Damián Antón Ojeda
Damián Antón Ojeda is the one-man black-metal band Sadness. His other musical projects include Kaskaskia, Comforting, and Life. Credit: Damián Antón Ojeda

In the last week of October, one of the most popular releases on Bandcamp was made by a 24-year-old who works at a theme park outside Saint Louis and records as Sadness. Damián Antón Ojeda’s dramatic, grandly atmospheric music mixes black metal and postrock, and on Sunday, October 24, he put out a two-track EP called Motionless, Watching You that cost $1 to download. On Wednesday, October 27, it was Bandcamp’s third best-selling release, right behind new albums from two much more famous and established acts: rabble-rousing rapper JPEGmafia and ambient artist Grouper. 

Bandcamp’s sales rankings often change hour by hour, and when a new influx of music came out that Friday, Motionless, Watching You fell to ninth. That day Ojeda also dropped the 71-minute Sadness album April Sunset, and by 3 PM it reached number 48 on the chart. Within a couple hours it had climbed another ten spots. 

When I reached Ojeda by phone in early October, he was working on six Sadness releases, and since then he’s put out three: April Sunset and Motionless, Watching You, of course, plus an untitled album he’s been tinkering with since 2018 that came out Friday, November 5. He still has three compilations of older demos in the pipeline. “If I don’t make music—if I were to take a hiatus and just fuck around and do nothing productive—that would make me feel terrible,” Ojeda says. “That wastes my time.” 

Sadness isn’t even Ojeda’s only creative outlet. He’s got four other projects, mostly solo, whose music is scattered around the grid of hard and heavy sounds—they include noise rock (Comforting), screamo (Life), and black metal inflected with dungeon synth (Kaskaskia). Kaskaskia is a duo with vocalist Tony Hicks, who previously worked with Ojeda on a depressive black-metal project called Born an Abomination. They met in their early teens, after Ojeda moved to Oak Park in 2010, and they launched Born an Abomination in 2012.

“I was really trying to consider the bigger picture of what I was creating—not just the raw emotion, but also trying to make it into something a little bit more meticulous and composed,” Ojeda says of his musical endeavors in the early 2010s. “That’s obviously really exhausting and taxing on my brain.” He started Sadness to relieve some of this pressure he was putting on himself—the idea would be to record songs straight from his gut, without fussing over them or second-guessing his choices. 

“I didn’t have to think at all about those songs on the first Sadness album. I just made them,” he says. “That’s kind of what it’s about—being expressive without having to focus so much attention on whether or not it’s good. At the time I just really thought, ‘This music sucks. This is terrible, but at least it’s raw and it’s emotional.'” 

When Ojeda uploaded the first Sadness release, Close, to Bandcamp on July 10, 2014, he expected the project would just end up one more among the half dozen or so he already had. But within a week the download numbers proved him wrong. “Sadness quickly became more popular than anything else I was doing,” he says. 

Close is relatively raw and lo-fi, but its long and sometimes winding tracks foreshadow the grandeur of Ojeda’s current output as Sadness. He sings and plays guitar, bass, drums, and synths for these recordings, and sometimes augments the synths with MIDI sounds from a digital audio workstation. His songs often run longer than ten minutes, which allows ample time for their complicated orbits to make close approaches to the three centers of gravity in the Sadness sound: the serenity of shoegaze, the melodrama of depressive black metal, and the majesty of postrock. 

User-generated music database Rate Your Music suggests that Sadness is “blackgaze,” meaning a hybrid of shoegaze and black metal. RYM users are fond of Sadness: their collective rankings placed the 2019 release I Want to Be There at number 56 on the site’s list of that year’s best albums

Ojeda hasn’t adopted the “blackgaze” label for himself, though, and at any rate he throws too many stylistic curveballs for any one label to suffice. Four minutes into April Sunset closer “Collar,” he conjoins the aquiline shrieking and distorted guitar of black metal to a skipping beat that recalls reggaeton and watery, pulsing ambient synths. Listening to Sadness, you get the sense that Ojeda will make a sudden turn in any direction if he thinks it’ll help him achieve the catharsis he sought when he started the project in the first place.

