- by Tom Dumarey
Influenced by everyone from The New York Dolls and The Clash to The Replacements and Big Star as well as the classic rock your parents grew up on, Criminal Hygiene has a lot to live up to. I mean, these are some big names. But just one listen to single ‘Hardly News’ or ‘Dangers Of Convenience’ (check out the video below) and it’s obvious they more than hold their own. We caught up with guitarist/vocalist Michael Fiore to talk about all things ‘Run It Again,’ the band’s sophomore album which will be out next Friday via Dangerbird Records. (photo credit: Cara Robbins)
PRT: You started Criminal Hygiene back in 2011, released a self-titled album in 2013 and an EP in 2014. But it took you until now to release another full-length. Release-wise it looks like you slowed down in those years in between, but was that really the case?
Michael: Yeah, we slowed down a little release-wise, but we still did some touring in those years. We were fortunate enough to have friends take us out (Twin Peaks, Bleached, Together PANGEA etc) and I think that helped us keep moving forward even when things seemed a bit stagnant. That period was tough for us, battling self destruction and at the same time trying to move forward to something new. We were constantly demoing and writing a lot of music at that time, some of which you hear today.
PRT: You released a handful of singles in the past because you felt like that was the thing to do now that everybody is streaming everything via Spotify, YouTube,... Do you feel like there is still room for albums these days?
Michael: I think I can speak for all of us saying we firmly believe in the album as an art form, despite what the industry has shifted to. There’s something about a collection of songs assembled in the right order that speaks louder than a single. I love to hear a single, but the whole point is to get you interested in the big picture, aka the album. We released singles for the sake of gathering a bit of momentum if we could.
PRT: If you listen to your debut and then to ‘Run It Again’, I think it’s fair to say that you have grown by leaps and bounds as songwriters. Is that solely due to experience or are you approaching songwriting differently now?
Michael: I think as one gets a little older, the writing isn’t necessarily “better” , but it has an added level of conciseness that wasn’t there in the early days. A good chunk of these new songs were written fully or started in development a few years back and then we finished them off as older guys now. You just gain experience over the years and have more to talk about . When you’re young you have nothing to lose and it’s easier to toss off songs with reckless abandonment. Now it’s a challenge to say the things we were feel are important to us.
PRT: One example is ‘Rearrange Me’. You first released that song as a single back in 2012 in a rawer version, while the version on the album is a lot more refined. What is it about that song that made you want to re-record it for ‘Run It Again’?
Michael: It all kind of started with a request from Dangerbird to go back in the studio and try some of the old tunes they loved re-recorded. They gave us their 3 favorites and we were always partial to “Rearrange Me”. It’s been a fan favorite per say, and actually Michael Hiller has been telling me for years he wanted to lay it down again to sound closer to the way we play it live now. So we tried it out with Alex Newport and it came out great so we included it on the album. After we released it as a single, more than a few people had messaged us or texted me that they still preferred the raw original version, so I guess you can’t win.
PRT: Did a lot of the other songs that make up the album percolate as long as ‘Rearrange Me’? Or do they usually come along more spontaneously?
Michael: More often than not, the actual process of writing the song, usually on an acoustic guitar, comes pretty fast and spontaneously. That being said, working the song out with the band and demoing could take months or even years in some cases . We wanted to get it right. A perfect example would be the song “Thankless”. There’s probably 5 or 6 demos of that song laying around, maybe more. It took time to get exactly what we wanted across on recording. The process taught us a lot about patience in the music world, something we really lacked in the beginning.
PRT: You recorded ‘Run It Again’ with Alex Newport who has previously worked with a ton of really diverse bands. What was it that made you want to work with him? And what would you say was the biggest thing you took away from working with him?
Michael: Before we went on a tour with Bleached, they had mentioned us to Alex while they were recording an EP with him. He came to see us shortly after the tour, on a night when we were supposed to be “tour tight” but ended up being as loose as it gets. In the wake of falling down and generally flopping, Alex talked to us after the set and expressed his like for our songs. I was already a huge fan, he made some of my favorite albums growing up, especially the At The Drive In stuff. So needless to say we were all excited to work with him and it ended up coming together nicely. Working with Alex really opened up our ears. His attention to detail is my favorite thing I personally took away from him. He can hear any slight tempo change, or slight note tuning. It’s crazy. He also has such a calm demeanor, while being absolutely hilarious at the same time. Hard to explain. Must be all the raw hot dogs he eats.
PRT: While reading up on you guys, I found quite a number of posts about your rowdy live shows, getting banned from bars, drunken antics,... do you feel that just happens when you guys play or do you like to instigate?
Michael: The rowdy stuff is part reality and part myth. I imagine some of the things you read could be exaggerated and some might not be has bad as they actually were. The early days we had a lot of energy and a lot of anxiety maybe and drinking was a big part of the chaos that would eventually ensue. We used to have a laugh at rocking the boat or just seeing how far we could push things, especially when rock music here in the LA scene seemed kind of stale and contrived. We took a lot of frustrations out that way, and almost every time it hurt us. We thought it was funny to keep going backwards, mainly because we knew the songs were going forward . We were 100% instigators. It was that irony and dichotomy that defined our band for a while, and maybe still does.
PRT: I also came across a site called Band To The Bone, ‘a drunken interview site run by Criminal Hygiene, Twin Peaks and The Orwells’. It’s not active anymore, but it made me wonder... if you could drunk interview any band, who would it be and why?
Michael: A dream interview would probably be with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot era Wilco. Obviously picking Jeff Tweedy’s brain would be crucial. I’d also love to throw back some tequila with Neil Young around 1974 and see what he’d have to say about the time. We’re constantly in awe of Neil. Probably the most listened to artist in the van besides ZZ Top and Roger Miller.
PRT: Other than world domination, what is one thing you would still like to achieve with Criminal Hygiene?
Michael: To be honest I think we all just want to make a modest living playing the music we liked . We don’t need or want to dominate anything really. We’re heading in the right direction and we’re taking it step by step. That’s all.
PRT: ‘Run It Again’ will be out March 1 via Dangerbird. What’s up next for you once it’s out? Any plans in the works to come over to Europe?
Michael: Once the album comes out we’re going to tour for a bit in the US and Canada . Would love to get out to Europe by the fall or maybe early next year, we’ll see what’s in store . We already started working on the next album so we’ll have that task as well. If we don’t get a Rolling Rock sponsorship by the end of summer I’m quitting the band though. That’s in the contract