The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Amen Dunes

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Interview with Damon McMahon.

“If you’re listening to the ‘White Album’ or ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ by Big Star or you know, ‘Let It Be’ by The Replacements – that’s a kind of shitty example but has the ballad break on the middle of the record and there are some acoustic songs on it – those records are so diverse and that was what my brain was formatted with as a young kid. I think I always try and make diverse music because of those records.”

—Damon McMahon

Words: Mark Carry


Amen Dunes is the musical guise of Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Damon McMahon who has delivered one of 2014’s most affecting and infinitely special records in the form of ‘Love’, released on Sacred Bones Records earlier this year. A spiritual dimension permeates throughout ‘Love’s sprawling canvas of sound that captures the cosmic spirit of spiritual jazz greats such as Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders; ‘Astral Weeks’ era Van Morrison, the reverb-drenched guitar-pop odysseys of Galaxie 500 and the New York independent music scene. As ever, the latest Amen Dunes full-length forges an intimate and personal journey that lingers in the slipstream of one’s heart and mind long after the music has faded into memory’s past.

The solo project of McMahon’s Amen Dunes began with recordings made in Autumn 2006 in upstate New York. Those tapes were never intended for release but while living in Beijing for the next few years, McMahon would continue to write and record songs. Finally, 2009 saw the release of ‘DIA’ on Locust Music followed by the sublime ‘Murder Dull Mind’ (containing gorgeously sparse acoustic folk laments) on Sacred Bones Records in the summer of 2010. ‘Through Donkey Jaw’ would follow next, an album more fully-realized and a more band-oriented sound than previous works. ‘Love’ represents McMahon’s most compelling and accomplished batch of songs to date, where a cathartic energy is released with each tower of song.

In contrast to the largely improvisational first-take affairs of previous records, ‘Love’ is the product of close to a year and a half of continuous work. At the core of Amen Dunes’ sound lies a formidable trio of gifted musicians: McMahon (vocals, guitars) and his long-time collaborators Jordi Wheeler (guitar, piano) and Parker Kindred (drums). The recording sessions took place in Montreal with Dave Bryant and Efrim Menuck of God Speed You! Black Emperor and guest appearances from Colin Stetson (saxophone) and Iceage’s Elias Bender-Ronnen Felt (who duets on two tracks).

Some of the great hallmarks of ‘Love’ (and indeed the distinctive sound of Amen Dunes) is the album’s lo-fi production style, McMahon’s hypnotic voice (a powerful and healing force) and psychedelic guitar style. I like to see ‘Love’ as a vinyl LP in the classic sense, where a resolutely unique world unfolds as the needle is spun. Ten songs; ten visionary tales that encompasses an endless array of illuminating moments that in turn, shapes the world around you. Take ‘Rocket Flare’, for example (which opens part B of ‘Love’s fulfilling voyage).  This brooding opus exists in its own stratosphere; recalling the timeless spirit of ‘Zuma’ era Neil Young as Wheeler’s mesmerising guitars blends effortlessly with McMahon’s delicate vocals. ‘Sixteen’ takes you to someplace else. The tender piano ballad evokes a purity and innocence that could be taken from the cherished songbook of Daniel Johnston. Moments later, the Americana gem of ‘Lilac In Hand’ moves “like a shadow” into “the salty air”. The meditative lament exists in a separate time and place, somewhere familiar yet mysteriously unknown. One of the album’s defining moments arrives on the record’s closing song, the album’s title-track and all of its eight-and-a-half minutes of glorious redemptive qualities and healing power. Delicate percussion and soulful piano chords embrace the deeply honest song-writing prose of McMahon. A sense of pain, loss — and yet flickers of hope and solace shine forth like embers from a burning flame — exudes from the achingly beautiful harmonies that conjures up the sound of The Beach Boys, Dylan’s ‘Blood On The Tracks’ and ‘Beggar’s Banquet’-era Rolling Stones. ‘Love’ feels like a culmination.


‘Love’ is available now on Sacred Bones Records.



Interview with Damon McMahon.

I had the pleasure to see you live recently in Poland as part of the ATP show with Dean Wareham. It was amazing to witness your live performance, it was really special.

Damon McMahon: Oh thanks man. That was a special show for me, it was very cool to be there.


The reaction from the audience was lovely, where you could really sense the occasion.

DMcM: Yeah they were really amazing, they were very attentive.


I must congratulate you on the new album, ‘Love’, it’s a really amazing record.

