Spiritual Cramp’s Anxious City Sounds

Frontman Michael Bingham talks sobriety, San Francisco, jumping off the cliff and the band's self-titled debut album.

Music Features Spiritual Cramp
Spiritual Cramp’s Anxious City Sounds

On Spiritual Cramp’s debut, self-titled album, frontman Michael Bingham is stuck in a loop. “I’m always getting into fights / I’m always lying to my wife”; “I’m always losing my train of thought / I’m always inching closer to the edge”; “I’m always stressed out / Always annoyed / I’m always tired / I’m always bored”—these lines come from three different songs, across which Bingham keeps assessing the various patterns in his life that form a downward spiral. The San Francisco band’s sound meshes ‘70s UK punk and ‘80s New York new wave with splashes of dub and a no-frills hardcore philosophy, and it’s bursting with the nervous, gritted-teeth energy of life as a fuck-up in the city.

Today, this isn’t Michael Bingham. Between writing this album and its release, the 36-year-old moved from San Francisco to Silver Lake, Los Angeles; he got sober, after a gradual realization that he was addicted to drugs and alcohol; and when Spiritual Cramp was offered a contract with Blue Grape Music, the new label set up by former Roadrunner executives Dave Rath and Cees Wessels, he quit his day job in marketing in order to finally give his all to something. “I floundered around for a long time. I was too afraid to fully apply myself to anything,” Bingham says. “What I always said, the entire time I was living my life, was ‘I just wanna play music.’ But my actions were saying, ‘Well, I kinda wanna play music.’ Even Spiritual Cramp, for the first four years, we were a one-foot-in one-foot-out kinda band. And when [I] no longer [used] drugs and alcohol, I realized pretty quickly that the only person standing in my way was me, and I didn’t wanna be that person.”

“We were about to get signed, and everyone in the band looked at each other like, ‘Okay, we’ve all said this is what we wanna do for our job for 10 years. It’s right in front of us, but we could break our legs on the fall, and we’re just gonna jump.’ And I don’t think that you can achieve success on an artistic level without jumping off the cliff,” he adds.

This newfound commitment, combined with their stints on the road and stellar EP releases in previous years, has built up to an ever-growing buzz around the band within the thriving hardcore scene. Life looks a lot more content for Bingham than it did before; but it also comes with a new kind of anxiety. “There’s lots of moments of questioning. Is it the right decision to quit my job instead of going after a $160,000-a-year tech job? Maybe not, I’m not sure. But I’m not gonna be the type of person who ever finds out, hell no,” he explains.

Bingham’s musical life began as a child, growing up between small-town Northern California and Washington state, when he was amazed by the worship band at his family’s church. As he got older, he became obsessed with skateboarding, and from there the punk music that soundtracked skate videos. These twin passions became a vital distraction from a turbulent home life. “I try to be careful about the way that I talk about growing up, because I think a lot of bands use their troubled experiences growing up as a means to create traction in the press, and I’ve always found that to be distasteful,” Bingham says. “But it was a very isolating place to be, my house. My parents were pretty checked out; both of them had their separate issues. Severe mental illness, and just poverty. We grew up very poor and very religious, and I think that my parents didn’t have a good idea of what was up from down or how to be thoughtful or well-adjusted.”

“I was kinda just left to figure things out for myself,” he continues. “A lot of that was through attention-seeking behavior; things like stealing or fighting. [But] when I would ride my skateboard or put a record on, I knew that I wasn’t thinking about anything else.”

Bingham began playing in bands while living in Santa Rosa, California, an hour north of San Francisco. He’d head into the city to see shows, at one of which, as a teenager, he met his now-wife. But still, he didn’t have ambitions to leave small-town life until he was 25, when his partner told him that she was moving to the city and he followed. Living in San Francisco changed his life. “I have a tendency to think I’m the center of the universe,” he admits. “When I found my way to San Francisco, I realized how big the world really is. I realized that things could be a lot bigger for me in terms of where my life could go.” Still, for a while, his life was mostly pleasant aimlessness. He got a job at a grocery store, went to a lot of shows, drank a lot; he played in bands like the shoegazey Creative Adult and the youth crew-esque Profile, and did graphic design for album layouts and show flyers. It was a formative time which was a lot of fun, for a while.

