“We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation, become the future,” read American poet Amanda Gorman in a portion of the poem “The Hill We Climb,” which she recited during the 2021 inauguration of President Joe Biden.
Enamored by the 24-year-old poet laureate and her oratory of courage and hope, Bauhaus and Love and Rockets bassist David J tapped Violent Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo to write a song about Gorman. What started as a tribute to one of DeLorenzo’s friends, who had recently died, “Amanda’s Mantra” evolved into a homage to the young poet on the Night Crickets’ debut album, A Free Society (Omnivore Recordings).
“I was trying to pay homage to my dearly departed high school friend, and then to incorporate my thoughts about this young, vibrant poet Amanda Gorman, and I found that in combining those two things, and it being a very direct, literal, kind of praising of Amanda, is how I came up with the song,” DeLorenzo tells American Songwriter of the track featured on the album, an experimental music triad between the Femmes’ drummer, J, and multi-instrumentalist and visual artist Darwin Meiners.
“I think it really fit the bill as far as me trying to split my focus between doing some kind of textual eulogy for my friend, and also thinking about Amanda Gorman, and in a very positive, very forward way,” adds DeLorenzo. “Then I just got into the very straight idea of Amanda Gorman, writing this beautiful poetry that would not only affect America in a great way but would do something good for the world.”
Tightly fit around more synthesized newer waves and punctuated by saxophone mid-way in, “Amanda’s Mantra” reads like a four-line poem with lyrics She’s writing words of wisdom / For America and the world and addresses longing and history in dream-like references to Hollywood icons Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, just two in a cast of bygone characters that appear throughout the album.
“She talked about her mantra, so it has an alliterative theme,” adds J of their ode to Gorman. “She made such an impression and still inspires me and all of us. She’s such a star—very arresting, very composed. It was just what the country was needing to see embodied and personified in that moment. It was obviously a very crucial transition, and there was, again, some hope.”
DeLorenzo’s sonnet to “Amanda” is one of 13 tracks, a short series of equally collected rhetoric, fitted around an assemblage of neo-noir, psychedelic, jazz, and Far East soundscapes crafted by Night Crickets. A musical troika in the making more than a decade earlier, J first met Meiners in 2009. Soon after, Meiners also became J’s manager, and after the two later connected with DeLorenzo in 2013, all three tested their collaboration on Meiners’ 2014 album, Souvenir.
Named after the orthopteran insect, the trio pulled their name from a story shared with J from his late friend and collaborator John Neff, who worked as a sound designer for director David Lynch. Once tasked with finding a field recording of crickets chirping at night to use in Lynch’s 2001 drama Mulholland Drive, the director quickly recognized the sound Neff had found was of day crickets, not the evening breed. “I want my night crickets,” Lynch said to Neff.
A Free Society is a musical camera obscura into dystopian and utopian spaces, places, and times crafted remotely by DeLorenzo, J, and Meiners with portions of arrangements transferred back and forth to one another until each piece was complete.
“The lyrics were essentially made up on the spot without a lot of restrictions to them,” says Meiners. “There’s a lot of political things that are going on that were obviously shared, and I think those things kind of made their way into the stories of the songs.”
The opening “Black Leather On The Inside” sets a darker Gotham scene—The ritual is the formula / Black leather on the inside / New York around the corner. On the opposite coast, “Candlestick Park” is an homage to the now-defunct San Francisco ballpark with a nod to baseball greats Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays, President Nixon’s first pitch there in 1960, and The Beatles’ final live performance on the field in 1966.
Broken by its rustling beats and spoken word of a space-infected world, morphed Romeo and Juliet, and call outs to night crickets and a free society on the title track, drone and drums and J’s bass penetrate “The Unreliable Narrator.” Featuring narration by British actor Marc Warren (Band of Brothers), J wrote the latter track in one confluent thought. “I wrote that out in one flow,” says J. “It’s just something that was in my head for years, and it’s just the whole idea of conspiracy theories and fake news, and the manipulation of all of that, and the gullibility of people, buying into it.”
Referencing a novel in which real people or events appear with invented names, “Roman À Clef” is peppered by more dictation, noisy thumps, and sha na-na nas. Taking some Lynchian cues, ominous film noir beats, whispering vocals, and soulful, denser bass fill “Soul Wave” and drip through the soothe of “Sloe Song”and its repetitious There’s nowhere to hide you. “Return to the Garden of Allah” is another trip back in time, inspired by the long-gone West Hollywood hotel, a former playground of the rich and famous.
“I was just reading about that place in LA, and I was quite fascinated by it, so it was in my consciousness,” shares J, who began writing it on a 1962 Gibson J45 and worked off a beat sent by DeLorenzo. “I was thinking of that beat when I was writing it. We have this flow going all the way through [the album] like that, of things fitting together beautifully.”
The dreamy “Sacred Monster” is a precursor to their final scene of “I Want My Night Crickets,” complete with some Meiners-mixed insects chirping at the close.
Capturing something more cinematic, A Free Society is a noir-induced soundtrack, which wasn’t intentional, though the band also has the entire album recorded as an instrumental for that purpose. “Once we started making the music, we were saying this sounds like movie soundtracks,” says Meiners. “We want to explore and might do something specific in that space.”
Sonically, the Redimi, an Indian electronic drone instrument owned by J, appears throughout the tracks. DeLorenzo also resurrected a drum system he concocted and first used on The Violent Femmes’ 1983 classic “Blister in the Sun,” using a tranceaphone, a folk art instrument he invented using a floor tom-tom, a single-headed floor tom mounted on a snare drum stand with a bushel basket over the top, which is played with metal brushes.
A musical triptych of words and sounds crafted by the three, lyrics were less precious among the trio and more of an experiment in what locked in, spontaneously. “It’s made up of fragments as far as lyrics are concerned,” says J, who adds that some elements of the pandemic crept into some lyrics. “It’s part of this melange of what is the album,” adds J. “It’s in there, but it’s not overtly addressed. It cracked in there because it was so prevalent to our shared experience.”
Songs were mostly imagined by using J’s book of words and phrases, often utilizing the cadavre exquis (“exquisite corpse”) method, a collaborative system first generated during the surrealist art movement, where each artist contributes a piece without the others hearing it. J recently used the system with Bauhaus on their 2022 single, “Drink The New Wine.”
“I would just take those and then just elaborate on those lines,” he shares. “Each of us contribute to the piece without hearing what the others have done. Then it’s done, and then you sort of reveal it. And you see how those words bounce up against each other, and it was effective.”
Preferring to call themselves a band, Night Crickets is not a side project for the three musicians, who have already brought their individual parts to six new songs.
“One of the nicest things about this trio that we have together is that we’re very collaborative in a very visceral sense,” says DeLorenzo. “We have an understanding that when we first started that, don’t think of yourself as any particular instrument, don’t think of yourself as any particular player. The idea is that you’re an equal member of this band in this project.”
DeLorenzo adds, “I’m really happy that we have all these different streets to draw upon. I’m not just the drummer, and Darwin plays guitar and David plays bass. I also play guitar and bass and I play keyboards, so we really like to spread all around the work. Because the three of us take lead vocal duties on different songs, it never sounds like it’s just precious to that one person. I think it always comes across that there is a like mind behind the different music that we’re presenting. It’s a very fertile farm that we have here.”
Photo by Nina Rocio / Reybee, Inc.