A Free Spirit: Amen Dunes Interviewed

Inside the album that pushed the songwriter to the brink...

Amen Dunes is something of an anomaly. The New York based artist, aka Damon McMahon, is a shapeshifter of sound; a forward-thinker who’s never content on churning out the same product album after album. From Brian Jonestown Massacre style psych rock to folk infused gospel, his previous album ‘Freedom’ (2018) was his most critically revered to date, garnering exceptionally high praise from Pitchfork who named it as one of their best albums of the decade. Approaching his new electronic imbued album ‘Death Jokes’, the same inimitable thinking applies for Amen Dunes – but even with the anticipation to follow up strong from ‘Freedom’ six years after its release, he’s proven once again why his distinct approach to music making is like no other.

Amen Dunes’ new album sees him experiment with electronic music for the first time. Scattered and splintered with collages of samples, lyrics and music pilfered from YouTube, the soundboard to ‘Death Jokes’ forms the purposely uneven base for Damon to ruminate sharply on the world around him – another first for the prolifically introspective artist. Essences of his core aesthetic such as his penchant for melody still make their presence felt, but there’s an undeniable feel that harkens to J Dilla’s seminal ‘Donuts’ with its dense layers of sampling and unorthodox production methods. 

Suffering with health issues including Covid during the album’s three year creation, as well as moving from his home in LA to New York and welcoming his first daughter into the world, Damon’s world has changed a lot over the last few years. He’s also faced rejections – 21, in fact – from fellow musicians who opted not to lend their hand to ‘Death Jokes’ through failing to understand Damon’s self-confessed “loose, wild and self-propelled” approach to the album. Understandably, doubts began to creep in. But did this extinguish his desire to keep creating music? Not quite.

We caught up with Damon over video call from his New York home to talk about art, death and why some people wished he’d make music like Taylor Swift rather than ‘Death Jokes’. 

Pitchfork named your previous album ‘Freedom’ (2018) as their best album of the decade. Did you feel any weight of expectation coming into your new album ‘Death Jokes’?

No, I didn’t. I guess maybe I expected people to take notice of this new album, but I wasn’t worried about what people would think of it. Some of it is very different, contentious and stuff and I’d say that the ease of ‘Freedom’ didn’t really hit with that at all. 

This album feels like very much a departure from your back catalogue. What was your general ethos coming into it?

Every single album I’ve done has been different. The first one was ‘DIA’ back in 2009. That channelled a very harsh, German influenced, hard psych kind of sound. I’d say ‘Love’ (2014) was the first more straighter sounding record, which had more of a jazz influence going on. And then ‘Freedom’ came, and for me that was a radical departure from all of my back catalogue and is still the real outlier. That was where I wanted to experiment with music I love from bands like Thin Lizzy, and other clean music with slick production. If anything, ‘Death Jokes’ sounds most like ‘DIA’. The aesthetics are different, but they both channel a similarly free spirit. So, the ethos at the heart of it has been the same. 

You learned how to play piano and use Ableton software during the making of the album. What prompted the shift in sonic direction?

When I was 14 years old, I remember buying Aphex Twin’s ‘I Care Because You Do’ album. I had one of my friends who just turned me onto all this mid-90s electronic music. When I was in high school, I would go to raves and clubs, but I wouldn’t say I was part of that scene, and I certainly never made that kind of music. But I always wanted to. So, I decided to try it with ‘Death Jokes’ and see what kind of chaos ensued. 

I read that you tried to collaborate with 21 different musicians, but none of them understood your unorthodox methods. Why do you think this was? And how did these knockbacks make you feel about the new project?

No matter what you do, if people are telling you that you’re not good, it’s hard. We live in a world where there’s this constant state of superficial rejection on things like social media. It’s a completely meaningless void; a pit of charred humanity. But even in the real world, everyone gets rejection. It’s very hard when people say ‘you suck’ or ‘this is fucked up’ you know? It’s very hard to keep going. 

I think because my music is borne out of a lot of pain and early rejection, it’s now pretty durable. But with this album, because I was doing something new, I was less disturbed by the rejection. People were saying to me ‘you can’t break the rules, this is 2024, why don’t you make music like Taylor Swift?’ This maybe wasn’t their exact words, but it was essentially what they were saying. Because I wasn’t making zeros and ones come together nicely like everyone else, people didn’t like it. I did have moments where I thought maybe I’m doing the wrong thing and to just quit. But I have this fiery demon inside of me that will not die. 

Also read that you had health issues over the course of the album’s creation. Can you tell us a little about how you dealt with these?

It’s a little too long a story to get into for this, but there were points where it was pretty fucked up. I was worried about my body, my health, my being and of dying. I started writing songs that were grappling with this terror and began turning back to more ancient practices that encourage you to relinquish control of your body. These are beliefs and practices that I’ve been connected with for years and I turned hard back to them, despite both myself and the world clamouring for a sense of control amidst the pandemic. So, ‘Death Jokes’ basically positions death as the protagonist, which toys with this innate sense that we have to clutch onto ourselves. All of the songs are jokes that are teasing with this idea of human importance. 

You’ve also recently moved to LA and welcomed your first child into the world, congratulations! What impact has this had on your approach to your work?

I mean, moving cities has just kind of felt like ‘whatever’. But being a father has been the most important thing in my life; it far surpasses music. I wouldn’t say that it’s affected my music in any direct way, though. People have asked me that a bunch, but I don’t think they’re related. If anything, my daughter has just made me a more powerful being, which allows me to do music with more potency. 

