When Damon McMahon sings, there’s a feral quality to how words escape his mouth. Some letters stretch, hanging in the air for a few seconds, while others melt away completely, as if they never belonged. It’s a wounded warble of an instrument, one that alternately trembles and booms in a way that recalls the early recordings of Jim James and Phosphorescent. Listening to McMahon’s records as Amen Dunes, you’d think that he emerged after decades of isolation in a remote cabin in the wilds of Appalachia. But the musician is very much a product of the Northeast, the son of two Manhattanites, raised partly in Philadelphia, and a resident of New York City. And while his singing voice may have an otherworldly quality to it, he speaks in conversation in a way more reflective of his home turf: Quickly, in staccato blurts, with a sense of excitement and urgency.
When I get him on the phone, he’s also occasionally speaking with a mouth half full of food. It’s lunchtime and he just sat down at a Colombian cafe in Brooklyn. The restaurant is around the corner from his Greenpoint house, and it’s somewhere he says he goes almost every day, although he can’t remember its name at the moment. “Um, what is this place called?” he asks a passing server. “Oh, I know what’s it’s called: Bogota Café.”
McMahon will be forced to forgo his favorite lunch spot for the next three months as Amen Dunes tours the country in support of Love, his recently released fourth LP. It’s as sweeping and ambitious collection of psychedelic folk as it’ title would suggest, the product of almost two years of work, of building up and whittling down. Some notable names show up – Colin Stetson, Elias Bender Rønnenfelt of Iceage, members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor – but it’s the result of one man’s vision and the twisted journey it took to realize it.
A year and a half seems like a long time to work on a record. What about Love was so consuming?
It’s difficult to explain, because there were so many insane ins and outs with the recording. I knew that I wanted to do a record that was really different from anything that I had done before. I really wanted to spend a lot of time doing it
I tried demoing the record in the summer of 2012, which is crazy to think about since it was such a long time ago. I did some acoustic demos, but it didn’t feel quite right. Then the relationship that I had been in for two years ended, and everything kind of opened up in a new way. All of a sudden I had a very different life. When I started demoing again in Brooklyn in the winter of 2013, it was a way of channeling all of that. I had a lot of time and mental space to process everything, and I did through the record.
I’m insanely meticulous. I spent three straight months listening to the songs, imagining arrangements, and writing out parts. Then we went up to Montreal. We had just gone on tour with Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the U.S, and they were very welcoming and supportive and were like, “You guys should come record in Montreal.” And so we tried that. [Laughs] We went up there at the end of February, and it just didn’t really work. It was a disaster, in a way. They’re good guys and very talented, but sometimes musicians have a hard time communicating. We reached this impasse and I didn’t know what to do. I was really bummed out, because I was hoping that this was where we would record the record and all of a sudden it wasn’t working.
So I came back to New York in March. I thought that it had all gotten fucked up. And then we ended up finding this studio in Brooklyn – this place called Strange Weather in Brooklyn, run by Daniel Schlett. It’s a really awesome studio, and he’s a really awesome guy, and he kind of saved the day.
And then we went back up to Montreal in June. That’s when Colin Stetson and all of the Godspeed guys recorded the overdubs and fleshed out all of the arrangements ideas that I had. And it was pretty awesome. Those people are the center of a thriving music community. We had French horn players and string players, and Colin played sax, and the Godspeed guys played a variety of instruments. It was an incredible week.
Over the summer, we were back in New York and started mixing. This album was like sculpting a huge piece of stone. It was a massive thing. It took a long-ass time. There were a million stages to it. In the past, I’ve been like, “Oh yeah, that album took me a year to make,” and what that really means is that I worked for five weeks over the course of a year. But with this album, I literally worked every month for fourteen or fifteen months. It’s been my life for the past few years.
As Amen Dunes has changed from something you made for yourself to something you know will be heard by more and more people, has your approach to songwriting changed?
No, not at all. Well, I decided to be less selfish. I started to realize that I wasn’t some obscure mole living in the woods, making weird music for himself. I realized, “You can be a participant in the world and people can like your music and they get something out of it, so why don’t you try to shine that as much as you can? Why don’t you be as far reaching as you can with it?” In that sense, yeah, I started to think about wanting to be more generous with my music. I would never write different kinds of songs, but I wanted the way that the songs entered the world to change. Like with [Through] Donkey Jaw, I mean, shit, I thought that was a pop record. When I was making it, I thought, “This is a really poppy record and a lot of people will connect with it.” But I think that the way I interpreted pop songs was kind of evil. That’s fine, but I didn’t want to do that on this record.
Was making an album with a wider range of sound something that you imagined from the outset?
I had a vision for this record. It was a combination of two things. First, I wanted the songs to be like the songs of classic American singers like Elvis, Marvin Gaye, Same Cooke, Astral Weeks – Van Morrison’s not American, but I always group him with that. And I wanted the music to be like the spiritual jazz of late 60s and early 70s, like Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane. That was my vision for it the whole time. And I think that whatever was possible with whatever means I had, I achieved that, or I achieved a version of it.
Coming off the confrontational Spoiler, was Sacred Bones surprised when you came back to it with a record that’s so welcoming?
Mmhmm. Well, not surprised, because I think they know that I’m really weird and do a lot of different things. They know that I’m not into the Spoiler stuff as much I am folk music. But maybe they were surprised – we don’t really talk about that so much. All I know is that Caleb [Braaten] was like, “I can’t release Spoiler, dude. I’m sorry. I love Amen Dunes, but this is too weird. It’s not going to sell.” That’s not to belittle him – it’s practical. Scared Bones is a real label. They’re not an odd, weirdo music head label.
As you work in a more formal environment, are you conscious of trying to maintain the warmth and intimacy of your earlier recordings?
