Hit Bargain Captures the Delirious Anxiety of American Life

Juan Velasquez

Hit Bargain’s sophomore album is a modern punk masterpiece. The Los Angeles quartet, featuring members of the beloved indie bands Cold Beat and Beach Fossils, tackles the distinctly American issues that plague our world: a broken medical system, abortion restrictions, and the epidemic of gun violence. Written right before the COVID-19 pandemic and released three years after its peak, A DOG A DEER A SEAL has shifted over the time the band spent recording the follow-up record. Although the sociopolitical issues at the heart of the LP are longstanding ones, they were brought to glaring attention through our collective trauma. On the album opener, “Immaculate Vaxxer,” lead vocalist Nora Singh yells, “My body is not my own! Endometriosis and the holy spirit!” She describes the track’s imagery as “psychedelic body horror meets religious allegory.”

Dystopian themes aside, Hit Bargain has a unique sense of humor about themselves — not hopelessly nihilistic, per se, but the kind of comedy that only comes from hanging out in punk venues and seeing some shit. As we sit on the patio of an Altadena coffee shop, the band muses about making queer art out of Crocs and bassist Sean Monaghan tries to explain “egg punk,” a memed-about subgenre that is less leather jacket and studs and more Carhartt workwear and and paint-stained jeans. “Egg punks are the record nerds who are into weird obscure shit and make music that feels like you’re on Adderall or something,” Monaghan tells the group.

But “egg” talk aside, Hit Bargain is certain that they are definitely adult punks. They’re not obliterated and smashing beer bottles in a parking lot; they prefer to make their crowds uncomfortable instead. Singh has a history of integrating elements of performance art into her incendiary sets, even pumping breast milk on stage. On the night of their Los Angeles show — opening up for aughties naughties Les Savy Fav, who are also known for their onstage buffoonery — the band brings out a powerlifter to squat-lift Singh mid-performance. Somehow, she doesn’t miss a lyric.

But absurd onstage hijinks alone are not the only factors that make Hit Bargain a unique force in post-punk. They have a clever, acerbic, and wholly unique satirical voice that is only heightened by their anxious soundscapes. For this record, they wanted to delve into more dissonant territory, dismantling and rearranging skronky guitar riffs “just make it try to sound as nasty as possible,” drummer Anton Hochheim tells me.

Their sound, I note, has a lineage that includes the 00’s post-hardcore band Ex-Models, ’90s San Diego spock-rock band The Locust, and ’70s no-wavers Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. My laundry list of obscure punk subgenres is not lost on the band, but they’re not convinced. Singh says, “I think that I’m making pop music and then somebody else is like, ‘This is really fucking weird. Why are you singing like that?’” (Monaghan chimes in, adding semi-ironically, “This [album] sounds like fucking Green Day.”)

On a band field trip to Altadena’s world-famous Bunny Museum, the members of Hit Bargain —vocalist Nora Singh, guitarist Mike Barron, bassist Sean Monaghan, and drummer Anton Hochheim — talked with Them about their anxious new album, José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, and dissociating in the shower.

There’s a lot of body horror, medical imagery and nods to religion across the album, especially on “Immaculate Vaxxer.” What draws you to those themes?

Nora Singh: “Immaculate Vaxxer” is intense, funny, maybe radically confusing — that’s kind of our M.O. It’s psychedelic body horror meets religious allegory. I grew up Catholic. My dad was a recovering Catholic, and my mom’s Buddhist. She’s a Thai immigrant, so we had a Christmas tree and a Buddha in my house. For some reason, it seemed really apt that there would be this idea of your body being a host to disease and then suffering in a saintly way. I think that there’s more awareness about folks who have disabilities and chronic ailments and maybe hopefully more of an acceptance, too. I think that’s something that the queer community has always understood and accepted.

The pandemic laid bare the disparities that many communities have with receiving care: The way that trans people are treated when they go to the doctor is so incredibly fucked. Even my own personal experiences having had a child in the medical system, and not having insurance as an adult for most of my life.

That’s why I was so drawn to that song in particular because it isn’t something that I’ve encountered thematically in punk music.

NS: It’s also uniquely American. If we were in Europe and we had socialized medicine, we wouldn’t.

The line “My body’s not my own,” reminds of the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade as well.

NS: I was reading something that was essentially saying the aim of the anti-abortion movement is to get rid of contraception. That is definitely very relevant to me living in Ohio since it’s on the ballot in November. We just came out of a special election that they tried to sneak in during the summer thinking that no one was going to turn up, and people did. So that’s heartening, but at the same time, it’s just the level of gerrymandering and tomfuckery that’s happening. It’s head-spinning. [Editor’s note: Ohio voters approved a ballot proposition enshrining a constitutional right to abortion on November 8.]

