Amen Dunes on finding the freedom to open up

Amen Dunes on finding the freedom to open up

Real talk — After years of honing a sound unlike any other, Damon McMahon has crafted his best work yet... but it also meant facing up to some difficult truths along the way.

Damon McMahon has nothing to prove. For all the fanfare around his excellent new album Freedom, it might seem like his evolution as an artist – one subtle breakthrough after another since 2009 – has just been gearing up to this moment. Instead it’s been an open-ended, freewheeling journey steered by listeners as much as McMahon himself.

You can get lost in Amen Dunes albums. They’re as melodic as they are off-kilter, as transcendental as they are unclassifiable. These records reward time spent, soaking up whatever you bring to the equation as a listener.

For me, that’s been a succession of life changes and personal growth. They’ve soundtracked unforgettable moments, whether swimming beneath the Himalayan foothills or taking a night boat between Sicilian islands, as well as regular commutes after a hellish day. They’ve always resonated like a customised message in a bottle – one that means whatever you want it to mean.

But somewhere along the way, Damon felt the need to expand that reach while revealing a little bit more of himself in the process. Thankfully, the 37-year-old has found a way to do that without sacrificing any of the things that make Amen Dunes great: psychedelic visions, unique phrasing and emotional depth.

Freedom explores (and confronts) the splintered sense of identity that has unfolded between his upbringing in rural Connecticut and the headspace he found himself in after 2014’s Love – a point when his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It’s the work of someone determined to reject conformity, even if it means ending up in unexpected places.

At one point you scrapped this album and started over. What keeps you going through moments of creative blocks and self-doubt?
That’s a good question. I tend to forget just how desperate I was in the making of this record, now that it’s all done, but there were several times where I was really distraught. You just have to remember that the answer always reveals itself eventually, so it’s a matter of being patient enough to wait for it. I think what gets me through is some kind of conviction in that.

It seems like you’ve been through some changes since the last album. Is there anything you learned about yourself that you weren’t so clear on before?
Sure, lots of stuff. I think everything that I’m clearer on got funnelled into this record. The main idea behind it is dealing with one’s ego: my ego. That’s something that I came to grapple with over the course of those four years since Love and it gradually just came out in this music.

The ego is a motherfucker, isn’t it? It ruins relationships, careers, even lives. It’s why people fight!
Absolutely, man. [laughs] The ego is a block.

But now that you’ve got this acclaimed album and people are telling you that you’re great, how do you stop that from creeping back in?
Ha ha! The ego goes both ways, though. It’s not just, ‘I’m the best!’ It’s also, ‘I’m the worst.’ I think part of dealing with that, for me, was becoming more outward, which helped me to let go.

Up until now I never allowed myself to be who I am, which is a melodic songwriter. I’ve always kind of shrouded myself. The time came to put myself out there so that I can be more generous with my gift, or whatever you want to call it, and try to be of service to people.

On a deeper level, it’s also a way to sort of nullify myself. I don’t mean in society, in the world – but between my ears.

This whole record is about letting go of my hang-ups through ego-death, man; it’s about relinquishing all the terrestrial identities and histories and personal events and family lineage – all the things that I’d kind of clung to my whole life.

Does that mean you had a problem in letting people get close to you, in not fully revealing yourself?
Sure, definitely. That’s probably how it existed out in the world but just internally, I had these stories that I’d tell myself – like everybody does. ‘My dad is an Irish Catholic working-class guy from Philadelphia; my mother is a New York Jew from holocaust survivors.’ ‘My family did this and this to me’ or ‘I’m this kind of guy’ or ‘I identify with someone like Miki Dora’. Whatever.

It’s like there are all these versions of myself that I call Damon, y’know? That’s kind of what I’m exploring and trying to let go of. There’s a process of self-reflection, I suppose, as well as an acceptance of realities – basically deciding what’s good for you and what’s not.

I was going through some old interviews and in one you said that Through Donkey Jaw was an ode to sex and lust. In another you said Love was an ode to failure. That was crazy to me because I listened to those albums on repeat for years without those themes sticking out – and it didn’t diminish the records’ power in any way. I had my own experience that spoke to me.
Right. Well, I guess that’s the good thing about it. It can be whatever you want. But I think for me, what created that music was embracing my shadow self, my darkness. And not in the healthiest way. There was a lot of bitterness and pain that I guess was sublimated into that music. Through Donkey Jaw was definitely a negative record.

I wonder what that says about me then. [laughs] I’ve always found it uplifting, comforting, transcendental…
It’s dark but it’s also peaceful and comforting and self-nurturing. But I can for sure say that Through Donkey Jaw was less outward, less open spirited – which is good because there can be something very comforting about looking inward.

Your dad disapproved of you being a musician. What do you think he wanted you to be?
I think somewhere deep inside he probably wanted to be a musician and he resented that I was doing it. He came from a hard-knocks background so, for him, if you were doing anything that could be considered impractical or frivolous, it was no good. He probably thought that was in my best interests but it certainly wasn’t a very productive attitude.

