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Escape Velocity

Spiritual Revenge Music: Amen Dunes Interviewed
Cian Traynor , December 27th, 2011 09:03

Cian Traynor rates Amen Dunes as unsung heroes. Find out why courtesy of this mixtape and interview

Amen Dunes’ Through Donkey Jaw may be the most underrated album of the year. It’s also, arguably, one of the most powerful. Beneath its soothing, chant-like melodies and tribal pysch freak-outs, there’s a depth that, allowed to resonate, offers a transcendental listening experience.

Originally, none of this was meant to be shared. In 2006, songwriter Damon McMahon headed to New York’s Catskill Mountains to escape from the world for a month and record improvised compositions late into the night, cranking up volumes that could block out the surrounding woods’ eerie presence.

McMahon had spent the previous couple of years in a briefly hyped alt-pop band called Inouk as well as releasing the pithy solo album Mansions under his own name. But both projects involved an entanglement of labels, managers and money that, combined with the constraints and competitiveness of New York’s music scene, left him exasperated. The subsequent Catskills sessions promised respite: one last chance to explore some ideas, record them for posterity, then make a new start in Beijing.

A year later, he heard from Chicago-based label Locust Music, run by a friend of a friend, who wanted to put out those experimental Catskill recordings. The resulting DIA, released under the name Amen Dunes (not a play on Amon Düül) in 2009, was unlike anything McMahon had done before and inspired a cult following among musos.

When Brooklyn label Sacred Bones (Zola Jesus, Moon Duo, The Fresh & Onlys) got in touch the next year seeking material to release, McMahon decided to give music another shot, heading back to New York and forming a band around Amen Dunes.

In the meantime, he offered the label Murder Dull Mind, an EP recorded in his Beijing apartment and a stepping stone towards the refined songcraft he’d hit upon with this year’s Through Donkey Jaw: a dark, entrancing trip inward illuminated with rumbling incantations, spine-tingling detours and the odd free-form eruption.

Yet Amen Dunes sits in a difficult spot: as download culture brings small labels and obscure artists unheralded levels of exposure, often it amounts to just a cursory appraisal, a moment’s distracted scrutiny that sends plenty of substance slipping through the cracks, waiting to be rediscovered. Through Donkey Jaw warrants bedding-in time; it’s the kind of album that needs to be taken outdoors, to be absorbed and engaged with, before you can be pulled in by its hypnotic undercurrent.

No one seems sure what genres apply to Amen Dunes. How would you characterise your sound?

Damon McMahon: To be honest, I always thought of it as negative music... or revenge music. It was my way of finding catharsis. It’s hard to describe, stylistically. I think it’s more of a frame of mind.

That’s interesting you would call it negative because I find this album quite an empowering listen. There’s a weight behind it, a resonance that feels spiritual without any religious connotation – more in a personal, soul-searching way.

DM: Totally, man. I think it comes out in a sort of spiritual way... [pauses] I want to explain this properly. What I mean is that the music is a way for me to connect with myself. It’s incredibly personal. All the songs are for or against myself, all reflections of difficulties in the world or direct experiences with people and things. That’s what I mean by negative: retribution... in that the songs are a release for me. Maybe they come across as empowering or spiritual or something because they impart that to me, but the original stimulus is something else; the inner-workings of it might not necessarily be apparent. If you were to look at the lyrics, I think that’s in there, but it’s cool that [empowerment] comes out.

But when you’re listening to the album, a lot of the lyrics are hard to distinguish and so you interpret them in your own way, even if it doesn’t make sense. When I got the LP and saw the lyric sheet, part of me didn’t want to see the official version.

DM: That’s cool; I like that. It’s always a tricky choice to print them or not. Did you feel the lyrics didn’t really correspond to what you thought?

Yeah, because the way you break up syllables and play around with the rhythmic structure of lines, like on ‘Christopher’, creates ambiguity. A few years ago, during an interview with Liars, I asked Aaron Hemphill to clarify one line of a song that I couldn’t get out of my head and he absolutely refused. He was convinced that whatever I heard was automatically better and that I’d only be disappointed if I knew the truth. I only realised afterwards that he was right. I’m glad he didn’t tell me.

DM: That’s the whole beautiful point of making this stuff anyway, man. It’s the greatest gift when someone says a record means something to them, so who am I to take away that experience from them by saying, ‘no, it’s actually about something else’?

DIA seemed more like an improvisational album and I was wondering, when you’re taking that approach and things are falling into place, where do you think those ideas are coming from?

DM: I don’t know – from somewhere else! I really hold that DIA record dear to me, more so than this new one, because it was a gift from another place. I was going through some difficult stuff and this was total relief: I would just press record every day and it all came out. But I don’t know where it came from. The subconscious, maybe. I could never do this but true improvisers – the guys who are really for real – can do it when they perform live. But it comes from somewhere else.