<cite class="credit">Juan Velasquez</cite>
Juan Velasquez

Despite all of this bleak dystopian shit going on, the record has a sense of humor. Can you talk about that?

NS: We’ve always been a comedy band.

Sean Monaghan: Comedy first, music second.

NS: Prop comedy. A Gallagher situation.

SM: I feel like humor and excitement is a route out of despair. I also think this is why punk music in general is important to people, because of the energy and the humor and-

NS: - catharsis. We’re all trauma-bound at this moment, we might as well laugh about it.

“Small Radius,” has these claustrophobic lyrics, and musically the album has a nervous sound. Do you think you are an anxious band?

Anton Hochheim: I think we’re all anxious people.

NS: Speak for yourself. I’m totally chill. This was supposed to be an ambient record. You guys fucked it up.

Mike Barron: I’ve always been personally drawn to music that keeps you hanging, I like music being super anxious in combination with me being an anxious person. It gives me a sense of relief.

NS: It is like a vaccination. You’re inoculating yourself with the same anxiety. So it cancels it out.

SM: In our songwriting process we’d hit a part, and we’d be like, “Let’s do that again.” It’s almost like we were itching something. Like, “Oh, that felt good. Let’s scratch that again.”

NS: Mike’s guitars are especially itchy.

<cite class="credit">Juan Velasquez</cite>
Juan Velasquez

There was a piece in Vice about you stomping on a guy during a live set. Are you still interested in exploring these kinds of live antics?

NS: Yes, I’ve stood on a trampling enthusiast. I have gotten a tattoo on stage and I think I might’ve had my friend’s foot in my mouth at some point.

MB: You’ve pumped on stage.

NS: Oh, yeah. I’ve pumped breast milk on stage. But what was the question?

Does that kind of performance art still interest you?

NS: It was sort of exploring the idea of what makes a safe space and taking something intimate, like someone that gets a charge out of being publicly humiliated, which is a very private and personal thing, but yet it involves the public. As a performer, I do like the tension and the intersection of drawing the audience into the performance, whether willingly or unwillingly — like a magician or a comedian singling out people, because it’s participatory. We wouldn’t exist without folks watching and vice versa.

“Oh, yeah. I’ve pumped breast milk on stage. But what was the question?”

There’s an element of camp or drag in a heightened performance like that, don’t you think?

NS: There is a legacy of this campiness in punk. Sean mentioned Darby Crash in rehearsal the other night.

SM: Is this person actually on the edge of death or are they being crazy because they’re ecstatic?

NS: I think it’s a controlled burn with us. We are still adults. We’re not setting anything on fire deliberately. Though at the start of the band, I was really fascinated with wrestling. So our very first show, I staged a wrestling match with this guy who worked at a coffee shop next to where I worked. It immediately went south because, while I was pretending to fight, he wasn’t. So then there really was an element of danger where he was hitting me back and I was like, “Oh shit! What’s happening? What am I doing?” That was a good first show.

<cite class="credit">Juan Velasquez</cite>
Juan Velasquez

Is A DOG A DEER A SEAL a queer album?

NS: This is a queer album in that it’s made by queer people, but it’s also queer in that it is anachronistic. It is sort of out of time.

SM: I was just re-reading Cruising Utopia and there’s a chapter about punk rock with a lot of photographs of L.A. punk venues and gay bars. The book is about queerness being very future-oriented and being out of time, and [our] present existence being in multiple timelines.

This is your first album for the queer-owned Get Better Records. What has it been like to work with them?

SM: If I were to be completely honest, I feel like writing this record didn’t really feel like it was about being queer, but I’m so happy that the label we’re on.

NS: It feels cohesive.

SM: We can say it’s a queer record and it will be seen that way or received that way by people.

NS: It’s a nice evolution for us, too.

SM: The band is half straight.

NS: [looks at Anton and Mike] Right?

SM: But I do think it’s explicitly gay but not exclusively gay.

Her new album *Gentle Confrontation* turns electronica into a warm invitation.

What are some of your favorite non-creative things to do?

NS: I like disassociating in the shower.

Anton Hochheim: I like fingerboarding. But that’s kind of creative.

NS: Even an Excel spreadsheet can be creative. I’m really good at stacking dishes in the dishwasher, but again, creative.It’s basically like the Sistine Chapel. Chef’s kiss.

What’s your dream collab?

MB: Tim Burton.

NS: Tim Burton spoken-word.

SM: For a “Monster Mash” cover.

A DOG A DEER A SEAL is available November 10 via Get Better Records.

Get the best of what’s queer. Sign up for Them’s weekly newsletter here.

Originally Appeared on them.