Interview with Damon Locks
This interview with Damon Locks was conducted during the Winter of 2016 by Jet Fuel Review Film & Music Blog Editor Michael Lane.
There are few people I can think of that carry as much ambition as Chicago-based artist Damon Locks. Locks is a talented musician, visual artist, and teacher, who, over the past 30 years, has used these various avenues as a way to unleash his politically-driven, urban-influenced art upon the world.
One of Locks’ latest projects is a new album, Espiritu Zombi, from his band The Eternals, which released in August 2016. Other recent works from Locks include multiple projects with and alongside prolific artist/musician Rob Mazurek, the sound design work on a Chicago-based play, and an art project wherein Locks worked with 11 prisoners currently incarcerated in Stateville Correctional Center, located in Crest Hill, Illinois. The prisoners were asked to draw 100 frames of animation, later to be compiled into a fascinating short film called Freedom/Time.
Damon Locks Biography
Damon Locks began his schooling at SVA in NYC as an illustration major. Feeling limited by that major, in terms of his artistic exploration, he transferred to The School of The Art Institute in Chicago where he received his BFA in Fine Arts. His work often revolves around people and their landscapes; the narrative themes of protest, unrest, and tension are woven throughout. The processes used to reach these ends are a combination of, but not limited to: drawing, photography, digital manipulation and silk screen. His analog upbringing nurtures the dirty, the antiqued, and the distressed, thus giving a warmth and tactile quality to both his screen prints and his digital prints. The work can feel socially political and/or fantastically abstract in its narrative.
Alongside his personal visual exploration, in recent years he has found himself returning to illustration and design. His work can be found shaping the look of album covers, movie posters, dvd package design, book and magazine covers.
Not only a visual artist, Damon has been a musician operating in the Chicago music scene since the late 80’s. First in the group Trenchmouth, he then went on to form The Eternals. These days he splits his time between being a visual artist & illustrator, a deejay and a member of both The Eternals and the jazz ensemble Exploding Star Orchestra. His travels and experiences traveling playing music have definitely influenced the look of his work (Brazilian buildings turn up regularly). His love for both visual art and music inform and complement each other and help form an overall aesthetic with ideas and tonalities bouncing back and forth between genres. Locks is the recipient of a 2015 Meier Foundation for the Arts Achievement Award recognizing mid-career artists for their innovation, past achievements and community contributions.
JFR: I want to start by talking about your latest project, Espiritu Zombi -- the new album from your longtime band The Eternals. What was your inspiration for the new album?
Locks: Wayne Montana (other founding member of the group), spearheaded the creation of this record. He wrote all the basic melodic elements for the songs before we even approached the core group (five of us) to develop those parts into songs. He overheard someone say, "Espiritu Zombi" on a bus in Brazil and that sparked the inspiration.
The Eternals have always been concerned with presenting work that is connected to the world around us. The album addresses the deadening of the human condition. We as a nation are feeling the effects in the biggest way right now. The election of Donald Trump is the best example of our current zombified culture. We are in for some big trouble coming up. Espiritu Zombi was just creatively addressing the coming apocalypse. Get your survival packs together folks -- the end has begun.
JFR: Zombi sees a drastic switch in genre compared to The Eternals’ previous work; there’s a much more grand sound here, with a 10-piece ensemble applied during the recording. What prompted the new style?
Locks: When working on our last album, Approaching the Energy Field, we had just lost our then drummer, Tim Mulvenna. We finished that album as a paired down group of two. We had talked about the idea of expanding out. Wouldn’t it be cool to do that? Areif Sless-Kitain took over on drums and once the trio was solid again it was time to look forward to more writing.
Espiritu Zombi prompted a new level of musical development from us in our writing. It was a big change, but the growth was exponential when dealing with so many tones, colors, and instruments. It was a wonderful challenge for us to step up to write in a new way. I gotta give props to every musician on that project. They were/are amazing to work with. They made the suite of music so much more than I could have imagined.
JFR: Since “Zombi” is in the title, I couldn’t help but immediately relate the album to Italian horror films. And then on track three, “Destroy the Body,” I got the vibe that the song was heavily influenced by the sound of Italian prog-rock band Goblin, who scored many prominent Italian horror films in the 70s and 80s. Am I correct in this association?
