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Talking Toxic Masculinity with CRICKETS

Sep 8, 2020

By Mossy Ross

From left to right: Roddy Bottum, JD Samson, and Michael O’Neal
Photo: AF Cortes

Each member of CRICKETS comes with a rich history of musical experience. One might think that with so many strong sonic personalities from such different backgrounds (Faith No More, Le Tigre, MEN), it would be nearly impossible to hone in on a sound that’s anything other than chaos and noise (with a bit of ego sprinkled throughout). But CRICKETS has managed to do the opposite. Instead of going the way of so many supergroups and pulling out all the stops, they’ve uh…pulled in all the stops. Continuously stripping down to a sound that is a pure expression of not only the sonic landscape they’re seeking, but their ethos as well. The result is music washed of all toxic masculinity, and what remains is only what’s necessary to express their intentions.

Mossy: How did you all start playing together?

JDS: I put out an Instagram story saying, “Anybody want to start a band?” Because I was kind of sick of making work on the computer, and then covering it for live. That’s what I had done with previous bands, so I was like, “Who wants to get into a room and play music together?” And Michael and Roddy and a few other people responded, and we just started meeting up once a week and jamming. And then other people had different priorities come up for them, and it ended up that Michael and Roddy and I were the people that kept coming back for more. I can’t remember when that started.

MO: 2018.

Mossy: How long were you writing and jamming before you actually started recording?

RB: The process was probably over a year. We started in a different formation, like JD said. We had a couple other people playing with us, too. And what we’ve done since we started, has just been this slow process of stripping things away. I don’t want to say in terms of the other people. But the process of the music evolved in a way where stuff kept leaving. And so we wrote songs and stuff, and it was kind of unconventional in the way we went about it. We just started taking things away from what we were doing. Stripping things down and become simpler and more sparse. And it took a year to kind of get our sound.  

JDS: We went to Roddy’s friend’s house upstate in a place called Peekamoose, and I think that was kind of a really important moment for us. Because I remember this feeling of like, “Yeah, just let the guitar ring out over nothing for a second. That’s what this is!” And it was just this beautiful moment where we realized we wanted to, I don’t know, appreciate the space in between.

Mossy: I feel like the hardest thing for me about making music, is coming up with the sound you want. Do you all find that to be the same?

JDS: I think that…sorry if I keep talking, but…talking is fun. (Chuckles). But I think sometimes the computer and the opportunity to use many sounds is an obstacle. Because then you get confused about what you want to do. And I think that the beauty of this project was Roddy had his keyboard, and Michael had his guitar, and I had this one drum machine, and this mic with this one effect. And we just kind of jammed, and there was no way to do anything different than what we made. So we didn’t really have another option to question. I think our questioning was more around the idea of how other people would hear it. For me, at least. I was just, at times, confused or concerned that people wouldn’t get our intentions. But these guys are really good at helping me get through that.

Mossy: One thing that struck me is that you actually use the words “toxic masculinity” in a song. I would love to hear a defining moment for each of you, where you experienced that toxicity; and then, like you say in the song, realized it was something that was in you, that you could grow from?

Roddy: The toxicity that sort of creeps into the craft of songwriting is so many things, but for me…the abundance of options. There’s just so many things you can bring into the craft of what you do. And I’ve just learned over the course of time, to ignore all of the options, or just limit the options. And it’s the excess of the options and excess of bringing different elements in and in and in; like overdubs and overdubs, and adding and adding and adding, that’s just this pig-ish sort of behavior for me. And a good example of what I consider sort of a toxic masculine force that comes into the craft of songwriting or creating. I mean, it’s been the course of my whole life, it’s been a creating step. I’ve always known in the back of my mind that less is more. But making a real decision to act on that, felt like a pivotal place for me. It’s like, I know that less is more, but even so…I do more. And I like things dense and more and more and more. And to sort of go away from that grain of thought was profound for me. And in CRICKETS, making that decision, talking about it, and stripping down in the way that we have, was really empowering in a political way.