DMcM: Thanks man. Thank you.


I was really interested to realize only recently how you took a lot of time on this album; it must have been really interesting for you to take your time with the songs this time around as opposed to doing it so quick and spontaneously?

DMcM: Yeah, it was a very different approach to things. The results were very different, you know. Instead of being impressionistic first-take kind of discovery of music, it was a real labour of love. And I worked on it for over a year which I’ve never done before. So yeah, it was a big shift.


I love too how – they’re your own songs of course – there is a lovely collaboration between you and the members in the band and you could really sense that seeing you live as well; that kind of connection between you all.

DMcM: Cool, that’s good man. I mean it’s very important to think like, the way we interact as a trio is very important to the band I think. Me and Jordi Wheeler, the guy on piano and guitar – and the guy you saw play with us is a kind of temporary drummer who was playing all the original drummer’s parts, this guy Parker [Parker Kindred] – it’s very much like a symbiotic relationship.


In terms of making the album then Damon, were they integral to the songs from the very start or is it a case you have them fully-formed in your head before you get to them?

DMcM: I have them fully written, I write all the songs – it’s all written when I bring them to the band – but they help give the songs a certain direction, I think. So Parker comes up with all the drum beats and Jordi will normally add a piano or a guitar part that’s strongly melodic and that part will really give the song a lot of character. I mean there are some songs where Jordi didn’t play on at all on the record. There are a handful of songs where it’s just me and Parker – I do all the overdubs and Parker plays the drums. Some songs like ‘Lonely Richard’, the slide guitar is Jordi and it’s a very definitive piece of the song. Or ‘Love’ for example, I wrote that on guitar but Jordi transcribed it to piano and that really changed things. And yeah, it’s just natural.


That sounds great. I’m always fascinated with any band and how the songs always mutate or change as you go along.

DMcM: Yeah, I love changing songs. I like playing them different you know, over the years. I do this like a kind of jazz operation, in a way in that I have these standards and I like to alter them over the years. I mean some of these songs have been out forever. The song called ‘Baba Yaga’ that was on ‘Through Donkey Jaw’ I wrote in 2006, so I’ve been playing it for eight years and it’s still so fresh because we can hone new shit out of it every time, you know.


Like any great album, it grows and grows but there’s a wonderful kind of spiritual element and sense of a journey on the album as a whole.

DMcM: Thanks man. Good, I’m happy that comes across. That was the objective.


I must say ‘Lilac In Hand’ is one of my favourite songs. Again, like any song-writing, I love how there are certain lyrics – it could be more like a phrase – I love how they really stick with you as well, like “move like a shadow” for example.

DMcM: That’s great man. I think words are so important. For that song, I wouldn’t say they’re the most poetic on the record – I wouldn’t say there’s the most substances – but I put a lot more thought into the lyrics of ‘Love’ as there’s tons there. ‘Lilac In Hand’ is more like a short poem or something and it’s a little abstractive. I still feel that even if it’s abstract, the lyrics should have weight, and stick. Yeah, that’s cool, I’m happy that that comes across.


I love too the range of styles you have on the album and the dynamic, you know as well. The lovely piano ballad ‘Sixteen’ and there’s the more band sounds. There’s that dynamic where it changes throughout.

DMcM: Cool, yeah it was really important for me. I’m a real LP obsessive. My whole life I’ve always studied the format of albums and the way people sequence and the way people balance albums out with productions. If you’re listening to the ‘White Album’ or ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ by Big Star or you know, ‘Let It Be’ by The Replacements – that’s a kind of shitty example but has the ballad break on the middle of the record and there are some acoustic songs on it – those records are so diverse and that was what my brain was formatted with as a young kid. I think I always try and make diverse music because of those records.


Well that really comes through because as you say even, as a vinyl too there is part A, B, C and D and you have all these different little worlds in the one overall album.

DMcM: That’s great man, I really care about that ‘cause I spend a lot of time figuring out the sequencing, the whole balance of it, you know. And I wanted this to be an album where you could listen to it on many levels. Let’s say ‘Lilac In Hand’ for example. My mom could like that song probably because it’s like a pleasant pop song but if you listen carefully, it has this kind of other mood to it. And even thematically, it sounds like nothing but even for ‘Lilac In Hand’, they’re all euphuisms for copping drugs in New York City. You wouldn’t necessarily know that but you know, all these songs have a second meaning and dimensions to them that are important to me.


