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An Interview with Amen Dunes

"My purpose is to be of service with this music. It's the only reason I'm here."
by Madelaine Lucas
April 17th, 2018

Alternative liner notes for “Freedom”
Parker Kindred: Bones, skeletal frame
Jody Wheeler: Kidney, liver
Delicate Steve: Skin, extremities
Panoram: Eyes
Damon McMahon: Transmissions of electricity

 

Over the last ten years Damon McMahon has released five records as Amen Dunes, but there is something elusive about the project’s singer, songwriter, and spiritual leader. He looks different in every photograph. In old pictures, he’s scruffy and unkempt, a curly-haired, unshaven rock n’roller in faded t-shirts and black denim. His style recently is more urban utilitarian—a white singlet beneath an open sports jacket, combat boots, close-cropped hair, and single gold earring. The cover art for the latest record, Freedom, may be a portrait of his face in close-up, but it remains in shadow. When I went to meet him at a local Greenpoint diner, it felt like something of a blind date: I wasn’t sure who I was about to spend an hour with, or if I’d recognize him from the pictures on the internet. 

Rock n’roll has always been about reinvention—of sound, of the self—and for McMahon, the idea of being a musician is inseparable from the messy human struggle to make peace with a private and public ego. The early Amen Dunes records evoke the growing pains of spiritual and artistic development—meditative and insular, shrouded in layers of eclectic sound that lie just beyond recognition, they recall the memory of familiar musical genres rather than belonging in any particular one. Freedom is the result of personal transformation. Sonically, it is a portrait of an artist coming into focus and stepping toward the light.

In conversation McMahon is contradictory, in turns reverent and irreverent when it comes to talking about music. He is suspicious of the technical study of the craft but considers himself a traditional songwriter. One of the first things he said when he slid into the red vinyl booth was that he doesn’t like musicians, but later he spoke of classic icons like Tom Petty and Bob Dylan as personal patron saints. 

On the page, this can come across antithetical or deliberately contrary, but in person McMahon is polite, soft-spoken, open. McMahon’s contradictions are actually a form of fluidity, a way of denying absolutes by asserting and then rebuking them, refusing to take one fixed position. He speaks of his creative process as something close to divine intervention, where songwriting is act of emotional communion, a harnessing energy and electricity by shaping feeling into sound. He comes across less as an artist confident in who he is, but rather one who has decided that for his purposes, whoever he is is beside the point. 

Madelaine Lucas

 

I. Just Some Vagabond Character

THE BELIEVER: Has music always been an emotional outlet for you?

DAMON MCMAHON: It was a survival technique. Like, I never was in bands. I don’t like musicians, I don’t like music.

BLVR: You don’t like music?

DM: Yeah, I don’t like [air-quotes] music.

BLVR: What’s “music”?

DM: “Music” is study, being good at it. Being part of a community. Identifying my true self as a musician. I always hated that stuff, because I don’t identify as a musician.

BLVR: Do you mean being part of a scene?

DM: Even beyond that. Superficially, I don’t like being part of a scene, but also my inspiration is different from what I imagine a lot other people’s inspiration is. I read more than I listen to music. My favorite writer of all time is probably Virginia Woolf. I’ve stolen some of her lines on old records.

BLVR: If you don’t identify as a musician, do you see yourself as an artist?

DM: I see myself as an artist, yeah. But I see myself as an alien, kinda.

BLVR: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?

DM: Yeah [Laughs]. Yeah, it was a song when I was sixteen. It had like, two chords. But what was really amazing about it was my brother was a successful musician in a way. He was eleven years old but he was a virtuoso. He could cover songs, remember lyrics. He performed a Chuck Berry song at a school dance. When I was in high school I would go to raves and clubs. I didn’t go to rock shows, but I was turned on to acoustic blues, like country blues. Texas blues, Delta blues. This song was that kind of idea. Just some vagabond character.

BLVR: I feel like you’re still writing about these kinds of vagabond characters and anti-heroes.

DM: I know [Laughs]. It’s fucked up. It’s like a broken record.

BLVR: Do you feel like this is your subject, though? This is what you have to say?

DM: There’s a lot of things I have to say, but I think I come from that tradition.

BLVR: How do you know when a song is finished?

