Music, for Morales, was life, and he approached everything in his path with the same unbridled energy he brought to the stage as a drummer with the punk trio Running, or with one of his multiple experimental noise groups.
Music is often thought of as a powerful emotional outlet for artists. Their joy, misery, fury — it all comes out in song.
For Alejandro Morales, it was more. Music was life, and he approached everything in his path with the same unbridled energy he brought to the stage as a drummer with the Chicago punk trio Running, or with one of his multiple experimental noise groups.
Morales, 46, died Jan. 3 while visiting family in Puerto Rico, where he grew up. The cause of death has not been disclosed.
Ben Billington, a musician and close friend of Morales,’ remembers seeing him play with Running when they were first making a name for themselves playing seven- to eight-minute sets at DIY spots across the city.
“They would play so f*****g hard, to where Alejandro would just fall off his drum stool at the end of the set,” Billington said. “It wasn’t about the length, it was about the strength, the power, the energy… he put every single ounce into everything he believed in at all times, whether that was loving his friends or his partners, or rock and rolling with his friends and supporting others.”
Morales went to college in Indiana after leaving Puerto Rico and moved to Chicago soon after. By the mid-2000s, he was a mainstay in Chicago’s underground scene with “Piss Piss Piss Moan Moan Moan,” self-described on Soundcloud as “an experimental noise duo that plays tribal-punk drums, bent s*** and electronic equipment in creating works that are by turns delicate and extreme.”
P. Michael, a bandmate of Morales’ in the noise group ONO, said he was blown away when he saw PPPMMM play in 2007 at Elastic Arts in Logan Square. Though Morales wouldn’t officially join ONO until about five years later, the two immediately bonded over a shared passion for social work; Morales worked at the Resurrection Project in Pilsen, helping residents with financial and housing security, among other things, while Michael was a caseworker for people with HIV.
Morales eventually left the Resurrection Project to work at the Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, a nonprofit community development group in Humboldt Park. He had just finished getting an accounting degree so he could continue his nonprofit work as a CPA, according to Billington.
“It was a passion of his as much as music was — working with nonprofits that had to do with community, fair housing and equity, fighting gentrification in a logical and stable way,” Billington said.
While Morales worked at the two nonprofits, Running was gaining national acclaim, taking him on several tours across the country and earning a couple record deals in the process.
Matthew Hord, bassist/vocalist for Running, met Morales through mutual friends in the DIY scene. Though Hord wasn’t actively playing music at the time, he said Morales convinced him and another friend, Jeff Tucholski, to start “a punk band that would be in the noise, experimental realm,” and the trio took off from there.
A running theme in anecdotes about Morales was his propensity to make anyone and everyone around him feel welcome. He was a fixture at venues like The Hideout and The Empty Bottle, where a vigil was organized in his honor and where there have been calls to rename the green room the “Alex Morales Palace.”
Empty bottle green room should be re-named the Alex morales palace https://t.co/MGAaraOMiq
— Ryley walker (@ryleywalker) January 4, 2021
Morales had some quirks — he was fascinated with clowns and Hello Kitty, friends say — but he was best known for the boundless enthusiasm with which he supported Chicago’s musical community, happy to ride for whichever local act happened to be playing that night.
“He was always down to attend a show and check out a new band,” Hord said. “He was like the antithesis of jaded, especially at his age. He didn’t ever get to a point where he hated music; he was still thirsty to absorb new projects and be part of the action.”
Scores of musicians and music lovers called Morales their homie, and not just in Chicago, Billington said, noting that he has received an outpouring of support from people across the country. His death has left an outsized whole in the underground scene, in a time when many would love nothing more than to see a local band play at a bar with a friend.
“This is one of the toughest times to lose somebody who was such a crucial part [of the musical community], and his energy was such an important part of supporting each other and supporting the community… and it’s really important to me and a bunch of our peers to that take that piece of Alex with us and keep his spirit alive,” Billington said. “He was always destined to live longer than us, and that’s one of the reasons why this was such a shock for the whole community, because he was invincible. He was a superpower, some kind of deity.”