"Every week you could turn on the television and there would be something that was expressing Black culture in this vibrant, Technicolor, surround-sound way." Credit: Photo by Sebastián Hidalgo

Not only is 2020 the Year of Chicago Music, it’s also the 35th year for the nonprofit Arts & Business Council of Chicago (A&BC), which provides business expertise and training to creatives and their organizations citywide. To celebrate, the A&BC has launched the #ChiMusic35 campaign at ChiMusic35.com, which includes a public poll to determine the consensus 35 greatest moments in Chicago music history as well as a raffle to benefit the A&BC’s work supporting creative communities struggling with the impact of COVID-19 in the city’s disinvested neighborhoods.

Another part of the campaign is this Reader collaboration: a series spotlighting important figures in Chicago music serving as #ChiMusic35 ambassadors. This week, we hear from visual artist, educator, and musician Damon Locks. Locks was a founding member of influential Chicago posthardcore band Trenchmouth, which split in 1996, and he still fronts the Eternals (where he plays alongside former Trenchmouth bandmate Wayne Montana). He’s been a vocalist with Exploding Star Orchestra, one of many hard-to-categorize groups led by cornetist and composer Rob Mazurek, and his latest album, 2019’s Where Future Unfolds, features a similarly ambitious group that he leads himself, the Black Monument Ensemble.

This interview was conducted by Ayana Contreras, who’s a DJ, a host and producer at WBEZ radio, and a columnist for DownBeat magazine.

Ayana Contreras: What’s your favorite Chicago music moment?

Damon Locks: The experiences in my list of [moments] were things that caused ripples that went on forever. So I’m not talking about when I saw Fred Anderson take apart Peter Brötzmann at the Empty Bottle, which was great. I’m talking about the emergence of Soul Train [which premiered in Chicago in 1970]. Even in Maryland, where I was from, we felt the effects of Soul Train when it expanded and became a nationwide show.

  • This slideshow includes many photos from the Chicago production of Soul Train.

So I’m going to dig a little deeper with you. You said that you felt the ripples of Soul Train. Tell me about a way in which you felt those ripples.

Soul Train was kind of a beacon for fashion, movement, and culture. Every weekend, you would stand in front of the TV as a little kid and just watch it. You remember those giant TVs that were super huge? We’d stand in front of that TV and we would do the double bump or whatever. [It] was a way of finding out about new music. We’d practice the dance moves. You’d look at the costumes.

That was something that expressed a contemporary Black culture, but also was so affirming and representational. Every week you could turn on the television and there would be something that was expressing Black culture in this vibrant, Technicolor, surround-sound way.

  • Clips from the Chicago version of Soul Train are hard to come by, but in 2009 Chic-a-Go-Go reunited several dancers and hosts from the show for this special episode.

Speaking of Chicago, what ultimately drew you here?

I was in New York, and I went to the School of Visual Arts. I was an illustration major. And at the time I wasn’t that happy in New York. It wasn’t what my imagination said it was going to be. There was a woman that I was interested in that came out to the Art Institute of Chicago, and I came to visit the Art Institute and I saw a whole school full of weirdos. And it was different than being in New York. It wasn’t organized.

So I was really attracted to that collection of weirdos, and I decided to come out here. Illinois was not a place that I thought I would go to. But once I got here, the experience of being able to make something without a lot of the baggage of New York seemed like a possibility. You could make connections and create something that wasn’t finished, in a way.

Yeah. I agree. Chicago is a place where you can will something into being while working through it if it’s got a few scraggly ends. So that leads me into my second question. What do you think it is about Chicago’s music and cultural scene that has made it so influential internationally?

I feel like in many ways, Chicago . . . they don’t keep their doors shut to you. If you’re putting in work, and if you ask for help, someone’s going to be like, “I have some resources. Why don’t you use these?” That has always been the case in Chicago for me. And I feel that musically, I feel that in the arts, I feel that on a bunch of different levels.  v