DM: It’s like a word/melody/rhythm thing. I’ve been reading all these Bob Dylan interviews—I mean, I don’t even like to talk about him because he’s so important to me. He’s consistently with me every single day. He’s like a guru figure to me. But I was reading these interviews with him and he’s like, “My whole thing is rhythmic dynamics. There’s nothing else to my music. My lyrics are fine but they don’t really have to mean anything. I take all my melodies from old songs. The only thing that matters about me is my rhythmic phrasing, essentially.” My songs are kind of the same thing. They’re all based on rhythm and the reason they work is because of phrasing.

BLVR: I remember a speech Bob Dylan gave where he said something like, if you learned to play all the old songs I played every day of my life, you too would write “Girl from the North Country.” There’s a real humility to the way he talks about his music.

DM: Totally, man. He’s right. I mean he’s also leaving out incredible timing—like right place and right time. But he’s right, those things happen to you. If you’re a student, a strong enough student, then you’ll be able to guide yourself down those pathways. You can flash a light on, you know?

BLVR: You played a few older songs in your set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg last weekend, like “Bedroom Drum.” What does it take for a song to stay with you and make you want to keep playing it?

DM: They just have to be true songs. You have to be able to relate to the sentiment, that’s all. You have to feel like it’s sincere to sing them. I did notice after I played that one, I was like, “Wow. What a negative song.” Because it’s all about longing and lust and desire. It’s very beautiful to me, but it’s like, I don’t relate to that guy.

BLVR: I wanted to ask about the role of revision in your process. You made the album Love and followed it up with the EP Cowboy Worship, which reprised some of the songs off the record you’d just made. Where did that decision come from?

DM: Total bullshit business move on the part of the label, but I will say that it allowed me to make that cover art and use that album title which I really love. There’s a lot of music that didn’t get included on Love and it also had the cover of “The Siren Song,” which is one of my favorite moments that I’ve done. I’m kind of most proud of that in a weird way.

BLVR: That’s interesting. Do you think it might be—I don’t want to say easier—but there is a different relationship with singing someone else’s song and singing your own song.

DM: It was like, yeah easier because you don’t have to write it, but that was one of my greatest achievements vocally. It was one of the most direct transmissions of electricity.

BLVR: I feel like a nice thing that happens when you play covers is that you get to connect to that greater history of music.

DM: Totally, it’s devotional. And the cowboy worship thing has a bunch of different meanings. That title is supposed to be the definition of what I do, but it’s also making fun of that process. The cover art is a statue of Jesus, you know? So, it was being cheeky, but also sincere.

BLVR: Do you feel like it’s important to have a balance of humor in what you do?

DM: Absolutely, man. It’s essential I think.

BLVR: Because it lets people in more, if you undercut the sentiment a little bit?

DM: No, not to be ironic. I don’t do it to be safe. I think I do it because artists are supposed to be players. I’m not a preacher. Or a politician. If I were, then maybe I would not be so jokey. Being an artist is supposed to be fun. I don’t mean fun like “ha ha,” but playful. And I think all those great writers were playful.

BLVR: Definitely someone like Virginia Woolf—

DM: Yeah. Her playfulness is like humor.

BLVR: When you read her, you feel like she’s fucking with you a little bit.

DM: Yeah, yeah. She’s fucking with you. And the rock and roll version of that is slightly humorous in the tradition of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Elvis, those guys.

BLVR: The sounds that you go for are so eclectic, is there one thing that ties it all together?

DM: The rhythm is part of it but more concretely, I’m a traditional songwriter. All these songs are acoustic guitar songs.

BLVR: At your show last week, you did a lot of songs where you weren’t playing guitar at all. Is that a new thing?

DM: Totally new, which I’ve always wanted to do because the performers I’ve liked or admired are the ones who didn’t have guitars. I’m not that good at that yet. I think I’ve gotten the visibility thing, or the openness for music. The performance thing and being open to a crowd is something I’m still practicing. On the Love tour I just had this big acoustic guitar and I was back to the audience, almost.

BLVR: I’ve got to say, I feel like—at least in the contemporary moment—I see men singing without playing an instrument less often than women. Does it feel vulnerable? To be up there holding nothing?

DM: It’s pretty vulnerable. I’d never done it before so it was a little scary actually. But I find it much more exciting. For me, I’ve always wanted to it to be like, fucking sexy. Honestly, on the most outer level of this new album that was my intention. To make people feel sexy with this music.

 

II. Pure Blueprint Self

BLVR: I read that part of Freedom was made during a difficult time of personal grief, and so it surprised me that the record has such an open, transcendent feeling.