Ojeda is impressively prolific, and these four Sadness releases—Rain Chamber; Motionless,Watching You; I Want to Be There; and April Sunset—represent less than half the output of that project over the past two years. Three have come out since September 2021. Credit: Courtesy the artist

Ojeda mostly self-releases his music digitally, but small labels have frequently reissued it on physical media. Larry Jablon, who runs New York screamo label Larry Records, began his working relationship with Ojeda circuitously. In 2019, Canadian label Les Disques Rabat-Joie reached out to Jablon to distribute its vinyl reissue of Life’s Demo Two, and the two labels partnered to release another Life record in early 2021. “We put out Life Demo One on vinyl together,” Jablon says. “Then Damián hit me up.” In the months since, Jablon has issued two Ojeda cassettes (Life’s Demo Four and Sadness’s Rain Chamber) and collaborated with Chillwavve Records on a split 12-inch by Sadness and Oregon screamo unit To Be Gentle. 

Jablon says Ojeda has given him a blanket invitation to press physical copies of any of his releases. “Damián’s the best,” he says. “He doesn’t say a lot. I don’t really know a lot about him personally, but he’s just the best.”

Hicks has known Ojeda for 11 years and has been collaborating with him musically for nearly as long. He’s one of Ojeda’s few close friends. “Damián’s a pretty distant person—he’s not really the most sociable individual,” he says. “Damián needs his space and his time to be in his own world. But yeah, I love him. He’s still my brother.”

Hicks grew up in Oak Park, and he met Ojeda after Ojeda’s family moved there from Connecticut in 2010. “I remember it was middle school—I was the only weird goth kid wearing black nail polish, and I looked all goth,” Hicks says. “He was this little emo kid wearing eyeliner and nail polish and shit. He was the only other alternative person. And I remember I went up to him and I was like, ‘Hey, bro, you’re cool.'”

“We were instantly friends,” Ojeda says.

They bonded over music, long an obsession for both. Hicks’s mom, who sang in a gospel choir, gave her children a broad education in music, and Hicks developed a taste for metal at age ten. Ojeda had a grandfather in Mexico who recorded interpretations of old folk songs in the son jarocho style, and Ojeda began taking violin lessons at six while his older brother, Sebastián, played cello. (From 2017 till 2019, Sebastián interned for Chicago nonprofit Experimental Sound Studio, and he leads an ambient project called Among that has collaborated with Comforting.) 

When he met Hicks, Ojeda was still mostly into emo—if a band played Warped Tour in the 2000s, chances are he knows their catalog well. But in 2012, he got hooked on depressive suicidal black metal (DSBM), a subgenre where artists extend the music’s nihilism to themselves. Hicks was already a fan. “We’re really loners, and we’re both super emotional people—like hopeless romantics—and really depressives,” Hicks says. “The music itself, we’re like, ‘Fuck, man, this is depressing as shit, but it’s so melodramatic and so weird.’ We were really drawn to that aesthetic.”

Hicks and Ojeda had sporadically fallen into other people’s bands together—including a hardcore group called Mental Hospital, which Hicks says never went anywhere—before collaborating as a duo in Born an Abomination. “At the time, he was the only friend I had,” Ojeda says. “We both really always did share a lot of music taste, and even just in general things we always agreed upon. So it was really easy to work with him.”

Ojeda labored over the band’s instrumentals on his own, drawing not just from depressive black metal but also from power metal and deathcore. “I think it would be hard to actually call it depressive black metal—it is in a way, but it’s also not,” he says. “It’s also throwing in a whole bunch of influences that have nothing to do with black metal and making it a huge mess. Honestly, it’s a huge mess.”

