Taking Acid and Reading Emily Dickinson: An Interview with Amen Dunes

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Amen Dunes

Let’s talk about love, baby. Not the kind you see in cheesy rom-coms where fart jokes, fellatio, and feelings mesh into gelatinous ooze, or even the kind that only exists between man and woman, however represented. Damon McMahon, the creative force behind the mostly-solo Amen Dunes, defines love as devotion and, on his record Love, as something internal and reflective—it's a self-discovery, it's pure, it's stripped of context, like the lyrics that sometimes float to the top of his latest, most haunting-yet-relatable release. Listening to Love is an emotional, almost visceral yet transcendent experience that still maintains a mysterious, ethereal quality. Just like love, it charges forward, tearing toward the horizon.

Fortunately for us, Damon likes questions. His answers may only build the mystery, but we really wouldn’t have it any other way.

The lyrics on the album make me wonder: Do you write poetry, or are you interested in that as well?

Yeah, I totally love poetry. When I was a kid, more traditional romantic poetry was something that was around the house, and Emily Dickinson was a huge influence on me in college. I remember—this is the nerdy-est thing ever—my friend and I were, like, taking acid and reading Emily Dickinson. It was the most straight-laced drug experience ever.

“Let’s take acid and do our homework!”

Yeah, and like, fold my laundry, and pray, and visit my grandmother. That was my vibe. But yeah, I’m happy that you noticed the lyrics because they’re super important to me, and I think they get overlooked today, in general. I hope that everybody who buys the record realizes there’s a lyrics sheet and reads it— that’s my goal. For this album in particular, the lyrics are a big part of the music. This album was the first time that, instead of just writing out what came to mind, I worked on the lyrics a lot. Especially the last song, “Love”.

What’s your process normally like, then?

Normally I’ll just be inspired by a melody. I’ll press record on a tape player and sing whatever sounds come out, and I’ll listen back and form lyrics around those sounds. I did that, obviously, for this record, too, but then I really re-worked all the lyrics, particularly “Love”.

Aside from the writers and melodies you’re inspired by, what sort of themes or moments from your life inspired your lyrics on this record?

The bad shit [laughs]. Earthly, negative experiences and then non-earthly positive experiences. I mean, you know, some obvious—well, maybe not obvious…there’s a lot of, like….drug stuff. I write from my experiences—it’s all autobiographical, pretty much. And then the songs are a way of dealing with life experiences.

I will say this is definitely not a break-up record, but there was a long relationship that ended. A lot of the songs were written during the course of this relationship, and then the recording process just so happened to take place two weeks after this relationship ended.

Oh man.

So a lot of these songs, especially when I was reworking the lyrics, are all very much about that—like, directed at it. That’s the big theme on this one, for sure. “Splits Are Parted”, “I Know Myself”, “Green Eyes”, “Love”—those songs are all kind of about that relationship.

I called the record Love, but it’s not love in the way you might normally think about it. There’s are themes in here about departure and devotion, also the non- self—whether it’s connecting with other planets or departing a place. There’s a lot of always leaving in this album. I was saying to someone the other day that I think of this album as, like, a cowboy worship album [laughs]. And that is the vibe. Whatever you want to read into what that represents.

Recording this while you’re going through all that, do you feel like these songs have helped you deal?

Totally. My music has always been for me. The only way it ends up being satisfying to me quality-wise is when I write it to soothe myself. weirdly, when I write it to soothe myself, it ends up being more pleasurable for other people, which is my goal, ultimately.

This whole record is, like… I’m not even aware of this shit. Because like I said, I just press record and reinterpret whatever comes out of my mouth, but when I look back in the songs, there’s all this stuff. Like the line “you know yourself” in “Lonely Richard” or the song “I Know Myself”—it’s all about me processing myself, really. It’s weird because it’s subconscious but when I sing these things, I find relief from it.

Yeah it’s weird how sometimes when you’re the most selfish is when you’re also the most honest or raw, and it ends up making it easier for people to really connect to that.

I know, it’s really ironic, but it’s true.

Given all that, this record is different for you, since before you recorded alone, and now you’ve got all these other musicians working with you.

Yeah, I wrote and recorded Through Donkey Jaw all by myself except for drums on, like, four songs. Amen Dunes was always a solitary affair. But since that record came out, I’ve been playing with two people that I’ve known forever, but who became even more of my musical, spiritual partners, Parker Kindred and Jordi Wheeler. For this record, I wrote all the songs and did all the arrangements, but the core music was pretty much a group affair. Then I invited friends to play on it, too. A bunch of members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor play various instruments on it, and also Colin Stetson and my friend Elias [Bender-Ronnenfelt] in Iceage. It became collaborative, like, let’s see what happens. Let’s see if they can make it personal, too—that was the intention.

