The Black Monument Ensemble founder on creating community through music, conflict in American race relations, the Chicago music scene and his work teaching art in a men’s maximum security prison
Most artists are happy to channel their creative energy into one primary format but that’s not something that can be easily said of Damon Locks. Hailing from Chicago, Locks has spent the best part of two decades creating music that has aimed high and crossed boundaries. As the artistic leader of Black Monument Ensemble he collages jazz, soul, gospel, electro-funk and samples together into one polemical, intoxicating fusion. If that wasn’t enough, he’s also a visual artist, DJ, educator, activist and all-round force for creative good.
It’s this multiplicity of interests that informs the music of Black Monument Ensemble. The multi-generational collective comprises musicians Angel Bat Dawid on clarinets, Ben LaMar Gay on cornet & melodica, Dana Hall on drums, Arif Smith on percussion alongside singers and dancers. First album Where Future Unfolds, a live recording released back in 2019, captured the energy and power of their performances. It was followed this year by the NOW EP, a shorter but no less imposing statement. They arrive in London next week to form part of the line up for this year’s London Jazz Festival alongside the likes of Zakir Hussain, Brad Mehldau, Vijay Iyer, Amadou & Mariam, Yo La Tengo and others.
We caught up with ensemble founder Damon Locks to discuss the background to the project, creating community through music, responding to conflict in American race relations, the Chicago music scene and his work teaching art in a men’s maximum security prison.
You released the NOW EP back in April. How do you look back on that? How has the reception been?
“The reception has been really good. It’s been the longest ‘new’ record I’ve ever released. People keep discovering it at different times over the last few months. We made it last August in the most unknown time of the pandemic. There were no vaccines on the way, we didn’t know what was going to happen and I just needed to figure out how to respond. The weirdest part of this record was not having friends to play the music to and hang out with. The music on NOW wasn’t played at gigs. I wasn’t in friends’ living rooms listening to the mixes, I wasn’t in friends’ cars listening to mixes like I usually might have been. So when the reviews started coming in I was like ‘oh, great, you like it!’”
How did the Black Monument Ensemble come into existence?
“I’ve been in bands for a long time, since high school, but this was the most organic thing to come into existence. I’ve been really struggling recently with what has been happening in the United States in terms of race relations and it started off with me just exploring it through sounds and playing records of spoken word things. Then it just built organically, I started collaborating with dancers then I thought I would put a choir together. It took a couple of years to get that idea together as I’d never done it before and I didn’t know what it looked like. After I was able to assemble five singers and percussionists, which was always the idea, a year later I got the opportunity to show the project as a work in project with the MCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. I was able to expand it out with more musicians, Ben LaMar Gay on horn, Dana Hall on drums and Arif Smith on percussion. Then there was the first performance at Garfield Park Conservatory and the first album followed. It all just happened. I didn’t have the idea of forming a new group, I felt I just needed to get this idea out.”
How would you describe the main themes of the music of Black Monument Ensemble?
“The group was gathered as there was something happening that I needed to explore in terms of race relations in the United States. So, I gathered a group of black artists from all over Chicago to create work that addressed that in many ways. Through the language of horn, or drums, or clarinet, or movement, or samples, or drum machines, or voices. The group is also about trying to understand how you can create community within a project, collaborating with the dancers and branching outwards from the core of the group. For me, the experience of this collaboration and making music in this way is the project and the evidence of that project is the music that you hear. Trying to expand outwards and make more connections is the goal.”
There is a broad range of ages within the band, including children. Did you specifically want younger people to be represented and play a part?
“Rayna Golding sang on Rebuild A Nation on the first record when she was nine years old. She is amazing. She is the daughter of Monique Golding, who is one of our singers. We were preparing for that first performance and that song was a newer song and we needed someone to open it. We hadn’t made that decision but two days before the show Monique approached me and asked if Rayna could sing it. Rayna had been attending the vocal rehearsals so I thought it was a great idea. We had to edit out all of the applause that followed after she sang it. The album was going to be too long if we left it in! Reina has been a regular part of the group when she can. She’s not on the new record because of the covid restrictions but she’s definitely a full member. It wasn’t premeditated but when I conceptualized what this group would be I imagined the vocalists as teenagers because I’d done a bunch of work in my visual art practice teaching with young people and I thought it would be great to have young singers. We also have teenagers as part of our group of dancers. It all worked out organically that it was a wide range of perspectives and people and it was all the more powerful for it.”
You work across many different artforms and assume a lot of different roles, whether musician, visual artist, DJ, teacher/educator, and you’ve worked in the area of dance also. Do you approach them from an equal perspective?
