Damon Locks and the Black Monument Ensemble’s Spiritual, Funky Escape
In the summer of 2020, when protesters took to the streets after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and the United States once again expected violent racist and ideological divisions, Chicago-based singer, producer and sound artist Damon Locks reckoned it was in a creative dead end.
“Where Future Unfolds,” his 2019 album as director of the 18-strong Black Monument Ensemble, expressed the pain of seeing black people killed without adequate justice. Should and could locks rally the ensemble during the pandemic to record new music in response to what was happening around them?
“The challenge was, ‘What would I say now?'” Locks, 52, said in a recent phone interview from Logan Square. “And if breath is the most dangerous thing, how do you record up to six people singing?”
He emailed a local studio engineer about the recording with a compressed version of the group in the building’s back yard. Two obstacles made themselves felt. First of all, it was hot. “I think it was like 93 degrees the first day, which is a lot,” said Locks. Then there were the cicadas; They twittered so loudly that you would have thought they were in the band.
“You were seriously right a few times,” said clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid, who plays in the ensemble.
Unimpressed, Locks and the ensemble met at the end of August in the Experimental Sound Studio and recorded the band’s new album on Friday. While the group’s 2019 LP turned racial disharmony into a sacred celebration of blackness, the new record envisions an alternate universe of infinite possibilities. “The ‘now’ moment is not taken into account,” said Locks. “So anything can happen, you know?”
Partly inspired by science fiction shows like HBO’s “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country,” in which blacks literally move out of dangerous situations, “Now” uses fast-paced electro-funk and lyrics that turn social despair into forward-looking optimism. The album – and Locks’ music in general – also explores the concept of the “black nick,” or the unspoken mode of communication between blacks in public spaces. In return, Locks’ ensemble work – with all its spiritual jazz arrangements, lively drum breaks and esoteric film clips – feels openly communal, like a private conversation between those who understand the nuances of black culture.
“To me, the nod speaks to this destabilized scenario in the United States and confirms that you are here,” said Locks. “’I understand this is crazy, so I see you.'” Locks, who also teaches art at Chicago Public Schools and the Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security men’s prison about an hour outside of Chicago, he said be encouraged by the activism he saw after protests and the pandemic. “I took inspiration from people who are looking for people trying to get money from one place to another and looking for ways to provide food to people who have had no food,” he said.
Locks grew up in Silver Spring, Md., And was introduced to punk as an eighth grader. A year later, he began attending punk and hardcore shows in neighboring Washington, DC, where he has now seen legendary bands such as Minor Threat and Bad Brains.
As an aspiring musician and visual artist, he loved the freedom these groups exercised on stage. That inspired him to create work based on his own feelings, regardless of what was popular. A freshman at the New York School of Visual Arts, he quickly made friends in 1987 with a classmate named Fred Armisen, who had only gone to college to start a band. (“Because all of my favorite bands were art school bands,” Armisen said in a recent interview.) Armisen couldn’t find anyone to play with until he met Locks who had spiky red and black dreadlocks.
“Damon had painted a jacket with the damned on it, and I loved the damned,” recalled Armisen. A year later, Locks moved to the Art Institute of Chicago school. Instead of saying goodbye, Armisen broke off the SVA and also moved. Another friend and bandmate, bassist Wayne Montana, followed suit. “I believed in him that much,” said Armisen. They formed the experimental rock band Trenchmouth in 1988.
The band lasted eight years, during which Locks gained recognition as a strong singer, performer and visual artist. He made the band’s flyers, collage-like drawings that mixed intricate sketches and printed pictures, which he photocopied at Kinko. “That’s the first place I said, ‘Oh, this guy is just a genius,” said Armisen. “This is a brilliant person who cares about every inch of how something looks and sounds.”
After separating from Trenchmouth, Locks and Montana formed the Eternals, an amorphous outfit with a sound rooted in reggae and jazz. Where Trenchmouth scanned as punk and post-hardcore, the Eternals tried to be even stranger. “We’re letting this free openness overtake music,” said Montana. “We started using some samples and clips from movies in Trenchmouth, but as we got older and bought more gear, tonal things could happen that we always reached for.”
Locks was graduating from a studio residence at Hyde Park Art Center in 2017 when he hit upon the idea of bringing singers together to expand the sound of his performances. He contacted Josephine Lee, the director of the Chicago Children’s Choir, who sent him a list of five adult singers who could bring his songs to life. The first performance took place in his studio in the arts center, where “I just opened the doors and put chairs in the hall,” he said. The band landed an appearance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Drummers Arif Smith and Dana Hall agreed to the show. Cornet player Ben LaMar Gay, a friend of Locks, also joined them.
The band’s breakthrough came in 2018 at the Garfield Park Conservatory as part of the Red Bull Music Festival, where Locks brought in dancers, some new singers and Dawid who stood up for gay. The Black Monument Ensemble was born; “Where Future Unfolds” is a live recording of the Garfield Park performance. The membership and size of the group is fluid: “Some of the singers have changed over time, but I think it’s family and people may reappear,” said Locks.
With “Now” Locks purposely left the studio chatter on the album to underline the band’s kinship. (Listeners can experience the joy that comes after the sessions are over, when the melody fades and the ensemble welcomes the setting.) “So that it is so hard now and we have this time to record, it was so utterly beautiful,” said Dawid. “We were just grateful to see each other again.”
Locks said his art is designed to speak one-on-one with the recipient. “I’m just trying to communicate as a person,” he said. “The idea is to be in classrooms and talk to students, talk to artists in Stateville who are incarcerated and try to get their voices outside.” And in light of the collective agony of the past year, he hopes that “Now” can bring something positive: “I talk about things that inspire and pass on me.”