I met Damon McMahon at my favorite Greenpoint dive bar- but his timing was a bit unfortunate. McMahon narrowly missed an elderly couple slow dancing sweetly to Patsy Cline as they head off into the January cold together. “I Fall to Pieces” is still blaring from the jukebox as he arrives, so close. Moments like that are why I wanted to bring him here; instinctively assuming that would be the sort of scene that he might appreciate.
I work on my gin and soda, a little shy to start the interview, worried that somehow I have gotten his music all wrong. Amen Dunes has had a grip on me since I first heard his latest full-length, Love. His music touched me on some supreme level; I find it truly moving, rare, altering. Finally speaking to McMahon gave me insight into his world. His songs are his children. He cares about his music and is masterfully meticulous to every detail. He does see music as a sort of drug, a tool that can detach you from the world or connect you more to it, take you to other places inside your self. As a musician who has worked over ten years on his project, he has learned a bit about himself and has had some strange encounters along the way. Amen Dunes most recently released the Cowboy Worship EP, which includes alternative cuts of previously released material along with a hypnotizing cover of “Song to the Siren”. After both of us spent a few months on the road chasing that cowboy dream, I’ve finally had a chance to share our conversation, which spans everything from fantasy and survival to one man’s attempt to convert him to Islam on New Years eve in Lisbon.
I know that you just got back from tour a couple of days ago. It seems like you have been touring a great deal in the past year. This might feel like a sort of vague question, but what was your most recent experience on the road like?
I did so much touring this year. Seven tours. Four European ones and three US tours. My relationship to the road kept changing. I used to be really excited by touring and being in new places… But to be honest, I just got real tired of it. I try to give off a lot of energy when I play and there came a point that I just didn’t want to give off any energy anymore. I am appreciative that people wanted us to play so much this year and I was appreciative of the chance to play for so many people, but at the end, I was just trying to survive. I was just trying to get through and function.
So it is not quite as romantic as believing that today’s touring musician is the closest thing that we have to the modern cowboy?
You are like a modern cowboy, but that it is a kind of monotonous existence in itself. The romantic thing about being a cowboy is persevering. That is what is cool about it. They sang songs about monotony. So that is an accurate parallel.
So is that what life is? Monotony? If you have a 9-5 job in an office you succumb to monotony but also if you are out on the road it’s also monotony… Can we escape that in our lives and manage to feed ourselves?
That is part of life. But I think what is different about being on the road from everyday existence is that you lose yourself. It is difficult but kind of cool. Sometimes I would have to play this Amen Dunes role with people and that would just sort of evaporate my identity. You are in a different city every night. You forget where you are, you forget who you are. It’s like normal life just a little more strange…
Is it strange to be disconnected from yourself, in this way, while playing music that is so strictly yourself?
It is weird. But I think total honesty is not my everyday self either.
Yeah, I don’t think that is anyone’s everyday self.
My music is personal, and it is tapped in to something, but that is not exactly me. It is a parallel me. It is the multi-dimensional, cosmic brain me.
No! There is a curated element to some aspects, but the music is authentic.
Amen Dunes is 100% authentic?
Fuck yeah, it is! But of course you have to dress it up. And you can give it overalls or you can put it in a policeman’s outfit. The core is authentic, and it is me, but it is an elevated me. I guess that is what I mean. A higher self. So in that way, it is not the normal me. I definitely have multiple selves, especially when it comes to music.
Do you find that music is close to divinity for you?
Totally. It is my way of exiting this world. It is one of my methods.
There seem to have been a lot of instances of fearless abandon in your life. Do you believe that these were moments of bravery or recklessness? Is there a destructive streak in your willingness to abandon everything to do whatever you feel that you need to do?
I wouldn’t say it is bravery. Bravery is something noble. But maybe it is brave because sometimes in that way of living you need to have the willingness to give yourself up to really extreme circumstances, and that takes a little bit of fearlessness I suppose. But my whole life I have loved to be subjected to extremity. I’ve always love extremity in music, behavior, circumstance. I have always treated myself like a lab rat.
I feel like I do that to myself. There are only really specific circumstances that I feel comfortable seeking the extreme. But being in actual danger, for instance, makes me very, very nervous. It sort of seems like you have put yourself into literal war zones…
I used to be more like that… When I was younger, I was a whole different animal. That period of my life spilled into the first couple Amen Dunes records. I think the whole cowboy analogy is not as reckless a way of existing. To me, if is more about stoicism, loss of self. Some sort of calm. That is more of my current vibe, more so than recklessness or danger.
I mean, a cowboy always keeps his cool. That is what is attractive about them.