How do you know when the song is done, though?

DM: For me, it’s when the electricity switches off. I sort of changed this recently but I would never do it for more than 45 minutes. I would get turned on, get really excited about something and then I’d have a short window of time before it ran out. I never did any overdubs on DIA except what was done on the day, during that spurt.

Originally, you were never going to release it. What made you send the songs to Locust Music?

DM: I only recorded it for myself, thinking: ‘I’m going to record stuff that’s like a bunch of shit that I listen to’. It was my answer to that. I just had it on my iPod or my Discman or whatever, then a friend heard them and said they were really good, that they knew someone who ran a record label in Chicago. So I sent them off and didn’t hear anything for almost a year. I’d already moved to China by that point.

What inspired you to move to China?

DM: I’d been over there when I was younger and just fell in love with the energy, the pace of life there and the way things work. I was burned out, sick of New York, sick of the music world. I’d been doing it for five or six years at that point and I wanted a break, wanted to start a label in China, so I just went over on a whim. I went back there about two weeks ago for a tour of seven shows.

Did you have to get State permission?

DM: Well, not if you do it illegally. I just got a tourist visa and hoped they wouldn’t notice the guitar. They have a lot on their minds at the moment. But it was very weird. I’ve changed a lot in the last two years. China’s changed as well and it was kinda disheartening, to be honest. What once felt like a very open, free and roomy environment seemed kind of oppressive this time. It was more polluted than I remember, more populated, more chaotic. I was by myself with all my gear, getting on trains and ending up in some random city the size of Los Angeles, with 11 million people, not knowing anybody, trying to find the venue, showing up at a club where no one knows who you are. It was a very strange experience; not the China I remember. But there were some good moments, for sure. There’s actually an Amen Dunes fan in the city of Guangzhou, a goth girl and her goth boyfriend – that made my year!

Your label-mate Zola Jesus garnered a lot of attention this year and I felt like your album was overlooked by comparison. Does the label have the resources to give everyone an equal push?

DM: I don’t think so. It’s really just two guys so I think they’re stretched pretty thin. The record definitely was overlooked. It’s weird, I mean the critics seemed to really like it but the average listener... I just don’t know why. I don’t understand. Thankfully some real music fans have come to like this record but, sure, Zola Jesus and other bands who are definitely a little more clean or less emotionally challenging or something – the kind of thing you can put on in a coffee shop – get a lot more attention. It’s just an easier sell. That’s the way it goes.

How do you feel about it being overlooked? Frustrated? Surprised? Or was it expected?

DM: I’d be lying if I said it didn’t frustrate me and I was kind of surprised this time. It’s much more poppy than DIA and the label has more of a profile... I thought it would reach more people, but I think it’s still a little too left-of-centre for some. But the people I love historically were often overlooked, so I understand it’s kind of the way it goes when you do your thing.

I have to ask you about the bonus tracks on the digital version because I’ve noticed that they’ve been included in every review and, for me, they didn’t fit on the album. They’ve been left off the LP, which makes sense and keeps it as more of a cohesive whole – the kind that bonus tracks tend to detract from.

DM: I’m kind of a purist that way too. I’m obsessed with the album concept. But I really struggled with it on Through Donkey Jaw because a lot of the songs were a year or two old already and they weren’t like what I was listening to or even what I’m doing now. I recorded 19 songs in those sessions and some of them were really fucking weird. I was deliberating whether to split it into half pop songs, half weird songs; I was even thinking about doing a double album. But... you know, I already knew I was bound for commercial failure to begin with so I didn’t want to do that. With ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ [a 10-minute improvisation, not a cover of the Beatles song], I just wanted to show the other side to my music. But I’m realising now that compartmentalising might be best. It’s tricky. I think I’m going to start a side-project for the weirder stuff and keep Amen Dunes more poppy. I have a whole EP that was supposed to come out on a Belgian label this winter but that’s not happening anymore [though that label, Kraak, have just released ‘Ethio Song’, an Amen Dunes 7”] so I’m either going to look for another label or self-release it.

Looking to the future, then, what do you want from music?

DM: Ha, that’s a hard question. For it not to kill me!

Mix Tracklist:

  1. Lifetones - For A Reason
  2. Happy Mondays - Brain Dead
  3. The Terminals - Deadly Tango
  4. M.B. - Excerpt From 'NH' Tape
  5. Eyeless in Gaza - Scale Amiss
  6. Einsturzende Neubauten - Feurio!
  7. Dj Paul & Juicy J - I Thought You Knew
  8. Circle of Ouroborus - The Prayer
  9. DOOM - Life in Freedom/money Drug/Fear of The Future
  10. Hanatarash - Meat-A-Delic
  11. Death In June - Peaceful Snow