By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Small Smile Records.
Trends are hard to pin down, especially in music where the culture changes so rapidly that it takes most people months to catch up with what’s in. It’s difficult to tell what is done genuinely and what is done ironically, forever creating a schism between people who know and people who don’t know.
A recent punk rock trend that has claimed many bands has been the “no vowels in the band name” trend. Bands like CSTVT, HRVRD, RVIVR (okay, one slipped by) are riding this wave, and it’s really catching some steam. Los Angeles based CRMNL HYGNE (or, Criminal Hygiene), went the way of the vowel absence, but as guitarist/vocalist Michael Fiore explained to BTR, they’d accept either spelling. And, like all good rock n’ roll, there was a bit of mystery behind the intentions of their decisions. Whether or not they are completely serious remains unclear, but it’s only the critics that really care.
James Pratley Watson, bassist/vocalist, gave quite possibly the most eloquent answer as to why they spell their name that way.
“The decision to mix the vowel-less (almost) spelling in with the proper form was to signify the band’s awareness and hip-ness to post-literacy… a movement spearheaded by the fairly recent surge in image-based communication. Removing the vowels from our name (from any band’s name) puts an emphasis on the image of the name rather than the actual words of it. The name then becomes something to be taken in visually rather than literally, clicking with the younger generations listening to our music who, knowingly or not, operate in the post-literate, image-based communication infrastructure. I think how we both break away from or embrace this trend is simply by knowing why we do it. But most importantly, this band’s goal is to be cool and trendy because that’s how you get laid. “
Before you peg CRMNL HYGNE as a brain dead LA garage rock band, think again. Only a band this hyper-aware could give that kind of an answer, and also have members that say they don’t care about how people spell their name. There’s also the distinct possibility that they’re fucking with us, which is fine. They’re catchy either way.
They self-refer themselves on their Bandcamp page as “garage punk,” which takes on a number of different connotations. Garage lies in the romantic ideals of being a group of haggard, broke musicians who can only afford to practice/play shows in their garages. It also can mean the sound spawned by MC5 in Detroit, and later manifesting in punk and popular early 2000’s bands like the Strokes and the Vines. Like the band name distinction, CRMNL HYGNE contradicts itself as a cohesive whole with differing opinions on the matter.
Fiore says, “I’m personally kind of tired of the garage label, it is starting to feel constricting. Seems like everything is being called garage rock now because it’s easy.”
Watson has a different take. “I appreciate the romantic element of the garage label; sweaty basements, 40 ounces, DIY spaces, etc. If you reject the consumerism aspect of it, the whole ‘garage’ scene has pretty powerful tools for rebellion and transcendence. We use the label both to pay homage to our origins and to make a statement on our sound. We recorded the LP literally in a garage but we also thought the label was useful in joining the 70s/80s punk revival going on in LA. But now that we’re ‘in it’ so to speak that label seems restricting as we keep hearing so many bands with so many sounds and styles. In that sense I’m really excited to see the more versatile ‘garage’ bands, those with some longevity, to go forth and create new sounds, genres and labels. I think we’re one of those bands.”
Their most recent release, the self-titled debut, is a testament to the grittiness of garage punk. It’s seventeen songs all wrapped up in a nihilistic package and if you’re looking to gripe over the slightly out of tune guitars and non-auto tuned vocals, then listen to something else. Tracks like “Beneath the Flame” and “Dirty Knees” are love songs of an almost BDSM-like quality while “Andrew’s Song” and “Teeth” have a delightful reckless abandonment to them. These songs are not pretty, but if you could scrape off the grit you might just find some charm under the surface.
There are seventeen songs, yes, but this is no Tommy. Some tracks barely reach 45 seconds while others exceed the standard pop length of 3:30. CRMNL HYGNE does not care for the standards. Again, if you want to gripe about the nit-picky elements of their music, listen to something else. It is more than possible that they took a hint from Torrance, California’s Joyce Manor in regards to song length inconsistencies.
The age-old debate of “What is punk?” seems tired and useless these days, as it is way more productive just to make music. One thing that most people can agree on that IS punk, is doing it yourself. This Emersonian self-reliance has been the calling card of all the truly innovative punk rock bands: The Clash, Fugazi, Black Flag. One of the more recent, yet somehow classic, ways of proving your independence is to start your own record label, which HYGNE has done. Their own Small Smile Records has created a crew of incestuous LA bands and artists.
All of the members seemed to agree on the upsides and downsides of owning a label as opposed to sucking on the teat of a more established label.
Drummer Sean “Birdman” Erickson says, “The upside is that we are the boss and can do whatever we want, the downside is that we don’t actually have any money to get shit made. I’d rather be on a label that let us do whatever we want while putting out our music and helping us tour.”
With a small collective comes a heavy amount of overlap between the bands and artists. The boundaries between the two are negligible in Small Smile.
Fiore told BTR, “There is a lot of overlap. Most of the artists on Small Smile play in each other’s bands, and produce each other’s music. A lot of it is solo projects, and bands that are on hiatus. It’s a cool collective and we have fun with it.”
Birdman said that they all have things in common like, “Mostly beer drinking, making things, basketball, skateboarding, and generally being shitheads.”
The synthesis of punk rock, skateboarding and art is a historically Californian culture. Where it seems like a lot of bands are abandoning their roots, CRMNL HYGNE embraces their Californian identity.
When asked where they think they stand in the vast sprawl of LA’s music scenes, they said, “I have no idea, I don’t think there’s a unifying element except that they’re all generally pretty loud. To me a ‘scene’ tends to mean a group of people that you aren’t really friends with but connected to through some unspoken sense of coolness or belonging. One of the ideas behind Small Smile was that we’d just take all our friends and highlight each of their talents so that the scene was the friend group.”
Though they don’t exactly know where they fit in besides their own close-knit Small Smile crew, CRMNL HYGNE knows who they are.
Fiore says, “We are an LA band. I am from New York, but I live in LA now and that’s how its gonna be for a while.”
Without a second guess, that’s how it is for CRMNL HYGNE. You do what you do and the rest just kind of falls into place.