In 2017, New York record label Sacred Bones celebrated 10 years of independent excellence, a milestone that feels incredible and noteworthy in today’s exceedingly competitive music market. Through 2018, they maintained that energy on an untouchable hot streak, most notably with Amen Dunes’ critically adored LP Freedom. Looking into the future, there’s no sign of slowing — new signee SPELLLING will drop her label debut in February shortly after a West Coast tour supporting Amen Dunes.
“It’s this Avengers squad of badass creators,” says SPELLLING’s Chrystia Cabral, describing her new label home to Phoenix New Times. The analogy could not be more perfect — all different backstories and superpowers, but a common goal of making the world a more livable reality. “All of their artists I feel like share this ambition to innovate,” Cabral continues. “That’s really important to me.”
On Chrystia Cabral’s first trip to New York to discuss her signing to Sacred Bones with label owner Caleb Braaten, a familiar face walked through the door: Amen Dunes’ Damon McMahon. “I was randomly going into this restaurant and her and Braaten were there chatting it up,” McMahon says to New Times. It was a notable moment for both artists. “I’m a big Amen Dunes fan,” Cabral says. “I feel like [Damon] is an artist that constantly evolves and strives, and I see that in myself as well.”
Evolution is indeed the name of the game for Amen Dunes. From the anxious formlessness of Murder Dull Mind and Through Donkey Jaw to the striking drive and painstaking optimism of Love and Freedom, the personal growth and exegesis fueling McMahon’s project is palpable and infectious. “I’ve done a lot of self reflection over the years,” McMahon says. “I think the old records sound incredibly obscure — not just sonically, but in that I was just slowly finding myself. I think the music is a reflection of that. That’s why this music [on Freedom] sounds different. It’s honest.”
Freedom opens with a little boy passionately reciting the famous locker room speech Herb Brooks gives his team in the hockey film classic Miracle. “It’s a little boy mimicking Kurt Russell,” McMahon laughs. “That’s interesting in and of itself.” But there’s a measure of sobriety to that metaphor for growth and maturity. “There’s this kind of heroism in the voice. It’s a clarion call in a way — a voice of self-love. That voice of self-love can be all kinds of things, some kind of inner child voice, or a God voice — whatever you want to call it.”
Throughout its 47 minutes, Freedom goes on an odyssey, time-traveling and telling the stories of others before coming back to McMahon’s personal journey. But if there is any single dominant theme on Freedom, it is that of self-love, and granting the self-emancipation from doubt and hesitation.
“The whole thing is an embodying of true self,” McMahon says of the album. “There’s lot of different ways that you can get there, but it’s sort of a public display of my expression of that journey. It’s almost like my reflection on it.”
Cabral explored similar terrain in assembling her Sacred Bones debut, Mazy Fly. While her 2017 LP Pantheon of Me was a swirling spiral into the self guided by looping instruments and vocals, one goal for Mazy Fly was expanding those horizons beyond self-sufficiency alone. “I’ve steered away from doing [looping] live,” Cabral says. “I found like it was kind of a crutch for me starting out, finding my sound. But I’ve evolved away from it as I’ve discovered more about what I want to do.”
That path of discovery has been a winding one. “Haunted Waters” is a dark, thoughtful dwelling on the history and legacy of the Middle Passage. One track later, “Hard To Please” is, at two minutes flat, a banger dance track about romance and unfulfillment.
“A lot of the songs delve into, not opposing, but an expansive spectrum of ideas, inspirations, mostly stemming from my dreams,” Cabral says. “I think ultimately it’s about a form of retrieval, reaching inside of myself and retrieving a part of me, reaching for those parts of you to really be your true self. I think that’s what allows all of these things to sit side by side.”
On her upcoming tour, Cabral will bring along three instrumentalists: drummer Janak Preston, as well as a violinist and a saxophonist. “I’ve never worked well with others in the creative process — I’ve approached it very cautiously,” Cabral says. “But working with Janak was the first time I thought, ‘Wow this would really be something successful.’”
This year, collaboration was a major theme for Amen Dunes as well. McMahon’s first pass at Freedom was drafted in 2016, but over the course of many months, he let his team bring their own edge to the mixture. “A lot of songs didn’t have the same order or sequencing — bone structure wasn’t as good,” McMahon remembers. “Making the record isn’t like making a movie where you need a million people, but you do need a lot of people, especially if you are using any kind of band format. It’s just about these guys getting inspired and bringing the group effort.”
And thus, 2019 begins with a Sacred Bones cinematic universe tag team — a label stalwart and a new signee with no line on the horizon in sight. At the intersection of collaboration, vision, and innovation, Amen Dunes and SPELLLING each, in their own way, give us a sense of the freedom they’ve found in their astounding work.