I’d be interested to know would a lot of New York and living there come through the songs so, almost sub-consciously?

DMcM: Definitely, yeah because Jordi, Parker and I are all from New York. Jordi was born in the city, Parker was born in Jersey and I was born in Philadelphia but we all grew up in New York and outside of New York so we’ve been here forever. Yeah, we’re very much New Yorkers and I think that this album is at once very organic and natural but also very New York and urban. I think of it as a New York album, for sure. I always wanted to make, you know as pretty as it gets it always has to be tough, it’s like a requirement. You can’t like, you can’t use them unless it has that toughness to it, it doesn’t work so I think that’s the way the New York thing comes across.


I love too, how on the surface of some songs, there’s the brightness and those beautiful melodies but there’s that dark undercurrent, you know the contrast between dark and light as well.

DMcM: Yeah I thrive to carry that through, you know. I never want it to be just one or the other.


Do you reckon Damon you will spend as long on your follow-up album or what the nature of the next record will be? I know it’s a bit early to say.

DMcM: I like every album to be very different. So my plan for the next album is for it to be relatively quick and clear and muscular so that’s the sort of idea I have for it, so far. So, more electric guitars and more volume and tight melodies, like that’s my idea. It’s coming out a year from now actually, it’s coming out in either September or October of next year. Actually I don’t really stop working I guess [laughs] I just got home from Europe a week ago so we were just on tour and I’ve been in the studio all week recording a new EP that’s coming out in January. So, last night I had this amazing recording experience because my friend Ben Greenberg who has a project called Hubble and he also played bass in The Men for a while; he lives upstairs and he came downstairs and he played on a song with me – which is a cover of a This Mortal Coil song, a Tim Buckley cover called ‘Song to the Siren’ and we did a version of it last night and it sounds really beautiful so I’m excited about it. And that’s going to be out in January.


Wow that sounds amazing. I love the art of cover songs, I’m always intrigued by that.

DMcM: Yeah me too. I love covers and the way you put your own stamp on things.


And speaking of electric guitars, I love the sound you get on ‘Rocket Flare’.

DMcM: That’s Jordi, the lead thing is Jordi, yeah. I love that part too.


For the recording sessions themselves, it must have been really fulfilling to record with the guys in Godspeed! You Black Emperor?

DMcM: Yeah it was man. It was cool. I love collaborating with people who are talented and to be able to witness and incorporate their abilities.


In terms of records that you think were important for you, you know as a musician and artist, I wonder are there certain albums you think of that you’re obsessed with?

DMcM: I sort of have my favourite albums of all time that informs me a musical human and then there’s the music that I listen to today which is very different. I mean today, the only new music is electronic music and instrumental music from Europe. But the albums that informed me as a kid you know, ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ by Big Star, ‘Forever Changes’ by Love, ‘Happy Sad’ by Tim Buckley, the ‘White Album’, ‘Exile On Main St’, ‘American Beauty’ by the Grateful Dead and the band The Las from Liverpool. Those are the albums I’ve been listening to since I was thirteen or fourteen. They’re like the bunch of records that are like my favourite of all time. But I’ve listened to so much over the years, it’s like a million different realms. At my core, I would say those are some of my favourite records.


It’s cool too I’m sure you find yourself coming back to them again and again?

DMcM: Oh yeah, I’ve listened to those records like thousands of times.


And with the touring recently Damon, I’d be curious to know if some of the songs have changed since you started touring a few months ago?

DMcM: They do change, you know. My favourite singers like Bob Dylan, Alex Chilton, Tim Buckley, people that change their own songs frequently you know, so I definitely like to do that as well. So, you know I’ll try to alter the lyrics and alter the melody line when I play live and Jordi does that too on guitar. It keeps it interesting.

It’s very exciting for me to be in Ireland because half of my family are of Irish descent; half of them are from Galway and half of them are from Belfast. So it’s going to be very meaningful for me to be there. So far, the Irish fans have been amazing. We met some Irish people in Manchester and they came to see us again in London, they were really awesome, very warm and generous.





‘Love’ is available now on Sacred Bones.

Amen Dunes performs at The Workmans Club, Dublin (Tuesday 23rd September), Dolans, Limerick (Wednesday 24th September) and The Black Mariah @ Triskel Christchurch, Cork on Thursday 25th September. For full US and EU tour dates, please see HERE.




Written by markcarry

September 8, 2014 at 10:49 am

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