Artist Interview: Spiritual Cramp

Photo by Carlos Gonzalez

Spiritual Cramp are a hard act to follow. The San Francisco punks fire off on all cylinders every time they hit the stage and have made me forget more than once who actually played after them. Equipped with a sharp-edged style, a commanding disposition, and furiously snappy punk rock hits, their collective presence leaves a lasting impression long after their sets are over. Having built up a reputation for their rambunctious live performances, their fervent spirit is just as energetic and captivating on all of their recorded material. After two EPs, a compilation album, and a couple 7’’ singles, Spiritual Cramp’s long awaited self-titled debut album arrives tomorrow through Blue Grape Music as they wield the feverish rock and roll swagger of protopunk bands like MC5 and The Sonics, the revolutionary street sensibility of The Clash, and the shamelessly jangly grooves of early 2000’s post-punk revivalism. Their rise beyond the realm of punk feels palpable and I spoke with frontman Michael Bingham about the album.

Last spring, the band entered Different Fur Studios in San Francisco to shape what would become their debut album. Working alongside Grace Coleman who engineered and produced all of their previous material, they pulled from an array of influences that range from Ramones to Talking Heads, before cutting 10 songs that define the heart of Spiritual Cramp’s story. “The studio process was pretty chaotic because we had so much material and at a certain point you start to feel like you’re spinning your wheels and you don’t know what song is better than the next. I think in total with vocals I recorded 22 songs and then we mixed 16 of them,” Bingham shares of the process. Under the direction of Dave Rath, a former head of A&R at Roadrunner Records whose newly launched label Blue Grape Music signed Spiritual Cramp earlier this year, the band fine-tuned the 16 tracks they had mixed before sequencing 10 songs for the final tracklist with the intention of choosing songs that match the energy of their live performances. Additional production was done by LA based producer Carlos de la Garza (Paramore, M83, The Linda Lindas) at Music Friends Studio. 

The bulk of their music is written by Bingham and bass player Mike Fenton who previously played together in the post-punk band Creative Adult until 2016. “Mike [Fenton] writes a lot of the skeletons of the songs, and then he’ll send that to me and I’ll put guitar hooks over them or rearrange them, and then we create these really rough demos and tell everyone to learn them. When we go into the studio, everything’s very fragmented and what I do is I kind of stand there and produce it,” Bingham shares.  Alongside Bingham and Fenton, the band is composed of Juice Breeze and Big Nate on guitars, Julian Smith on drums, and Jose Luna on auxiliary percussion. 

Fostering a love for Tim Armstrong and Joey Ramones’ idiosyncratic singing voices at a young age, Bingham has also developed his own stage voice that has evolved since their beginning as a band in 2017. From a primitive bark that was more pronounced on their first two EPs Mass Hysteria and Police State, Bingham’s current vocals are cleaner and land somewhere between a bluesy rock lilt and post-punk intonation on the album. “I didn’t record the vocals at a studio, I recorded all the vocals in my house by myself. It gave me a lot of time to make sure that everything was exactly how I wanted it to be. I think I’m a better singer than I used to be for sure by playing shows and kind of honing in on what we want the band to sound like, but I wanted to sing on this entire record. I don’t want to yell anymore because it’s too hard to yell and it just felt like the natural progression of the band,” he says of the direction. 

The album opens in a similar manner as the band’s actual live entrance and invites audiences into Spiritual Cramp’s universe through a broadcast of reggae sample tracks with an announcement that says “You are now watching Spiritual Cramp television” before it kicks into the hard-hitting opening track “Blowback.” A renegade proclamation in true punk form, it provokes whoever stumbles across the album to be forthright about who exactly they align themselves with as Bingham rebukes shitty cop behavior and howls “Always violence in the city / Broken bottles in the streets / The hard times are getting tougher and we hate the police / I want to know whose side you’re on.” The introduction is immediate and charged with an intensity that comes from watching the world deteriorate all around us, but the instrumentation is bright, speedy, and empowering rather than demoralizing. “We wanted to start the record out with a 1-2-3-4 punch. We wanted it to be fast and razor sharp right off the bat instead of some long drawn out introduction or three minutes of noise or some bullshit. The whole thing is meant to be no frills,” Bingham says of the introduction.

