The Future Now: An Interview With Black Monument Ensemble’s Damon Locks

Samples are another layer of information. The lyrics provide a sense of meaning.

Following the musical career of an artist throughout the years, and witnessing the transformative sounds astutely rendered, is fascinating. But Chicago’s Damon Locks has not only fascinated through his music alone but also through that of his visual art. The artwork has always intrigued with collages of imagery cascading even through its edges. The music itself, well, that’s always been a beast of another sort, clashing together sounds that may not have always made sense, but do. In 2021, it makes even more sense. It goes without saying this is the interview that should have happened some time ago but we all don’t live in the past, we learn from it.

Damon’s musical resumé is one that has touched a number of genres, sometimes leaving himself and his groups unclassifiable. Trenchmouth, Eternals, as a guest vocalist with Office Of Future Plans and multiple Exploding Star Orchestra recordings, are but a few projects he’s participated in, and his latest outfit, Black Monument Ensemble, is one that defies classification. Truly it does. With a group of musicians that range anywhere up to 11 players, the movements from composition to composition always move fluidly but never static in one place. Locks’ moves are maddening, like the scientist in search of things that are far removed from finite stagnation, steering far away from the pack. He accomplishes that feat in more ways than one.

Black Monument Ensemble. What was your initial premise in the creation of the group? 

There was no initial premise. The idea grew from a solo exploration playing samples, turntables, synths, etc. I included a percussionist on the first gig where we played Sounds Like Now with me singing. The first gig was just me with Damien Thompson as a guest percussionist for one song.  I did lots of solo performances after that and began forming the idea of bringing singers into the mix. Around the same time I started making sound for dancers. I knew at some point I wanted singers and dancers to perform together and that I would expand the musicians. It took a few years to get it together. I followed my instincts building goals along the way. Once I did the first performance with the vocalists and percussionists, I knew something lovely was happening. Performers have changed but it has been a beautifully evolving project. 

Damon Locks- From A Spark To A Fire from Scrappers Film Group

There are a number of samples taken from films and aged news reports that are interesting. You blend them within a number of tracks. it seems more so than you had on the debut, Where Future Unfolds. I had to revisit the first album, which seemed to lay out the blueprint for Now and bookend one another perfectly. But back to the samples; was that your way of getting points across? 

Samples are another layer of information. The lyrics provide a sense of meaning. The vocalists and instrumentalists are giving layers of color and harmony to that meaning. The percussion and drum kit are bringing layers of rhythmic meaning and history to the music. So, I feel like there is a lot of meaning to be interpreted in the music. The samples are elements of collage. It’s not just what they are saying but what they are saying next to all the other things that are being said. So, how does, “Someday the whole world is gonna go crazy.” resonate with the lyric, “Your body aches under the weight of the metropolis.”?  How does putting the sampled words, “It’s your thing to make everybody say that you’re good” directly next to the words, “They don’t like you. What did you say? They don’t like you.”? The sample is another tool in the toolbox to get an idea across in a way that lets the listener connect dots for themselves. 

I have to talk about one particular sample at the beginning of “The People vs. The Rest Of Us.” It just strikes me with such ignorance from the interviewer’s perspective, questioning someone there about motives in pleading not guilty. (not really a question but maybe you’d like to expand on that. Seriously though, that got me angry.) You’re giving history there and incorporating music with it.

The whole song for me is about systemic oppression. About the ways options are closed off and destinies are steered. It is infuriating and it has been and continues to be saturated into the systems we live under. 

Before your Now, and even Where Future Unfolds in 2019, musically you’ve been M.I.A. since 2016’s release of Espiritu Zombi (New Atlantis Records). Yeah, it’s that fantastic Eternals album. What had been going on in that time between that time?

The Eternals transformed into a 6pc and wrote a whole set of songs that we recorded but haven’t released. We also made new music as a quartet with saxophonist Nick Mazzarella. We have yet to record. Along with that, all the things I mentioned in the Black Monument formation, and a lot of teaching in Stateville Correctional Center with the organization P+NAP.