Yeah, they deal with hardship in a stoic way and I find that really compelling. My whole life I have looked up to these figures because of their ability to deal with hardship.
In dealing with hardships recently, do you think these figures that you looked up to helped you at all?
Because you write about all these different characters that are all you, I was wondering if you have a favorite character.
They are all different aliens. They are also not characters in a traditional sense. I was talking to a writer friend recently and she said characters just come to her fully formed with their own lives and she just documents their existence. These characters of mine are not like that. They don’t have faces or personalities. They are non-entities.
I guess I am coming from a writer’s perspective and assuming that “Lonely Richard” is a clear vision of a person.
No, my characters are about as close to a formed character as weather patterns are. All the characters are kind of like parts of me, but they are also just spirits. They have names, but the names are not that important. For example, I think “Lonely Richard” is a stupid name for a song, There is also a song named Diane. I think that is the worst name. But I just had to use those names because they were what came to me, those were the names that embodied the spirit. Sometimes the words I use are important, but sometimes they are just abstractions that carry energy. The only way I can really explain the characters is that they are a way for me to sing to me. This other me is an elevated and less human self, and so he uses abstracted ways of singing to me. The characters come to me in that voice, and that is why they are half formed. When I sing and write songs, it is coming from a person other than the day to day me.
Beyond this lack of traditional narrative… Your music has always struck me in a very cinematic way. There are certain records that I only listen to on record or on tape, in my room, really loud and when I am alone. I felt like Love was a record that I had to listen to on headphones, out in the world and walking around. There was something about the music that allowed me to step outside of my body. Instead of feeling how I was feeling in some straight forward way, I could look at people and time and space in this very removed and movie like way. It is difficult to put that feeling into words, but it made the record very special to me. I was wondering if you think that your music possess this quality? Also, do you think that your music has acted as a score to your own life?
Do you mean in the sense that I am a passive participant? Or that it is representation of my life?
I suppose both, but more so a representation. Album to album.
I suppose these records represent different states of mind that I have been in as I have gotten older and have certainly represented different periods of my life. There was stuff that was happening to me while I was writing the different records over the course my life, but I don’t think I was really singing about those circumstances, it would seep in abstractly. Each record represents a time in my life more broadly, but the last record was largely about other people specifically. That was new. Overall the albums have been used by me as tools to survive. Also so much of my music is about revenge. The older records were more overtly retribution records. Love was the first record that had a partial shift, on that one I felt open to other people for the first time. I have always kind of disliked people, ha. But I worked on being generous to other people and it was recorded during the first period in my life that I felt open to other people and humanity.
You finally broke outside of yourself?
Yes! And the other records were all just about me, very inward. The other records were survivals tools, or survival pills. Little tool kits. Love was more open, and I wanted to make something that was more open. Even if coincidentally.
I think it is interesting that you would think this is an album about other people when I related to the album as a way of escaping myself. I would be going to work really tired on the subway and looking at other people’s faces and … It may seem simple, but it didn’t feel simple to me. I can’t describe what it felt like for me to be in public and listen to Love. It allowed me to float through my experience and observe and write my own little stories… It always felt outward. But I felt connected to the public, which is an experience I don’t normally feel.
That’s good, that is what it is for. When I write songs or listen to rough versions of my songs or overdubs, the way that I checked the music to see if it was working, was to walk around in public and see if it made things look good. That is how I write songs. I walk around and look at people and if my songs make the world and people look cool, than they are working. If my songs don’t make the world look better, they are not working.
Are there other artists that have informed your particular way of looking at an album?
At this point, I am inspired by so many different things. For me, I think I approach music through my own little world, somewhat in isolation. I only think about other bands really subtly and abstractly when making my music.
I guess I am asking if my experience with Love reminds you of your own with other artists?
Ah, totally. One of my my favorite records of all times is Illmatic (Nas), and it has that effect on me that you are describing with yourself.
I definitely have a really scratched up copy of the Illmatic CD somewhere in my collection…
To this day, I listen to that… almost more than anything. I go through periods that I listen to that record at least once a week and it will insulate me from the world. Allow me to reflect on the world. My relationship with the world changes when I listen to that record. All of my favorite records make me change in the world when I am listening to them. The number one artist who really affects me in that way is Bob Dylan. He is my holy grail. I have a really abstract relationship to him that it is no longer even about his music. Certain periods of his music hit me like intravenous medicine. When I listen to him while out in the world it changes my nature and my biochemistry. When I listen to Bob Dylan, I become a different person and so he is a prototype to me…
In relation to different selves, you are back in New York City and there has to be a reason you have returned. What is the best thing about New York City?
