Love is a gutsy name for an album. It's kind of like naming your album "religion" or "god" or "space." I personally struggle with the idea of love. It's all-encompassing idealization that may or may not be a myth. Does love exist? Can you wear it like a dusty jacket? Does it fly or slither? How old is it? It's personal and adaptable. Once you get to that malleable conclusion, it becomes a bit easier to walk in, stretched out like viscous lizard skin. Edible like cherry-flavored bouncy balls.
For reasons like this, it makes sense for the most recent Amen Dunes record to be called Love. Damon McMahon's new collection of eleven songs is something noticeably spiritual within the first few phrases and musical turns. It's like you shook the earth and saw all the dust rise. I'm waxing romantic, but for some reason, it's hard not to, and it boils down to the fact that Damon is out for big game. What does it mean to be a person and what part of that matters? Damon asks questions that beg misty ghost-colored answers. I find myself breathing into cold windows to watch the condensation - do the wet off-white speckles prove my existence?
Amen Dunes plays a mixture of folk, psychedelic something, and rock that seems to come and go with the wind. There is something natural within the words and feelings if you haven't gotten that yet. And let's be perfectly clear. This is special music. You can follow the band on their Facebook Page and you should buy the new album Love either at your local record shop or at the Sacred Bones website. Amen Dunes play Chicago on July 17 at The Constellation so be sure to check that out!
Jordan: Where are you guys playing in L.A.?
Damon: We’re playing at a place called Complex.
J: I don’t think I’ve ever been there.
D: I think it’s a new spot that people are playing after the Church on York closed.
J: Yeah, I was at that last Church on York show.
D: What was the last show?
J: Haxan Cloak and Pharmakon.
D: Oh Cool. Pharmakon is great live.
J: Yeah, she’s kind of intimidating to be honest.
D: Yeah, she’s super intense and great.
J: So tell me how the tour has been going so far.
D: It’s been good – we’ve had some van trouble, but overall it’s been positive. Canada, Detroit, and Boston were particularly great.
J: Who have you guys played with?
D: Well, we’ve been doing this whole tour with Axxa/Abraxas.
J: Are they on Captured Tracks?
J: I haven’t heard their stuff yet, but I know you’re coming through Chicago so I’ll see you guys then.
D: They’re good – they sound like Dead Moon or something.
J: That’s like one of my favorite bands of all time.
D: Yeah, they’re like a southwest Dead Moon. I don’t know if they sound different on record, but that’s
how they sound live.
J: So what have you guys been listening to in the van?
D: We only had the radio for a while, so we hadn’t been listening too much to anything for a bit. The past couple of days have had us listening to Mickey Newbury. He was an early 70s Nashville guy – very good for driving through America in dust storms.
J: Tell me a little bit about recording and writing Love?
D: In what aspect?
J: How did you start writing the collection of songs that eventually ended up on it?
D: Well, some of these songs I wrote a while ago like over the last two years. It was a long process over time where I would listen to demos and come up with arrangements. Me, Jordi, and Parker would work through the ideas. Then we went to Montreal to track the basics before heading to Brooklyn to do some overdubs and then we had a bunch of months of mixing. The whole process lasted about a year.
J: Where did you record and mix in Brooklyn?
D: This place called Trout Recording with his guy Bryce Goggin. They did the last Swans record there.
J: Had you used the guy before?
D: No, but Parker knew him so he made the necessary introductions for us.
J: What’s the song “Lonely Richard” about?
D: It’s hard to say what it’s about. I think that one in general is harder to say what it’s about. It’s a bit of a self-portrait in addition to self-exploration. It talks about a guy who is aware of himself and I’m trying to talk about what that awareness is. Being in contact with other things. There’s a difference between creatures of earth and others. It’s about faraway places and having a connection with that.
J: As a human being?
D: Yeah, as a human being, but connecting with non-human beings or your own non-human being. I told you it was hard to talk about (laughs).
J: I listen to it all the time. For some reason, it really hits home, so I was very curious about it.
D: Yeah, I don’t know if you saw the lyrics sheet, but it kind of lays it out in a way. It’s a sort of character portrait.
J: Of yourself?
