It evolved from a doo-wop 50s thing into a kind of Faces-like, 70s bar-rock feel.”  

 

MF: “’All But Your Swan Song’ is one partly inspired by our friend Alan, who’s … umm … when you meet him sober, he’s the nicest. But when he drinks, he fights. He’s scaling buildings, he’s falling through roofs of restaurants, fighting bouncers, doing all kinds of crazy shit. So, I just made up a dramatic story about this educated kid who goes down the wrong path. I’d been listening to a lot of The Clash and noticed how sometimes they don’t directly play eighth notes on the guitar, there’s some very syncopated guitar stuff. We took that to heart and made all the bass and guitar parts really staccato so they jumped out.”  

 

The sprawling closing number was written by Michael Hiller, who explains: ”’Turpentine’ was written at the pizza parlor where all of us work. I really, really like the Shins. And grew up on Zeppelin and Neil Young, so I like the higher pitched melodic singing. And a lot of guitar solos, obviously!” 

 

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From Humble Beginnings: The as yet unnamed band began as a studio duo in late 2011. Close friends Michael Fiore and James Watson were in their last year at the University of Southern California. Over lunch one day the two decided to record some music. They played everything themselves, working in James’ garage, recording live on a Tascam 8-track cassette machine, then bouncing everything to Logic Pro on a computer for overdubs and mixing. Skipping classes and day-drinking over a several month period yielded a large batch of songs, from which they would cull their first releases. One of them, called “Teeth,” fortuitously contained the couplet: 

 

“I got criminal hygiene 

I got blood on my teeth” 

 

Eureka! A band name had fallen into their laps.  

 

A two-piece in the studio was one thing. But Fiore and Watson were itching to play live so, the drummer search began. Providence arrived when Erickson moved down to LA from Santa Cruz with a mutual friend/musician. Voila! A trio was born. Band name and drummer – check!  

 

Now things started happening quickly. After just a couple of rehearsals, the live gigs began at a punk rock bar in downtown LA called The Down And Out. SE: “I think we played our first 40 shows in that bar.” MF: We’d play there once or twice a week, trying to figure out what the band was going to be. They couldn’t pay us but always gave us enough to drink so it was worthwhile.” 

 

When it comes to influences, how much time you got? MF: Everything from Johnny Thunders to The New York Dolls, The Clash and Wire. Television and Richard Hell. Minneapolis stuff like The Replacements, Husker Du, The Suicide Commandos and The Suburbs. Big Star. Guided By Voices. Fleetwood Mac. Fugazi. The Pixies. Nirvana. Pavement. The Shins. Wilco. Marshall Crenshaw. Tommy Keene. And all cite the Classic Rock they heard via their parents.  

 

Criminal Hygiene’s recorded output officially began in November and December of 2012, with the release of back-to-back singles - “Blak Water” and “Rearrange Me.” The first album followed in January. 17 songs with a total running time of 38:52! Influential online ‘zine, Consequence of Sound raved, “All that academic negligence paid off … an LP that’s as reckless and carefree as it is determined and lethally efficient … balancing the evocative with the asinine … crafting a rocking LP that pays homage while blazing its own trail upward and onward”  

 

Local dates proliferated, national touring ensued. Sadly and significantly, sometime after a run of dates to and from Austin, TX for SXSW 2013, Watson decided to leave the band. MF: “He’s a jack-of-all-trades. A genius musician, does film work and graphic design, and I think doing just one thing wasn’t his idea of a career. There were no hard feelings. He told me he was going to leave. And it was kind of a seamless thing. I just called up Michael Hiller (the aforementioned mutual friend who had moved to LA with Erickson) and said, “Do you want to be in the band? And that was it.” Interestingly enough, Hiller and Watson had been good friends since they were 8 or 9 years old. 

 

With the current, often bewildering, state of the music business, it’s impossible to say how an album like Run It Again will be received. Fortunately, because of the autonomy of the internet, business machinations and hurdles no longer rule the masses. The quality of Criminal Hygiene’s writing and performances is sure to be recognized by the portion of the global music community who listen carefully, however large or small that may be. After all, it’s an empirical fact that the cream always rises to the top, isn’t it? And that’s something we can all be mighty thankful for.  

 

Peter Jesperson 

Los Angeles – Sept. 2018