While working at the grocery store, he met now-Spiritual Cramp guitarist Stewart Kuhlo when he came through his line wearing a punk jacket. They talked, exchanged music tastes; Kuhlo had never been in a band before and didn’t really play guitar, but he was prepared to learn. “I called [bassist] Mike [Fenton], who has been my musical collaborator for 10 years. I was like, ‘Hey, I met this guy, he dresses cool, and he likes cool music, and he’s gonna figure out how to play guitar,’” Bingham recalls. In return, Fenton sent some demos he had been working on, which had a heavy reggae influence. It took Bingham a minute to decide if he was into that sound or if it would be “really corny”; but, eventually, the band decided to run with it, alongside a love of Stiff Little Fingers, The English Beat and Talking Heads—filling out the lineup with guitarist Jacob Breeze, drummer Blaine Patrick and tambourinist Max Wickham.

The Bay Area, with its range of separate DIY music scenes from indie to punk to hardcore, was the perfect breeding ground for Spiritual Cramp’s oddball mix of sounds. “We can go and play a show with a band like Pardoner from San Francisco, who are more of an indie rock band, and it’s totally appropriate. Or we’ll go and play with the Old Firm Casuals, who are just a straight-up oi! band. Or we’ll play with all the great hardcore punk bands that come from the Bay, like Sunami or Scowl. So we can kinda float around, and it’s been really cool for us,” Bingham says. The more welcomed they found themselves by the various sub-genres around the city, the more confident they felt to experiment with things like Public Enemy-inspired sampling—which began in the live show, and is used heavily across Spiritual Cramp.

Meanwhile, as he got into his 30s, Bingham began to accept that he had a problem with substances. “I’m pretty good at presenting like I’m fine. It’s kinda like a specialty of mine,” he says. “So I’ll go out and I’ll drink all night and I’ll do drugs, but then the next morning, in order to keep up appearances, what I’ll do is I’ll go for a run and I’ll keep a day job. So I’m able to present as someone who seems like they have their life together, but just likes to party and have a good time and they’re kinda wild and crazy. And that was a narrative that I was a professional at giving off, but really, inside, I was in a lot of pain.” Two years ago, Bingham and his wife moved to LA, and it was there that he saw a different way of living. “The thing about Los Angeles is it’s not cool to be an alcoholic here, and I desperately want to be perceived as cool by everyone around me,” he adds. “So coming to Los Angeles, seeing all these people that I perceived to be cool, and realizing that they were sober, I was able to look at them and say, ‘Well, if those people can do it, I can do it, right?’”

Bingham mentions the album track “Catch A Hot One” as being the darkest account of his struggle with addiction. “I remember writing the lyrics to that song standing on my back porch, when I’d been up all night doing drugs,” he recounts; it details the danger of using cocaine while knowing fentanyl was going around, and continuing to do it anyway. Despite its slick bassline and shimmery guitar lead, it’s a song laced with shame and exhaustion. “It’s all enough to make you wanna die,” is the song’s hook. Meanwhile, “Clashing At The Party” recalls his younger years spent showing up at parties, raiding the medicine cabinets and getting anti-socially fucked-up. On the other side of the coin, there’s the sweetly moving “Herberts On Holiday,” a love song to Bingham’s wife that demonstrates a sense of purpose despite all this: “If I’m being honest / If I’m being true / I don’t know where I would be if I never met you.”

