Damon Locks engages with Chicago’s music scene in a way not many others have. Working in just about every sector of the business – performer, designer, publicist – lends The Eternals’ frontman a seemingly unrivaled view of music’s creative ambition. The recently issued Approaching the Energy Field (Addenda, 2011) is yet another sonic leap for the always-experimenting band – the core lineup of which consists of Locks and multi-instrumentalist Wayne Montana [pictured above]; percussionist Tim Mulvenna recently left the band as a full-time member. This fourth Eternals full-length marks 20 years on from Locks’ first long-player with his previous no wave punk band, Trenchmouth.
Skyscraper caught up with the singer for a phone interview just as spring was beginning to grant open windows to the Midwest, a fact which accounts for the variety of wildlife discussed herein.
Skyscraper: The Eternals, obviously, aren’t one thing, but still indebted to hip-hop. What do you think about some of the newer hip-hop acts coming up?
Damon Locks: I’ve been listening to hip-hop since it was rap. I bought “Rapper’s Delight” when it came out [in 1979]. But the last newly released album I bought was probably Fishscale (Def Jam, 2006) by Ghostface Killah. I’m just not interested in hip-hop’s trajectory as it stands, in general. I remember years ago when the playing field was filled with interesting artists, I didn’t pay much attention to Jay-Z. Now, I feel he’s one of the few people doing music that resembles hip-hop, to me. I’ll check out Tyler, the Creator or whoever comes across my computer screen. For the most part, though, I’m not in touch with hip-hop these days.
When I got really interested in sampling it was because of Public Enemy. I didn’t do it back then, but I still thought it was interesting – the work of the Dust Brothers and the Bomb Squad. The way The Eternals approach that, we’re not thinking about it from a hip-hop perspective. It’s more a sound collage. Maybe “War’s Blazing Disciples” uses a traditional hip-hop way of including samples. Some of the them, though, are just interesting loops we want.
Skyscraper: What’s the sample on “The Flood.” It sounds like it could be Phil Cohran.
DL: You know, Wayne made that sample. I think there’s some Ethiopian music in there. It’s not Cohran, though.
Skyscraper: Are you from Chicago? Do you feel connected with that era of AACM players? [Ed. note: AACM stands for the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a nonprofit organization that Cohran helped found in Chicago in 1965.]
DL: I’ve been here for about 23 years. I do feel connected to the city. Strangely enough, last fall, I performed with Cohran at the MCA [Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago].
Skyscraper: For AACM’s fortieth anniversary?
DL: Yeah. So, that helps me feel connected to that lineage. I’m a huge Cohran fan. Plus, Sun Ra. I admire music from the 1960s and was really honored to perform with Cohran. But I feel more connected to players around Chicago right now. I perform in a group called the Exploding Star Orchestra with Rob Mazurek, Jeff Parker, and Nicole Mitchell, in addition to The Eternals.
Skyscraper: In reading up on your work, I was surprised to see how involved in the art community you have been. What do you think about the MCA’s relationship with musicians, and how different is it traveling in those two circles?
DL: In terms of navigating different scenes, it’s all the same. I think it’s great that the MCA has that sort of relationship with the community. It’s essential to feel like you’re a part of the city. I feel like they do a good job extending that arm, but also that message. Creativity or artistic expression, you just pick your medium. You’re communicating with intelligent people and you just have to engage and feel comfortable.
Skyscraper: Do people automatically tell you that your work [pictured left] resembles Kerry James Marshall’s?
DL: They don’t, actually. I really do like his work. I like Douglas Emory, who was the artist from the Black Panther’s newspaper. Those are people who I turn to and look at their work regularly – as well as Jack Kirby from Marvel Comics. Endlessly inspiring. Yeah, Kerry James Marshall’s a fantastic Chicago artist. I like his perspective and I like where he’s coming from. I look to him for that.
Skyscraper: Do you mean the political aspect he brings to what might otherwise be mundane images or on the canvas?
DL: I mean where he’s coming from. His trajectory or his political stance, how he addresses the canon. He’s definitely driven and focused on what he wants to accomplish.
Skyscraper: Whoa, a doe just ran across my front yard.
DL: Where do you live?
Skyscraper: I’m in Cleveland right now.
DL: Nature’s awesome. Where I live right now, when I’m walking home I’ll see bunny rabbits. And that makes me so happy [laughs].
