Interview: Amen Dunes on Confinement, Astrology, and The Masculinity of “Love”

12 May 2014 — Evelyn Malinowski

Bob Dylan, Tim Buckley, and, especially in the case of the new album, Love, Nick Drake, are all influences considerably easy to decipher out of the Amen Dunes sound. Yet when I talked with the man behind the dunes, Damon McMahon, I wanted to try to learn about other areas of influence, perhaps more ethereal, groundless ones, as the other striking quality of the new album is its rapture. In that process, I gained some extra and candid insight on McMahon's thoughts on women and music, growing out of old habits, and contemporary artist-friends. This is how it went.

Hi Damon! What's up?

Hello Evelyn! Not much, just in my natural habitat. [Walking through the streets of Brooklyn – sound of cars rushing by]

The last interview I did over Skype was with Mike Silver of CFCF, whose latest album was broadly inspired by traveling nonstop and a lot of the time between NYC and Montreal via the Catskills. You recorded your new album in Montreal and live in New York, so I'm curious if that commute had anything to do with the captivating, rather calming yet mouthwatering mood on Love, because you also have actually recorded in the Catskills?

Yeah, I recorded my first record in the Catskills. I don't think it necessarily contributed to the mood. Montreal is sort of a harsh vibe so it was actually a challenge to the mood. It depends on what mood comes across – there was sort of a mood of perseverance I guess and I think with Montreal being a difficult, harsh place, that played a small part in it. I guess I could say it that way.

I'd say the mood on the album is totally one of perseverance and overcoming, so if you recorded it in a place like that, you had even more to overcome apart from what you wrote about. I hadn't heard that interpretation of Montreal. Well, a good friend of mine lived there for several years and he said it was actually quite traumatizing.

I can see that, the winter was really brutal. We started recording in late February and there was like two feet of snow everywhere. But yeah also circumstances were challenging, so yeah that contributed a small part to the record. But whatever, the environment you record in is a minor part of an album. It effects it slightly, but this record is not all about where I recorded it.

That makes sense. I couldn't help but look up some interviews you did after Spoiler came out, which enlightened me to the frenzy of discomfort and rejection that particular album created. I was laughing actually about that because, come on, it's not that weird, it's a rad work, and it's the coolest thing for an artist to do something out of character. Anyway, you described your music to our buddies at The Quietus as 'negative music,' which I find interesting. Could you expand on that?

Thanks! That used to be true, and when I did that interview, let's see, I had done the first record in like 2006, and the second one in China in 2009, and so I was doing that interview around Through Donkey Jaw in 2011. All those records were 'negative music,' but I think that's not the case with the new Amen Dunes stuff at all. I was trying to be, well, not positive, but definitely but open, I think. The idea of this record was to be open. 'Negative music' was just, you know, aggressive music, sort of cathartic, aggressive music, antagonistic in subtle ways.

Ok so emotionally negative?

Yeah.

I was thinking you could have also meant like sonically negative, like the sound could emulate a negative aesthetic, like inverted colors, like on film. I was wondering if there's a textural element to that description.

Definitely! I think the negative I meant was negative emotions, like vengeance, and it was a tool for me to have catharsis. I don't make punk rock and I'm not a Japanese noise band from the 80s or something, but all those people have emotional agendas that I related to at the time. Their music is a way of striking out at people, and, in turn, it's medicinal to listeners. That's what the old Amen Dunes stuff was about. Texturally, I mean that's interesting, that's not what I meant by it, although Amen Dunes is influenced by certain films and just shit that I've absorbed over the years. I was trying to get away from that. I mean, I never made lo-fi music because I wanted to; If I could've gone to the studio with some engineers I really admire, and made it sound good, or if I could've gone to Muscle Shoals, if it still existed, for the first Amen Dunes record, my god, I would have! But at the time I could only afford a small tape machine for three-hundred bucks, so I was working within my means. So texturally it has a film negative quality – I like warm music, but I don't like lo-fi necessarily. I was trying to make the best warmth out of lo-fi.