Definitely, man. When I really started this record two years ago, all I wanted to do was make DIA – which was my first record – in a proper studio. That was dream. I wanted it to feel as free as DIA, but be in a real studio with real sound, which was those Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane record have. They sound beautiful, but they feel free. I was thinking about that the whole time.
I was surprised to hear other vocalists on the record. What does Elias brings to your songs?
He’s just beautiful, man. I actually think that he’s underappreciated. Yeah, he’s got this punk band, and people appreciate that to a certain degree, but I think he’s way more than that. I’ve been in bands in New York for a long time, and I see people cycle through, but every now and then, there’s a person with really special energy. He’s someone with a really special energy. He has true control of some very weird emotion that he conveys. And he’s a real singer. He’s a really good singer. I wanted a real singer on the record.
My brother Xander Duell was the other vocalist on the record. But with Elias, I’ll tell you, man, it was kind of amazing. When most people come into the studio, they can’t get it at first. You tell them what you want, and they try, and you have to sort of coach them through it. The first song that Elias did was “Lonely Richard”. I was standing there with Bryce [Goggin], the engineer Trout Recording, who I was mixing the record with and doing overdubs. Bryce has seen everybody. He did the last Swans record and has done all of this stuff over the years. And when Elias walked up to the mic and sang those little “da da da” vocals at the end of “Lonely Richard”, we just knew that we were watching something really powerful. Because simple shit is the hardest shit to do. Look at Amen Dunes: It sounds real simple, but trust me, I’ve tried out fifteen different drummers for touring and no one can get it right. It’s not just the beat. It’s a very deep feel thing, and Elias has that. The words rolled out of his mouth. It was really amazing.
As a singer, how do you think your own voice has developed?
I’ve really learned to control every little way that it drives. I can make my voice change directions on a dime. I can mess with it more. I’m still learning, though.
“I Can’t Dig It” is a bit of an outlier on the record. How did that song come together?
I was almost considering not including that song, because it’s an older song and it’s a lot more like the DIA stuff. In fact, I wrote it only a year after DIA. I wrote that song in 2007. It’s definitely an older song and has an older vibe. It’s more aggressive. That song is more negative, expect it’s not though – that song is about being a delinquent, but being gloriously a delinquent and championing that. That’s an old Amen Dunes attitude. It’s all about bad sex and coping drugs – all of that stuff, which is not really my life anymore. Anyway, that song is an oddball, but I figured that we could make it beautiful like the rest of the songs, like, open, and it might work.
It works in the sequencing of the record – in that penultimate spot.
Thanks, man. I worked so hard on the sequence.
Is that something you agonize over?
Incredibly so. I would borrowed my brother’s car and drive around for days and weeks, trying to get the sequencing right. I would go crazy. I think it’s really important. I grew up on classic albums, kind of cult records, and they always have perfect sequencing.
It’s so important, because people forget songs if the sequencing is wrong. “I Can’t Dig It” was hard because it was so loud. It didn’t fit anywhere except that penultimate spot.
What’s happening with the uneasy panning on “Sixteen”?
[Laughs] Well, that wasn’t me, actually. When I did Donkey Jaw, I wanted my friend Greg David to mix it. Greg is a pretty amazing experimental musician up in Vermont. He was one of the early dudes in the resurgent drum scene. When I was mixing Donkey Jaw, I wanted him to do the whole record, and I gave it to him. It ended up amazing, but he went crazy on it. It was really weird and super out. I was like, “I don’t know if I can handle the whole record being so out.” But there was this demo of a pop song, “Sixteen”. which didn’t really fit on Donkey Jaw, and it was so straight that he tried to do something to make it fit, and so he came up with crazy panning. I always thought that it really worked.
What’s the story behind the cover art?
The image is my friend’s girlfriend. It’s this guys Thomas Corpiacco. He does all of the Amen Dunes art. He’s been doing it for years.
We were trying all of this crazy shit. We couldn’t figure out what to do for cover, because the album was called Love, and we were like, “Oh my god, what an insane word. How do you represent that with an image?” We had all of these really weird ideas – like, we had my brother and his wife and their newborn dress up like turn of the century immigrants. We went out to this Hasidic neighborhood and took photos out there. We were like, “Oh, familial love. Elemental love.” All of that shit. It didn’t really work.
He had this giant photograph of his girlfriend on the wall for year and we’d always ignored it, because you ignore what’s familiar. But when we were stuck, we were like, “Why don’t we just try that photo?” And it worked perfectly. I don’t know if you’ve seen the inside of the album yet, but there’s an insert that speaks to cover and kind of complicates it a little, which I really like.
You talk about the album title as if you were saddled with it. What made you call it Love?
I wanted something that was different from all of the other records. I didn’t want an aggressive title. Not only did I not want Amen Dunes’ music to be aggressive, I didn’t want to be another band that was trying to be super dark and weird. I was tired of that. I like being weird, but in my own way. Spoiler is weird in my own way. I was like “I don’t want to be gothy. Fuck all of that right now.”
Love was about as antagonistic of a title as I could come up with, because it was the opposite of all of that. I was like, “This is will be totally irksome to everyone.” [Laughs] That was my first thought. But then I was like, “It’s also totally true to myself. This is what I want to be doing with my music. I want to be generous. This is devotional music. It’s supposed to be selfless.”
The actual moment that I realized that I wanted to call it Love occurred when I saw the band Low. I had never seen them before, and my friend was like, “You have to see Low.” I didn’t really believe him – for so many years I was like, “This is some boring indie rock band.” But they ended up being so incredibly beautiful. I remember watching them and the word Love came to my mind, and I was like, “Oh, that’s what we should call the record.”