Hands down, I know, right away: Delis. I think about this all the time: what is actually good about New York? Since- to be honest- I am not crazy about New York. Cheap Bazzini nuts, one dollar Poland Spring water and Orbit gum. Number two is driving. I have thought about this before. I used to hate New York so much that I would think about what keeps me here and it is pretty much Delis, driving and then pizza. Those are my favorite things about New York. And I really like Film Forum.
Ah, yes. I used to work a couple blocks away from Film Forum and IFC and whenever I had a shit day at work and couldn’t bear to do anything else I would just go there alone, all the time.
It feels good to go alone.
I know it took you about two years to record Love. Are fans going to have to wait that long until the next record?
How are you approaching the new material?
I think this one will be quick. I think it will be out by this time next year. The plan is to record it all in the late spring in New York and mix it this summer. I hate to hear myself say that, as it’s a tight schedule,but that is what I am going to do. I normally like to move really slow. But now I have to choose the final songs in the next two weeks and then I have a month to get everything ready… I have the album title, I have the sound. It is going to be very different. I want to make every record very different. My vibe on the next one… is like a spiritual punk record. Maybe some distant Amen Dunes version of Warsaw (pre-Joy Division). I have been listening to Warsaw on repeat for some reason for the last month or two. I have always loved them, their music, that general world… but have never been able to release anything of that nature.
OH MY FUCKING GOD I AM SO EXCITED.
My goal is… A country, American… mellowed out version of Warsaw, for about 60% of the record. Then a couple pretty songs. But a lot of electric guitar and bass. I’ve always wanted to be in a band. I am so sick of not being in a band. Next thing will be a four piece, with electric guitar and bass and drums. The new record will be more lean, muscular.
So do you think the new record will be recorded closer to your anticipation of live shows?
Yes, totally. I am ready for a band. I have always wanted to be in Husker Du Or something like that. Guitar, bass and drums. That has always been a fantasy. Like just ripping, free… The other thing I have been listening to on repeat is Nirvana. I want to be in a poppy, melodic and heavy band. The other analogy is a record that sounds like country Nirvana. I want to do my version of that world.
I was really pleased to hear that you like your voice. I believe that you should but I am wondering if you think the best artists don’t have to love themselves but know they are good. Do you consider yourself a confident person?
No. I am pretty insecure in general, in the world. I’ve never felt comfortable with humans. The only thing that I am confident about is my music. But I am at the same time surprised when anyone likes my music. At this point, I don’t even know what my own music really even sounds like. Sometimes my perspective or sense of my musical self is so abstracted, I don’t even know how to really talk about it, in a context like this.
But is your own music what governs your life?
Yes, it is my main purpose on this planet. I think of my songs as my children. So I am confident in the sense that making music is good for me. I am confident in my music because I know it is good for me, I know it is what I was put here to do.
But it is true that you tried to stop making music, but it didn’t work?
Yes, I was so burnt. I felt empty. And when I came back to New York to do Amen Dunes in 2009 I felt scared to re-enter the world of ambition…social media, Et cetera. Still to this very day I am reluctant to have to enter that world and yet I have to. It makes me happiest to just listen to my songs on a voice memo on my phone. I still prefer that to anything.
Do things become less pure when you press it to record?
Sort of, since it rubs up against business, ambition, people’s online spouting of opinions. But one thing I like about pressing records is people accessing my music and feeling good as a result. The fact that people feel good in their lives when listening to my music is amazing.
You hit other people and change their lives…
I’m so grateful for it. I feel like I may be of service to some. I don’t know how many people but I love that element of being active in the world. But when it comes to the core pleasure of being alone and listening to what I do in a private scale… That is when my music feels the best, the purest, like straight drugs. Something is lost when it enters other contexts.
Well, to me, when I saw that you were covering This Mortal Coil…Covering Tim Buckley… I thought of that as an incredibly bold move. There are few voices that I can compare to Elizabeth Fraser’s voice. It made me wonder if you are intimidated by your aspirations or just do what you want to do?
I was also considering covering “Knocking on Heaven’s door” and I was going to do it unironically. I wanted to do it because I thought it was beautiful. I don’t think in terms of whether I can do it or not, but just… do I like it?
In that sense, it seems that you are willing to try. Has that always been your inherent personality, or have you had to work through things to find yourself at a point that you are willing to try?
