In the summer of 2020, as protesters took to the streets after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and the United States again had fierce racial and ideological divisions, the singer, producer and Chicago-based sound artist Damon Locks found himself in a creative stalemate.
“Where Future Unfolds,” his 2019 album as the leader of the 18-member Black Monument Ensemble, expressed the pain of seeing black people killed without adequate justice. Should the Locks – and could – bring the Ensemble together during the pandemic to record new music in response to what was going on around them?
“The challenge was, ‘What would I say now? “Locks, 52, said in a recent Logan Square phone interview. “And when breathing 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 condensed version of the band in the back garden of the building. Two obstacles have arisen. First, it was hot. “I think it was like 93 degrees the first day, which is a lot,” Locks said. Then there were the cicadas; they were chirping so loud you would have thought they were part of the group.
“They were right a couple of times,” said clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid, who plays in the Ensemble.
Undeterred, Locks and the Ensemble reunited at Experimental Sound Studio at the end of August and recorded what would become “Now,” the group’s new album, released on Friday. Where the band’s 2019 LP turned racial disharmony into a sacred celebration of Blackness, the new record envisions an alternate universe of endless possibilities. “The moment ‘now’ is not factored in,” Locks said. “So anything can happen, you know?”
Partly inspired by science fiction shows like HBO’s “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country”, where black people literally transport themselves out of perilous situations, “Now” uses accelerated electro-funk and lyrics that transform despair. of society in optimism turned towards the future. The album – and Locks’ music in general – also explores the concept of “the black head,” or the tacit mode of communication between blacks in public spaces. In turn, Locks’s Ensemble’s work – with all of its witty jazz arrangements, vibrant drum breaks, and esoteric 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 recognizes that you are here,” Locks said. “‘I understand this is crazy, so I see you.'” Locks, who also teaches art in Chicago public schools and at the Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security men’s prison located about an hour from Chicago said he was encouraged by the activism he saw in the wake of the protests and the pandemic. “I was inspired by the people who were watching people, people who were trying to get money from place to place, trying to find ways to provide food to people who didn’t have it. of food, ”he said.
Locks grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, and was introduced to punk in eighth grade. A year later he started going to punk and hardcore shows just down the street in Washington, DC, where he saw now legendary bands like Minor Threat and Bad Brains.
As a nascent musician and visual artist, he loved the freedom that these groups exercised on stage. This inspired him to create work based on his own feelings, regardless of what was popular. In 1987, as a freshman at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, he quickly befriended a classmate named Fred Armisen, who had only gone to college to train a group. (“Because all my favorite bands were art school bands,” Armisen said in a recent interview.) Armisen couldn’t really find anyone to play with, until he met Locks, who had spiky red and black dreadlocks.
“Damon had a jacket with the damned painted on it, and I love the damned, Armisen remembered. A year later, Locks transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Instead of saying goodbye, Armisen dropped out of SVA and moved too. Another friend and teammate, bassist Wayne Montana, followed suit. “That’s how much I believed in him,” Armisen said. They formed the experimental rock band Trenchmouth in 1988.
The group lasted for eight years, during which time Locks gained acclaim as a powerful singer, performer, and visual artist. He made the group’s flyers, collagel drawings mixing complex sketches and printed images, which he photocopied at Kinko. “This is the first place I was like, ‘Oh, this guy is just a genius,’ Armisen said. “He’s a brilliant person who cares about every inch of what looks like and sounds something.”
After Trenchmouth split up, Locks and Montana formed the Eternals, an amorphous team with a sound rooted in reggae and jazz. Where Trenchmouth scanned as punk and post-hardcore, the Eternals tried to be even weirder. “We let that free openness trump the music,” Montana said. “We started using samples and film clips in Trenchmouth, but as we got older and bought more equipment, it allowed for some tonal things that we were still looking for.”
Locks was doing a studio residency at the Hyde Park Art Center in 2017 when he came up with the idea of bringing singers together to broaden 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 art center, where “I just opened the doors and put chairs in the lobby,” he said. The group landed a concert at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Percussionists Arif Smith and Dana Hall agreed to do the show. Cornettist Ben LaMar Gay, a friend of Locks, also joined him.
The group’s groundbreaking performance took place in 2018 at the Garfield Park Conservatory as part of the Red Bull Music Festival, where Locks brought in dancers, a few new singers, and Dawid, who replaced Gay. The Black Monument Ensemble was born; “Where Future Unfolds” is a live recording of Garfield Park’s performance. The composition and size of the group is fluid: “Some singers have changed over time, but I consider this to be family and maybe people could show up again,” Locks said.
On “Now,” Locks deliberately left the studio chatter on the album to emphasize the band’s kinship. (Listeners can feel the joy that comes after the sessions end, as the melody fades and the Ensemble applauds the take.) “For this to be such a difficult time right now, and for us to to have this time to record, it was absolutely wonderful, ”said Dawid. “We were just grateful to see each other again.”
Locks said his art is designed to talk one-on-one with the receiver. “I’m just trying to communicate as a human being,” he said. “The idea is to be in classrooms to talk to students, to be in Stateville to talk to incarcerated artists, to try to make their voices heard.” And with the collective angst endured over the past year, he’s hoping “Now” can bring some positivity: “I’m talking about things that inspire me and pass this on to me.”