Amen Dunes: Interview
“Even when I was just singing cover songs I remember it being almost inappropriately intimate and personal.”
In interviewing Damon McMahon, I came to find that maybe we’re all taking him a little too seriously. Or perhaps not seriously enough?
Speaking with Tiny Mix Tapes shortly after returning from a European tour, McMahon talks about the influences informing his new album Spoiler (which you can purchase here), and how it was not only shaped by the writing and recording of his previous work but also how it seeped into the making of an upcoming record, which features members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Harvey Milk, and Iceage. Surprisingly, he’s also happy to speak about brotherly love and the sense of humor he hopes everyone realizes is hidden within each Amen Dunes release. You may have to dig for it, but it’s there…
How was the tour?
It was good. It was interesting all by myself in Europe, which is really nice. And the shows were really good. I played a bunch of new songs and the people were receptive. It was colorful, weird things happened. Undercover cops tried to arrest me for looking like a criminal in Rotterdam. That was interesting. I was jumped in Paris by a crack head. I got sent to the wrong city. The end of the tour was kind of crazy but overall being in Europe for a few days, you can’t beat it. The crowds were really nice and receptive.
Does touring reconfirm your commitment to writing and recording? Do you see it was part of a process?
I don’t see touring as part of the writing and recording but it does reaffirm my role in the world; a way of reaffirming my permanence. It’s the attitude I’m taking these days…
Was there anything before you decided to be a musician that makes you think, ‘I should have followed a different path’?
[Playing music] started really early for me, maybe 15 or 16. There wasn’t really too much before then. But if I had a parallel life I could have worked for the State Department.
Was it at 15 or 16 that you realized music was an outlet and something you wanted to explore further?
Yeah, it was beyond a hobby but I didn’t think of it professionally at that point. I kind of knew at the beginning that there was a deep well there and it would be a good resource down the road. It served a purpose.
I wanted to do a record that would be risky; I was kind of hoping some people would hate this record. Not to be antagonistic but I wanted it to do whatever I wanted and to not pay too much attention to… you know… music press people.
Did you view music at that age as something personal? A way to get thoughts down?
I wasn’t really writing songs. I think I wrote my first song when I was 17, but even when I was just singing cover songs I remember it being almost inappropriately intimate and personal. If I was with a bunch of people they would be like, ‘Damon knows how to play these two songs,’ and I would bashfully pick up a guitar and play the song and [be] uncomfortably personal from the get-go.
How were you putting yourself in those songs?
I was playing for myself but I got such a great pleasure [from] singing song[s] and I wanted to share it. I was like, ‘Holy shit! Look what happens when I sing them.’ Then I quickly realized how personal it was and I started to become uncomfortable about it. When your 16 it’s easy to play a song for people, but as soon as I started writing my own songs I didn’t want to share them as much. From the beginning, even if they were shitty in the early days, they were so personal it was awkward, like being naked in front of people. If it was intimate in that way I’d rather not get naked.
Have those doubts been in your mind even as you’ve released albums?
No, because I feel like they’re sanctioned. The only time I feel comfortable being this revealing is when I’m acting as Amen Dunes. I feel comfortable performing because people are expecting that. And I feel comfortable recording because it’s the same deal. But if I’m hanging out with people in a friendly context and they say, ‘Play a song,’ I never want to do that. It’s uncomfortable, you know?
Why release Spoiler as an album? What’s the unifying thread?
I’ll tell you I was very happy that I decide[d] to release Spoiler as Amen Dunes. I have been listening to such a variety of music for so long. What I’ve been into is so weird and random, and it doesn’t ever really go together. There’s always been a musical part of me that’s never been able to get out, but every now and then I would let it out. The recordings were always more strange, and I didn’t think it was a rationale thing to include with Amen Dunes.
