Interview: Amen Dunes’ singer/songwriter, Damon McMahon

Amen Dunes is a pure and creative musical project headed by Philadelphia-born musician, Damon McMahon. Damon’s passion for music started at an early age but was very private. He took his time as a musician, deciding very carefully when it was time to share. After releasing solo work, escaping to China to work for a record label and returning to the US, he was able to reignite his love for making music. I discovered Amen Dunes late in the game, after the release of their most recent release, Love, which came out in 2014. This is the song I heard:

Naturally, I needed more. I bought the entire album. Months later, after I started Music For Lunch, I gathered the courage to ask Damon if I could interview him. Months after that we finally were able to connect and we had a wonderful conversation on the phone. Damon was tight on time because he was heading to a proper beach somewhat near New York City, where he’s living currently. Despite the fact that we were only on the phone for less than 40 minutes, we covered some serious ground. I think I learned just as much about Damon as he learned about me. Listen and read below to get a picture of the honest and insightful conversation we had about music:

MFL: Are you working on anything new?

 Damon McMahon (DM): Yeah, we just finished new demos for a couple songs for our new record and I’m finishing all the songs with in the next four months and we’re going to go into the studio in December. It’s coming up fast.

 MFL: How do you decide it’s time to write something new? Does motivation strike?

 

 

MFL: Now you play with a band. How and why did you decide to do this?

 DM: You know, I didn’t need help but I realized that something good can come from collaborating with the right people. And, I don’t play the drums. I mean I can play the drums. I did play drums on the first two Amen Dunes records but I’m not that good of a drummer. I had been playing live is what it was. I put the record for Donkey Jaw out and I had been playing live with a drummer for a year or so. And when it was time to do a new record, we had really become strong musical partners. And you know, I wanted to do a bigger sound now that I think back to it. I wanted to do something a little bigger sonically and more produced and stuff. So I thought it would be good to not try and do it all by myself.

MFL: Are you satisfied with how everything turned with the full band or your music in general?

 

MFL: How did you start playing music? Was that part of your childhood?

DM: Yeah, I was pretty young. In my family, I wasn’t really considered a musician, I did it kind of privately. I just listened kind of obsessively to music when I was a teenager and took a year of guitar lessons when I was 15 and then just started kind of like singing people’s songs that I really liked.

MFL: What were some of those songs?

DM: In the early days, Tim Buckley, Bob Dylan, The Band and the sort of stuff. I would just cover those songs and imitate them.  And then when I was 17 I wrote my first song on my own. But, it was private. I didn’t play in bands, I didn’t go do shows. I would just order a record or CDs from the local record store. Like really weird, obscure stuff. That was how I kind of started playing music, by just kind of listening and playing music in my bedroom. I’ve never been part of the band scene or anything like that. I never really related to that.

 MFL: So you wrote your first song when you were 17. Is that a song that was on any of your records?

DM: No, no. I never used that one. That was sort of like training wheels, you know? It wasn’t a very good song but it was OK. It was better than most first songs. My brother was also a musician. He’s an amazing musician. He sort of started before I did and I played him that first song and he was like, pissed. He wasn’t pissed but he was like, “Wow, that was pretty good for your first song.”

MFL: He was jealous?

DM: There’s always been jealousy between us over the years. Not so much anymore but in the beginning, I was so new he wasn’t jealous, he was just surprised. And then I just started writing rapidly from there. From 17 to 24 or 25, fucking 6,7 years, I was singing and playing every day and probably writing a song once a week a least, at very least. They weren’t all good songs but I wrote a ton when I was younger. It just kind of poured out of me. I don’t like most of them anymore but some of them I do.

MFL: When did you start recording and releasing your own music? That’s a big step.

 DM: It took a long time. When I was 21, I had been playing with my brother throughout college and when I was 21, I formed a band with my brother and we were in a band in NY for 4 or 5 years. That was the first band that I was ever in. It took me until I was 21 to be in a band. The first 7 years I just played by myself. I had a band when I was a kid with my brother and that kind of fell apart. And then, I did a solo record for about a year and that kind of fell apart. And I quit playing music and I went to China for 2 years.

