Channeling acid-folk, drone, and straight up rock ‘n’ roll.
Amen Dunes is the alias of Philadelphia-born, Brooklyn-based Damon McMahon. Over the last five years, McMahon has constructed a body of work that is both diverse and disorienting—at times channeling acid-folk, drone, and straight up rock ‘n’ roll. Throughout his career, McMahon’s signature approach has been to balance unconscious atmospherics and an offbeat, subliminal sense of humor.
McMahon’s first record, DIA (Locust Music, 2009), had the air of a work created ex nihilo, as if it were simply poached from somewhere out in the ether. My initial listening a few years ago prompted me to ask myself, Was anybody really supposed to hear this? The spectral quality of McMahon’s early work left me confused as to whether the mystery of Amen Dunes was a requisite, or a performance. However, on subsequent records Through Donkey Jaw (Sacred Bones, 2011) and Spoiler (Perfect Lives, 2013), McMahon began to expose more of himself in his music, revealing, in part, an honest yet unsettling edge to his work.
Love, McMahon’s new album (out May 13 on Sacred Bones Records) was recorded in Montreal (with Dave Bryant and Efrim Menuck of Godspeed You! Black Emperor fame) and showcases a collaborative side of Amen Dunes, touting guest appearances from Bryant, Menuck, Colin Stetson, and Elias Ronnenfelt of Iceage. The collaborative spirit evoked in Love further demystifies Amen Dunes, exposing the affable, humorous artist behind the persona and shedding once and for all the loner-folk archetype that clouded earlier perceptions of the project.
Ian Kim Judd The early days of Amen Dunes exhibited a shrouded and reclusive persona. What compelled you to abandon that? Was it due to your new visibility as an artist and public figure, or the desire to create more explicit work?
Damon McMahon I wanted my work to be more visible, not to please anybody, but to serve people more. However, I never write for anybody else’s expectations. For instance, I am now able to live with my music, and I am happy to hear from people over the years that it has affected them positively. There was definitely a feeling of responsibility, and that pushed me away from feeling like I wanted to hide my work, I wanted to give this thing away to people.
IKJ Love is the first record in which you collaborated with other musicians, right? It sounds like a communal and harmonious spirit colors these new songs. What inspired you to collaborate with other musicians?
DM I am super picky about who I play with, because this music is just so personal, and it’s not about the notes that I play, but the feelings that I get from it. So it’s very hard for me to feel what I feel with other people. And I’m lucky to have known two other guys—Jordi Wheeler and Parker Kindred—who have that spirit too, who I collaborate with often. The DNA is all me, but their participation shapes the songs, so the way it exists in the world is collaborative.
But I think it’s also a part of my being more open. Part of the reason why the album is called Love is because—in general—I was ready to be more open. And that allowed me to be more open with my bandmates and other musicians.
IKJ Through Donkey Jaw feels like a record written in flux, since you were reintegrating back into American life after a long stint in China. But in Love, there’s a settled feeling. You seem at home, at peace. The world begins to slow down.
DM Definitely. I had to work some shit out for this new record. Love was a response the end of a very serious relationship, and through that it became an ode to self. In the end, I made a record for me and everybody else that was like me.
And yeah, I do feel more settled. DIA was a genuinely dark period, but it was an unconscious difficult period for me personally. I feel that it expressed that well. Whereas in Through Donkey Jaw, that dark period continued, but I became conscious of it, trying to remedy it in a way. I became more visible.
I didn’t feel that Through Donkey Jaw was wholly pure, for its writing process was too deliberate. Not that anything was insincere, but I might have worked too hard on the record, which became burdensome. In short, DIA was hung up in this free way, and Through Donkey Jaw was hung up in a fucked way. But with Love, that record just came to me and through me. I didn’t mess with it too much.
IKJ What does DIA stand for?
DM It’s my nickname. I wrote a song called “Elizabeth Taylor,” which has a lyric in it that says “you’re a D-I-A, you’re a diamond.” After that, my close friends started to call me DIA. So basically the album is just named after me.
Around the time of that record, I had been in New York for a few years, and I had grown really tired of being here and being in the music scene. It all came off as being very insincere. So I went upstate to the Catskills, rented a house, and attempted to capture that feeling on tape. It made for a pretty far out experience—I had never played electric guitar or even used pedals before DIA. Which is really weird! I had only ever played acoustic guitar.
That whole record was just sort of transmitted through me, for it was entirely improvised, completely stream of consciousness. I’d press record, turn the amp on, hit some pedals, and just start playing—just singing whatever comes to mind. And that was that. I didn’t think people would hear it, and it’s kind of embarrassing to play for people because it’s so personal.
IKJ Usually musicians are hesitant about the idea of performing or releasing unfinished work.
DM I am more worried about my mindset being unfinished before I write or play, rather than the piece being unfinished. That is what I would resist putting out into the world. But if I’m in the right mindset, I feel like anything I do would be good for release. And that’s why, up until this last album, everything has been a first take, because I get in the right zone, and I trust anything that comes out. That’s sort of my deal.
IKJ Throughout the record there are references to an assortment of characters— who are these characters?
DM When I write, I end up channeling something from other planets. I open my mouth and allow words to come out involuntarily. The weird thing is that often times the words are other people’s names. Characters in my songs—like “Lonely Richard”—are something like my other selves because I feel personally separate from the guy who makes all of this music. I do not think this stuff through. I don’t think “Diane” is a particularly good name for a song, but that’s just what came out, and that name works well with the feeling. It just sort of happens that way, these characters come through me, and then come out. All of the records have a number of characters, and they’re kind of me, but not me.
