Interview: Criminal Hygiene, on pizza, beer and music — and getting saved by Purgatory

Criminal Hygiene (Photo by Cara Robbins)
Criminal Hygiene (Photo by Cara Robbins)

The pie chart of the life of Criminal Hygiene can be divided roughly into three slices: pizza, beer and music. At times, not in that order.

The band — founding members Michael Fiore, Michael Hiller and Sean “Birdman” Erickson, now joined by Cameron Ward — have slugged it out (you can take that literally, too) in backyards, bars and nightclubs for seven or so years. They’ve played more sloppy shows than great shows (although that’s changing). They’ve done grueling van tours (including having their van lifted onto a tow truck while they were sleeping in it). And they’ve faced more rejection than a socialist at a Trump rally.

And yet they have tried and tried and tried and tried again — a spirit that inspired the title of their album “Run It Again,” out Friday via Dangerbird Records.

It’s a rough-and-tumble rock record sizzling with astringent guitars and equally biting attitude, from a beer-guzzling outfit that counts among their influences the likes of Johnny Thunders, the Clash, Big Star, Guided By Voices, Fugazi, the Pixies, Pavement and, as New York native Fiore says, “Minneapolis stuff like The Replacements, Husker Du, the Suicide Commandos and the Suburbs.” Especially the Replacements.

With its big, buoyant guitars, strident vocals and crash-bang rhythms, “Run It Again” was made with Alex Newport, the Grammy-nominated producer who has worked with the likes of Bloc Party, At the Drive-In, the Sounds, Melvins, Frank Turner and City and Colour. Newport channeled the energy of 10 songs — some of which the band had played or recorded in various forms for as long as four years — into a crunchy, punchy rock sandwich.

And Newport won’t know this until he reads the Buzz Bands LA interview, but he almost didn’t get paid for his efforts.

Fiore and Erickson explain that Criminal Hygiene was dead broke when they signed a contract with Newport and started recording. Only a last-minute personal loan from Alex Koons — co-owner of Purgatory Pizza, the 1st Street eatery where all three members of the band work or had worked — saved the band from reneging on their deal. “If [Newport] only knew that when we were at his house eating hot dogs and drinking beer,” Erickson says.

“Run It Again” … brought to you by Purgatory Pizza.

We convened with Fiore and Erickson this week at Purgatory for a review of their deeds and misdeeds, and a sampling of their war stories:

||| Watch: the video for “Hardly News”

Buzz Bands LA: Pretty much every rock fan in this town has probably seen you play, but probably very few know Criminal Hygiene’s origin story. Can we start there?

Erickson: Hiller and I had moved to L.A. from Santa Cruz and were living with James [Watson], the original bass player. We lived by the USC campus. The first time I saw Fiore he was playing with his old band. They covered “Born to Be Wild” and he threw his guitar in the air and smashed it, and I thought, “This guy is a complete moron, but that’s pretty cool.”

Did you bond more over pizza or music?

Erickson: Pizza really got me into the scene.

Fiore: I remember meeting Bird, but we weren’t friends yet. There was a guy at that same show who was allegedly on mushrooms. He started peeing all over our gear. And a couple people just started beating the hell out of him, Bird being one. He was just standing at the front while we were playing and started peeing on our pedals, until somebody noticed and somebody else punched him in the face. This was all happening when I was drunk, playing “Born to Be Wild” and about to smash a guitar.

Erickson: I had gotten a harmonica thinking, “Maybe I’ll learn to play harmonica.” But that guy peed on it that night. I still don’t know how to play harmonica. He crushed my dreams.

And somehow you ended up working together at Purgatory …

Erickson: Back in the days this place didn’t used to be good. I used to make five pizzas a day here and just sit, or skateboard out front. Now everything’s super high-quality. … At that time, everybody who worked here played music too. Travis from Olin and the Moon, Zac from FIDLAR, Mike and Thor from Retox, who we ended up sharing a practice space with. It’s true, this place really kicked us off.

||| Watch: The video for “Dangers of Convenience”

When did you actually decide to be a band then?

Erickson: We were eating at Lucy’s drive-through spot, and Fiore and James asked, “You wanna be in our punk band?” A week later, we were supposed to play our first show at Villains Tavern but it got shut down. … Apparently, they didn’t know it was going to be a rock show. They wanted everything at acoustic levels. A couple bands in, they shut it down. Fiore got kicked out by some weird sound guy.