So when you started making music, was it a form of rebellion?
One hundred percent, man. It was also a form of separation, a form of self-consolation. The reason my music has an intimate quality is because I never played in bands, I never went to shows, I never wanted people to like me, I never wanted people to hear me. When people in group situations said, ‘Does anybody play music?’ I would never speak up.

All my songs were pure self-consolation to counterbalance the aggression I got at home. That’s what my music always was. It still is, in a weird way.

Do you think, consciously or subconsciously, there are recurring themes in your work?
Absolutely. The whole thing is some sort of higher pursuit, even from the first record, D.I.A. But it was a little more obscured then, like the lens was a little blurry. All my music is about self-elevation in some way.

And what do you think that says about you?
I guess that I’m searching for something, that I was put here to try to see beyond myself or the world around me. I don’t know.

You’ve said that your mother’s approach to being sick changed the way you thought about being alive. What did you meant by that?
My mom is not like Mr. Rogers. She’s a pretty hard-living person to this day and that was kind of an unpleasant thing to grow up around. When she got sick, none of that changed.

For a long time, I judged that. I held a grudge. ‘How could you do that? How could you be so unappreciative of life? Don’t you know what you’re doing to yourself?’ Blah, blah, blah.

I gradually realised, ‘What do I know? It’s just as good a methodology as any other.’ I saw that there’s actually some selflessness in self-destruction – in her case, anyway. There’s something free about it that I could learn from. That’s kind of what the song ‘Believe’ is about.

As I say, this whole album is about self-elimination, self-relinquishing – and, well, she’s another character who does that on this album. My mother recites that Agnes Martin quote at the start – ‘I have a vacant mind’ – and she kind of does have a vacant mind. She’s nullifying herself – and that song is my way of appreciating how sublime that is, in a weird way.

The idea of losing a parent is something I’m scared of all the time. What advice would you have for coming to terms with that? Are there certain experiences or exchanges that you need to have because you know there’s limited time?
I think that’s part of it, yeah. I definitely got honest with both of my parents in the last two years. I don’t have a lot of contact with my dad but the little that I had, I was very honest with him. The same with my mom. That honesty was good for our relationship.

As far as the death thing, it depends on how much you believe in existence beyond what’s five feet in front of you. For me, it depends on how much I’m hung up on this lifetime.

Well, I suspect that this is all there is… and maybe believing that makes it scarier.
Hell yeah, it’s totally scary. I don’t believe in anything black and white. My own experience with the world is way more multi-dimensional than ‘There’s here and then there’s an afterlife where we’re all hangin’ out.’ I think the whole thing is completely unreal. Of course I’m afraid to die, but there’s another part of me that’s very unafraid of it too. I think that attitude was kind of born into me.

You’ve been doing this for a while now, growing as a musician, staying your course. How have you been able to make it work in terms of surviving as an independent solo artist along the way?
I mean, dude, I was working in construction, waiting tables and bartending for years. Only on Love did we really tour hard and even still, it wasn’t that great. You just have to treat music as some sort of pleasure for yourself and hope that it’s of service to others.

Eventually there has to be an element of business for the whole machine to run but you survive because you get off on your own music, man. That’s the one piece advice I’d have to a fledgling artist: the only answer is to get off on yourself. Don’t bother if you don’t… because no one is goin’ to pat you on the back.

But then how does that affect the ego like we were talking about earlier?
It’s not easy to navigate but it did give me a thick skin. I’ve had my ass handed to me so many times. I had a band that was successful when I was still just a kid, then I did a solo record that was destroyed by the media. That crushed me. Then I started Amen Dunes and that was well received… but none of those records did as well as I would have wished.

So I just learned: don’t read the press, whether it’s good or bad, don’t listen to people’s opinions of you and don’t let anybody tell you what to do. Over the years, I think I just got hardened to it all. I didn’t care anymore. The love that I needed came from myself.

When I wrote a song like ‘Lonely Richard’, that made me so happy. I didn’t care if people liked it. It just made me feel good. Then I was able to give that feeling to other people when I performed it, like a little gift. And it feels good to give someone a gift! You don’t call them up a week later to see how much they’ve enjoyed it.

But yeah, it’s tough being a musician in public. That’s why people quit. I’d say 99.9 percent of the people I came up with don’t do this anymore. I’m so lucky that I still do.

And do you think they quit because of that sense of vulnerability?
Yeah, it’s so tough to have your ego knocked… but maybe their intention wasn’t so pure either. I don’t know. Maybe they did it for kicks, maybe they did it to meet girls, maybe they did it to be cool – and that’s the worst thing in the world. God knows the internet is full of that shit. [laughs]

So why would you bother continuing unless it was for some deeply satisfying, spiritual – in the most open sense of the word – or true purpose? That’s the only thing that’s got me through.

Freedom is out on Sacred Bones. Amen Dunes is touring the US and Europe until the end of summer.

Cian Traynor is Huck’s Deputy Editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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