Locks: Not entirely. The genre of horror played into the landscape of thought when creating this record, but I think our reference points came from more Brazilian music, jazz, soul, and Afrobeat. I am familiar with Goblin’s music and I am happy that you can hear a relationship between what they were doing and what we did on this album. Horror played a bigger part of the lyrical themes. Tropes from films worked their way into the lyrics: "It's the last moment. Don't take it slow. Turn on the engine and go, go, go, go!"
JFR: And since we’re on the topic of Italian horror, could you share with us your own favorite Italian horror film?
Locks: Suspiria... crazy amazing.
JFR: I came across an old interview with you where you spoke about how you incorporate the sounds of Chicago -- buses, trains, police sirens -- into your music. Why do you believe this to be such an important aspect of your music? And is this idea employed again in Espiritu Zombi?
Locks: Wayne and I lived together for 11 years. We used to live together on Belmont Ave. It was a very loud street. So, when writing, rehearsing, and recording, the sound of traffic was ever present. So, we decided to go ahead and purposely include those sounds into the recordings of songs. It was natural. It felt like real life to me. I still love it but when we recorded Espiritu Zombi, we no longer lived there AND we recorded in a recording studio, so it didn’t naturally present itself. We also had less sonic space with ten voices to balance so it made less sense to include.
JFR: In researching “The Eternals,” I found that the name also belongs to a Marvel Comics property created by Jack Kirby in the 70s. I’ve previously had a conversation with you regarding your comic fandom, so is it wrong of me to assume you named your band after the comic?
Locks: I was once in a band called Trenchmouth (also with Wayne). I never really liked that band name. We were a great band. We informed the name and it began more than just that word but I was happy to get another chance to name a band.
I was on a bus one day and the name “Eternals” popped into my head. I thought, “That is a great name!” I then remembered that there was a Jack Kirby comic of the same name. I actually didn’t start reading the book until we named the band that. I think it is great to share the name with such a bizarre, amazing comic. I highly recommend reading the original run of the book by Jack Kirby. It is so crazy. I love it. Side note: seems like Eternals ideas come to us often on buses!
JFR: Could you talk some about your relationship with the medium of comics? And since you have worked in so many different art forms over your career, have you ever considered writing/drawing for a comic?
Locks: My first true artistic inspiration came from comics. I could always draw but when I discovered John Byrne & Chris Claremont's X-Men, my world changed. Comics really got me hooked on drawing. I drew all the time as a result. When I was little, I thought I was gonna be a comic book artist. That didn’t come to fruition. But comics still live in my consciousness. Last year, I started a comic project with about 40 friends. I asked people to come up with a four page comic based on a set of parameters. It was awesome to work through the project and see how artists and non-artists approach the medium. It was a blast.
I also go to a comic book store almost every week just to chat and look at comics. I don’t buy anything; my friend Ralph Darden does. But last week I ran into one of my favorite contemporary artists, Kerry James Marshall, who walked into the comic book store and Ralph and I were able to have a conversation with him. He doesn’t buy much, he just comes in to check out the comics. I am happy to be in such good company! I am doing something right.
JFR: I suppose that since we’ve transitioned into talking about comics, a medium parallel to animation, this is a good bridge to ask you about your 2014 project Freedom/Time. Tell us about this project. How did this come about?
Locks: I was asked by Heather Radke, curator at The Jane Addams Hull House, to work with The Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project (PNAP) to create work for a new exhibition Hull House was developing around time and labor. I pitched them an animation piece. I pulled in Rob Shaw to work on the project. He and I had worked previously on a piece called Noon Moons with collaborators Terri Kapsalis and Wayne Montana. Noon Moons was an almost 20 minute-long piece that started off as just a sound piece, but then Rob animated the whole thing! Anyway, I taught a semester length class at Stateville prison as a part of PNAP, creating the work that became the animation project Freedom/Time. After I finished, I was asked if I wanted to continue teaching with PNAP. I did! I have been with PNAP almost 3 years.
JFR: You’re also at work with collaborator Rob Shaw animating an entire album, Alien Flower Sutra by Rob Mazurek and Emmett Kelly. Did you approach Mazurek and Kelly, or were you and Shaw commissioned for the project? Explain the the origins of this project.
Locks: I was approached by Rob Mazurek and the label owner to do this and I roped Rob Shaw into it. It is a tall order but we are working on it. I will be excited to have it all done. Rob Shaw is an amazing animator and it is an exciting privilege to work with him on projects. He is a true animation artist. He can make the scrappiest ideas into gold. Working with him to flesh out where the project is headed is a great artistic treat.