Digging into the album itself, it’s the sort of record that rewards with repeat listens – I doubt I’ll ever uncover everything that’s hidden within it. Was it ever exhausting at times creating the dense collages of sound which would go on to form each of the tracks?

Not really, actually! I have boundless energy for it. I have synaesthesia, so I can see the music I’m making – specifically rhythmic synaesthesia, which makes me very sensitive to rhythm more than the average person. I mean, talk to any drummer that’s ever played with me… it’s mad. I think of the songs I make as puzzles, and every new rhythmic overdub is a new puzzle in itself. 

With the first single from the album ‘Purple Land’, for example, the keyboards on their own have a delay and a wild counter-rhythm to the vocals. Then it’s grounded with a straight 909 kick drum, but then the hi-hat is late, so there’s a staggered rhythm there. Then I added this reggae style guitar in the upbeats which is very quiet in the track, and I’m playing bass in certain parts of each bar… it’s all like some drug experience for me, putting all these elements together. It never tires me out.

You’ve included snippets from a J Dilla interview that you found on YouTube in the album. How significant is he for you as an artist/producer? And did you look to embody some of his influence in the album?

I wanted ‘Death Jokes’ to be my own version of ‘Donuts’ by J Dilla. I’ve always loved that album. I grew up listening to so much hip-hop from around 1990-95, but then I quit hard on it when it all became about cars and girls and stuff. Then in 2006 when ‘Donuts’ came out, my manager at the time was playing it in the other room whilst I was on tour getting ready for a show. It just struck me instantly; it had this emotional quality. I guess it was my reintroduction to rugged, raw and emotional sample-based music. 

‘Death Jokes’ also brims with big themes. The album’s press release mentioned ‘Death Jokes’ is an essay on “America’s culture of violence, dominance, and destructive individualism.” Can you unpack this a little bit?

‘Death Jokes’ is the first time where I’m outwardly commenting and critiquing the world around me.  I think I sensed that I wanted to write about these things since ‘Freedom’ came out, but this was the first time where it reached a boiling point in me to do it coherently. Essentially, what I’m challenging is the way all of our lives and all of the things we do are funnelled through these avenues, these virtual, digital ecosystems and are just flattened out and are made totally meaningless. These are the realms in which we find almost all of our importance, our validation, our voices… all of our values are squished into this sandwich press of the digital world. Not only is that destroying our souls, but it has also created this highly antagonistic, highly temperamental, highly violent environment that we live in. Whether it’s blatant violence or violence posing as some sort of moralism, it really fucks me up. I think it’s tragic for the whole fucking world. 

‘What I Want’ has one of the album’s most stand out, melodic moments. Can you share a bit about the lyrics behind this track?

Interestingly, this song and ‘Ian’ were two songs that were almost completely written a very long time ago. I think I wrote ‘What I Want’ around 20 years ago. It’s about wanting to be free from this mortal coil – that’s really all it is. I was 22 or 23 years old at the time and I was just talking about this feeling of not wanting to be trapped to life, you know? That could relate to drugs or leaving a relationship or leaving some other kind of confinement. 

With ‘Round the World’, I’d say that the energy of the track embodies this almost gospel-like quality that flows through both the album and your previous albums too. Would you agree?

Yeah, 100%. I’ve always thought of Amen Dunes as being gospel music, but with drum machines. That was always my vision. ‘Round the World’ is totally a gospel song. 

‘Rugby Child’ feels like one of the biggest departures from your previous material with its glitchy feeling drums – was this one of the most challenging tracks to create?

To be honest, I was trying to make this track sound a bit straighter than some of the others. The hardware I was using was a 909 drum machine to Ableton, but the 909’s BPM clock was a little inaccurate. I didn’t know how to use Ableton at that point, so I was essentially recording to Ableton but not on the grid, which for people who’ve used it before would probably think sounds mad. It was pretty technical and a bit of a mess to be honest – but I just embraced it. That’s my attitude always, I like to see what happens when there’s mistakes. Even coming back to J Dilla, he said the same thing. All of my favourite people have been like that. 

The last time you spoke to Clash back in 2018, you said that you had a “strange dissociation” to ‘Freedom’ once it was out in the world. Do you feel the same with ‘Death Jokes’?

That’s funny that I said that last time! I’d say I feel even more dissociated this time round. These albums are all reflections of where I’m at in my life. But this one, I feel the most dissolved in; I feel the most taken over by some other kind of voice. I don’t even feel like I made it. However, as I’m getting closer to the album’s release, I’m trying to reconnect with my purpose in doing all of this music. Life is meaningless in many respects, but it also can be very meaningful depending on your vantage point. So, I’m trying to shift to that other seat in the movie theatre.

What do you hope listeners take away from ‘Death Jokes’?

I hope people will realise that there’s something in there that they maybe don’t understand, but would then have the desire to try and figure out what I’m talking about. Then from there, to make their own judgment whether they agree or disagree. That’s what I would wish, for people not to care about it being ‘my’ album in particular, but for them to take the opportunity to care about art in a thorough way. 

‘Death Jokes’ is out now. Catch Amen Dunes at London’s KOKO on July 9th.

Words: Jamie Wilde
Photo Credit: Michael Schmelling

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