I’ve had to work through it all. I’ve gotten kicked in the balls so many times with music and I developed a thick skin. I had a band with my brother when we were younger and it was kind of a disaster and it was hard on my self-esteem. It is hard to be yourself in the public and be criticized. Then I did a solo record and it was brutally destroyed, If you ever feel badly about yourself you should read the reviews of my first solo record and you will feel better about yourself. I had my ego so crushed that the only thing that was left was to make music, in that case the D.I.A. record, for myself to comfort myself. With Amen Dunes, I began to comfort myself. By virtue of this band comforting me, it seems that it has comforted some other people too. But it’s all meant to comfort me, really. It all starts there. You just have to love yourself and make music to help you go to bed at night. That is what it’s all about. That is what I do it all for. No one can hurt me or take me down when that is my intention. But I am a human, and I am a Virgo, ha, and I have to participate in the world. So it hurts part of me when people don’t understand.
Well, it’s funny because someone might be capable of understanding your music while also misinterpreting it. I remember first hearing “Lilac in Hand” and having my own understanding of what was happening and then reading you say that quite frankly it was “obviously” about copping drugs, and I never would have interpreted the song that way. After knowing that all, it was obvious, but I sort of imagined that song as some sort of first date romantic gesture or a grasping at straws for a deep relationship gone sour. It all made more sense afterwards, but I felt sort of silly.
I didn’t mean to say “obviously”. I was just saying that ‘that is what it is about’.
How does it feel to be misinterpreted?
Well, maybe I have unfair expectations of people. It is not realistic of people listening to something on their computer once to…
Ugh, that is not fair to you also but…
True, but I just can’t except people to know what I am on about. I can’t except people to understand, but it is sad to me. I put so much thought into every little aspect of what I do and it is partially because I am emulating music that I loved as a kid that had that same detail-oriented approach. I find that people often don’t listen to music that way, sadly. I put a lot of care into what I do. I know, big deal, but I really care about all of the elements of the pie.
No store bought crust!
Ha, yeah! No store bought crust! And so every detail means a lot to me, and one of the biggest things is lyrics. Especially on the last record, and I think that no one notices them, which bums me out, to be honest. I wouldn’t expect anyone to know what “Lilac in Hand” is about, but I wish that people would ask, or at least read them to find out. When I had records as a kid, that was all I cared about. What do the lyrics mean? What does that photo mean? Why did he choose to wear that shirt? I come from that sort of place and I try to replicate that but people often don’t seem to care or approach music that way anymore.
At the same time, I am so curious about lyrics and love poetry and am preoccupied with language and elements of your message are lost on me. Does that say more about the artistic process or about people receiving it?
I need to remind myself that everyone processes thing individually. When people love something it becomes really particular or attached to their own experience with it.
How do you feel when someone cares about your music but does not interpret it how you imagined?
I guess ultimately I just want people to care about it in some way. I can’t have it all my way, with everyone totally “getting it”, though that is my dream…but mostly people don’t give a shit at all. So if someone thinks “Lilac in Hand” is about marriage, then that is beautiful too, even though it is about copping in New York. As long as they think about it in some way, because I think so much about it and it is thoughtful music.
What are you most proud of?
In general, I guess I am most proud of trying to have a good attitude and trying to be loving and positive despite whatever the reality is in my life. I am most proud of being grateful of things in my life and loving to people and to be able to make music that comforts me. Proud is maybe the wrong word for that but… I would say I’m proud of my records. I love them and I think they are special. Like someone would love their kids. In particular, I was really proud of that song “Love”.
What about “Love” makes you proud?
I spent a lot of time writing that song, the lyrics are basically my best, I would say and it hits on an emotional level that I am proud of. Also, I am really proud of the vocal delivery. The other songs just came to me more quickly and felt immediate. I suppose I was a little more lazy with them, and impatient.
I love the fact that it took you two years to do the last record and talk about songs as “just coming to you”.
I’m pretty obsessive. I spent two weeks revising the lyrics to Love. It is hard to talk about though, because it is so subconscious, and I don’t have much of a sense of “my” having done it ,if that makes any sense.
You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to, but you allude to drug use pretty constantly in your work and in interviews. I was wondering if drugs were still a part of your life and creative process.
Drugs will always be a part of my life. I think drugs are amazing and through my life they have provided similar feelings to the feelings that music has provided. There has never been that much of a distinction between music and drugs for me. Music and drugs are intertwined and I have never been able to separate them, my whole life. I have profound respect for both.
If you use music as a way to get to know yourself better or bring yourself outwards, I am just wondering if that is how you have used drugs?