JDS: Yeah, I think in the case of commenting on toxic masculinity, I think abstractly and conceptually without the lyrics, we still would have been doing that. And I think that particular song just also happened to reflect that content lyrically. So maybe it’s the song that tunes people into that conceptual experience. But yeah, I think a lot of the lyrics were written for a different purpose. I was working on a book. Actually the interesting part about it, is I’ve never been in a band where I jammed vocally with people in a room. It was always computer based. It was like, “Here’s this track. Sing something on it, bring it in, let’s workshop it, what are the lyrics, what’s this song about?” So this was the first time I was actually vulnerable vocally in that way. I think sometimes, you could call it a crutch, you could call it a beautiful collaboration of mediums, but I think I went to this writing I was doing to comfort me, so that I had something to say that felt already grounded, and it made me less fearful or vulnerable or scared to present something to the group.

Mossy: So you went to the book you had been writing?

JDS: Yeah, and to be honest, now I’m not writing that book. Because it felt like it was this therapy that brought me to the lyrics for this record.

Mossy: Michael, what about you? Any defining experiences with toxic masculinity?

MO: Yeah, it’s interesting, I think in the context of bands, it’s making me think of MEN, and that time of my life. I feel like I was a lot more insecure. And I feel like MEN was awesome, and there were so many great moments with it. But it had its toxicity, too, and frankly didn’t end on the best of notes. And that was sort of a mix of a lot of different things. I know for myself, I was wanting success, like, so bad, that I would be an asshole about things that I thought would equal success, or that I thought were right. I feel like, in bands, we can fight so hard for our opinions and our positions. So that often led to shit between JD and I and our other bandmates. So bringing it to CRICKETS, one of the best parts about this band, is JD and I have repaired that damage. We’ve learned how to be in a band together in a way where we always challenge ourselves when it comes to that toxicity, and with Roddy, too. I feel like we’re always trying so hard to be agreeable bandmates.

Mossy: Because you have the power “to heal and change and grow” (I’m quoting the lyrics to Elastic here)!

MO: Exactly! It’s exactly that within our band. I mean, I haven’t heard all the stories with Roddy and his previous bands. I mean, I’m sure you’ve got plenty! Faith No More, I mean…(laughs) Like times when you’re just an asshole to your bandmates, you know. So I feel like we all try to be really good to each other in this band, and come to democratic decisions.

Mossy: That’s one thing I love about getting older and being able to change, and then have people in your life that are willing to change as well. It makes things so much more cooperative.

RB: Yeah, and it’s such a good point. The communication part of it all. If we didn’t communicate well, it would be such a different organization, such a different band. But it’s so key just to be able to listen. I grew up with three sisters. In my life, with my family, it’s just been listening. And then you get into certain situations and it’s like, people don’t listen. But it’s so key to our equation and what we do together.

JDS: Yeah, our methodology is simplicity, in order to erase toxic masculinity. Both in our communication and in our instrumentation. So it all fits in together.

Mossy: Would you say being a good communicator is more of a female quality?

RB: I think for sure. And listening. It’s such a masculine thing to do, to overstep, and to talk over other people. I was watching that on the news yesterday. Kamala was talking to…I can’t remember who it was. But it was so cool to see Kamala Harris go, “I’m talking,” to the guy. It’s such a guy thing. He wouldn’t stop. He just kept talking over her, because he’s accustomed to letting people allow that. People let him speak over them as a man. But to stop and listen is, for me, I don’t know, I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a feminine thing, but it’s definitely not a masculine quality.

Photo: AF Cortes

Mossy: Have you heard of “toxic femininity?”

RB: (Chuckles) That’s a good question.

Mossy: I was just reading an article in Psychology Today about it. I’m paraphrasing, but it said that male toxicity is when a man behaves in a way that is damaging to himself, when he exhibits these overtly male qualities. And toxic femininity is when a woman acts in a way that is damaging to herself, in order to embrace femininity. One of the examples (of toxic femininity) in the article was how a woman will order a salad on a date even if she’s starving.

