- Words Mike Vinti
On his new album Freedom, Amen Dunes embraces the poppier dimension of his sound and goes on a journey of self-exploration with help from the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Nick Zinner. We catch up with the New York singer-songwriter to find out more.
Amen Dunes has been on the scene for over a decade. Best known as a fringe artist, the creator of twisted folk songs and the occasional electronic experiment, his new album Freedom sees him take his sound to it’s poppiest heights, flirting with elements of surf rock, country and even Primal Scream and Massive Attack-esque rock and trip hop. Out today via Sacred Bones, it’s his most commercial album yet and arguably his best.
Each song on the record explores a different aspect of Amen Dunes’, aka Damon McMahon, self, using a cast of both real and fictional characters to examine everything from masculinity to his relationship with his father. When he started writing the record back in 2015, his mother was diagnosed with cancer, a revelation that prompted explorations of his own mortality as well as coming to terms with hers. McMahon describes the album’s progression as an echo chamber, each song, picking up where the last one finished and brought in something new. There’s even a song about Miki Dora, a world-renowned surfboarder whose career was tainted by alcoholism, misogyny and his often racist behaviour. Ahead of the album’s release, we caught up with Amen Dunes to talk about the project’s creation, being a ‘useful’ musician and self-exploration.
The main difference with the new record is the sound; it’s a bit groovier, there are some new styles in there, how did that come about?
Damon: Yeah the differences are subtle, but I was definitely conscious of the changes. I wanted to make a record that would reach more people. I wanted to make pop music; I don’t mean today’s pop music necessarily but ‘popular music’, I wanted to make my version of that.
One of the main reference points I kept hearing throughout it was Primal Scream, particularly on ‘Blue Rose’.
Yeah for sure man, I’ve always been a huge Primal Scream fan. My music has always been rooted in American rock n roll and country I guess but it’s equally rooted in British music, I’ve always been a super anglophile, in a way I’m more influenced by British music. I think if you listen to the older Amen Dunes records, like on Through Donkey Jaw, there’s a full-on ten-minute dance track in there but this is the first time the full-on danceable sound has reared its head.
It sounds like you’re having fun with it…
Definitely, man, I wanted to make music that… there are lots of levels of intention to this record, but one of those levels is to make music that makes people want to dance and makes people feel sexy y’know?
Have you had a chance to test much of it out live yet?
Haha, I thought you were going to say test it on people to see if they feel sexy. No, we’re doing a show on Saturday, and it’s the first show I’ve done in three years, it’ll be interesting.
You’ve got a bunch of collaborators on the album as well, how did you go about choosing who to work with?
This record, the core of it was Parker Kindred and Jordi Wheeler, who were my bandmates on Love, Parker is on drums and Jordi is keyboards and guitar. They worked with me for the first year of this record, shaping the rhythms and stuff like that, kind of the core instrumentation. Then in 2016 I invited Delicate Steve, and this guy Panoram from Italy, they kind of built the second story of the building if you will. Steve I’m a big fan of as a guitar player, he’s got an amazing ear and then Panoram, I was just a fan of his music, I didn’t know him. He strictly comes from a dance music background, and I thought it would be interesting to incorporate his approach.
In your interview with SPIN, you mentioned that Aphex Twin and Massive Attack were big influences on the record as well, where do they come into it all?
Well, the song ‘LA’ is actually a direct rip off of the first track from I Care Because You Do. It was my favourite record when I was like 14, all those drums at the end of ‘LA’ are a beat for beat reconstruction of that. All those synthesisers on that song are very Aphex Twiny, very warm analogue synths. The end of that song has these big swells and these kind of pitched down vocals, kind of like an old Skepta track that I stole some lyrics from and the swells are kind of from ‘Unfinished Symphony’ I bit that too. ‘LA’ is overtly influenced by that music. ‘Blue Rose’ is more of a dance, soul thing. But on ‘Time’ there’s some really intricate bass and drums, and I kind of had Migos in mind. If you think of ‘Calling Paul the Suffering’ again is more soul, in a more subtle way even ‘Miki Dora’ feels like organic dance music to me. It’s like rootsy Aphex Twin.
Speaking of ‘Miki Dora’, the structure of the album is this cast of characters. When you sat down to write the album did you have that concept in mind or did it come organically?
It happened as I wrote each song, my original intention was… well, I didn’t really have any. I just kind of collected these songs I thought were good and then as new ones cropped up that were kind of like echo chambers of the previous ones, it was like a domino effect. I didn’t really have any intention other than I wanted to explore some of my biographical information, my personal history, being a teenager that kind of thing, but it grew organically.
There’s a lot of stuff to do with family on the record as well, with your mum’s illness and the reaction against your father on ‘Blue Rose’ – did your mum’s cancer diagnosis trigger that examination?