Skyscraper: We were kind of talking about the confluence of creative endeavors and you already mentioned Tyler, the Creator. What do you think about Odd Future and the recent publicity they’ve received?
DL: I’m disconnected. In my mind, almost everything is horrible. Most of the music coming out now is regurgitating ideas or angles to catch someone’s eye. I feel like the creative spark has been taken over by people with an idea about how to market something. I watched Tyler, the Creator on Jimmy Fallon’s show and I’ve seen the video he made, the black and white one (“Yonkers”). I thought it was potentially interesting. I’ve seen shock value before and I’ve heard crazy rappers before. I have to wait and see what I think, because even if the video was well done, you have to give me something more, a different approach for me to sign on. People have been crazy rappers for awhile now.
Skyscraper: I’m taken with how talented they are considering their age. What’s more interesting about Odd Future, though, is that they’re clearly coming out of skate culture. So, in some ways, they’re an inversion of Trenchmouth’s and The Eternals’ understanding of punk and hip-hop. For them, it’s hip-hop and punk.
DL: I can understand that way of thinking. I’m not sure what I think, yet. Dr. Octagonecologyst (Universal, 1996 ), that’s the one for me. That’s crazy and interesting. And the Wu-Tang stuff. You’re really going to have to up the ante for me.
Skyscraper: Instead of Wu-Tang, let’s just say 36 Chambers (Loud, 1993). So, between that and Dr. Octagonecologyst, we’re talking about cornerstones of the genre. It’s hard for me to compare 20-year-olds from Los Angeles to those works.
DL: I disagree. I don’t give a shit about how old you are. I just want something that’s really interesting. There’re tons of phenomenal records that have come out – I’m not dissin’ them because they’re 20 and I’m not cutting them slack. Minor Threat, Bad Brains, all these people put out records when they were that age. I don’t even know how old Wu-Tang was when they put out 36 Chambers.
Skyscraper: It seems like The Eternals don’t release music as frequently as Trenchmouth did. Is that as a result of life and age interceding or do you just work differently now?
DL: It’s just life and the way things operate. Trenchmouth was around at a time when there was a system for underground music. Some things worked when that band started that didn’t by the time it was over. We were doing records, Jawbox was doing records. You did two albums and in between was a 45, then you went on tour. You were touring a lot and practicing all the time, having your life work around that. There seemed to be a natural cycle. By the end of Trenchmouth, alternative was mainstream, independent labels were transitioning, either becoming part of a major label or just failing.
When The Eternals started, we weren’t entirely sure how we were going to put out records or what label was going to put out our stuff. We’ve always focused on making the music good and interesting. Then we’ll figure out how to get it to the public. However long the album takes is how long the album takes. We’ve also had four drummers over the course of existence. While working on Approaching The Energy Field our drummer left.
Skyscraper: I’ve seen recent footage of just you and Wayne playing. Do you have to compose differently given the new setting?
DL: Tim Mulvenna, who was our drummer when we started working on the new record, he had a good tenure. But there was a period before he left when he just wouldn’t be available. We’d written some of the new album and last Record Store Day, Reckless asked us to play an in-store. Tim couldn’t do it. I suggested to Wayne that we go ahead and play it anyway. He was like, “Well, what are we gonna do? Are we just gonna do versions of our songs without drums?” I said, “No, we’re gonna write all new material around samples, keyboards, bass and guitar.” So, we wrote a set in some ridiculously short amount of time. We practiced constantly. I remember, the day before we played, I was still changing lyrics.
After the Reckless show, people came up to us and said, “If that was stuff off your new album, I’ll buy it right now.” We went back to our home-studio and recorded all those songs, then picked from songs we’d written without Tim, songs we’d recorded with Tim and this whole new set of songs. We played a bunch of shows as a duo, it was liberating and a lot of fun, a whole different kind of performing energy. It was exciting and a boon to us, because we always try to challenge ourselves and make things happen. We finally decided, Wayne and I are The Eternals. We’ve gone through all these drummers, but we remain and we should be able to perform as a duo.
We’ve been doing trio shows and duo shows. Areif Sleiss-Kitan, from Reds and Blue, has been playing with us. He’s phenomenal to work with. Sometimes it just feels like a duo show and sometimes it doesn’t. It keeps playing exciting; it’s a challenge and a lot of fun. For example, we’re playing at The Hideout with a Ken Vandermark group and instantly knew it was a duo show. We also got asked to play with Disappears, trio show. When we’re playing in a rock forum, we’re going to want the drums there, but we have the sonic leeway to do a duo set.
