When New York-based songwriter Damon McMahon, the man behind the shadowy, warbly pysch-folk of Amen Dunes, says he's lived a million musical lives, he's exaggerating only a little. He spent his early 20s in the buzz band INOUK, then embarked on an ill-fated folk career on the mostly electronic label Astralwerks.
As that fell apart, he began recording as Amen Dunes. Often likened to Skip Spence's OAR (McMahon name-drops Big Star's Third, as well), the songs are as meditative as they are thoroughly melodic. The songs represent more than a retreat from music business machinations; they are also honest reflections of McMahon as a songwriter and man, however veiled and obscured. We discussed the record, his time in China, and why he's ready to leave the freaky folk stuff behind and make another pop record.
Amen Dunes is scheduled to perform Tuesday, May 1, at Chasers in Scottsdale.
Up on the Sun: What are you up to today?
Damon McMahon: What am I doing? What am I doing? I have no idea. I was about eat an apple. That was my most immediate event.
Are you going to put off the apple eating until after the interview?
Well, if you don't mind, I might do it simultaneously.
That's absolutely fine with me. I was going to suggest that if you so desired, I would not be offended. I really like the new record, Through Donkey Jaw. It's the only one I've heard, except Mansions, which you released under your own name years ago.
Did you hear that back when it was released, or recently?
I heard it then. I worked in a record store when that album came out, and for whatever reason, the label printed up with the genre being "blues."
Oh, my God. Of course, it did. [Laughs]
So what happened was that record kept getting filed in our blues section. Generally speaking, blues is far from a dirty word for me . . .
But the white dudes that would get filed in that section could not be further from what that record sounded like or what you do.
This is your third release as Amen Dunes?
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Each record seems to have been preceded by a strange move. You went into the woods before releasing the first one, right?.
Yeah, in 2006. I rented a place upstate to record. The next one was in China.
So this one is you following a period of stability.
As far as location goes, yeah, totally. Mental stability? I don't know. The most recent one was after being in New York for a year and a half or so, after getting back from China.
I'm curious about China. You went over there with your guitar and played shows, but you didn't do so legally?
That was recently; That was my first time back in awhile. I lived there from 2007 to 2009. That's when I recorded the second Amen Dunes record, and then this winter, I went back to tour. I did a two-week tour there. [But when I lived there], I was doing all kinds of a things. I went over there to work for this Chinese record label. I wanted to start a subsidiary of that label for experimental Western music. That didn't' really work out, but I kept working for them, and I ended up taking odd jobs. I wrote some, like freelance, and basically lived really inexpensively and traveled as much as I could. I didn't work a ton, because I paid whatever it was a month for rent. It was pretty insignificant. I wasn't working so much as traveling and being in China and writing.
Are any of the songs from Through Donkey Jaw from that period?
A number of the songs on the new record I wrote in China. "Sunday," "Lower Mind," "Somewhere Behind Me..." Those songs were all written in China. And "Lezzy Head."
...even as abstract as they are, I do care about the lyrics as well. Everything is intentional. -- Damon McMahon, Amen Dunes
I really enjoy that one a lot. What does the title refer to?
That's a good question. Sometimes when I write - most the time when I write songs - I just pronounce the melody, and record that melody and the chords, and I listen back and try and put words to the sounds that I made. So, for whatever reason, "Lezzy Head" [is what I said] while singing that melody. I guess it's words that fit the feeling, imaginary words that fit the feeling.
I think that's a more common practice than people realize. Especially with something that's as intensely melodic as your record. There are moments where hearing the lyrics [doesn't matter]; the emotion is conveyed.
Totally. I really feel that the lyrics come through for a reason. People always think that you can't hear the lyrics and that I don't really care about them, but even as abstract as they are, I do care about the lyrics as well. Everything is intentional. On this record I put the lyrics in the liner notes too, because I wanted it to be more noticeable.
You're not just mumbling.
Totally, I care about that. Most people probably just download it off the internet and never see the lyric sheet.
Your work was not always tagged as "lo-fi." It's kind of common for artists to start off with a more lo-fidelity approach, and then as they progress clean up their sound. You almost took the opposite approach.
What attracts you to that kind of a sound?
I've had a million different lives in my musical life. I've had so many bands and existences that I went through this whole phase of being a really polished pop band back when I was 20, 21 . . . and then I did Mansions and it was on this big label and a proper studio, and I never had the chance to really be myself I think. After Mansions I just decidedly wanted to be in control of how things sounded. I wasn't on a label, I wasn't doing it because anyone told me I had a deadline. It's lo-fi because I'm doing it on my own. I'm trying to get on tape what is in my head. I just used whatever I was able to use, and that was a really simple tape machine. It's lo-fi because I was forced to make it lo-fi. I had never got the sound out of the studio that I liked. Everything sounded very sterile, and I like really raw music . . . this record is just really honest. I want things to sound cool of course, but . . .
You've been involved in the music industry for a long time, and knowing that, there does seem to be an element of retreating in these songs. Do you feel comfortable in this place? Is this where you want to be with your music, or could you foresee a record where it's a big pop record again?
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You know, I actually plan to make more of a pop record with the next one. I don't know man, I have lots of different sides. I love fucking pop music. I love really well-produced pop records. I was listening to Ocean Rain by Echo and The Bunnymen and it's like so fucking amazing. I would love to be able to make pop music again. I'm ready to put to rest this period of Amen Dunes.
I thought this was a pop record.
To be honest, it's kind of a lonely place. It's not super-glossy, not super-trendy, and I don't know . . . because of the kind of dusty murk of the record, I think it fails to reach a lot of people in a way. And I have no designs to make . . . I love beautiful melodies and a feel to the music. I thought this was a pop record. I think I want to create the vehicle for a pop record again. Something that's a little more complicated and produced. Long story short, I think I'm interested in going back in that direction. I love a lot of British songwriters from the '80s and '90s, who were influenced by the '60s. I love that shit, and I love that approach to songwriting. As much as I love the American rootsy stuff, my favorite kind of songwriting is that kind of a stuff.