My thing is only play with people you can trust, and then they can play and just be themselves. It doesn’t have to be a controlling kind of thing. These are people that I really trusted and respected, so it was just like, “Here’s like the general framework, and now I hope you can make it your own.”

Does that ever reflect back and change what you put into the song, too?

Sometimes. The song, “Love”, actually started as a guitar song, but it wasn’t working in the studio. So I said, “Let’s think about it another way,” and played this Pharoah Sanders record, Karma, for everybody, which is a big influence in this record. It’s this very Latin, kind of Afro-Cuban-influenced album. We got rid of the guitar and I just sang, and Parker played the kit with his hands, and Jordi played piano. What’s on the record is actually the first take of that version, which we’d never played before.

By inviting people in and thinking beyond your first thought, a different view comes out.

The other different thing about this record is how much time you spent on it—more than your other releases. Did spending more time on the record create more self-doubt about what you were making?

No, I don’t ever pursue anything of my own that doesn’t come from a really good initial feed of inspiration. I trust the first drop of inspiration, and then anything built on that is trustworthy for me. If I try and lay something down that doesn’t come from some other place—that isn’t delivered to me, so to speak—then I won’t even bother with it. But once I have a moment of inspiration—even if it’s two chords and “la la la,” I know it’s good, and as long as I work on it, the foundation’s stable. This record was built on a reliable foundation, so I could work on it for a billion years, and it would always be good in my mind. As long as I stay pure with it and don’t get too in my head.

Yeah, that’s the hard part.

I also write, and when I write, I get way in my head. My music now is such a part of me that, thank god, I don’t have that problem as much. If I can shift my thinking into the right frame of mind, I can trust myself. I don’t know…knock on wood, we’ll see.

What else do you write?

Um, you know, a bunch of crap. I write these, like, one-page short stories. I’ve written a ton of them, but they’re always one page long. I haven’t really done anything with them.

So between these two passions and the extended period of time you spent on your record, how do you keep yourself creatively motivated?

The weird thing is that I did this record over the course of the year, and I don’t need to be creatively motivated. I just needed to position myself properly, and then it’s just like… if you put good food in front of a hungry person they’re going to eat and enjoy it. I don’t know. In this case, it was the end of the relationship and processing all kinds of shit. I couldn’t really go wrong. I didn’t need outside inspiration, which is kind of unusual. When I’m deep in the zone, it’s self-fulfilling.

I can see that especially when—not to be depressing—you get that sudden sensation of being alone, and you have all this time to deal with what you’re thinking about, and you just gotta get it out.

Totally. You know, there was some creative inspiration for this record. I do think ahead of time that I want to do this record like this vibe. I’m really into this person, and I want to channel Amen Dunes through this person or that person.

In 2013, I was struck by this idea: I wanted to make a classic singer’s album— sort of like a cosmic singer, actually. And all these musical figures that I love sort of came to me in various forms. Elvis was there throughout the whole record.

He was going to be on the album cover, actually, but it was a little too weird.

Later-period Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Van Morrison—those were my guiding lights for this record. It was, like, them through late-sixties spiritual jazz—there’s always some little twist in my mind through this stuff. But they were definitely creative influences over the last year—singers who made these very free, open records.

So with everything you put into this album and all the time invested, does it change at all what you expect from a listener?

Man, I don’t expect anything from a listener. It is all a bonus, to be honest. This stuff is so personal for me, I would do it if I lived under a bridge in Oklahoma or something. I’ve got to, like, eat and survive, so I do want to be successful. And I’ve been doing this shit for a long time, so I would love for more people to hear it, but I don’t expect any more or less from a listener. I’m happy when there are more listeners, and I am bummed when no one hears something, you know? For sure. But I try not to expect it from people.

What would success with your music look like to you, and do you think you’re achieving it, on the road there…?

Amen Dunes’ road has been funny. I’ve got a million friends who make music, and I’ve been doing this for a long time—longer than Amen Dunes. And it seems some people who have received similar positive feedback as I have become very successful very fast. And that hasn’t really been the path of Amen Dunes. I do feel very good energy around this record, though. I also intentionally made this record much more open, and I wanted it to reach more people. That’s the whole goal, the whole idea of this record being called Love—it’s not, like, crush-out-on- a-girl love, but that whole idea of devotion, that’s my purpose as a musician. But I try and also not have expectations around success. It’s kind of out of my hands, that stuff. But what would it look like? Playing to more people. I would love to play to more people because there’s just greater energy exchange. That’s why I bother doing it out in the world. I would always make these songs and this music on my own, but if I’m going to be a touring band, I hope to connect with people.

Love is out now on Sacred Bones.