DM: My music is a representation of what is happening to me internally. It’s like an inside is outside, outside is inside kind of thing. This record is some sort of peace-making with how kind temporary this all is, how unreal this is. There were difficult things I was processing, but actually it was like I was diffusing grief, diffusing difficulty, whereas previous records were sort of indulging difficulty. This was pacifying. That’s why the record feels so open.

BLVR: You made the first record alone in a cabin in the Catskills. How does it feel to go from starting out on that solo, intimate journey and end up working somewhere like Electric Ladyland?

DM: It’s fucking scary, man. It’s what I’ve been avoiding my whole life. Those old records were manifestations of impeding myself or avoiding what I’m supposed to be. They were more obscured than this one.

BLVR: Did you want Freedom to be more accessible?

DM: I wanted this record to connect with as many people as possible because I feel like my purpose is to be of service with this music. It’s the only reason I’m here. To do whatever good I can with my strange little musical ability. I was consciously, like, coming out.

BLVR: The way you talk about being a musician is so tied up with identity, using terms like “I don’t identify as this,” and “coming out” as a musician with this album.

DM: Yeah, I’m coming out as a musician. I never played music for anybody growing up because I was scared of it. I was basically scared of who I am. I also had this very distorted perspective that if you’re visible, you’re arrogant. If you even mention who you are, you’ll get punished. And so, I was like, “mainstream musicians are a bunch of assholes, the people who I like are super obscure and have twenty-five listeners and don’t even want to tour because they’re too precious.” Then I had an epiphany that I’ve always liked popular music. My favorite music has always come from the most visible people. I realized that they were the true saints. They were not self-centered, they were sacrificing themselves. They put their whole lives out there so I can get off. So I can listen to Tom Petty and have a Tom Petty poster on my wall. He’s doing that for me.

BLVR: A lot of the songs on Freedom are about reckoning with your childhood and the past. They are all these interesting characters that appear in the songs, it’s almost like touring through a mythologized adolescence.

DM: It is. I mean, it’s touring through my psyche. Every single song is some manifestation of my ego. The first song introduces me as this band guy, this musician guy, who is kind of the narrator for the record. It’s also my retaliation against my father. That’s one identity. And then there’s like, being Jewish. The song “Time” is all about Jews—it goes from Jesus and the Romans to Spain and World War Two.

BLVR: To me, the album seems to be about trying on and shaking off these different identities—

DM: Yeah, but they all have the same struggle. Every single one. The whole album is about ego death. Whether it’s about my mother’s, or my father’s, or me with my father, or me as a Jew-Irish person, or me as Miki Dora, or me as the guy in “Dracula,” or me as the girl in “Dracula,” or me as this bum in “L.A.” who thinks he’s a Roman Emperor and wakes up from a dream and wants to sleep with his ex-girlfriend.

BLVR: What does this idea of “ego death” mean to you?

DM: Letting go of identifying with all these different things I tell myself I am.

BLVR: The record starts with a quote from the artist Agnes Martin: “I have no ideas myself I am a vacant mind.” From what I know about her artwork it was all about trying to express pure emotion through painting. Do you think a song can ever achieve that or is it always going to be too tied up with ego and persona?

DM: I think a song can totally achieve that. What Agnes Martin said is exactly what I was going through at that time. I was doing all this work inside of me and that just kind of popped up in the songs. I was familiar with who Agnes Martin was, but I’m completely ignorant when it comes to visual art. My friend just sent me this YouTube interview literally the month I was finishing the record and I was like, “Holy shit, she’s like my sister.” She’s going to start the record. And then I was like you know what, let’s get my mother, who is dying, to recite those words. She sets up the frame for the whole album.

BLVR: The album is also bookended by this child’s voice. Where does he come from?

DM: He’s actually a little kid off the internet reciting a passage from a famous eighties hockey movie. But it’s about that same thing. First of all, the subjective layer is like, it’s my time to come out. He says, “This is your time, I’m sick and tired of all these people, nah nah nah. Screw up, do your thing,” you know. That’s superficially what it’s about, but also objectively he represents a little kid spirit or perspective on things. He’s just like Agnes Martin. It’s sort of like this pure blueprint self.

BLVR: When you think about the combination of those two things—your mother reciting the Agnes Martin line and the little kid—it makes the album feel like a full circle.

DM: It’s totally full circle, man. It’s a whole life. The album starts with “I have no ideas myself, I am a vacant mind,” then the very last lyrics in the album are those voices in “L.A” that say, “That’s all not me, that’s all not me.”