D: I think it is, but it’s also anyone who identifies with it. Anyone who is a composite creature.
J: Do you find yourself to be a spiritual person?
D: In my own way, definitely.
J: What do you think in your own life reflects your spirituality?
D: Probably my songwriting – that’s the most clear outward manifestation I think – it’s also the easiest way to access it.
J: Do you think art is inherently spiritual?
D: No. I think it can be done like that, but it isn’t necessarily that way. There are a lot of people who make art for different reasons. Some people do it for money. Some people do it to be cool. Some people do it for attention or to find themselves.
J: It’s one of those things that’s both individual and…I don’t want to say composite but…group-oriented.
J: What about the live rendering of Amen Dunes?
D: Well, we try and convey what’s on the record. Even though the record has overdubs and stuff, most of the songs really boil down to three instruments. Doing it live is not that difficult actually. I thought it would be harder, but we can bring out the core elements pretty easily.
J: You’ve been touring a lot lately. Even before Love came out, you were touring with Mac Demarco, right?
D: Yeah – I went out with him a couple times.
J: I was a little surprised by that lineup. How did you guys get connected?
D: He reached out to us to go on tour with him. I guess he was a fan. It was a little bit of an odd pairing just because his audience is very different from our typical audience. I think in the bigger cities it worked well, though. Oftentimes, I would be playing to people who wouldn’t really know what we were about.
J: You were with my friend Cory during that, weren’t you?
D: Totally. Cory did the Mac tour.
J: How did you guys get linked up? I was surprised by that too.
D: Yeah, he plays in Cult of Youth on Sacred Bones.
J: Yeah, Sean’s a buddy of mine too.
D: Oh cool. Yeah, we had to find someone to play drums pretty much last minute so Cory sort of miraculously appeared and was super down to do it in addition to being a great drummer so he just sort of came on board. It was awesome.
J: It seems that people on Sacred Bones kind of fill in for each other pretty easily. A lot of people will record or overdub at Heaven Street. It seems like a more collaborative label.
D: It is, man. I would say that Sacred Bones is a great operation in that way. It is kind of family-oriented. I think most of the bands have mutual respect for one another. There’s more of a connection with that label between bands then with bands on other labels.
J: Have you worked with other labels? I know you put Spoilers out on your own.
D: Yeah, I’ve worked with lots of labels. I had a band when I was a kid and we were on like three different labels and then I did a solo record that was on another. The first Amen Dunes record was on another label and I’ve released seven-inches and singles on other labels too. In all my experience, I really do think that Sacred Bones is one of the best.
J: That’s cool to see that a label that’s so all across the board with releases from like Human Eye to Pharmakon.
D: It’s definitely diverse and I think that’s important.
J: I completely agree. I personally think that mixed bills are the best way to go for music. If you just get into one genre, it kind of defeats the purpose of music at all.
D: I totally agree. I love playing with bands that are different from us. Amen Dunes is cool because it can fit in with a lot of different styles of music. I think you have to be somewhat open-minded to see the connections, but it is somewhat malleable.
J: What’s the craziest pair that you guys have played with?
D: That was great, man. It was a great honor.
J: I body-guarded for him once.
D: You did? That’s funny.
J: Didn’t stop a smoke bomb from going off though. It was me and my friend Jeffrey – I think you met him at the Chicago show. We were body-guarding and neither one of us realized what had happened and sure enough, someone had used a smoke bomb.
D: Whoa. Was it friendly or not friendly?
J: I think it was supposed to be unfriendly but I actually thought it kind of added to the show.
D: Someone threw a smoke bomb when we played on the Fourth of July.
J: Why did they do that?
D: I don’t know (laughs). To add to the ambiance?
J: I guess that was…nice of them?
D: Yeah. It was cool – it added to the vibe for sure.
J: Do you guys have a visual element when you perform?
D: No – I would like to, and I wish we did have a visual element, but I haven’t gotten that together. I think it really helps when a band has that. I think it can also be a gimmick, though. There are bands that you’ll see that have a visual element where it’s their whole shtick, but it can also totally add to the performance too.
J: Totally. Like Mark McGuire – have you ever seen him?
