Earlier this year, LA’s Criminal Hygiene released their debut LP on Small Smile Records. Now, they’ve dipped deeper into their “badass list of contacts” care of the Small Smile collective to create a series of videos set to each of their LP’s 17 songs – with a one-week turnaround time for each snippet. The results? CRMNL HYGNE LP: A Musical Portrait is packed with an inordinately large number of costumes (or complete lack thereof) and a casual subversion that both encapsulates the band’s punk vibe and add even more energy into the high-wired songs.
To find out more, we melded minds with James Watson, Criminal Hygiene bassist and video director for one of the segments, and semi-pondered the meaning of the Small Smile collective, reveled in the NSFW imagery his band inspires, and talked about impulse vs. contemplation, all while getting a huge kick out of A Musical Portrait. Song-sized clips from the 30-minute full-length video are included below.
How did you form the Small Smile Records collective?
It was in college. I was surrounded by artists, and most of them were small smiling. I felt like putting a name to this funny network of artists/musicians/writers would help us all out, and give some identity to our cohort that wasn't “USC”. It was also my response to the overwhelming presence of the fraternity system at our school. It’s a gross and fucked up institution that any open-minded people felt threatened by, I’m sure. I had turned down NYU and Berkeley to go to USC, and at the time was probably feeling pretty regretful. Forming the collective helped me recognize that, regardless of my college choice, I had come to meet some incredible people at school.
So, what does being in a collective mean to you? Does it essentially operate as a support system for creative people?
It’s really not much more than a badass list of contacts. There are some larger overarching ideas to the collective identity, but those politics are too heady to keep track of. I could sit on my stoop and think of how wonderful it is to 'be in a collective', but the only time the collective really has any meaning (to me at least) is when we create something. We did a showcase last summer and now we've made this video. We're gonna put out a book at the end of the summer, and I'm sure other interesting projects lie ahead. These kind of projects help me keep updated on what these badass contacts are up to, how their aesthetics are developing, what's on their minds, how they're doing etc. And I imagine it provides similarly for the rest of those in the collective.
So it’s a support system in that it helps remind me of the talent and creativity around me. I get inspired by the work of people I truly know more than I get inspired by my idols, many of whom I'll never know as real, breathing, living beings. But other than that it’s not really a support system for artists…there's no money involved, we are spread out all over the country and everyone's operating independently. We just get together from time to time to make stuff.
Sounds like you're not into thinking about the “collective” as something collaborative, but more like a loose network of inspiring people. Still, this is a pretty direct example of your work inspiring and influencing other artists – I’m curious about how that feels!
It feels amazing!!! It feels good to watch the film because we get to see what our music inspires people to depict…madness, nudity, murder, skateboarding, dancing, drag, sex — it's all spot on!
So how much ownership do you feel in this project? Does it feel like a Criminal Hygiene project or not?
In one sense, it’s a collective effort, so it is essentially no one person's project. But I also think that our music inspired the videos and all-in-all gives off a certain aesthetic, which those making the videos tapped into as well as helped develop. It's hard to tell who owns it because Criminal Hygiene is in its early stages, and efforts such as this film help us shape our aesthetic (what our music looks like, feels like etc.). So in a way, the band is inspired as much by the video as those making the videos were inspired by the music.
How did the project change how you think about the songs?
For one, I think of the songs with visuals now, whereas before it was solely music and the emotions embedded, so that’s definitely different. Other than that, I didn’t feel too surprised by people's interpretations, so the stories told in the vids are more of an extension to my previous thoughts and feelings towards the songs, not a shift.
Does everyone that worked on the Musical Portrait primarily do video, or were some video first-timers?
Probably four were first-timers, most are video makers by trade.
Of all the videos, do you have a favorite or a top 5?
“Grady Get Angry.”
I know you did a video for this project, too. What other kinds of art are you into outside of music?
Yeah I've been doing things with video ever since I can remember, and I picked up a still camera in college. I also like writing poetry in this made-up language I developed a couple years ago (a small example can be found on the CRMNL HYGNE Bandcamp page) and from time to time I will write non-fiction and thought pieces in plain ol' English. Lately I've been interested in 'glitch hunting' where you use the screenshot feature on the iPhone and Macs to photograph an icon, image or text that has glitched out. The glitches I collect are small, but once blown up usually produce amazing colors and patterns. I'll be releasing a zine of them sometime soon. All this stuff can be found on my Tumblr.
I hear you recorded the CRMNL HYGNE LP by following your first impulses and asked the artists who participated in the portrait to do the same. Do you think art is all about impulse and trusting yourself — that immediate expression? What gets lost in thinking too much?
That's [guitarist Michael] Fiore's gig, he's all about trusting yourself and immediate expression when recording. He really spearheaded that aspect of the recording and writing process for us. I continue to learn from him for that, as well as help him to slow down, take a step back, rethink things or look at things differently. I believe that thinking is very much an action, and an important one, but depending on what you're making, like punk music, it's sometimes better to save the thinking for after.
Now that you've successfully pulled off this project, would you do a Criminal Hygiene record or project that was more collaborative from the beginning?
Yeah, that would be cool to open up the actual music to collectivity. I like what Beck did recently with releasing his album on sheet music. I also liked how Jimi Hendrix was working toward a universal music language before he passed away. Personally, I feel like I could make music with anybody, so Criminal Hygiene could definitely have some fun with trying collective music making. Small Smile’s next project is going to be that book, and then probably another showcase in the summer.