Freedom/Time from Rob Shaw

Oh, how did that come about and what were you teaching at the Stateville Correctional Center? I’m assuming that was art you were involved with.

I have been teaching art at Stateville since 2014. I haven’t taught every semester but am part of the leadership committee. Stateville is a maximum-security men’s prison an hour outside of Chicago. I was asked originally by a curator at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum to partner with P+NAP to create work with incarcerated artists at Stateville. After that first semester with that program, they asked me to stay on and I said yes.

That’s pretty dope that you contribute the way you do (Statesville). I don’t know how true it was in the film about Basquiat, it was possible they took some liberties in the film when his former “manager” asked him if he was Tony Bennet, basically telling him to choose between art and music. It doesn’t seem like you ever have that issue, art being able to stand apart from your music on its own, but you’ve been able to combine the two as well. Have you ever found it an issue there?

I have never thought of the two things being in opposition. They are the same creative impulses but with different mediums.

Were there any major differences that went into writing & recording Now as opposed to the first album? 

The first record was written over time as the ideas of the group developed. I wrote an initial batch of like 5 songs to work on with the vocalists and then after we got started we built upon that. We rehearsed, some contributors changed, we incorporated dancers into the live performance for the first time on what became our first album. That performance was a magical night where many things came together for the first time even after lots of rehearsal: the costumes, the dance, I can think of at least two songs that endings were not worked out yet, Rayna doing the opening for Rebuild A Nation, so many new things. The recording captured the magic of a beautiful night. 

NOW was mostly written in my apartment by myself. We had played “The Body Is Electric” a couple of times before the pandemic. I came up with the framework and lyrics then introduced that to the group. What happened with that song that didn’t happen with the others is we were able to rehearse and perform it before we recorded it. The lion’s share of the songs on NOW were never played in their entirety by the whole group previous to the recording and because we haven’t played those songs live we still haven’t played them all together yet! When we recorded it was in two separate sessions with the group broken up into 2 parts, so when we get to perform again, that will be when we get to play most of those songs as a whole for the first time. This session was not the capturing of one magical performance but the documentation of this pandemic, the nervousness, the need for community and collaboration, the fear of the unknown, the hope for something better. It’s all in this recording. 

I have to say there’s an immediate connection with Now where one needs to play it over again as soon as it ends. I don’t want to casually use words like “growth” but the record seems more realized, and it has been a couple of years in between albums. Thoughts?

I have heard folks say they like to play the record again right after listening. That is a huge compliment. My hope is that there is growth between the two records. I am trying to grow the project as organically as possible. Want the group to grow and find out more about itself.  

Recording a record during a pandemic was not what I expected our second record to be but this is what happened. We have to respond to the world around us. I love Where Future Unfolds. I think it is a beautiful record. Much of that record was written in the years leading up to that big performance that is the first record. I listened to it and thought about what Black Monument would say if you put the mic in front of it in this moment of outrage, uprise, and fear. To me, the response needed to feel more strident, more pushing forward. The themes of the record: imagining what is possible, movement building, seizing the time. Many of those themes can be found on the first record but there is something different at play. The difference is time. 

Back to the Eternals, are you still continuing with the Eternals and will it run concurrently with BME?

The Eternals are still together. Each of us has other musical projects. Wayne and Areif have, I Kong Kult. Wayne has been writing material for his own project. Areif also plays in the group Brokeback which is spearheaded by Douglas McCombs of Tortoise. 

P.S. Areif in The Eternals is different than Arif that is in Black Monument Ensemble. 

Lots of things have unraveled throughout the last couple of years and I’m not sure how we dig ourselves out of it. 2019 saw the release of Where Future Unfolds (International Anthem) and it was last month when you dropped NOW with your Black Monument Ensemble. I’ve been left wondering, “Where will it unfold next and where are we heading?” in more ways than one. The albums give me hope.

I am glad this record gives hope. That is the goal. It is really about being able to imagine what is possible when things seem impossible

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(Header Image by Kristie Kahns)