 

III. Fetching It from the Universe

BLVR: I noticed you often talk about music in religious terms. I read a past interview where you said, “Every song I write is like a prayer for myself.” Is music a spiritual thing for you?

DM: Yeah, absolutely. But not religious. For me personally, and I think for other people, too, religion doesn’t have anything to do with spirituality. Religion is just as spiritual as baseball players who are beautiful at what they do or gardeners or Japanese chefs. I use that language because it’s reminiscent of the pure origins of some of these religions. But it’s not like, Christian or anything.

BLVR: I feel like there is some kind of special kinship between making music and a spiritual practice, though.

DM: Definitely for the people that I care about. The only people I really look up to are the ones who approach it like that. Who know that they’re not in control of their own musical gift or their process. My favorite people of all time would just be the most obvious ones like Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson. They don’t know what they’re doing, they’re just riding some wave.

BLVR: I’m interested in how the anti-heroes and masculine characters in your songs fit in with this movement towards openness, vulnerability. Because the idea of “Cowboy Worship,” makes me think of being stoic, having no feelings.

DM: But it’s also taking the piss out of that. It’s hard to talk about. Love was like the practice and Freedom was the result. I’m just talking about my own spiritual life in all this shit. I’m saying this now and maybe I shouldn’t be, but that’s all that really matters to me, and the music is a byproduct of that. It’s not always appropriate to say all that and it’s not digestible for people.

BLVR: You feel like people aren’t interested in the spiritual journey?

DM: Well, it’s scary for people. But that’s where I’m at, man. So why I’m talking about all these masculine things is because that’s what I have to sublimate to be who I’m supposed to be, be who I really am. I mean, it’s self-critique. That’s what this whole album is. It’s me making peace with all these identities that I was forced to ingest, or I chose to ingest, or I gravitated towards, or I “Cowboy Worshipped” my whole life. This whole album is like self-inquiry.

BLVR: Does writing a song require that kind of self-inquiry?

DM: I think so. If you want to get something real. If you’re not being honest with yourself or connecting with yourself I don’t think you can write a good song. Because you’re going to get in the way. You’ll just be like, “What’s next? What should I do? Is this good? I like this.” Instead of getting out of the way and fetching it from the universe.

BLVR: I noticed that “know yourself” or “I know myself” is a repeated refrain in a lot of your songs. Is this a kind of mantra for you? Something you’re telling yourself all the time?

DM: My music is self-consolation first and foremost. It’s hard to talk about this stuff. I always say it in interviews but I don’t know that it comes across how sincerely I mean it. I’m kind of like, in a blackout when I’m doing all this stuff. Ninety-nine percent of these songs just happen and I document them. There’s no intention when I’m writing. It’s like, I get moved. I’m self-consoling and then something else steps in and says, “Say this, say this. Here’s this theme, here’s this theme.” It just comes from some divine place.

BLVR: I’m interested in the way you talk about songwriting as this kind of communion with yourself or with something higher. That does come across in the music. Like you’re channeling something.

DM: That is the process. Sincerely, that is what it is. I just have to get enough out of the way for it to come through. And I think in those old records I didn’t get out of the way quite enough.

BLVR: It’s an interesting idea that by putting yourself forward and more in the spotlight you can actually step further away.

DM: That is what it’s all about. It’s sort of saying like, these themes persist through me. And in fact, they’re amplified through my own visibility because there’s actually less ego. Like me putting myself on the fucking cover and trying to stay grounded. It’s supposed to be this generic man. It’s like self-sacrifice in some weird way.

BLVR: You’re saying this could be anyone?

DM: That was the idea. [Laughs]. Subconsciously. I knew I wanted to be on the cover. On that subjective, surface level I was like, it’s time for me to come forward. I think that would be a good statement. Generous, like that Tom Petty on your wall kind of thing. It’s like come on man, what are you going to do, put a picture of a flower on your cover or something? If you’re true to this path, then fucking do it, dude. But don’t do it if you’re going to be like, “Do I look cool?” I mean, of course you want to look good, but that wasn’t my purpose. And then the second level was to be a kind of every-person.

BLVR: Do you think a lot about the audience? What they’re going to experience when they listen to a record?

DM: Definitely. I make it for them. This record more than ever. Not the old records but this record, I wanted music that would be like intravenous drugs.

BLVR: We’ve talked a lot about identity and if Freedom is about cycling through these selves and shaking them off, I wanted to know how you, in your own words, would describe the person sitting opposite me today.

DM: [Laughs]That’s a great question. Wow. “Just some guy living here right now,” is what I’d say.

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