Rawar Is the Word

A few months back, when the Eternals were still working on their new album, front man Damon Locks sent an e-mail to a handful of friends asking them what they thought the phrase “rawar style” meant.

It turned out to be like a Rorschach inkblot. “I had one friend who’s involved in fashion who thought it was some style of dress,” says Locks. “Like, ‘Is it flesh and fatigues?’ Or someone else who’s really heavy into the underground scene thought it was some new subgenre of music he’d never heard of.”

The phrase had been floating around among a group of musicians in the band’s orbit, but not even the folks who’d been using it were sure where it had come from. “It’s another fucking word for PUNK I suppose,” wrote cornetist Rob Mazurek, “just saddling it up and letting it rip hard-core style.” Drummer Chad Taylor defined “rawar style” as “a war on aesthetics or set of established aesthetics.”

Despite the phrase’s unstable meaning–or maybe because of it–the Eternals had already settled on it as an album title. Locks and bassist Wayne Montana have been carrying on their own private war against established aesthetics since their days together in Trenchmouth. In 1997 they formed the Eternals from the remains of that band, and over the course of two albums, two EPs, and a pair of 12-inch singles, they’ve refined an eccentric, genre-defying sound–a tricked-out amalgam of dub, funk, reggae, postpunk, electronica, hip-hop, and avant-garde noise.

Though the trio is on its fourth drummer, and its third in less than three years–Tim Mulvenna of Vandermark 5 fame now occupies the throne, after John Herndon, Dan Fliegel, and Ryan Rapsys–the past 12 months have been particularly productive for the Eternals. Last summer, while working on Rawar Style, the group was approached by the new Puerto Rican label Antifaz about making an album inspired by Jamaican roots music: the reggae of Yabby You, the dub of Glen Brown, the dancehall of Sugar Minott. Though the Out of Proportion EP, released in April, was supposed to have been a genre exercise, it feels like an extension of the Eternals’ experimentation. “The way we end up doing stuff, it always comes out being our own weird thing regardless,” says Montana.

While Out of Proportion is more accessible than the Eternals’ previous EP, 2002’s Black Museum, both Locks and Montana identify the earlier disc as a creative turning point. “That was an important freeing experience,” says Montana. “People would ask us, ‘Why’d you guys make that totally fucked-up weird record?’ And what happened is we bought a computer, started recording and editing on that. There was a lot of influence of Morton Subotnick–this almost academic electronic music–original tape music, weird sound pieces.”

Locks had also bought a dozen or so vinyl reissues of 1970s Sun Ra albums from Evidence Records. “It was inspiring,” he says. “If he could make music this free, then we should be able to as well. I was like, ‘These records sound amazing and no one bought them when they came out. Let’s do an album that no one will buy!'”

Despite a mixed reception from the press and the public, for the Eternals Black Museum set the tone for what was to come. “Since [then] we’ve tried to be a little more cinematic,” says Montana. “The tunes ebb and flow in a way that might blur the line as to where something ends and where something else begins.”

On Rawar Style, released in May on Aesthetics, the band threads found sounds, snippets of dialogue, and radio transmissions into its danceable songs, and tracks are often bridged with interstitial music. Locks and Montana admit they’re trying their hand at a technique they’ve heard on their favorite LPs, like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and the Clash’s Sandinista!

“Sandinista! has consistently been in the back of my mind as a great record,” says Locks. “The idea behind it is amazing–the way it was structured sonically and how the songs are joined together to make a larger piece….It wasn’t until we did the EPs and started recording at [the home studio] that we had the opportunity to really create a cohesive whole with a record.”

Locks and Montana have had productive relationships with a number of engineers–Brad Wood in Trenchmouth, Casey Rice and John McEntire on early Eternals efforts, and more recently Graeme Gibson and Tim Iseler–but no matter who they record with, their own vision comes through. A mix-and-match approach to each album helps define their sound: Rawar Style juxtaposes formal studio takes with home-recorded tracks and even crude rehearsal tapes. Montana’s bass work twines together nervy funk and pillowy dub, and when Locks isn’t singing he adds organ and synthesizer to the tunes’ intricate mesh of live and programmed percussion. On Rawar Style his lyrics have moved far beyond the hammering polemics of his Trenchmouth days: the dance-floor politics of “The Beat Is Too Original” straddle the line between silly and profound, and in the allegorical “Gussy Up Yourself” a vapid runway model stands in for imperialist America.

“I’ve never been that much for fluff lyrics,” says Locks. “But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to introduce humorous elements as a way to get the story across. I’ve realized that everything doesn’t have to sound like Jello Biafra.”

“I disagree,” says Montana. “They should all sound like Jello Biafra.”

The drummer issue has kept the Eternals from touring much, but last year they traveled to Brazil to promote Black Museum, which had been released there as part of a split LP with Brazilian band Hurtmold. “That was the most amazing, wonderful trip I’ve ever been on,” says Locks. “People responded to the Eternals in a way American audiences really haven’t; they got it right away. One girl at the shows even had a Trenchmouth tattoo on her back.” This summer the band plans to return to Brazil and will travel to Puerto Rico to perform with Sugar Minott.

Locks is of two minds about how slow most audiences are to “get” the Eternals. “The general consumer likes a genre attached to their music,” he explains. “The fact that we’re hard to categorize keeps us from being trendy. In some ways that’s good and in some ways that’s bad.”

Forced to assign his band a genre, Locks will settle for punk–at least until “rawar” enters the lexicon. “What I learned from being a kid listening to punk music was that it was a way of doing whatever you wanted to do,” he says. “It was a license to artistic freedom.”

“But,” says Montana, “pretty early on, punk turned into being retarded, like retarding the growth of the music. But we’ve stayed with that original idea of punk….Everything we do is in that spirit.”

“Of course,” says Locks, “if you told someone that we’re a punk band, they’d think you were out of your mind.”

The Eternals headline an Aesthetics Records showcase at the Empty Bottle this Saturday, June 19.

More Info, Please

The Meter has received several requests for more information about the “DJ Wednesdays” series that starts June 23 in Grant Park. The city’s SummerDance hotline is 312-742-4007, and a full schedule can be found online at cityofchicago.org/CulturalAffairs/SummerDance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.