D: I haven’t – does he do visuals.
J: Yeah, he’s got that new age vibe but not in a douchey way. There’s a backdrop and there are sometimes voiceovers about our world or self-actualization. One of my friends was like “Oh man, that was weird” and all I could think was “I just learned a shit ton from that.”
D: That’s cool. I’d like to do that and I like it when people go out on a limb with that.
J: If someone had a gun to your head and asked you what your backdrop would be, what would it be?
D: I’d like to play in front of the right kind of movie. I think the music is already kind of like that in a way. It’s somewhat cinematic. Playing in front of a good movie would rule.
J: Are you a fan of film?
J: What are some of your go-to favorite movies and directors?
D: Probably my favorite director is John Cassavetes. As far as favorite movies, I would say the movie My Dinner with Andre is there. I like Diary of a Country Priest and a lot of Truffaut movies. A whole bunch of stuff.
J: I’ve never seen it.
D: It’s great. It’s about an actor and a director who haven’t seen each other for like ten years and they get dinner and just catch up. It’s really simple, but it’s also really great. My favorite Cassavetes movie is probably A Woman Under the Influence. Have you seen that?
J: No, I haven’t seen that either!
D: Oh, it’s the best. For a while, that is what I wanted Amen Dunes to be –I wanted it to be that movie. You have to see it – it’s incredible. Gena Rowlands is in it, who’s Cassavetes’ wife, is the lead in it.
J: Do you know the band Wrekmeister Harmonies?
J: The first time I saw him/them, he had Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages on in the backdrop and it was a small screen, but it really worked, in addition to being just a great movie anyway.
D: I love to see bands do that.
J: Can you think of any good examples of bands who you’ve seen do that?
D: Yeah, there was this band Launau who performed by herself and it was mesmerizing. She played an old Finnish movie behind her and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen.
J: I love asking interview about stuff like this – I’m always looking to broaden my horizons. Do you read a lot too?
D: Yeah, I like to read a lot. I’m probably more interested in that world than music actually. I just feel like there’s more to learn in writing. Music, especially rock, is a little bit limited. At a certain point in time, it becomes harder to find something new. Over time, if you’re really curious, it becomes hard to find something new that you haven’t heard before, but with writers there is always just so much stuff that I haven’t read.
J: Do you write as well?
D: I do. That’s my other passion. I’d like to do more of it.
J: Have you ever written a novel?
D: I’m about halfway through one – it’s not really a novel. I used to live in China. I’ve been writing this thing since 2007 about my time in China. I’ve yet to finish it, but I’ve been working on it for a long time.
J: How was China?
D: It was incredible. It was the best. I think about it all the time.
J: I’ve never been to Asia. I would love to travel there – I’m a bit of a Japanophile.
D: Japan’s amazing.
J: You’ve been there too?
D: Yeah, I haven’t spent extended periods of time there, but when you go to China, there’s often a layover in Tokyo. I always take advantage of that and I have friends who live there so I get to hang around.
J: So what were you doing in China?
D: I was trying to get out of New York and take a break from music actually. I can speak Chinese, though, and I had studied Chinese for a while before I left, so I was already somewhat connected. I found a job there and I was already trying to get away from music.
J: How did you get to the point of wanting to get away from music?
D: New York is just intense. I had been in bands for like five years at a full capacity and it just burned me out. I just got kind of sick of it. It was time to take a break.
J: Does playing music take a toll on you?
D: Touring does. Playing music itself is regenerative.
J: Do you think it’s more the driving then the playing?
D: It’s a whole bunch of stuff. The cool thing about touring is that there are amazing highs and lows. Some of the best moments are on tour when you have great shows and meet interesting people so it evens itself out. It’s not like a penance.
J: A lot of people think there’s a divide or a mutual exclusivity between playing live and recording, but what do you think of that relationship?
D: I think they’re pretty different. Recording is a whole different beast. I’ve never been able to do live what I can do on record.
J: Do you think recording is regenerative or does it take a toll?
D: It can wear you down too. Making music, if you do it sincerely, takes a lot of energy. You have a lot invested and care about. It’s not a 9-5 vibe. You take it with you all the time. It is you.