Hicks usually recorded his vocals at Ojeda’s house. “A lot of it was freestyling—it was me just screaming whatever came to mind,” he says. “It was really therapeutic. I could express myself and say things that would probably be really weird to express outwardly, especially being a 14-year-old at the time. It was the perfect medium for me to be able to say ‘fuck this’ and ‘I hate myself’ and ‘life fucking sucks.'”

Hicks’s mom died in fall 2013. At the time, he and Ojeda were students at Oak Park River Forest High School, but Hicks soon moved to Bolingbrook and left OPRF. He says he got even closer with Ojeda after that, but their band together began to peter out as other musical projects took up more of their attention. Ojeda had at least four during this period, and Hicks was making black metal with Terranaut and Goatswarth. Born an Abomination finally broke up in early 2018. 

The Born an Abomination song “Sunrise, Sunset,” recorded in 2014, is dedicated to Tony Hicks’s late mother.

By that point, Sadness had become Ojeda’s main focus. It almost became the first of his solo projects to play live—a few years before, another musician in Oak Park had reached out about forming a band to play Sadness material onstage. That never went anywhere, though, and to this day, Ojeda has only ever performed live as the drummer in an alt-rock band called East Avenue—he hasn’t been involved in years, but during his tenure they gigged in Berwyn, Cicero, and occasionally Chicago. 

Ojeda moved to San Antonio, Texas, in August 2018 to join post-black-metal band An Open Letter, which almost immediately split up. While living in Texas, Ojeda put together a live band to perform his Life material, but they never made it to a stage. “That all fell apart because of some stuff that happened,” he says. “I still have yet to perform any of my solo material live, which is upsetting.” 

Ojeda isn’t particularly forthcoming about the details of his life, but he’s not totally private—he’s just cautious about what he shares. That extends to his music too. If you want to know what he’s singing, you usually have to buy a physical copy of one of his releases (the solid majority of Sadness’s discography has come out on CD, cassette, or vinyl) and hope the liner notes help. He doesn’t post lyrics on Bandcamp. 

“It would feel like I’m oversharing, and I’m very sensitive to feeling like I’m oversharing things,” he says. “Also, honestly, I don’t think about them that hard. I don’t feel the need to see the lyrics . . . but I don’t know, it naturally feels like it’s a mystery, which is nice. I like feeling mysterious or whatever.” Ojeda suspects that black-metal fans, who have a well-known weakness for obscure and anonymous projects, initially flocked to Sadness because he didn’t include much information on those first releases, which he originally credited to “Elisa.” 

He’s sometimes more forthcoming on Patreon, where he posts early versions of works in progress. He’ll describe his recording process, list the specific influences on a song, or talk about the mundane details of releasing music online—in an October post, he complained about having to use Starbucks WiFi to upload it. He’ll post song lyrics on Patreon too, because he figures he won’t be oversharing if he provides more information to people who are already willing to pay a monthly fee to support his music.

“I don’t like oversharing, but at the same time I love sharing—I love expressing every single thought and feeling I’ve ever had, all the time,” he says. “At some point I was like, ‘There’s so much more I can say about this song—I can talk about the backstory, I can talk about the concept, I can talk about the details that no one actually cares about. And I really feel like I want to express all that.'” 

Ojeda has a significant and growing cult audience, but much of his activity remains so private that even people close to him don’t necessarily know it’s happening. He says people in his family have asked him if he’s still making music. 

He’s also the only one responsible for ensuring that any of his many EPs and albums actually come out. He’s got no manager and no publicist, and none of the labels he works with ever demands material from him. All his drive seems to come from within, just as it did when he recorded the first Sadness release: he gets an itch, he scratches it, and when he’s done he has another album or three. 

“I get this feeling of satisfaction when I’ve really properly expressed something, and I’ve told a story that’s burning inside of me,” Ojeda says. “I like feeling expressive. In some way I do like being reclusive and hiding things and being mysterious or whatever, but at the same time I love the feeling of saying all the things I have to say.”