Damon McMahon has been making lo-fi psychedelic folk under the Amen Dunes moniker over the past decade. Several tours, a stint living in China and a few records later, and Amen Dunes are having a breakthrough moment with the recently released Love, a cleaner, more precise album and perhaps one of the best of the year thus far, full of swirling, melancholic folk-rockers with carefully considered experimental touches.
I’ve read that in the past you recorded a lot of things on your own onto tape. What made you want to go for a more produced sound on this record?
I think I’ve always wanted to make records that sounded really good, but I didn’t have the means to do so. It’s always been a solitary process, it never really worked for me in studios, but I’ve always wanted to make a record that sounded really good but I never really had the ability to do that. I had specific visions for this record. I had this idea of imagining what a songwriter record would sound like if it was backed by Pharoah Sanders. I was really obsessed with this Pharoah Sanders record called Karma, I have been for a long time. I wanted to make a record that production-wise was reminiscent of that. And I couldn’t really do that with a TASCAM four-track.
Was it important to keep some of the immediacy of your earlier work? I’m thinking of a song like “I Can’t Dig It,” which has almost a live feel to it.
The way that I try to do that is I take forever to work out the arrangements for overdubs and mixing, but the core music, the vocal and main two melodic instruments and drums are always first take. I probably did like three takes most of each song, and what we kept is one of those three takes. That’s why it feels really immediate, because it is.
The song “Love,” the title track, that was a completely different version that we hadn’t even tried before, and we just recorded the first attempt at sounding like that, so that’s why it sounds like so teetering and uncertain because nobody knew what anyone else was doing, we were just kinda going for it.
One of my favorites on the new record is “I Know Myself.” I wanted to ask you about that song, if it’s pretty self-descriptive. I mean I’ve read about how you spent a number of years living in China and didn’t make music too often, it seems almost like this song is about taking the time to discover yourself before really knowing what you have to say.
That song is sort of about disappointment. Specifically, superficially about this girl. It starts out being like, “Yeah you’re great, but this, this and this is not so great, but that doesn’t really matter because I know myself.” But then it sort of gets abstracted. I will sort of have concrete lyrical agendas for the first verse and then I just kinda space out and get abstract, but it still speaks to the theme. So yeah, it is essentially about that. Like, you don’t really get some true sense of yourself until you’ve had some kind of difficulty, I think.
It seems like you love to travel, do you like touring as well? Do you think that informs the music? I feel like I detect a kind of nomadic spirit beneath the songs, but maybe that’s just me projecting from having read your backstory about living in China.
Yeah, I love traveling, man. I’ve been wanting to do this forever, I’ve been obsessed with Iran for a long time. I really like a lot of Iranian writers and sort of the culture in general. I’m planning to try and go there for an extended period of time. I have my sights set for next year, I don’t know if that would be possible because I have to record a new record—maybe I could write it in Iran or something.
Traveling allows me to strip away all the bullshit that comes up in New York City but that also comes up in any sort of home environment. When you’re an ex-pat, you are really alone, you know? And you’re forced to examine yourself and have a clear sense of yourself, and you see the world more purely as well. It’s like experiential bleach.
Have you always written more personally or even confessionally? Do you write with characters or other people in mind sometimes?
Yeah, sometimes. I’ve always written really personally. I prefer that, when songwriters write personally. They have skin in the game or something. The character thing, yeah, sometimes, there are people that I’m thinking about, but the older I get, the more they’re some abstraction of myself. Even like the women characters. I don’t know where the names come from—they’re always these weird, shitty, like conservative, old names like “Diane.” They just sort of come to me. The same goes for “Lonely Richard.” I hated that title, that was the stupidest title and I was going to change it. I had all these “cool” titles for that song, but that’s just not the deal. That was the name that was kind of delivered to me, so I just keep it. If it was left up to me, I would not name them that.
Each song on the album seems to occupy its own space, like even though the album flows really well, every song has something strange or different about it than the song before it. Was that a goal, to kind of have each song live in its own world in a way?
All my songs are like my children or something. I never think of any song as filler or this one’s not as important. I want every song to be beautifully constructed and have little details that people who care can check out on the 10th listen. Each one I sort of constructed slowly.
The percussion is really interesting on this album. Kind of like a krautrock thing on songs like “Lilac in Hand” or really simple and direct on “Lonely Richard,” then sometimes there isn’t much of any and the guitars and vocals just kind of echo into space, like on “Splits are Parted.” Was the idea there to just be minimal for effect, rather than driving?
Parker [Kindred], the drummer, is a total master. He’s the kind of drummer, like in New York, everyone knows he’s the best drummer in New York. He’s an old pro. You can easily listen to Parker and say, “that’s so easy,” but trust me, he’s been busy all summer and we’ve tried out like 15 drummers, and no one can play that “um chuk um chuk” because they don’t have his sense of feel. The whole Amen Dunes thing is feel, the chords, too. You could give the songs to like a first-year guitar student and they’d have no problem. E, A, D, you know? But like the drums, it’s a lot of how you play it. You listen to a lot of kraut bands, a lot of those Neu! beats, those Can beats and those Faust beats are really simple, but they’re like really smart with their spacing. I think that’s what Parker tries to do. And so you can like relax and not notice the drums, but if you actually pay attention, it’s totally driving the song.
Love is such a classic yet explored and exploited concept, why did you decide to name the album that? Was there a unifying concept of love or were you trying to explore different kinds of love, or was that a way of simplifying something more esoteric? I mean, your last album was called Through Donkey Jaw.
I love playing tricks. I’ve always admired bands that were more than one thing. I love subtlety, I love subtle contrasts. The main reason I chose the title was because it is accurate. I realized in the year making this record that I wanted to do something different with my music, that I wanted to do something less insular and self-focused and I wanted to be more generous with it and reach more people and be useful in my music, be a service with my music, like all these things came to mind. And be beautiful with my music, not be ugly and contained. These people came to mind who do that, like the classic songwriters like Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, singers like Elvis Presley, those kind of people. I thought about their music and I thought, it’s all devotional music. So when I say “love,” I mean devotional love, not like a crush. But the cool thing about that word is it also works for romantic love. I happened to have a breakup like a week before I started recording, so it all fell into place. Like “Lonely Richard” or “Diane,” the least like fronting, “trying to be cool” name you can possibly have. I find it very punk rock to not be like weird and dark vibe, like cold vibe. I thought it was a bold choice, and I was proud of that.
We like lists here. Can you give me a handful of records you’re into at the moment?
I just came back from London and I went to this record store called Kristina Records, which is just the shit, so good. I picked up two records that were totally mind-blowing. The first one is called Panoram [Everyone Is A Door], that’s on Firecracker Recordings, which is so fucking good. The other one is this dude, it’s called Nummer, on Pure Blue Records. That’s like all I’ve been listening to. And then I was in Ohio, and I went to Hanson Records there, I got these Robert Sherman records there. I’d always loved Robert Sherman, but there’s this one called Way Down, more synthy kinda stuff. What else? I’ve been listening to D’Angelo again a lot this summer. For some reason, I’ve been listening to the first Roxy Music record this summer. I’m just literally scrolling through my records. And then I’ve been in a big Hank Wood & The Hammerheads obsession. That was our like tour jam when were in Europe last week, we were playing that all the time. So pretty random.
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