A Conversation with Amen Dunes

PRINTED IN ISSUE 11
INTERVIEW BY JOE MCMURRAY
PHOTOS BY ANDREW VOLK

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A couple years ago my friend introduced me to Amen Dunes, the musical project (at least primarily) of  New-Yorker Damon McMahon. The first album I heard was called Through Donkey Jaw and I was immediately mystified. It’s dark, homemade-feeling, beautiful;  it seems to exist in a fully formed world of its own. I’ve been listening to that album, in addition to a lot of Damon’s other releases ever since, though much of his material seems to be scattered elusively around the places one might try to find it. I recently toured with Damon for a stint to promote his new album Love – we became friends, and I figured why not interview the fucking guy for my other friend’s magazine.

First off, where are you from?

I was born in Philadelphia.  My family is all from New York. We left Philadelphia and lived in Connecticut in the woods until I went to college. I’ve lived in New York since.

When did the Amen Dunes project start?

Amen Dunes started in 2006.  I rented a trailer upstate New York and left the city for a month and recorded all this shit that later became Amen Dunes.  I didn’t really want to share it with anybody, they were just tape recordings. Then I put it on a CD and a couple people heard it and thought I should put it out. That eventually became Amen Dunes.

What was the original idea behind the project and how does it compare to where you are now? How have you developed as a musician?

My original idea was just to feel good. I was in a pop band for a while and they were really restrictive. They were all jealous of each other; they would really hold each other back. I wasn’t allowed to play the electric guitar, I wasn’t allowed to sing certain things, it was very rule-based. Amen Dunes was my first chance to say “fuck you” and do whatever I wanted. Today it’s the same, a way of being myself. I’ve never felt comfortable in my own skin or in the world, I’ve never felt comfortable around people. I always wanted to get out of myself. When I play music as Amen Dunes it’s the only time I’m allowed to be myself. Just comfortable, you know?

When I first heard your music, I found it really emotionally resonant, really dark and kind of sad. I also found the lyrics really opaque, a lot of the time they are indecipherable. Is that your intention?

I don’t know. I think when I play I’m pulling emotion out of words. You know when you’re really pissed and you scream “FUUUUCK YOU.” It’s like that.

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Yeah, I see it on stage, there’s a lot of feeling. I looked up the lyrics for one of your songs online and I thought “whoa, this is what he’s really saying.”

Lyrics are so important, they turn a pretty song dark, or a dark song hopeful. Or a stupid guy smart, or a smart guy stupid.

This particular one went ‘high girls in motion’ and then something about “eager in my den.”

Yeah, that whole record is about sex. I was in a very dark spot. I was living in this sublet in Chelsea and it was a summer like this, so it was like fucking 90 degrees everyday. I was just really fucked up. That was my most depraved summer. That’s when I wrote “Baba Yaga” and “Splits Are Parted” from the new record. “Baba Yaga” is about lust, it is about fucking everything. I was just watching the girls float by, eager in my den.

I imagined some kind of orgy.

Literally, that’s what it was like that summer, in the worst way. Really the whole thing is about sex. Like the song “Lower Mind” is about a girl going down on you. It goes: “Oh let the lower mind come, when you leave it just unreal does. When you give it sweetly, keep my king young.” The king being my cock. The whole record is like an ode to sex and lust. I wouldn’t tell people this normally but I like talking to you about it because I can just be honest.

That record is one of my favourites. How was the transition of recording Amen Dunes as just you versus recording with a band?

I kind of only play with people who are incredibly sensitive. There are only two people that I know who are really like that, Jordi and Parker. Parker being the original drummer. Music is so emotional and intimate and personal that I couldn’t fuck with it unless I was working with the right people. Amen Dunes is about the individual process and then Amen Dunes the live band is like group therapy or something.

Which do you like better? I guess you get different things from both?

Well I don’t record on my own anymore, this last record was collaborative. My favourite thing of all is being by myself in a fucking house somewhere, chain smoking and recording songs. That beats everything, more than live, more than anything.

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On Through Donkey Jaw there were a lot of idiosyncrasies in the recordings and in the playing. In particular there’s this one part where the shaker kind of goes off for a second but you kept it, and that’s such a cool part of the song. You get a lot more of those cool idiosyncrasies when you do it at home yourself in contrast to recording in a studio. For example, the new album sounds technically flawless.

The reason there aren’t those mistakes is because I’m playing with these two guys that don’t make mistakes. That’s the difference. “Love,” a song that’s on the last album, was the first take; we had never tried that before. I think Parker and Jordi don’t really fuck up like I fuck up. But I do love the beauty of fuck-ups. Like Mayo Thompson, his group from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s was a big inspiration for me. He would include tons of mistakes, some of his songs were total fuck-ups. And I thought that was really beautiful. So what was the question exactly?

I guess it wasn’t really a question, just curious about your thoughts on the two different recording methods now that you’ve done both.

I like both. For example, I love Talk Talk’s last couple records because they’re all such good musicians that there are no mistakes but it’s always organic and natural. You can always hear the humanity in their playing, even if the take is tight. The first Amen Dunes record was way more improvised than Through Donkey Jaw, some songs were completely improvised. I would just press record and turn on my amp and be like B, A, E, D, B, A. And that would be it. And if it was good I would keep it. So yeah, I like what happens when you’re just free.

You said somewhere once that the first record, DIA, was about acid?

That record was a lot about acid, not like ‘hey peace and love’ but more like dislocating your psyche. I was just coming off all this stuff when I went to record it. So I was really going crazy, like 100%. I was really detoxing. I was really scared too cause I was in the middle of the woods surrounded by mountains. Part of the reason the music was so loud is because I was exorcising my toxins but also like sweeping whatever was outside away. I would play music when I went to sleep at night. I had no internet and no phone.

How long were you out there?

A month. That record is about hating yourself, it’s so angry. All the Amen Dunes records are about a kind of retribution but that record is like fascist, it’s about destruction, annihilation, hatred of people, hatred of self, drugs, all that shit. There’s some kind of freedom in that, in being ugly. The first lyric of the second song on that is like “He can’t play, he can’t play, he can’t play” because my old bandmates would always say I couldn’t play and that I wasn’t good enough at guitar. That was me being like “fuck you.”

Do you still talk to those guys?

We’re on good terms. One of them is actually my brother so I see him all the time.

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Your second record is Murder Dull Mind, but it doesn’t really show up when I look you up?

Yeah, I wish people knew that there are like five records. Murder Dull Mind I recorded in Garage Band when I was living in China. And those songs are about America and dreaming about America. The record is a reflection on being an American in China and responding to that experience. They are all acoustic and it’s very nostalgic. And then Through Donkey Jaw was my attempt at a pop record, I mean I thought that was a pop record. I was like, why is this not selling, what’s wrong with people? [Laughs] I don’t like that style so much but I thought it was like evil Pet Sounds or something. A lot of those songs are about sex, and a little about women and love. Actually a lot about women and a lot about lust. And then Spoiler was about nothing. And then this new record Love, it’s cowboy worship.

Cowboy worship?

I’ve done all these interviews lately and I’ve been thinking about how to describe it, and that’s the best way I can think of.

I think I saw a girl crying, actually I think I saw a couple people crying, when I saw you live.

Really? At the show? That’s funny.