IKJ Are there any literary references that inform your work?
DM Definitely. My favorite writer is Virginia Woolf—there’s a song on Through Donkey Jaw called “Swim Up Behind Me,” and some of the lyrics are taken directly from Jacob’s Room. It goes, “behind them / there I be / rooks form a line.” So yeah, Virginia Woolf is in the work. Literally! However, for the new record, I wasn’t reading much at all actually.
IKJI know that you’re a fan of Robert Ashley, who passed away this past month, and there are a lot of conceptual parallels between your work and his: such as your fascination with the involuntary and the unconscious, as well as your brand of subliminal humor, which underlines both your work and his. Did his influence rouse you to explore these things?
DM When I was 27, a friend turned me on to Robert Ashley, and the first time I heard it I couldn’t help but find him so funny in such a sad way! Ashley was just so sad and deep, like a weird mix of classical Hindustani string music and avant-garde humor. He was somebody who was totally subliminal, yet didn’t take himself seriously. My first interaction with him was in his piece called “The Park” where he was just talking over chintzy keyboards, piano, and tablas—just being silly overall. But by the same token, he’s gravely serious and disturbing. That heterogenous mix of feelings was what I related to, and what I want to aspire to. Beautiful music is a spectrum. Bob Dylan is peaceful and evil simultaneously. Robert Ashley was like that—a kindred spirit whose work encouraged me to stay free.
I can’t apply his work and style to a my own, because I’m a songwriter and he’s essentially an avant-garde composer. Though I did a record called Spoiler that was deeply inspired by Robert Ashley. The spoken word song was something I felt like he would do, one hundred percent.
I feel like for my entire life I have had this musical channel, which has been visited by different musical inspirations, and ones that left a big impression on me are the ones who are seem to be just like “me.” I hear certain musicians and I think, That dude is in my lineage. For instance, when I was a kid, Tim Buckley was the first figure that caused me to think, “Whoa, that guy is me.” As a kid I thought that Buckley and I shared an experience together.
I feel like I have had musical influences, like anybody else, but musical brethren as well. Those brethren are not all-encompassing or wholly representative of all the sounds and styles I’m interested in, but they inhabit a permanent place in my heart. But the brethren definitely got weirder and more out there as the years went on.
IKJ As one grows older and weirder.
DM (laughter) Yeah man! In a multi-color way, I think that my music is funny. Some of my music has to do with drugs too, but I feel that drugs are like the layman’s version of subliminal existence. The Ethio Covers record that I did, the one where the cover is a really shitty photo of myself, attempted to express that. (laughter)
IKJ Spoiler was released on your own imprint, Perfect Lives. Are you going to continue pursuing that label as a creative enterprise?
DM I tried to convince a few other labels to release Spoiler, but all of them told me, “It’s just too weird, dude.” So Perfect Lives was born in response to that. While I would love to put out records regularly, I don’t know if I would find enough music out there that I would like to put out. But I might continue to put out weirder Amen Dunes records like Spoiler—a record that is weird in an honest, uncomfortable way.
The music I release on Perfect Lives would be by anybody I found who made uncomfortable and genuinely weird music.
IKJ Are there any musicians that you see as peers in your sphere of uncomfortable weird?
DM My brother is one example. He makes music under the name Xander Duell and has this set of recordings that he’s made over a couple of years that I think are very fucked-up, multi-color sort of stuff. Potentially, I could release it as a double LP on Perfect Lives. Xander’s work is the worst kind of weird, that terribly honest brand of weird, which is the only kind of music that I like these days.
Darksmith is a noise musician who also embodies the honest kind of weird. But these days you can’t have a career as a musician if you’re too sincere. It’s rare that people really put themselves out there.
IKJ So you’re saying that the most honest music is weird and unsettling music, over the earnest nakedness of the singer-songwriter?
DM Definitely, I think the best musicians are the ones that can be honest, yet also be in control of their sentimentality and not make it a burden on people’s ears.
Musicians don’t have to front like, “I’m honest. Let me tell you about my cat and how I’m feeling today.” One can be calculated, smart and also honest in their music. But that’s extremely difficult.
IKJ The cover for Love is unreal—did you take that photograph?
DM I did not. My friend Thomas Corpiacco, whose project is called “No Work,” took that photograph. Thomas is a visual artist who, from the very beginning, has been the one dude who I trust with handling the Amen Dunes aesthetic. At this point, we’ll get together and I’ll play him some music, and he just does his own thing. But yeah, that’s his photo, there’s a cool photo in the insert too that speaks to the cover. It’s all him.
IKJ Do you place an importance on the visual aesthetic of Amen Dunes?
DM One hundred percent—everything is intentional. The more aesthetically inclined artists and musicians, such as Death In June and Throbbing Gristle, have been an enduring influence on me. They constructed an entire world with their projects. And I went about that with Amen Dunes. I wanted to make it particular.
IKJ I feel like what made Throbbing Gristle and Death In June so polarizing as artists in their “moment” was their ability to exist in their own aesthetic microcosm, against the influence of their contemporaries.
DM Genesis P-Orridge is a great example of that. A kindred spirit for sure. But Genesis’ favorite music during that time was Incredible String Band. Throbbing Gristle were all about legitimate psych-folk, the real dark stuff. She was coming from her own trip. I feel like Amen Dunes is the inverse of TG, because I was raised on Throbbing Gristle, and now I make singer-songwriter music. (laughter)
Amen Dunes' Love is out now on May 13 on Sacred Bones Records.
Ian Kim Judd is a writer, musician, and Gemini based in New York City. He is a co-founder of Couple Skate Records.