In the annals of American independent rock, punk and free jazz, Chicago, along with New York and L.A., has been one of the epicenters of trailblazing scenes and movements. From Steve Albini’s proto-industrial terrorizers Big Black and post-punk outfit Shellac to jazz icons like late great Fred Anderson and Ken Vandermark to Tortoise’s post-rock, sounds of both the otherworldly and noisy variety haven’t been in short supply.
Then there are the Eternals.
Born from the ashes of Trenchmouth, the ’90s-era noiseniks famously, and sadly, known as the band Fred Armisen played drums for before conquering comedy and TV, the Eternals—the core duo of vocalist/keyboardist Damon Locks and multi-instrumentalist Wayne Montana and a rotating cast of Chicago comrades—have operated on their own terms, flying in the face of classification, convention and scene since their full-length debut in 2000 when math and post-rock was all the rage.
Carrying a similar genre-juggling torch as Trenchmouth, over the course of four overlooked albums, a slew of EPs, a split LP with pals Hurtmold and a remix record, the Eternals have remained outsiders from day one, defying sound logic with a mishmash of dub, soul and reggae laced with post-punk fury.
Envision Fugazi under the influence of Lee “Scratch” Perry, Tropicália, Remain in Light-era Talking Heads and the post-jazz of Isotope 217 and you’re just scratching the surface of the Eternals’ eclectic sound-world.
Just be careful boxing the Eternals’ outré vision into music writer-friendly stereotypical niches.
“Our music has never been any type of music,” explains Montana when asked where the Eternals fit in. “Even from the Trenchmouth days, we’ve gotten the stupidest conglomerations of comparisons of music, saying things like we’re jazz or dub or indie rock or experimental…”
“…Or funk! Or rap!” interrupts Locks.
“For me personally, I abandoned the idea of fitting in when we still in Trenchmouth,” Locks continues.
“In Chicago, Trenchmouth was this band that didn’t really get much attention. We got a lot of attention from our diehard fans but in general the populace didn’t really take that much interest. I also thought that the focus of the music scene got not about music so I became less interested in the music scene by the end of Trenchmouth.”
As far as Locks is concerned, playing music wasn’t about latching onto a scene; it was, quite simply, about getting the music out there.
“When the Eternals started, we were just doing our own thing and trying to figure out ways of getting it out into the world so our efforts would at least be documented. So I’ve been rolling with that for 20 years.” [Laughing]
That roll-with-it mantra—and its contrarian aesthetics—have defined the Eternals’ path over their two-decade existence. They’ve had one foot in the door of the indie pantheon while remaining outcasts on the fringe. That ethos has manifested itself by way of their genre-smashing output that has seen Locks and Montana do some record label hopping beginning with a fitting, yet brief stint in their own backyard for Thrill Jockey before the mind-bending electronics-wired fuckery, tribal-centric minimalism and socially conscious speak-sung musings of their eponymous debut for the D.C.-based DeSoto Records (the label run by members of Jawbox).
Locks and Montana then landed with Aesthetics for the world music-centric mania of Rawar Style (2004) and Heavy International (2007) before jumping ship again for 2011’s Approaching the Energy Field (via Brazilian label Submarine).
Be it recording for different labels or stylistic shifts in music and instrumentation, the Eternals are in constant reinvention mode, forever playing by their own rules.
“Maybe it was frustrating a while ago but you do something long enough, you don’t give a fuck anymore,” says Montana.
“We’ve done music that’s all-electronic like instrumentals with synthesizers and drum machines, we’ve done stuff with live instrumentation, extra singers and guest musicians. We’ve done trio and a six-piece that we have going now with a whole different set of music then we have the 10-piece band. I don’t think anybody can say that it’s boring [laughing]. It may be confusing for people but who cares? This is what we’re doing.”
That don’t-give-a-fuck M.O. is crystallized to the fullest on the Eternals’ first record in five years, Espiritu Zombi.
It’s arguably their best effort but undoubtedly lays claim as the group’s most sonically ambitious and dense set yet, a conceptual sprawl loosely dubbed under the guise of The Eternals Big Band. It found Locks, Montana and longtime drummer Areif Sless-Kitain recruiting seven stalwarts of the Chicago free-improv jazz scene to help interpret their vision.