With Amen Dunes, it is a loss of self thing… I have always had an unspoken purpose. I needed to make music that felt like narcotics. That is always what I have wanted: to make music that sounded and felt like narcotics have felt. I don’t feel like anything is beautiful unless it is gnarly too. I think drugs are beautiful, but they are gnarly too. Beautiful art is beautiful, but it is also a bit gnarly too. Life is beautiful but it also has a little but of a nasty side to it. That is what I find profound and good and inspiring and awesome. That is why drugs and music are related to me. I never want anything to be too pretty, even when it is beautiful. It has to be balanced. If something is beautiful it also has to be sad and it has to be tough. Songs should be an emotional full meal. That is why music is like drugs to me. Even when you feel really good on drugs, there is always a come down, there is always some sickness in it, and I love that.
When you alter your reality, it can never be a fully positive experience yet there is a human need to alter our realities to survive.
The musicians that I was into when I was growing up were either into drugs or their music felt like drugs. You can get high on music. That explains my relationship to drugs. They are weirdly the same. Sometimes I sing about drugs, sometimes my words metaphysically feel like drugs.
People try to find a euphoric and drug-like alternative to their reality even when they stop doing drugs. Like surfing or fighting…
Some people have a profound need to get outside of themselves, and I am one of those people. Some people have a death wish. And I have a death wish. So I always want my music to have that death wish blended into it’s emotion as well, it has to be the unspoken message behind it all. If people listen carefully or are hip to that kind of thing in general I think they can hear it [in my music].
Aside from music, how do you get outside of yourself?
These days, I just grow more and more outside of myself. It’s just happening, in a good way. Last year in particular, I was working on extinguishing myself.
Do you think that people could survive without fantasy?
No. Noooo. I guess that some people do? But the truth is that fantasy is a detriment to my own life. I have too much of it. I guess some people have no fantasy?
You think that there are people who never get outside of themselves?
I think there are people who are really straight . I don’t understand it at all. Black is black, white is white.
What, do they do just go to work and go to the bathroom?
I guess they just want to have sex with a person and make money. And I think a lot of people are like that. They have small fantasies. They just want to go on vacation. Other people have heavy doses of fantasies, and I am like that. Too much. But I think that fantasy is fun to play with.
Do you think that fantasy is fun? Or more of a coping mechanism?
Well, obviously fantasy is a way of coping with reality. I try to stay away from fantasy though.
Because I think that I can get higher off reality than fantasy if I remember to try.
What in your life is the most poisonous? What poses the biggest threat to your being?
What is the most pure?
I can’t talk about it. [Thankfully, we were interrupted by someone offering us pizza]
This feels like a corny topical question but I am governed by the seasons… and we just entered a new year so I inherently become incredibly reflective. I don’t know if you feel the same way; but what was something about last year that made you happy? What do you wish for yourself in the new year?
A lot of people that I know died last year. Some of the deaths were sad and unfortunate and some of the deaths were beautiful. I have been thinking a lot about these people. I was also just proud that I toured so much, that people wanted us to play all over the world. I was just amazed. For me, it was quite a lot.
Was that the first time that touring happened to you on a large scale?
With Amen Dunes, yes. When I was a kid I had some bands that were IN a whole weird world that was artificially inflated. This feels like it happened naturally for Amen Dunes, and I am thankful for that. When it comes to touring, and looking into the new year, I need to connect to people more. I am a loner. I have a hard time with people. I spend too much time alone, I am trying to learn how to open up to people more. I also want to play with a bass player and I want to play louder, that’s another goal.
How did you ring in the new year?
I was in Southern Portugal, out in the country side. I was in this really bizarre, beautiful, mountainous part of the country. I was with some friends. We cooked dinner and played music all night. My Christmas Eve was insane…
How was that?
I met this Sufi musician in Lisbon and it was so far out. He was singing and playing harmonium in this club…he was totally checked out, but in a good way. I introduced myself, and we became friends. On Christmas Eve, I had nowhere to go and he invited me to go to his house for dinner. He and his friend from the Mosque down the road cooked me a traditional Bengali dinner. We sat on the floor and ate dinner together, and when we were done he said it was time for music. He sang all these ragas, and taught me some ragas as well. We sang together late into the morning. Until Christmas day, and it was amazing. His friend just sat there with his eyes closed on the ground next to me while we played, just nodding out. Then when it got really late he started talking to me about God and Islam… And I began to realize that he was really directing it at me, like he had a goal. He gave me a Quran and he told me to wash my hands and do the abultions and we could read it together and I could say that Allah is God and so on, and he wouldn’t let me leave, he tried to get me to sleep there… It was pretty heavy…He was trying to convert a Jewish kid to Islam on Christmas at one in the morning in the suburbs of Lisbon, Portugal. That was about as good as it gets for me.