RB: Honestly, it’s hard for me to stretch and see examples of feminine toxicity. I couldn’t use toxic in that definition. That’s a really poignant and funny example, eating salad. (Laughs) Like just as a poetic example, that is far from toxic.

Mossy: I guess the “toxic” part of it is how a woman will allow herself to suffer in order to appear more feminine, and appeal to a male ideal. Like not saying “I’m talking” when someone is talking over her.

JD: I think that (calling it “toxic femininity) is like saying it’s reverse racism. I think it’s impossible. I hear where you’re coming from, and I’ve heard of feminine toxicity before, but it’s kind of impossible to, quote/unquote, “blame” a marginalized community for the toxicity of the patriarchy.

Mossy: Because would female toxicity exist without male toxicity?

JDS: Exactly. And that’s just my opinion. And to that point, I think it’s interesting because my persona has been this butch woman, and publicly, that is how people see me. And I think addressing that toxicity within a female masculine body is really important. And I think maybe that hasn’t been done that overtly, so I felt like it was really a responsibility of mine to say that out loud. So I think maybe this is a little bit more complex.

Mossy: What do you feel are some of your responsibilities?

JDS: Everything for me, gender wise, is very fluid. And I think we all inhabit these qualities that are masculine and feminine. And I think we all fall into this space of masculinity being equated with power, and those dynamics become entrenched in some of our relationships. Just because of our inherent understanding of confidence, and what it means to be in relation to other people, and how to maintain power in service of our desires. And I think sometimes that is toxic. And I think nobody is free from that experience. But I do think that, specifically in my case, both growing up with the media around me of toxic masculinity everywhere, and me seeing that in order for me to feel power or to feel confidence, I need to do x, y, and z; I did kind of create a roll for myself that was not only dangerous, at some points, but also oversexualized in some way. And I think this band was a way for me to get out of that experience of my, quote/unquote, “persona.”  

Mossy: How did the name CRICKETS happen?

MO: I wanna tell this story! (Laughs) We were trying to come up with a band name, as most bands find is very, very difficult. So we had this text thread between the three of us, and we’re communicating about this or that. And every once in awhile someone would throw out a band name, and we’d see if it lands. And Roddy said something in the thread, and JD and I didn’t respond for a really long time. And his response to us was, “Crickets.” And we’re like, “That’s the band name! CRICKETS!” (Laughs)

Mossy: One of my favorite games to play is coming up with band names.

RB: Yeah, we had a running list. I have it somewhere written down. Dozens and dozens of names.

JDS: I really wanted Seltzer.

RB: I really liked The Inhalers.

Mossy: But don’t you think CRICKETS is a pretty good name, when you think about how your sound is just stripped down?

MO: Oh yeah, we even played one of our shows with a Youtube video of cricket sounds, that JD would pull up on her phone and play in the background the whole time. So in between songs, or in quiet moments of a song, all of a sudden you would hear the sound of crickets.

RB: I think the name works well. I think it’s one of our proudest achievements, is naming our band. It’s not, like, super on the nose. But it suggests really right where we are, I feel like.

Mossy: What is “Drilled Two Holes” about?

JDS: I did this project that was about drilling holes into stones. It was kind of questioning the identity of being stone. I wrote an essay and it was a sexual reference about the different holes in the body.

Mossy: What was the project with drilling holes into stone?

JDS: It’s kind of a long story, but my dad was a sanding gravel miner. So stones and rocks are a big part of my life. But also having this identity of stone, which is a historical lesbian identity of somebody that doesn’t allow other people to touch them sexually. And so I was kind of, no pun intended, digging into this idea of why that has been my identity. And it came about in relationship to writing this book, and thinking about my responsibility of healing toxic masculinity, basically. So this project was me drilling holes into hundreds of stones, and creating a suit out of them. And during the process, it was so monotonous and physical, that I experienced a lot of feelings around the memory of having sex with people throughout my life.  