Fiore: He kicked me out for touching the soundboard. I remember being outside and hearing a chant starting to let me back in. … We had sold 190 tickets, so I emailed asking for payment anyway. They claimed in an email we had drank it all away — which was pretty true. We ended up cutting every band a check for $7.

Erickson: It was kind of perfect: The first-ever Criminal Hygiene show didn’t happen because it got shut down and we got paid $7.

There were quite a few shows after that, though …

Erickson: Then we played the Down & Out Bar about 100 times. That was pretty much our band practice for the first few months.

Fiore: They would just call us up when they needed someone to play. It was always kinda last-minute: “Hey, you guys wanna play tomorrow night?” They always gave us six drink tickets each, and each one could get you a tallboy, the big tallboys. So …

You guys were rough around the edges. I remember joking in 2013 that you’d be the best new band of 2015. Of course, in 2015, I said you’d be the best new band of 2017 …

Erickson: You can’t rush perfection.

Speaking of those days, how do you feel now about that first record you put out?

Fiore: I’m still proud of it. It doesn’t sound like we sound now, but the songwriting is there. It’s just produced and performed differently. It was a learning experience. They were essentially the best demos I’ve ever made, but turned into an album.

We found ways to not have a career sometimes, even when we were trying our hardest to make it work.

If you had to describe the period between 2014 and now, how would you do so?

Erickson: Four years. Some people get a degree.

Fiore: We went to the school of alcoholism and passed with flying scores. Got a doctorate. … But seriously, that was a long time. We wrote a lot, maybe more than 100 songs. We did some touring, but everything was sporadic. Everything was so disorganized. We could never line up a tour with a release, we could never play well on a tour, especially if we had an agent coming to see us. We always played the best shows to the weirdest people in the wrong state. Two and a half hours to a small crowd in Fort Worth. Or Sean selling merch while a guy we picked out of the crowd played drums with us in Fresno.

We found ways to not have a career sometimes, even when we were trying our hardest to make it work. But the one thing we did do well was gather a lot of people along the way who matter as much as having a fanbase. Having these people behind you who believe you can be successful, if you change a thing or two.

Erickson: Also, the people who have been into the music are really into the music.

I was standing with your producer the other night at the Dangerbird show and we agreed that you have never sounded so good.

Fiore: I will attribute that to the lady who was running sound. She nailed it. Usually when we play, everything is good at soundcheck but by the time we got onstage it’s like somebody got drunk and spilled shit all over the soundboard. … And besides, we practice now, that’s new. When we started, I couldn’t play guitar very well, although I thought I could. That was some false confidence there. Now we look back on old videos and think, “What the fuck?”

It was like gambling your whole career in Vegas on a credit card. If we’d have blown that, nobody ever would have trusted us again.

Tell me how the album came to be “brought to you by Purgatory Pizza” …

Fiore: Around 2016, we were wrestling with this big batch of demos. Doing them and redoing them. Every song on that record probably had six versions. We kept going over the songs and working with different people. We finally got a list of 12 to 14 songs that we thought would make a good record and decided to go all in. No one was biting on putting out the record based on our demos. And it was pretty much dumb luck that we met Alex Newport at a terrible show we played at the Griffin.

Erickson: We got way too drunk and it was one of the worst shows we ever played … which is saying something.

Fiore: Maybe it amused him because he’d never seen us before. A lot of friends who were there were rolling their eyes. “Oh, I’ve seen this shit before …” And Alex who owns the pizza shop came out, which is rare because he’s really busy. He said, “I was really hoping you guys would be tour tight, but that was garbage.” I’d never seen him upset, but he was upset.

Erickson: We met Alex Newport that way, though. And eventually, it was like, let’s do it with him and play him ourselves.

Fiore: We saved up some cash from shows to do one track with him, because he said he’d give us a shot on one track. He said if he liked it and his manager liked it, they’d see about more. So we did “Hardly News” and we all loved it. But our bank was zero after that.

Erickson: No, it was in the negatives.

Fiore: But after a couple of weeks, we talked to [Newport] and just shouted out a number, even though it was money we didn’t have. He said yes.