That's interesting because if you feel like you can't do what you dream, like go for your first recording project to the dream studio with producers who you admire, you could feel confined. Feeling as if within confines connotes a negative feeling, too, so it's a duality of negative emotions placed into the music.

It's tricky because it's confining, it's limited, it's pro studio dudes in that world. They're not always creative oftentimes; they're stuck inside the confines. It's kind of an ideal scenario to be able to make free music in a good studio. I don't know how that's possible anymore, unless you have like ten million dollars and people let you do what you want.

Yeah it's weird how when you become so rich, you don't have to pay for anything anymore.

Right!? Yeah that's not the case with Amen Dunes. I wouldn't say 'so rich' with 'Amen Dunes.'

At least the Canadian dollar is a little behind ours right now, so you recorded in the right place.

That's true! Here's some money...

So it's about the challenge and overcoming of making warm, genuine music within the confines of lo-fi, negative music. It's like a sensitive paradox, and just talking about that with you makes me view your music differently.

Cool! It's not intentional, you know. I just want to make beautiful music that feels a certain way emotionally. I don't think I'm looking for a sonic aesthetic to convince something.

Yeah, it's free, as you say.

Yeah.

Well the new album has that freeing mood. I think the musicality and emotionality of every song is just... relieving. There's a big sense of relief.

That's what I want!

Well I can't help but pry, but what led you to that place? Do you also feel more in your personal life that you've arrived at a, not a plateau, because that sort of has a negative connotation, because then it's like 'ok, where the fuck do I go from here?' – but to a stable, flatter ground, or a new level where it's prettier and easier than where you were before and you can rest from the exhausting hike or whatever.

Yeah, the hike... I think in my case it was rolling down a hill. It came from years of self-destruction or, you know, years of bad living, which I did with Amen Dunes. It was my vehicle for dealing with bad living. So I think this new record is about moving beyond that and not being hindered by that anymore. Yeah, like you said, that 'relieving' feeling. It's great. I want all the music to have that medicinal quality. That's nice that that comes out.

It does! From the first chord onwards... but how old are you?

I'm thirty-three, a ripe thirty-three.

Ok so I'm really into astrology and...

I am also highly superstitious myself.

Ok right on! Well I'm not about to do a reading for you or anything, but I actually would be curious as to when your birthday is.

Yeah I think it might make sense, too: I'm a Virgo.

No shit me too!

You are? Now that's funny. [Chuckles]

Are you a September or August Virgo?

I'm September 12th - my music is very Virgo.

I never attributed any astrological stuff to your music actually but now I'll do it every time I listen to it. Well, I ask because, in astrology, there's this huge transit we have to all go through when we're in our late twenties and early thirties called Saturn Return – have you heard of that before?

No, I haven't. See, I'm superstitious enough that I stay out of this stuff. Anyway, what was it?

So when we're in our late twenties and early thirties, depending on where Saturn is in our respective natal charts, it transits back through that place where it was when we started life, and that whole process usually has an air on dropping things that no longer work for us, like ending bad relationships, divorcing our parents, feeling like nothing will ever actually change... but it's really a giant growth spurt.

That's very apropos, because I am thirty-three, and I began this record right after my thirty-third birthday and I was just ending this really longterm, serious relationship. So, superficially, this record has been a way of processing that relationship. So that's funny, that record comes right out of that part of my life...I like your thesis.

On the track "I Know Myself," there's sort of crooning, shaky singing style that is always sort of in your singing but here very prominent. What is that style called?

I don't think it's called anything, but it comes from my process of listening to music over the years and absorbing singers. When I was a little kid, I started off by not writing songs but copy other singers. I was a huge Bob Dylan fan when I was a kid, and Texas blues, old acoustic blues people. I loved Tim Buckley when I was a kid. I liked The Band when I was like fifteen or fourteen, and I'd sing and started using this vibrato thing. And over the years, I just worked it out; it's like a tool that I know how to use now. It's just in me, I don't know. Comes from the stuff I listened to growing up.