Spoiler includes stuff that was recorded as early as 2009. I was deliberating about it for a while. There’s a song called “The Night I Joined the Navy,” that was the earliest one. I recorded it during the Ethio Covers sessions. It was clear that that wasn’t going to fit so I put that aside. The next batch were done in the summer of 2010, which is when I was attempting to record Through Donkey Jaw. I went out to a house in Connecticut and brought my tape machine and it was just kind of fucked. The tape machine broke twice and it was a bummer of a summer. I was unable to get anything done, but several of the recordings are from those sessions — “Julius Eastman Under the Stairs,” “Last August,” “Da Law Did” — and then finally there were these random recordings from mixing through Through Donkey Jaw — “One White Eye, One Red Eye,” and “High Rise” — that were from the actual recording sessions.
I tried to get labels to put it out but everyone said this is too weird and no one’s going to buy this. So I decided to start my own label and put it out myself.
Basically it was stuff that was too weird for me to include on Amen Dunes records. I was going to name a side project for these recordings because that was my cautious response, but I said fuck it. You know, Amen Dunes is just me and these recordings are as much a part of me as anything else, and who cares if people don’t like it? I’d rather, on my death bed, have done whatever is true to myself than to try and please people. I tried to get labels to put it out but everyone said this is too weird and no one’s going to buy this. So I decided to start my own label and put it out myself.
I don’t know if that answers your question and it’s sort of a long-winded response, but it was a side of me that I was never able to… I never had the courage to put it out there before.
You above-and-beyond answered the question.
One additional little thing: It’s a sharp left turn. Spoiler, after Through Donkey Jaw and Ethio Covers, when you hear the new record it’s totally different, sounds absolutely different. But I like that. I don’t want to be obvious and satisfy people easily. I don’t want to cater to that stuff. I wanted to do a record that would be risky; I was kind of hoping some people would hate this record. Not to be antagonistic but I wanted it to do whatever I wanted and to not pay too much attention to… you know… music press people.
You can insult me as much as you as want.
[Both laugh] No, no, no! I don’t mean you specifically but the broader umbrella organizations, you know?
What were the circumstances around some songs on Spoiler (such as “One White Eye, One Red Eye”) as problems mounted?
I was struggling. Through Donkey Jaw, as much as I love it, I couldn’t reconcile my pop self and my more experimental self. To be honest, it’s the one record I have some regrets about because I don’t feel like I committed to either. I love that record but I feel it was lost in between. Part of me wanted to do songs like “Baba Yaga,” “Lower Mind,” and “Bedroom Drum,” and other parts wanted to do songs like “Jill.” I was in that zone of let’s-just-experiment-now.
“One White Eye, One Red Eye” was inspired by Robert Ashley, and I was reading an Ionesco play. And I also wanted to be funny. Robert Ashley is so irreverent and so funny. I always wanted Amen Dunes to have a little bit of humor; it always has a little bit of humor and no one picks up on that. Every record has had a little bit of humor, at least to me. For this song I wanted to make a song that’s funny — wouldn’t it be fucked up to make a funny song? So that’s my funny song. Whether it comes across or not, I don’t know.
Is humor a part of your personality you’re going to carry on and display more?
No, I think it was a temporary detour. For the next album, not that it was insincere, but I don’t think I have time to do all that. I wanted to give it a chance to come out of the box. But the next record is way more serious. The next record is really fucking serious. Not serious in a dark, self-serious way but a sincere record and the heaviest one yet. There’s not a lot of humor on the new record.
Is there a particular reason you named a song after Julius Eastman? Is he a muse or someone whose work you relate to?
The only direct influences for that record were Julius Eastman and Robert Ashley, who in the last 4-5 years has been a real inspiration for me. He’s just really magical, powerful. What he does is truly incredible.
Eastman was an advance[d] American composer and I’m not. The reason I called it “Julius Eastman under the Stairs” is because it’s my bedroom version of a modern composition and I think that’s what all Amen Dunes stuff is; the honest, elemental version of anything that gets fed into my brain or my heart. Julius Eastman was an inspiration for that song. It was my backwards, kind of fucked-up version of Eastman.
