At War and Peace
by Robin Storey Dunn
"I'm pretty much locked and loaded for civil war." Lamont Thomas sounds more resigned than alarmed. He's definitely not surprised. He predicted a firestorm years ago. His plans haven't changed. "I may just get a little more music recorded before then," he adds. "Maybe it inspires." I've gotten to know Thomas during his visits to Austin, and called to see how he's dealing with current events.
He's keeping busy in a friend's home studio, he says. He's always been prolific. Since 2011, he's released eleven solo albums as Obnox, with at least that many singles and EP's. Before that he played and recorded with the Bassholes, This Moment in Black History, Puffy Areolas, and a host of other bands. Still, he hesitates to call himself an artist.
"I'm not an artist," he says, speaking from his home in Cleveland. "I'm just a member of the community. I'm just trying to express myself."
Modestly aside, by any definition, Thomas is an artist. He reports from the liminal space between war and peace, or a great party and total destruction, with the composure of an elder. He once described his sound as "sheets of rhythm," a nod to Coltrane's sheets of sound, and if you play his new album back to back with The Olatunji Concert, they bear some resemblance. They both sound like a world on fire. Music for today.
His latest work is the double LP Savage Raygun (Ever/Never). Like most of his work, it's not easy to categorize, but usually gets filed with punk. Savage Raygun, like his previous albums, is an auteur's work--fifty-six minutes of lo-fi din constructed from deep layers of fuzz, garage rock, R&B, soul, jazz, funk, and hip-hop. There's a nod to Hawkwind and a Neil Young sample, and I hear gospel in the call and response and Thomas' incantatory tambourine, which is worthy of Langston Hughes.
Thomas says he's surprised by the attention the album's received, especially since he hasn't been able to tour and promote it. "I thought it would be a turkey of a record, that no one would buy it, but it did good numbers, it did well."
I ask how he's coping with the pandemic. He got laid off from his day job, he says, and misses human contact. "At the top of the pandemic I was stuck and bummed out," he says. "I was having a hard time getting through it. After the album came out, just hearing from everybody, people actually enjoying it... that revived, reinvigorated my faith in the whole game. Who I'm talking to and who the audience is, just who I'm sharing the music with."
Usually, that's a mostly white punk crowd. Sometimes he's the only Black person in the room. "I feel like people want me to be heavier than I actually am. I mean I'm up for it, I'm fit, but... it's weird, you know? I'm coming of age but I'm fed up. You don't wanna hurt nobody but you don't wanna take any more shit.
"Now it's just unabashed racism, right out there, right in the streets. And I feel like that's how we got here, you know, the whole damn globe is on our side. Black folks in particular, but women, LGBT folk... we got a lot of irons in the fire as far as awareness, and it's all good, you know, as long as people stay true. As long as people have context.
"Some people are just trending out, they wanna seem a certain way, but they don't understand how they were in the past to really carry it right. And they rock all this bullshit instead of understanding the goal."
A child of the '80s, Thomas sees promise in the new generation. "Young people now, I mean I give it to 'em, on the line, in the trenches... my kid's in seventh grade, and down the line, they're not gonna believe in bullshit. They're not gonna believe in hatred or fascism, racism or nepotism, they're not gonna believe that. They're saying what the hell cause they're seeing the collapse of that kind of thing. They're seeing the collapse of democracy. They're being forced to learn all of this shit at a young age."
"You're gonna see young folks standing up, you're gonna see black folk and marginalized folk, being recognized for all of these gifts. Black folk in particular when you think of history or architecture, infrastructure, civilization, the idea of God in accordance with the stars... how astrology factors into it, how our souls are just... this is just a little temporary stop for our souls."
"We all have these little pockets of information, but no togetherness. Now we're all forced and/or striving to be together.
"Some of these people are out and about, they're really all about images and appearances, pageantry. The Internet is like kindling for the fire of pageantry. But some of our deepest thinking, our best idea-making, our best memory-making happens right at home... I mean you lock me down, the only problem I got is I can't see anybody. That intimacy, a hug, a kiss on the cheek, it's gone. But if I continue to be here, I've got enough inside and enough in my home environment that I'm gonna be alright."
I mention that two of the Austin clubs I've seen him play have closed permanently. What does he see as the future for live music, given the threat to venues and touring?
"When and if the virus isn't such a threat and big gatherings are allowed, I'm hoping they don't try to suppress the arts through this. Like, regarding black folks, they passed laws to make sure we don't succeed. I'm hoping there's no attack on the arts as well, 'cause it's kinda like our last weapon, arts. Which entails a certain history and documentation, and archival, serial continuum. You don't wanna fuck up the universe like that, know what I mean?"
Thomas says he takes strength from community, and he believes the arts are essential to the struggle. "The word of mouth is gonna fucking be essential again, and you're gonna have to really be down to fucking be down," Thomas says. "And when you are down that's gonna inform loads more people.
"We need that poet that's finding her voice. We need that kid that's taking horn lessons, 'cause we need to keep that art alive. And it's not easy as it stands, and it gets co-opted in careerism and these things, but that pure art is what's gonna be the thing and people are gonna get together for the right reasons rather than responding to an event, or like, 'hey, there's 400 people there according to Facebook, I'm going.' You gotta be there for the right reasons.
"I was telling my boy Ra Washington last night, 'never get down on yourself,' because if we lose a guy like you we lose the library, your travels and your experiences and the things you collect. You're a fucking walking library, and I need you."
Thomas says there's no more neutral ground. "I feel like, moving forward, the idea of a celebrity or an influencer, if you haven't been influential during the pandemic, if you don't do a little something to indicated who you are, which side you're on, then I think we understand the deal."
When I ask what he's listening to, I get a list of recommended listening new and old. Sault, an enigmatic UK collective, tops the list. "Mourning (A) BLKstar, Muamin Collective... a lot of Colemine Records, it's a retro soul label... Cochemea, they got an album on the Daptone label... Mellowxzackt, Broken Keys, the whole feng shui thing, Vigatron. Gene Clark, Echoes is always a go-to. Anytime there's girls around I listen to ESG. It's fun and they appreciate it. Lots of Black punk, Bad Brains.
"I've been listening to a lot of jazz, a lot of spiritual jazz. Pharoah Sanders, Trane, a lot of Eddie Harris," he says. "Lotta jazz, lotta jazz in the pandemic just to stay peaceful.
"But hey, if somebody does something about the virus, like, besides stealing trillions of dollars... it's not even a health practice anymore, it's us against them, science versus religion, all the while making weapons, stealing money and shit...
"I mean, now we know student loan debt can be forgiven, healthcare can be universal, homelessness can be alleviated, and every Black man in America can have two million fucking dollars. We can be healthy and educated, and way more helpful than they've been doing for centuries.
"It's interesting. You know my lane really is survival, and music soothes the savage beast... that's my thing... and getting it done before someone smokes me for what I stand for. I've seen it happen so many times. I mean, that's what I'm thinking about every day when I wake up."
I ask Thomas if he has any final words.
"Let people know the real history is out there. White folks aren't going to tell you how divine black folks are. They ain't gonna tell you about every significant culture being seeded by African folk.
"You know, we built this country for free. So now, we know there's this kinda money around. And then really, when we need it? People are dying, still.
"The Louisiana Purchase was never even signed... who the fuck you think you are? This is my fucking land, this is your land, your kids' land."
I look out at the land. I see it's locked and loaded.
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