Amen Dunes’ Damon McMahon gets ideas for songs “like a dog can sense a storm coming,” he says. Once the Brooklyn-based psych-folk songwriter feels the telltale tingling sensation on his skin, usually around mid-afternoon, “it’s like demons come out — or peace comes out.” “Lonely Richard,” for example, a song he wrote for his gently strummed fourth LP, Love, “felt like it was coming from another person,” he says. “I even sang it in a weird voice.”
With Love, due May 13 via Sacred Bones, McMahon wanted to sustain those moments of inspiration (“universe’s rays,” he calls them) for longer than the 45 minutes it usually took him to sketch a song. Written and recorded in a year-and-a-half, the 11-track effort leaves behind the murky, claustrophobic reverb of his earlier releases for the understated structure of ’60s folk touchstones like soulful singer Tim Hardin’s This is Tim Hardin or the self-titled debut from enigmatic troubadour Jackson C. Frank. With this record, McMahon opened himself up to the idea of making people happy instead of uncomfortable.
“Amen Dunes was hate music for a while,” he says. “There’s something beautiful in that, but it was very negative stuff. Hopefully on the new record it’s different. I didn’t do it for the music industry masses. I did it for the human masses.”
After a slew of disappointments — Sub Pop wanted to sign Amen Dunes after 2006’s DIA but asked him to change six songs; 2011’s Through Donkey Jaw, which McMahon thought of as a “pop” record, flew under the radar — he self-released 2013’s Spoiler as a critical “fuck you.” The album featured an ode to avant-garde composer Julius Eastman and a song called “Camels in Amsterdam” that McMahon recorded in his underwear with a contact mic and an unplugged bass. On the whole, it was an LP so bizarre that not even longtime label Sacred Bones would put it out. “They were like, ‘Sorry, dude, talk to you later,'” he says.
That was a turning point. McMahon may not have cared anymore what critics thought, but he still wanted to make an album that people actually liked. When a long-term relationship ended, McMahon finally let go of his hang-ups for Love. “This was the first record where I didn’t rely on my inspiration and just channeling something,” he says. “I wanted to sustain that channeling over a long period of time — really make it good.”
Once the songs were written, McMahon welcomed contributions from Iceage singer-guitarist Elias Bender Ronnenfelt (who supplies guest vocals on two tracks), avant-garde saxophonist and Bon Iver member Colin Stetson, and Dave Bryant and Efrim Manuck of former tourmates Godspeed You! Black Emperor. After a “painful” and ultimately aborted session at Bryant’s Montreal studio, McMahon tried again with Manuck at his, where they recorded the deliciously grungy ripper “I Can’t Dig It.” Though that track recalls Amen Dunes’ older output, most of the stripped-down record — tracked at Williamsburg’s storied Strange Weather and mixed at his friend’s studio, Trout Recording — feels fresh, like the bracing cool after a loud, heavy thunderstorm.
“I really feel like this is my Astral Weeks, or something,” McMahon says. “I wanted it to be a huge record. I think I achieved that.”