Erickson: We had a plan. Plan A was to go to Bank of America, where we have our debit card, and get a loan for the amount we told Alex we would pay him. After we were three to four days into recording, and loving it, we went to the bank. We went in there so confident. Of course, they said, “No, absolutely not.” We had already signed a contract saying we would pay Alex two days after he delivered the album to us. He doesn’t know this yet, but we didn’t have any money.

Fiore: It was like gambling your whole career in Vegas on a credit card. If we’d have blown that, nobody ever would have trusted us again.

So what was Plan B?

Fiore: That was to ask our parents for a loan. But that was a hard no.

Erickson: And then Alex, the owner here, took an interest.

Fiore: In the past, we’d discussed the idea of a Purgatory Records and things like that … but it was all drunk living room talk. When it really came time to come up with the money, it was almost like a mob movie. We were going to get shot if we didn’t come up with the dough.

Erickson: So we talked to him that day and asked him to loan us the money, and he did, then and there. If he wouldn’t have, Newport would have killed us and ate us like cold sausages. And he never would have gotten us in touch with Dangerbird, and that never would have happened. Truth is, we were just winging it.

Fiore: It was only a month or two later that we got signed and were able to pay back the loan. All Alex [Newport] knows is that he got paid, on time. It was one of our grand magic tricks.

So miracles happen in pizzerias?

Erickson: That was the pinnacle of Purgatory. Purgatory has been crucial to this band’s existence, from when I got the job, met all the guys here who play music, let us take off time to tour and our jobs would be there when we got back. … Plus, the fact that they would hire somebody like us in the first place.

So are you proud of the record?

Erickson: It’s the first thing I’ve worked on in my life that I could give to someone without giving some sort of disclaimer. You know, “Here’s a new song we did, but we were rushing to record it and just did it in our bedroom …”

Fiore: It’s because we had a singular idea …

What was that singular idea?

Fiore: It’s the title — “Run It Again,” the mantra. The idea of sticking with it. We thought we hit rock bottom several different times. We thought about not making it, firing everyone, quitting … We were beating ourselves over the head with the same songs thinking, “What is it that people aren’t people hearing?” It’s hard to put yourself on the other side because you’re so close to the songs.

You try recording 20 different versions of the same song.

Does that account for the big dose of pissed-off attitude that’s all over this record?

Erickson: Definitely. You try recording 20 different versions of the same song.

Fiore: And have people keep telling you they don’t like it … until finally they say, “I loved this!” And you’re like, shaddup.

Erickson: To be fair, it is much better than anything we’ve ever done. So thank you, Alex.

Based on that tale, there should be a framed album on the wall here at Purgatory.

Erickson: There’s a spot for it right there.

Fiore: You didn’t notice — we already have lyrics on the napkin dispensers. [It’s true.]

You must feel in some ways vindicated after so many years of misadventures.

Fiore: Yeah, here’s one: At one point, we only had a CD player in the tour van and only two CDs. One was ZZ Top’s Greatest Hits. And a crackhead broke into the van — and only stole my cellphone and the ZZ Top CD.

Erickson: While Hiller was sleeping the backseat. At 3 or 4 in the morning, in front of an all-hours speakeasy type place in Memphis in a lousy neighborhood.

Fiore: Weirdly enough, I had opened the van to get a beer, and this guy was sitting in the front seat, shaking. I got scared because I didn’t know what he was gonna do. I asked him to get out of the van, which he did, only to realize later he had my phone and the ZZ Top CD. We used the “find your iPhone” to locate the phone, but the bartender told us, “You don’t want to go where that phone is.”

Erickson: We didn’t care. We boosted over this fence with an axe handle and a cymbal stand and dropped down into what was Skid Row of Memphis. We never got the phone back. We cornered one guy up against a wall right as the cops rolled up. They slowed down and looked at us, then drove off. I don’t know how they couldn’t think that something bad was going on.

Fiore: So we went to White Castle and called it a night.

Erickson: Memphis, nice town.

||| Live: Criminal Hygiene opens for Bob Mould on Friday night at the Teragram Ballroom. Sold out.

||| Previously: “Greetings from a Postcard,” “Hardly News,” live at Echo Park Rising, “Dangers of Convenience,” “Turpentine,” “Sold in the City,” “Raid,” “Withdrawn,” Ears Wide Open (2012)