JFR: I’ve watched the previously released first part of your Alien Flower Sutra project for the song “Back to the Ocean, Back to the Sea,” and I’m left wondering if the visual album as a whole will be a story you can follow from beginning to end, or if each song will contain its own vignette?
Locks: We don’t actually know yet. We need to get into the meat of it first. We are working linearly at the moment, just going from point A to point B to point C. Once we get a little further in, I think we will know more about what it looks like and we will be able to decide if the whole arc will be a thing.
JFR: Could you speak to how the animating process works on a project like this? Are you working with Mazurek and Kelly on what the visual aspect will look like, or have you and Shaw been left to your own devices?
Locks: Rob Shaw and I float pieces to Rob Mazurek and he gives the thumbs up. At this point, we could probably finish the whole thing without showing it to him or the label guy, Scottie. I am generally a visuals generator and Shaw has been amazing at the arc of each piece. I throw a bunch of stuff at him and he chews on the materials, adds his own, and creates gold. I have to get better at bringing the conceptual to it. I did more of that with The Eternals video for “Destroy the Body.” I can't say enough great things about the talents of Rob Shaw.
JFR: This also isn’t your only collaboration with Rob Mazurek, as you were involved with his acclaimed album from 2015, Galactic Parables Vol. 1, which he recorded with the Exploding Star Orchestra. You’re not only listed as a vocalist and instrumentalist on the album, but you also did the album’s artwork. Tell us about your relationship with Mazurek (how you two have ended up working together so much).
Locks: I have been in the Exploding Star Orchestra for years now... maybe seven? He asked me to read something in the studio and then I was in the group. I have done the art for a few ESO albums (maybe two) and a bunch of other Rob Mazurek projects. Rob Mazurek and I get along artistically quite well I think. I am the vocalist in ESO so I create my own lyrics but they have to fit with Rob’s ideas about his music. I think I can do that and express myself. I think that is done visually as well with the record art. I love Rob's music and I am honored to be able to lend any of my talents to his projects anytime.
JFR: What goes into the design of an album’s artwork? Obviously you’ve been behind the process for many of your own albums, but have you before done the artwork for someone else’s project before Galactic Parables Vol. 1?
Locks: I probably have 30ish record covers under my belt. I have never counted. I used to comb through the music looking for ideas but when I have worked with a band or a person long enough, I just come up with a look and try running with it. If they like it, cool. If not, I have to start again. That doesn’t happen that much, but occasionally something gets rejected. It is so much easier than when I first started. I think it is like a muscle that you have to exercise. I think all art is like that, anyway, not just design. The more you do it, the easier you have accessing the brain space to do more. When a break happens in art, it always takes me longer to jump back in.
JFR: You’ve also done sound design work for the theater piece 100 Hauntings, which recently showed at the Free Street Theater in Chicago. What does 100 Hauntings entail? And could you describe the process you had when tackling its sound design?
Locks: Doing sound design for a theater piece was a new thing for me. I do sound pieces as a part of my art practice and ran into Bobby from Free Street Theater when coordinating a Chicago Home Theater Festival performance. After that performance happened, he asked me if I was interested in creating sound for 100 Hauntings. It was an exciting challenge. I used synths, drum machines, and samplers to create the original sounds for the show. It was interesting that -- except for where specific music was needed -- the more song-like it sounded, the less it worked for the piece. So, I had to come up with textures that made sense for scenes. I really enjoyed working with Free Street Theater and look forward to more experiences working in this way.
JFR: Before we finish, being that you’re so incredibly involved within the music community, could you just recommend one album from 2016 you think everyone should be listening to?
Locks: Jeff Parker’s New Breed is a pretty great record. Oh and The Eternals’ Espiritu Zombi and Exploding Star Orchestra’s Galactic Parables. Oh, and Nick Mazzarella’s record, Ultraviolet (which I also did the cover for).
JFR: And finally, what can we look forward to from your future output? What is next on the docket from Damon Locks?
Locks: More sound and vision; trying to find intersections for those things. Lots of stuff in the works, but I am at a loss as to how to tell you about the stuff. Most of the things are still in the planning stages and don’t have finishing dates attached to them. I know that yet another version of The Eternals will record in the near future. The 6-piece version of the band that I call The Eternals 6 have an album’s worth of material ready to go. I am also currently working on some album and video work for the return of At the Drive In. It is fun working with those guys again.
A huge thank you to Damon Locks for participating in this interview.
--Michael Lane, Jet Fuel Review Blog Editor