The album’s gritty, grimy production was designed to match its San Francisco setting. “Spiritual Cramp’s narrative is very urban,” Bingham explains. “It’s flashing police sirens, it’s car alarms going off, it’s gunshots. When we started the band, we were all living in the heart of the city, going nuts, and that soundscape is what defined the way that the band sounds.” The less immediately personal, more societal manifestations of this urban identity are also dealt with on the Talking Heads-recalling “City On Fire” and the invigorating opening track “Blowback,” which were both written about the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings. “Another riot in the street, another riot in the city / Another town that’s burning down because the cops were being shitty,” are the opening lines of the entire album. “It’s been fuck the police from the jump. Our first shirt [design] had a burning cop car on it,” says Bingham.

Despite all of these dark or urgent undertones, Bingham’s lyrical voice is never too depressing. He’s flippant and scornful (especially on the masterful douchebag-satire “Slick Rick”), and he condenses visceral sentiments into smart punchlines. “I’m someone who has always struggled with anxiety. I worry a lot. But I use humor as a defense mechanism,” Bingham says. “My therapist, one of the first things he clocked was, ‘Oh, you’re not a very vulnerable person.’ Because I just quickly make these little dark jokes. It’s my way of taking these feelings and lightening them up a little bit, [because] I don’t wanna be the kind of person who’s up his own ass.”

On top of that, Bingham has fun with his literal voice too, singing with a kind of melodramatic post-punk warble, and the whole band’s songwriting is defined by a spirit of playfulness. It marks a difference from the aggressive catharsis of the hardcore scene that they came from, something that Bingham attributes to simply getting older. “A lot of times, people who are younger are playing really angry music. When I was young, I was angry. I was angry about the way I had to grow up, I was angry about the state of the world. Now, I’m more annoyed and I’m less angry,” he says. The idea of putting on an artful and layered performance like this can sometimes make punks turn up their nose, but over the years of being in Spiritual Cramp, Bingham has been careful in refining his role as a frontman.

“Spiritual Cramp has forced me to become comfortable being who I am and putting myself out there. Things are much more curated and thoughtful now,” he adds. “We’ve gotten to tour with a lot of really, really big bands—we got to tour with Iggy Pop, we toured with Viagra Boys. And getting to go out and play shows with bands like that, I was able to realize that I could be a little bit larger than I had been in the past. I spent a lot of my life being afraid to take up space, and what I realized is that I can be thoughtful of the way that I take up space without being ashamed of it or apologetic. And I think learning that has really helped me in our live show.”

He names his friends and Bay Area peers in the band Ceremony as being the first to show him, when they signed to Matador Records and started making artsier, less hardcore records in the mid-2010s, that the hardcore world could contain myriad types of expression. “It changed my way of looking at what it was that I could do with myself. I was like, ‘Oh, I could be in a big band and I don’t have to scream.’ And I think that helped propel the culture,” he says, while adding that bands like Turnstile and High Vis are doing the same for the genre now. “I think that any time a band comes around and helps you redefine what you think you could be, that’s worthy of being noted. And I hope that Spiritual Cramp can do that.”

After all, right now the career heights that a hardcore or hardcore-adjacent band can reach haven’t quite been set yet, but they involve things like Grammy nominations and arena tours with Blink-182, for example. Spiritual Cramp have taken the plunge, with an incredibly exciting album to show for it, and it could end up taking them really far. And Bingham isn’t gonna lie, he’s nervous. “It feels amazing to know what we’re doing is catching on a little bit, and hopefully it continues to catch on. But the flipside of that coin is I’m realizing that I’m really doing what I said I was gonna do, and that’s scary. If you’re gonna put yourself out there, you might fall on your face 500 times. But I think that you have to go do that if you want to achieve anything other than mediocrity,” he says. “I can’t attach myself to any of the results. I have to just try my hardest. And then at the end of my life, when I’m god willing 90 years old on my deathbed, I’m gonna be able to say in all honesty that I tried as hard as I can to go after what I wanted to achieve.”

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