Photo: AF Cortes

Mossy: How do you see the “American Dream” being revised, now that we’re discovering our values have been influenced so much by the patriarchy?

JD: Well, I think more specifically, within the music industry, there are some issues of pretending you have more money than you do. And also just this farce that people who are famous have money. Myyki Blanco just posted something relevant to this conversation a few weeks ago. And I felt like this was an interesting next step of the idea, that more popular/famous/renowned artists are still using wealth as a part of their image, and maybe this is something to discuss when thinking about how much money musicians are getting for streaming. It is just so clear right now with Spotify, if you have 250 streams, you get like, less than a dollar or something. And I think it’s relevant in the sense that, as musicians, we can’t support ourselves from just making music. So that’s something I’ve been thinking about recently, is new ways of thinking about the streaming industry and digital distribution.

Mossy: Any brilliant ideas yet?

JDS: I’m on a steering committee for a project right now called Ampled. It’s kind of similar to Patreon. But there’s a lot of organizations, companies, and co-ops starting where people are just rethinking. And I think Bandcamp has done such a great job this year of centering the artist and their needs, and particularly centering movements like Black Lives Matter, so they can be aligned politically with what the artists all want. We put something out on Bandcamp, and I know Roddy has a project on Bandcamp he’s been doing, too.

Mossy: What’s the other project you’re working on, Roddy?

RB: I just started something a few weeks ago that’s like a daily music share, just to sort of keep me busy and to work on my craft. I go back and forth with it because it seems like a little bit indulgent of an expression. But I think the craft of what we do, writing, music, whatever you do…I think the craft often gets overlooked. So I just got this notion a few weeks ago, that to work on that craft on a daily basis is really, really important. Especially in times like this. Not that everybody has a lot of time, but people have a lot more time right now. It just seems pertinent to address the craft of what we do, and to become better at what we do. So I just started this process of doing a daily music share. So it’s sharing a piece of music every day, and every day I have to finish it. It’s helping me get to where I’d like to be as an artist in a quicker way. The music is free, but any donations people make goes to The Okra Project, which is an awesome organization that feeds black trans people who need food.

Mossy: You’ve made it a point to make sure your music is political, which I think is a vital component of making any sort of art.

JDS: Yeah, I think there’s been some really interesting conversations throughout COVID about the purpose of making music right now. And I think (the conversations are happening) for a lot of reasons, but mostly because you can’t tour and make money that way. It’s like, people are forced to kind of consider what the model of the future of the music industry is. Holly Herndon posted something really interesting the other day about just experimentation music. And like Roddy said, for CRICKETS in general, the ethos is, we’re trying something out, and we’re just making work. Why does it have to be completely 100% perfect, and factory made for it to succeed? Why can’t the experience and the process of making it be enough? And why can’t this music be just for our community, and just ourselves, and just for the people who want to listen to it, and not try to fucking get the world to be obsessed with it? Because it’s really just about our process.

MO: Yeah, you mentioned the American Dream earlier, and I think what’s interesting is the American Dream is what instills in us, that we have to be famous in order to be successful. And that’s what leads to this toxic place. And that’s what’s so fucked about the capitalist way, is we push everybody aside and just start tearing shit down just to be, quote/unquote, “successful.” So I really hope the American Dream shifts so that we can all understand a different kind of success or dream.

JDS: Celebrity culture got us to where we are right now with the president that we have. What’s the most punk thing we could do right now? Fucking kill celebrity culture.

RB: Yeah, the way we grew up, we looked at these images of opulence. That’s what we’ve seen for so long, like “Oh, shiny, flashy expensive.” It’s such a lazy approach to make things attractive in an expensive looking way. I just think it’s lazy and boring. There are so many more eccentricities to accentuate in a presentational way, rather than gold and glitz and glamour. That trend needs to end.

Watch the video for “Elastic:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3y17lNE_gQM

Follow on IG @thesoundofcrickets

Web: www.thesoundofcrickets.org

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