I thought of Jefferson Airplane.

That's funny – someone told me that once years ago. Yeah, when I was a kid... that second Jefferson Airplane record, Surrealistic Pillow, that is a very overlooked record. It's kind of annoying: people love obscure reissues and all this shit; but, the best stuff is often the most obvious stuff, in my opinion, especially in the 60s. That record is my favorite psych-folk record. Anyway, she was one of my biggest influences as a kid.

That segways us a bit into my question about female musicians. On "Lilac In Hand," it sounds like you and some lady backup singing in the chorus. Is this the case?

No, it's my brother, actually. His name is Xander Duell, and he put a record out on Mexican Summer, and he's putting a new record out this fall on a label called Ingrid. He is an overlooked gem, that guy. Yeah, but it's not a woman, just my brother. He's got an incredible range … he also sings on "I Know Myself." Those harmonies are my brother also.

Ok well he sounds beautiful! Let him know I say so.

I will! [Laughter]

So were there any ladies on the collaboration for Love?

Sophie from Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Jess from A Silver Mt. Zion play violin on the song "Rocket Flare." You know, I don't mean this in a weird, misogynist way, but this record is a very masculine record. Amen Dunes is very masculine in general, or like man-focused.

Yeah, man-focused and also man-folkist because of all the masculine folk music influence.

[Both laugh]

Do you think you could ever see yourself doing a riskier album than Spoiler, like do a collaboration album with a female artist you like, or like a favorite contemporary female artist?

To be honest, I don't think my energy would work with that. I mean, I love women, and I have plenty of female friends, but I don't think my energy would work with a woman. I don't know, I can't imagine it, actually. It's just not my vibe, and I don't mean that in any kind of disparaging or critical way; I just don't think chemically it'll work.

Explosion in the lab!

Totally!

That answer makes me feel like you've thought about it before.

Well I can feel it, instantly, even when you ask me that question. I've never thought about that too much, but all my musical choices are incredibly clear to me, like what would work and what wouldn't work. I'm also picky about who I play with.

I would say that both of those things, the feeling what wouldn't work intuition and being picky bit, are strong Virgo traits. So you're a good Virgo.

I'm a total Virgo!

Before I let you go, I wanted to learn a bit about your favorite contemporary music. Who are your favorite contemporary artists? I'm always curious about what's being collected and loved by artists.

Well the music I love are kind of polar opposites – I love like much more experimental, and electronic music on one end, and then kind of a few more popular things. I don't like stuff in the middle so much. So, I listen to a ton of European/English experimental electronic music. I love this label out of London called Alter … this guy Helm, he's playing my record release show. I like Posh Isolation out of Denmark. I like this Three Legged Race project, and this guy LG out of Belgium. Then I like these more popular guys. I like Kurt Vile, I mean these happen to be a lot of friends … I like The War on Drugs stuff … and Iceage, you know, Elias is a good friend of mine. He actually sings on two songs on the record. I really like those guys, all the Danes.

The duets you guys do on the record sound really good.

I'm so psyched about that, man. There are very few people who are very good singers. And he's a really good singer. I don't often trust someone when I hear them sing, like I hear it, and I instantly know whether it's believable or not.

Like someone is singing and it's a lie? It's not raw, good singing? Lie-singing?

They're not believable, they're phony or something. Most singers don't have balls, and I don't mean that in a masculine way – I don't know how to put. You just don't believe them. But Elias, I believe him.

Did he join you in the studio in Montreal?

No, he was in Brooklyn, coincidentally. It was so awesome. [Snickers] He had been tripping all night, so he came into the studio and he was still hallucinating, was telling me all this stuff, like he had been an old black man from a past life and was shining a candle on the ground – it was very unusual behavior. It was pretty awesome.

I totally have to include this in the interview! [Both laugh]

Love is out tomorrow, May 13th on Sacred Bones, and is, in my opinion, an achievement for Amen Dunes.