Amen Dunes is the brainchild of musical wunderkind Damon McMahon. A few days ago he was kind enough to call me from the road, on the third day of their summer tour for the new album Love. We had a lovely talk filled with laughter and human understanding, then hours later I spilled beer on my computer and all was lost. The audio file of the interview, the research I did in prepping for this article, even the list of questions I asked. All gone. Never did I think this would be the way alcohol would ruin an assignment of mine, but Monday was a day full of surprises.
Where do we go from here? How do I write an interview without quotes? Do people just take my word that this all happened and wasn't just some fever dream?
But then I remembered that Damon McMahon often talks about a dream he had where Jerry Garcia appeared to him and confirmed his musical path. So I decided to employ the acronym WWDMD and just write the article anyway. An interview without any quotes from the person being interviewed sounds just meta and odd enough that I feel like it is something McMahon would do.
Talking to him I was surprised by how happy and relaxed he sounded. From the scores of interviews I read with him prior, he seemed preoccupied with what I coined 'dark unrest' but unfortunately that part of the interview was when their bus was going through a tunnel so he kept saying, "What? Dark What? Who's Emily?" He often hints at an unhappy childhood, which he has described as "gothic" and he both lived in and traveled to China during significant (at times violent) political dissent. Describing Amen Dunes albums prior to Love, he has eagerly agreed that the music was hateful, aggressive, even vicious.
Which is why I was so pleasantly surprised to hear this person on the other end of the phone talking about how much they love to watch Tim and Eric, and telling me about his first birthday when he moved to China (22?) where he ate mooncake in the basement of a building with a bunch of Chinese scientists (?-This is where the quotes would have come in handy) and laughing at my jokes about Sarah Jessica Parker.
With a thoughtful approach to almost everything (even Sarah Jessica Parker) it is no surprise that Love is so considered. The songs have a unifying quality but are each their own sound. Oddly, McMahon's voice often adds rather than detracts to the variation between tracks. At times he sounds like a craggy Bob Dylan, crooning poetry over a nodding beat (Lilac in Hand), other times like a retro punk front man who mellowed out a little bit over the years (I Can't Dig It) still other times, a British very self-aware goat (I Know Myself). A wonderful goat! A cool goat. A goat that 'gets it.'
He's cited many varied influences over the years from Sam Cooke and Van Morrison to Aphex Twin. Cherry-picking what I thought would be the funnest combination of these, I asked what he would do if he could plan a day for himself, Emily Dickinson and Marvin Gaye. Initially he said have a picnic and go swimming in a lake, but almost immediately after he redacted and said, "No. We would ride roller coasters and eat ice cream." In an interesting revelation I realized this is the perfect current metaphorical representation of Amen Dunes- the self-imposed seclusion of Emily Dickinson speaks to the creation process: (this album was more of a collaboration with members of Iceage and Godspeed You! Black Emperor) but all previous records have been the result of very solitary recording sessions. Marvin Gaye, with his finger on the pulse of what happiness and heartbreak sound like, echoes the emotional pull these albums have. There is such a representation of the emotional spectrum often it's hard to single out any one feeling for a song, they're all a little bit of everything. Ice cream with it's sugary wide appeal is how palatable and familiar these songs sound even if you're hearing them for the first time. The roller coaster of course is the ups and downs of the lyrical intellectualism. With lines like, "call me when you're sad/it's too easy to live the night" and "…but it's still you I remember/did you know I could move out tonight?" we are weaving in and out of McMahon's relationships with almost no contextual navigation, but it all feels like progress.
Something tells me though, McMahon wouldn't like that metaphor- the intellectualizing of songs he seems to simply experience. His music theory seems simply to be trying to preserve the honesty of those experiences in their retellings. He doesn't ruminate endlessly on chords and melodies, he plays what he feels and within a set limitation, each song is finished.
This method lends a rawness to the music making the songs feel recently realized, which adds to their charm. In trying to give voice to this baser instinct I asked him my favorite question fo the interview, "What's the most disgusting thing you've ever done?" and he wouldn't tell me but he did tell me the most disgusting thing that's happened to them on tour. Someone broke into their van window with a brick to shit on the passenger seat. They didn't steal anything or vandalize the car, simply pooped and left. As if they were leaving the world's most disgusting calling card.
This was a funny image that I appreciated because it reminded me that the music exists outside these website reviews or cramped shows or a Youtube tab, it's just a bunch of dudes (perhaps ladies too-I'm uncertain) in a van, driving and sometimes having to clean up shit. McMahon and I talked about how things are defined by their opposite- if you never play a bad show you don't appreciate the good shows- and this was a perfect bookend to that discussion of his music. Because it's so beautiful I'm happy to offer it to everyone alongside figurative shit to make us all appreciate it more.
Online everyone keeps commenting on how different the songs sound live, so I'm excited to see them perform. And to hear of/read about more disgusting stories from the road.