Skyscraper: Are there other bands in Chicago capable of playing in those two wildly different settings? There’s bound to be some crowd overlap between Vandermark and Disappears, but not too much.
DL: I don’t know. That might be something unique to The Eternals, because we are genre-less. We’ve been around and kind of straddle a bunch of different communities. We can compliment a jazz setting as well as a rock show.
Skyscraper: Since we’ve been talking about Chicago, I feel obliged to ask you about Ben Weasel flipping out.
DL: I’ve never been a Screeching Weasel fan, necessarily. I think it was unfortunate and kind of a drag. I was more impressed with the band stepping down afterwards. I thought that was really interesting, not so much the thing that happened, but the way people responded to it. From what I’ve read, the band said they didn’t feel comfortable performing. They’re not dissin’ Ben Weasel, they probably just felt, “This isn’t what we signed up for.” I don’t know too much about the scenario, but I thought, “Oh, wow.” They were just like, “If you want to continue and have someone else play, you can totally do that, but right now, we can’t.” I don’t know if I’ve seen that before, a band just saying, “We’re not doing this right now.” What was your take on it?
Skyscraper: None of those guys were original members. Dan Vapids’ recorded with Ben Weasel before. I do feel that if you have dates scheduled, it’s kinda unprofessional to cop out. Then again, they’re a punk band, so they’re supposed to be unprofessional. In keeping with that, though, if you go to see a punk band play and are then dismayed by how punk bands act, why are you going to shows?
DL: No, see this is where we disagree. Just because you’re a punk band, that doesn’t give you the right to do whatever the fuck you want. Signing up to hear punk music doesn’t mean you’re signing up to be ignorant.
Skyscraper: True, but if you went to see G.G. Allin play and were dismayed he shoved a bottle up his ass…
DL: Screeching Weasel isn’t G.G. Allin. They’re a snotty pop-punk band. We can agree that you don’t go to shows and expect to get punched in the face.
Skyscraper: When you agree to do a show, you don’t bank on being verbally abused by the audience. Sometimes, it just happens.
DL: Here’s another thing, right? No one’s really talked about this, but as a band, you kind of create your own audience. The way you perform and what you put out dictates how that audience is going to respond to you. So, Ben Weasel created his audience with his own attitude. If that goes bad, then you’re going to have to take some of the blame for it. I think your point about professionalism’s interesting, because the band itself pulled back the curtain and said, “We’re opting to be human instead of just going along with it.”
This isn’t analogous, but when Colin Powell was like, “I can’t do this shit anymore. I’m going to vote for Obama, because this is my chance to not be a complete fucking asshole…” I enjoy when someone says, even on a small scale, “I know we have shows booked, but you just punched a girl.”
Skyscraper: I assume there were no assaults when the Eternals toured Brazil recently.
DL: We actually have a really good fan base there. We’ve gone to Brazil four times. Many years ago, we did an EP called The Black Museum (Aesthetics, 2003), to date the strangest Eternals’ release. I really love it, but it’s close to being sound collage instead of songs. After we put that out, a Brazilian label contacted us and said, “We’d like to re-release this as a split with another band.” I did the art work, they released it and wrote us about coming down there to support the release. We were like, “For a five song EP, you want us to come to Brazil?” No one we knew had toured there and we were going on the strength of an EP no one bought in the United States.
Every time we go, we have a phenomenal time and feel more connected to Brazil. The country’s also changed over the time we’ve been going. Most people didn’t have bands when we first went. We were playing great shows, people were talking about us. They just have a totally different mindset about The Eternals. In the United States, we’re a weird band. In Brazil, we’re just a band people like a lot.
Skyscraper: Did you tour with reggae or ska bands? They love Jamaican music down there.
DL: We didn’t. We did do a couple shows with this guy, Victor. I can’t remember his last name.
Skyscraper: Victor Rice?
DL: He mixes recorded reggae. Yeah, we did a couple tours with him. That was a lot of fun.
Skyscraper: Last one, ready? Does your mom call you Dey-Dey?
DL: She does not. A couple friends do, jokingly [laughs]. I used to catch the bus home from work. There was a piece of graffiti on this door right next to the bus stop that said something like, “Dey-Dey was here.” I saw those words everyday and thought I needed to bring that character to life, somehow.
Photos: courtesy Addenda Records. Artwork: courtesy Damon Locks.