As it segues into the second song “Slick Rick” there’s a distinguishable sense of humor about Spiritual Cramp that makes them wildly fun to witness. The boisterous track, which bears no connection to the hip-hop artist of the same name, paints a picture of a lavish larger-than-life character inspired by a close family member. Complete with drum claps, a montage-worthy melody, and Bingham’s signature affected voice, it exudes a sort of confidence and poise that pairs perfectly with a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. “‘Slick Rick’ is a very funny song. I know this guy and we call him Slick Rick and he’s just kind of the guy who takes care of everyone. His house serves as the center point for the families’ comings and goings and everything this man does is proper, you know, like he wears Nikes, he’s not wearing off-brand. It’s about the perfect male specimen and it’s this beloved person who’s just so badass he inspired it,” Bingham shares.

In August, the band premiered their first single off the album “Talkin’ on the Internet,” and it was accompanied by a music video directed by Sean Stout that showcased the band in matching attire and performing an unrestrained set while surrounded by friends in a dimly lit warehouse. It’s one of their most vital tracks bolstered by a burning deprecation for the secondhand embarrassment that comes from witnessing others parade every insipid thought that crosses their mind on social media. An explosive anthem that captures the band’s energetic spirit laced with a fiery edge, it’s the epitome of their brash charisma.

Spiritual Cramp by Spiritual Cramp

The only straightforward love song in the band’s discography is the second single off the album “Herberts On Holiday” which captures Bingham in a rare moment of vulnerability as he expresses his love and appreciation for his longtime partner and wife Barbara. “I’m still trying to learn how to talk about it, but the only time I feel like I’m being really honest is when I’m singing. Barb and I have been together 18 years and she was like, ‘I need you to write me a love song’ and it just always came off really sarcastic because I’m like a little prick. I don’t mean to be, but it’s my defense mechanism to the world. I always make jokes, it’s how I avoid actually talking to people about what I really think and really feel. This song came in the midst of me flying home from a tour with Viagra Boys and I just started writing it. I wanted to write her a song and have it be something that she could listen to and cry to,” Bingham openly expresses. The song is an intimate look at being in a relationship with someone who has provided him with unconditional love and a safe space to come home to. In the lyrics he expresses wanting to do the same for her through loving gestures like warming her hands in his Harrington jacket, or watching over their home and it stems from a protective and nurturing place for the person he loves most. “It’s about coming from a really bad place and meeting someone who truly changed the course of your life and trying to give them a little love through my means of art,” he shares. 

Tracks like “City on Fire” bring Franz Ferdinand’s “This Fire” to mind as they contemplate burning down everything that gets in their way, while “Clashing at the Party” sardonically depicts robbing a house party dry, and the penultimate “Can I Borrow Your Lighter” tumbles its way through constant stress and frustration. It’s an album full of verve that hardly ever slows down and bristles with a certain tenacity for survival. 

One of the darkest songs “Catch a Hot One” unpacks Bingham’s struggle with addiction at the start of the pandemic. The rhythmic bassline and abrupt guitar melodies coupled with Bingham’s soulful crooning borders on the sort of bleak indie rock /post-punk bent that Interpol thrives on. “What I’m talking about in that is the reason people die from fentanyl is because there’s a thing called the popcorn kernel effect and if one person accidentally gets this little popcorn kernel of fentanyl, that’s where the overdose happens. I wrote that song in 2020, and I was really struggling with drugs and alcohol really badly. I was good at presenting outwardly that I was doing good and I was just partying and having a good time, but really, I was struggling with addiction to drugs and addiction to alcohol. It was about worrying about dying of a fentanyl overdose and still continuing to use drugs and what that was like. Thankfully, we’ve moved on from that,” Bingham relays to me. 

From their songs, to their artwork, right down to their choice of shoes, everything about the band is intentional and reflects who they are. Bingham expresses, “Spiritual Cramp lives at the intersection of who I really am, and what’s really happening in my life, and the person that I want to be like, the person that I want people to think that I am. So when I’m writing lyrics, and we’re making music, and we’re making artwork, I’m reflecting what’s right in front of me, and when we started Spiritual Cramp, what was right in front of me was San Francisco, California and it was punching me in the face. I’m telling the story of six people who all go to bars and get drunk and fight and like skinhead music and like the Sex Pistols and used to like stealing and doing drugs. That’s Spiritual Cramp’s story.”