Though he was an inspiration for that song, I wasn’t think of anything else for that record other than just being free. I had the privilege of talking to Neil Haggerty about this kind of thing a little while ago. His new record is inspired by Northern Mexican Norteño music. We were talking about influence and I totally agree: I don’t consciously try and incorporate ideas from influences. I think what happens is I get saturated by these things. I have been listening to the music that inspired Spoiler for years and it’s just in my bones and then it resonates something in me. Eastman is the only direct influence but I feel the record is just me after marinating in this other kind of music, if that makes sense.
I’ve been having a similar discussion about reconciling two or more parts of a personality, so I wonder how that effects the future of your new label, Perfect Lives, and Amen Dunes recordings that you feel are similar to the experimentation on Spoiler?
I think at this point I envision Perfect Lives as an outlet for my peers who haven’t gotten the recognition that I really admire.
Do you have anyone in mind?
Yeah, my brother, Xander Duell. He put a record out on Mexican Summer that, like Spoiler, was too weird and only sold like 10 copies. I actually dedicated Spoiler to Xander. To me, he’s just the fucking master. He’s like the original, fucking authentic drug music with emotion and distortion kind of guy. I feel very similar to him. He’s the melodic, short-song version of me. So he did a bunch of experimental recordings over the course of a couple years and I have a vision of doing a box set.
Do you find your time in China still influences your music? Are you still pulling from personal experiences there and from the move back to America?
You know, I feel different environments are catalysts for me; whatever me is. China definitely brought out certain colors and feelings in me. I adore China, it’s a deep part of me. It was a tuning fork and certain environments resonated more strongly in me.
Is location impacting the new record?
I believe location… certain locations prompt more musical creation than others… and circumstances. For this record there’s a bunch of new songs I wrote at the end of a relationship. This record is not about that relationship specifically, but it’s prompted again by that circumstance. Most of the songs I wrote in New York — which for me is not the most stimulating place to write — but I think they were all stimulated because of the events of what I was going through.
How did Godspeed You! Black Emperor get involved with the new album?
They wrote us and asked us to tour with them last year. We went on tour and got to know them, got friendly with them, and then they just offered to record the record. They were really gracious and cool about it. We went up to Montreal and recorded at one studio called The Pines, and then we came back to Brooklyn and did some more, then went back up to Montreal for overdubs and recorded at Hotel2Tango.
Others who played on the record are just friends of mine. Stephen Tanner who plays in Harvey Milk and Elias [Bender Rønnenfelt], who is in Iceage, played on a couple of songs. And Xander [Duell] is also on the record.
The only time I feel comfortable being this revealing is when I’m acting as Amen Dunes… If I’m hanging out with people in a friendly context and they say, ‘Play a song,’ I never want to do that. It’s uncomfortable, you know?
Where Dia and Through Donkey Jaw feel like the creation of one person, is the new album open to the ideas of the others?
Totally. This is the first time in my Amen Dunes life that I have ever really collaborated. I never needed to before, it was such a solitary practice. I don’t like to fuck around. I don’t like to play with people unless I really adore what they do, you know what I mean? I’ve been playing as a trio for a year-and-a-half to two years and decided, for the new record… I wondered what would happen if I let them in more. I write all the songs but there are a couple of songs that were re-written by the band.
Did you write with them in mind?
No, I would never do that. For me, it’s different if you’re some sort of improv, free-form thing. If you’re song- and guitar-based… my brother and I will sometimes call it the acoustic challenge. If you take all the crap away and just have the person play it on an acoustic it should feel good. I don’t actually apply that principle or test it to music but I think it’s inherent in the way I listen and the way I make people listen to music. The song’s got to be good at the core — melody and lyrics — for it to work for me. I really don’t want to write for other instruments because I would lose the song.
Is that how you work out a song, working first from an acoustic guitar, and adding as you go?
Spoiler was different because it was all improvisation. But for all the other Amen Dunes stuff, I have an acoustic that I write everything on. Then I bring it to the band and we’ll mess around with it. Rarely will it end up on a record as it started off.
Does the new record have a name?
It does but I can’t share it yet. Only one bandmate knows it. I’ll tell you what, I’m as excited by the album title as I am the music. Very excited by it.