 MFL: So you released Mansions, the solo record that “fell apart?”

MFL: What was that first you released as Amen Dunes?

DM: It’s called DIA. I actually just listened to it a few days ago for the first time in years and I love it. It’s my favorite Amen Dunes record. You can’t purchase it now because the label folded. Yeah, it’s not on iTunes. You can only find it on Discogs or Ebay? Or maybe YouTube, you know? It’s a red cover. That’s the best Amen Dunes record I think. You can ignore the Pitchfork review. Those guys are sort of confused. That’s my favorite Amen Dunes record. You can listen to it on YouTube probably.

MFL: What was in China?

 DM: I went over there because I got offered a job working at this record label. When I was in college I studied Chinese and it was kind of part of my life. That’s why I went over there. I just wanted to stop making music. I was so burnt out on it. It was fast track to check out. I didn’t stay as long as I thought I would. Just for 2 years.

MFL: What made you come back?

DM: Well, the label wanted to put the first Amen Dunes record out and I realized it was time to be in a band again and do music. I didn’t feel so good, not doing music didn’t feel right.

MFL: Does it feel better now? The second round?

 DM: Oh yeah. It’s never easy. It’s not an easy way to live. But if feels right. It feels like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m lucky to do it.

 MFL: Was the first Amen Dunes record on Sacred Bones then?

 DM: No, it was a label called Locust. They were the last real record label. They were the end of the old era of record labels, where the head of the label wasn’t just throwing some shit up on the internet to get hits. The head of the label was a serious music fan and highly curated his roster. I mean, Sacred Bones highly curates their roster, too but this guy was like…the love and attention he spent with each band was incredible. He’d build stories and like knits around these bands under his label. Everyone was handled with care and he was really incredible. Really amazing. I think this is what small labels use to be like until the internet really took it over. Before it became like a Pitchfork shopping spree. Or a Pitchfork open market. Now it’s like, this stock exchange via Pitchfork. I won’t go on that rant. But, this guy was amazing. He put it out and the label folded only a few years later. And, the second record was an EP called Murder Dull Mind but I call it an LP. It was like a mini LP and that was on Sacred Bones. That was the first Sacred Bones record.

 MFL: Why did Locust fold? Was he out competed?

 

We talked about streaming and how the music industry has changed. Damon commented on this.

 DM: I can tell you from experience that the listeners of the world are getting short-changed because musicians are being forced to fit themselves into this current state of affairs. They’re forced to quickly make music. They’re forced to not spend time on it. They’re forced to make quantity over quality. What we have in 2015 as music listeners is a bunch of crappy music. Not all of it. There’s obviously a lot of music I love but the quality difference from the old days is pretty high. There were just fewer bands back then and the bands spent more time on their music. I don’t think that’s true for hip hop or electronic music where it’s about what’s new and kind of quickly done off the cuff and I think that works better. But, for rock music and songwriting I think it’s taken a toll.

 The history of my musical culture isn’t immediacy. If I was a rapper or if I made dance hall. Those music genres are all about immediacy. There’s a new seven inch for a new artist every week. Hip hop and stuff those guys are putting out a new mixtape every month so for that music culture, streaming is awesome. But for rock and roll and songwriting it doesn’t make any sense. You can’t make good rock music every week unless you’re bob Dylan. Anyway, not to go down some old man negative rant.

 MFL: Do you have any other passions than music?

 DM: My second and equal passion is writing and reading. I’m more excited about literature and books than I am about music. And music is what I do. It’s my spiritual kind of practice if you will. It’s what I was born to do but writing is what sort of really excites me. So reading and my own writing, which I don’t do enough of, but those are the things that excite me even more than music.

 With that, I let Damon go to the beach as he’d been looking forward to it for…years? Damon’s heard many good things about Montana, Bozeman and Missoula in particular. So, if we’re lucky, when touring kicks in with the release of the record he’s cooking up, Amen Dunes will pay us a visit.

 

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