“I think of them all as the same thing. Whether you pick up a brush or a pen or a sampler, you’re trying to do the same thing. I’m just figuring out and doing research in different ways. Like, whether it is spending time with high school students looking at civically engaged art or teaching art at a men’s maximum security prison or working with dancers or writing songs with Black Monument Ensemble, I think it’s all part of the same conversation.”
Do you find yourself being inspired by other artists or are you at the point of your career where you know what works for you in terms of how you create music?
“No, I find that I’m constantly being inspired, I’m ravenously looking for inspiration all the time. Luckily I feel it doesn’t specifically have to be music, it can be music but it can be visual art or a book or a movie or food. Mostly it’s conversation, one way for me to stay inspired is by working in collaboration with people. The more conversations and the more engagement I have with people the more ideas I have. I feel like the idea of the solo artist in their studio by themselves, if that was me I’d run out of ideas a long time ago.”
How does Chicago as a city support you as a musician? How does that influence your music?
“Chicago is an amazingly collaborative city. I’ve always been able to reach out to people for help, whether it’s an engineer, dancers, poets, or being able to borrow instruments. You can get lots of support in Chicago. This weekend I am orchestrating an interview with International Anthem record label owner Scottie McNiece and Makaya McCraven about collage music.”
How are you approaching the London Jazz Festival show in November?
“When we play live things come to life that the recordings don’t give you. The first record is a live recording and the second record is pretty close to being live. The great thing is when we get together we find community in the music and we have a beautiful time. One of the things I’m trying to do is create generative experiences for the people in the group as well as the people in the audience. These shows are going to be great experiences. I haven’t played in London before. I’ve done the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival before with my other group The Eternals in 2001 and 2005 but this will be my first show in London. As a young person I listened to soul and disco and so on but when I started to take art classes in 8th grade I met a bunch of older kids and started listening to punk music. In 1982/1983 I started listening to The Clash and The Stranglers and The Jam so England has a strong place in my heart for music. That was when I really came to life. I remember one winter when the first album by The Specials never left my stereo.”
Your background was in guitar bands, right?
“I was in punk bands from high school all the way up to 1997 when I was in a band called Trenchmouth. In 1997 it felt like alternative music was the mainstream and we were quite bored with that so we became The Eternals, just me and Wayne Montana. We started making strange music that we thought was interesting. I still think that way, I’m just doing what I think is interesting. I’m not really concerned about the supposed genre.”
Samples play a key part in the music of Black Monument Ensemble. How do you approach using them?
“Of late, samplers and drum machines are the instruments I relate to the most. Those are the instruments I can really communicate with. Where I might use pens and pencils to make the basis for visual art, samplers and electronics are how I start sketching music. Most of the time the songs that I write start with samples. I start writing the songs this way then add all the other instruments. Then I have all these brilliant collaborators who might make suggestions. I’ve had some really interesting feedback on how the samples work in the songs. Some people have said that the samples illustrate the issues then the vocalists are the ‘greek chorus’ that are more artistic and address the issue from another perspective. You might have a feeling of gospel music which tells you something, you might have percussion that takes you to a certain sonic space. The sample is just another layer to this information. They are the sound of history. While you are enjoying the beat or the melody you are also taking in this extra information to give you a richer understanding. That’s my hope.”
You’re also involved in teaching art at the Stateville Correctional Center near Chicago. How did you get involved in that?
“I’ve been involved in teaching in prisons since 2014. I would say that not only does it find its way into the work, it actually propels my work. The first semester going into prison was also a time in the United States where very regularly someone might get murdered by the police on video. I was going in and seeing the prison system and seeing how we treat other humans in prison. Then I’d come out and someone would get murdered by the police so I thought I had to take a break from most things except teaching and really process this idea of progress. I thought the world was on a trajectory where things would get better and that was not entirely true. That’s when I started to work on this project. I didn’t know it would eventually become the Black Monument Ensemble, doing the sound pieces around race and culture and trying to answer questions. Going into prison to teach at that time was a catalyst for a lot of the work I needed to do as an artist.”
Have you started to think about what you’ll be working on next?
“There’s a festival in the US called Big Ears and we’re going to try to do something different for that. I want to expand what a Black Monument Ensemble performance can be, hopefully that will take us to new places and we can make stronger connections. For us, it’s not necessarily about release dates and big shows, it’s about trying to generate some positivity.”
Damon Locks and Black Monument Ensemble play at EartH on 15 November as part of the London Jazz Festival, which runs from 12-21 November. Read more information here.