The visual imprint of Spiritual Cramp is just as important as their sound, as the two go hand in hand. With the help of band member Jose Luna, who has assisted with graphics, title drops, and editing for each of their recent music video releases, the band are able to take their visuals to the next level. “We can write songs and record them well and they can be catchy and cool, but if the visuals don’t match, then you’re not telling a full story. Whether that’s flyers for shows that we make ourselves, or music videos, we look at it as an opportunity to tell another part of the story of Spiritual Cramp, which can be a little bit silly or it can be really intense. It’s a way to create that dialogue between us and the listeners,” Bingham shares. 

Album cover by Alex Mossa

When choosing the album cover for their self-titled, it was important that the image alluded to those who grew up within their culture of punk rock and general delinquency. “If you’re in the culture, and you grew up the same way a lot of us did then you know what that is and that’s a hoodlum. And if you’re not, you kind of gotta dig into the story of the band to understand it a little more,” Bingham elaborates. “Our friend [Alex] Mossa shot the cover in New York. She did a great job, she’s probably still mad at me because she had all these other incredible shots from the photo shoot and I picked this random one. I went back and forth and asked 20 people I knew and all the people who know about what it is, they were like, ‘You got it, Mike.’ So it was a big divide in the art, but Mossa is amazing.”

Having relocated to Los Angeles in recent years with his wife, Bingham’s songs express the core identity of Spiritual Cramp which is largely shaped by the North Bay and San Francisco. Recording the album up north was the most enjoyable aspect of writing the album for him as he shares, “What I loved most about making the record is going to the studio. In San Francisco, we’ve recorded everything that we’ve ever put out as a band in Different Fur with Grace Coleman. Grace is a very close collaborator of mine and when we get in the room together, she makes me feel comfortable, and she makes me feel like I’m not a crazy person, and that my ideas aren’t outlandish.” Surrounded by their friends and the familiarity of San Francisco, the experience cultivated a sense of security and comfort for Bingham in the midst of the album process. “The studio is right in the heart of San Francisco. If you walk out the door, you immediately run into people you know. It’s just a really safe place for me to be creative and I think that I felt the most comfortable and the safest at that studio.”

Spiritual Cramp’s self-titled is colored by the city they hail from, the nonstop violence of the outside world around them, the inner struggles of addiction, a sincere appreciation for those they love, and a spit in the face of anyone against them. It’s an exuberant album that blends touchstone influences over decades of punk, indie, and rock and roll with a modern West Coast twist that’s massively fun and reels you in. To think that they’re only just getting started, selfishly gives me something to continue to look forward to in the future, and if there were anything he would hope people take away from listening to the album, Bingham closes the interview with this: 

“I don’t really care what people take away from the record anymore. I think that my gut check reaction is to say I hope they like it, and I hope they tell all their friends, but that’s really just a selfish want for what I think my life should be like. Like of course I want to be in a big popular band, but really, what do I want you to take away from it? I want you to take some joy and maybe find something you can relate to in it. But if you don’t, it doesn’t matter to me. I find that as I become better at releasing what I want for people to take from what it is that I’m doing or what it is that I want to happen in my life, I just find more success. I’m just going to do what I did and I hope that it resonates with people. Maybe there’s some kid out there who hears the record like I heard a record when I was 13. You know, I didn’t have anywhere to go and I didn’t have an identity. My life could have gone another way, but instead I found these punk rock records and I realized that I could go to a show. Then when I went to that show, I found friends, and I found style, and I found other people who felt as angry as I did. Maybe it can spark that in someone and then they can have their own journey and they can take something they need. I just want people to get what they need out of life and if that’s with our band that’s great, but if it’s not, fuck ’em.”

Spiritual Cramp’s debut album is available everywhere tomorrow.

Vinyl and merch available to order now.

Loan Pham | @x_loanp

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