Yeah, I think so, over the course of my life I reached a stage where I was looking inwardly, several years of that. Inevitably, if you look inwardly, you’re going to come up against your imprints, the root of which is your mother and father. My own personal process in life manifested in those songs. Once those floodgates opened up they appeared all over the song so my father’s all over the record, and yeah my mother’s mortality influenced the record and the song ‘Believe’. Even on ‘Calling Paul…’ there’s some stuff that’s a direct reference to my mother and her relationship with my father, it’s all over the place.
There’s a lot of religious imagery throughout the album as well, particularly on that track, was that a deliberate choice to use it as a metaphor or was it a natural expression?
It was a natural expression because I wasn’t even conscious there was anything religious about it. Religion is one of the many languages you can use to describe the behaviour of the universe and our relationship to it, so religion is one frame of reference. I was talking about things like the king of kindness and high above the plains and the Messiah, to me honestly that stuff wasn’t even about religion, it was about regret and mortality, sort of like being absolved of things, not in a religious sense, but redemption in a way. I think these are things people can experience completely outside of religion. I was thinking of some sort of god or existence not on this earth but it wasn’t religious per se.
On the subject of redemption, ‘Miki Dora’ feels like the centre-piece of the album, what drew you to write a song about a drunk, violent surfboarder?
To be honest, he kind of came to me. I’ve always been intrigued by surfing but I’m completely naïve to it, I literally just had a momentary inspiration to write a song about a surfer, and I started reading about it, and I just discovered Miki Dora, he was the first name that came up searching. I just kind of move about life and If I come across something that feels resonant I jump on it, he just kind of presented himself. He was a perfect metaphor for a feeling or a pursuit that I had on this record.
What was that pursuit?
That pursuit is self-inquiry man, that’s the whole record, if I were to boil it down it’s just that. Within the context of ‘Miki Dora’, that song, if you read the lyrics, that guy is later on in life, looking back at the things that brought him down. It’s the same as ‘Calling Paul’, Paul happens to be my dad’s name, he’s Irish Roman Catholic, so the religious themes probably come from that. All these songs, including the songs about myself, are about my or other people’s self-inquiry. So it’s more about Miki Dora’s self-redemption or self-exploration than it is any celebration or critique of him as a figure.
It’s an interesting contrast to the sunny, upbeat sound of the album, especially as the only other track named after one figure directly is ‘Dracula’ – there seems to be a theme with villains and anti-heroes throughout the album.
Absolutely, I appreciate that you get two sides to the record, there’s the kind of upbeat dancy side that makes you feel sexy and then there are all these themes. One, those are my favourite records where you can enjoy them on multiple levels and two, a lot of art will sublimate serious themes with humour or good feeling, that’s kind of what I was doing, the solution to these themes is just fucking dancing. That’s one way of looking at it, that’s what ‘Believe’ is about, in the end, we’ve got all this stuff with my mother and mortality, and the guy goes ‘this is just a song, life goes on, I do it for you…’ And the outro goes deeper into a kind of dance incantation. The dancing element is as important as the heavy themes.
To answer your collection about ‘Dracula’, it is an album of anti-heroes, ‘Miki Dora’ and the song about my father are a bit more overt, but ‘Dracula’ is also about a character. It’s basically about a man looking back over his life so intensely that he lives it all over again. If you read the lyrics he’s talking about being in the present looking at a sordid past, kind of above it all but as he drives along, he enters into his past again. He turns on the radio and this spiritual awakening, that’s what the song is about.
It’s kind of the most self-aware moment on the record in a way then, you’ve written in a warning to yourself, not to get too deep into it.
Absolutely, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why there’s that quote at the beginning of the record ‘I don’t have any ideas myself…’ it’s going so far into something you realise you don’t know anything about it or that you realise you’re not it.
Reading your past interviews, you mention wanting to be useful as a musician a lot, which is something not many artists do. What does being useful mean to you?
Honestly, making music became more beautiful when I stopped making it just about me. Around the last record, I realised that I’m going out there to basically be a service to people. The feedback I get from the songs is that it makes some people feel good the way it makes me feel good, and that’s my purpose man. The people I really admired, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Tom Petty, those guys, sure it’s all about them in a way but really it’s all about us and they were really generous. I had an epiphany a couple of years ago that was what making music is all about for me.
Why is being useful important to you?
Well there’s nothing worse than thinking about yourself all the time, so being useful is kind of a cleansing or an empowerment. Second of all, in this day and age, in all days and all ages, we’re so wildly self-focused that to have a little bit of like, selflessness is as good a protest as anyone can do in my opinion.
Does that mean there’s music that is useless?
That’s a good question. No, it’s more about the intention of the person making it, anything can be useful but its more about my intention.
Freedom is out now via Sacred Bones.