The origins of Espiritu Zombi were first hatched in 2011 after the Eternals hit Brazil for a short tour. As Montana hit the beach for a little R&R, the inspiration for what would become the album’s underlying themes occurred largely by happenstance.
“I had heard this couple in São Paulo talking in Portuguese and I heard them say ‘espiritu zombie,’ Montana recalls. “I was like ‘Whoa.’ I asked one of the guys in Hurtmold, ‘What’s this “espiritu zombie?” ‘ He was like ‘zombie spirit’ and it just stuck in my head.”
Montana’s obsession with what he overheard ultimately morphed into the foundation for the Eternals’ fifth LP.
“It was stuck in my mind. My girlfriend and I were on this long bus ride and I kept thinking about it and this whole thing hit me as one thing, all at the same time: this big concept of the zombie spirit, this spirit that’s in the air, it’s in the world, it’s in people, it’s in the earth, it’s in everything.”
Naturally, Locks was on board. “The zombie spirit for me, while I was developing lyrics, was like ‘the apocalypse has actually happened.’ ”
“Instead of it looking like zombies from the movies, it looks like totally different zombies. It’s a cultural apocalypse. It’s the apocalypse of the environment, how we’re destroying the environment, it’s the apocalypse of lack of education, lack of nutrition. All of these things that we are not focused on is creating zombies that walk around in regular life that look like everyone else but we’re culturally dead.”
Soon Montana began piecing together the music: an album-length suite that begged for an expansive sound.
“I conceived it as a very large sound, just the whole idea as being very big. I figured all the melodies out on a guitar. Then I started thinking of counter melodies and things and I was like, ‘This has to be big, like a big group,’ and I had specific people in mind to be in the group. I want it to be really big and energized and heavy. I always wanted it to be a heavy thing—the subject matter was heavy and Damon was like, ‘Yeah, man. That sounds great. That’s the stuff we talk about all the time, whether it’s science fiction movies or real life.’ ”
With the core group of Locks, Montana, Sless-Kitain, Exploding Star Orchestra bassist Matt Lux and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz (the latter two crucial in fleshing out the album’s epic arrangements) compounded by the avant-jazz hall-of-fame caliber additions of cornetist Josh Berman, alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella and flutist Nate Lepine and backing vocals by Jeanine O’Toole and cellist Tomeka Reid, the newest iteration of the Eternals, as a 10-piece big band, was birthed.
Now nearly half a decade after its seeds were first planted in Brazil, Espiritu Zombi is finally seeing the light of day (via New Atlantis/Submarine).
With the record’s politically charged overtones and Locks’ urgent lyrical themes sinister on standout tracks like “Destroy the Body” and “Makeshift Satellite,” the instrumentation and vocal stylings (Locks is ostensibly possessed throughout, jumping effortlessly from falsetto to baritone) are the polar opposite: lush, uplifting and bursting with colorful melody.
“I didn’t want the music to be overly dark; I actually wanted it to be very bright and big and open sounding. I’m not sure why I wanted that but that was in my head,” Montana says laughing.
That psychedelic jazz/rock rainbow is apparent from Espiritu Zombi’s get-go and doesn’t let up throughout its ecstatic journey.
On “Opening Scene (Opening Seams),” “Unseen Force,” “Blackout!” and the title track, the vibe is euphoric as the arrangements—the sublime vocal triumvirate of Locks, Reid and O’Toole, Montana’s jazzified and funky guitarscapes and the radiant combo of Adasiewicz’s vibraphone and Lepine’s flute channel the interstellar space wizardry of “Space is the Place” Sun Ra and Marshall Allen’s Sun Ra Arkestra.
While some may call Espiritu Zombi the Eternals’ “jazz record,” Locks sees the band’s biggest undertaking yet in a different light, one that will open even more new doors of sound.
“Regardless of the experimentation Wayne and I have made over the last 20-some years of being in the band, this was the most informative arc of songwriting because I feel it transformed the way we think of songs,” Locks explains.
“Yeah, we do dissonant, crazy agitated songs because we choose to. So when we had a chance to do this we had to prove to ourselves that we can use harmony and melody and beauty and throw in dissonance and all those other things, too. So post-Espiritu Zombi, there’s a whole new avenue of resources to pull from now.”
Whatever comes next for the Eternals, one things for certain: they’ll do it their way, without compromise.