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Q&A: Amen Dunes on the Meaning of Freedom

The first voice on Amen Dunes’ new album Freedom is a child delivering the pep talk from the 2004 hockey movie Miracle. “This is your time,” the kid booms, sounding messianic. “Their time is done!” Singer and songwriter Damon McMahon doesn’t speak in those kind of absolutes. The true key to understanding this new album, he says, is the second epigraph. It’s the abstract painter Agnes Martin on the opacity of inspiration, a quote read by McMahon’s mother: “I don’t have any ideas myself. I am a vacant mind.”

Freedom follows 2014’s Love, the album that reshaped McMahon’s earlier, noisier freak-folk into something he’s called “my Astral Weeks.” While his love of obscure music hasn’t faded, the new record is his most accessible to date. Its deliberate-sounding folk songs ladder upward and lock into transcendentally heady grooves, executed by a backing band including regular collaborators Parker Kindred and Jordi Wheeler; bassist Gus Seyffert; keyboardist Raffaele Martirani; Delicate Steve’s Steve Marion; Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner; and McMahon’s brother, who records as Xander Duell. Their sound is magnetized by McMahon’s changeable voice, a reedy sneer or a lustful moan, mumbling his way to arcane moments of clarity: “When I was a kid I was afraid to die / But I growed up now” (from “Believe”). In the seductive walking guitar and homoerotic charge of “Miki Dora,” a parable of hubris about surfing’s classic anti-hero, he’s written perhaps his first through-and-through pop song.

Chalk it up to what he learned from his all-time favorite artists, “the most mathematically perfect of all musicians”: Bob Marley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Michael Jackson. McMahon could talk for hours about his festering disillusionment with contemporary music, yet he’s less interested in explaining his methods than asking for my interpretation of the results. He wants to be more visible as a musician, an impulse that put his face on the cover of Freedom, but remains elusive about anything truly personal. He was born in Philadelphia and grew up outside New York City, he says, surrounded by kids who “skateboarded and smoked weed and listened to rap,” his first musical love. His paternal grandmother was from West Virginia; he never met her, but his father has told him that she sang in a trio performing traditional Appalachian music on the radio.

Late last month, I met McMahon at his favorite shabby neighborhood diner in Brooklyn to talk about Freedom. He’s spent most of the past three years at work on this project—but in the moment, he says, the melodies and words come from a spiritual plane beyond. “I don’t have any ideas myself. I am a vacant mind.” Our interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

The credits for this album are kind of odd. They say things like “strawberry funk guitar” and “underwater keyboards.” Why’s that?

‘Cause that’s what it sounds like, y’know? I sort of have some kind of synesthesia with music, where you see what you hear. And those parts—that’s the best way to describe them. That’s doing them justice. Often when we would be in the studio doing these parts, I would describe them to Steve, particularly with Steve, describe them in a certain way. Like, ‘I want you to sound like a robot dying at the beach at sunset,’ or like, ‘I want you to sound like David Bowie prancing down a dark alleyway lit by gas lamps eating soup dumplings.’ Things like that.

Do you have that in your head before you go in to record?

No, it all really comes up in the moment. Especially with overdubs, all the extra instrumentation, that’s just something—you can’t pre-plan that too much, I don’t think.

What was going on in your life as you worked on this music?

Well, when I started writing this album, my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. That was pretty big. And I started to have a new sense of purpose in my life—in my musical life, but in my life in general. Sort of a higher purpose with the music. I became inspired to just… improve my craft. And improve my intention, elevate my intentions for it. [I was] looking to models, people that I look up to, new kinds of signposts—whether that’s like an Agnes Martin character or musicians. I was less interested in being hung up on myself.

Are there particular musicians who were direct influences for this record?

My musical influences on this record were the best mainstream music. I haven’t talked about this really yet—I’m a little reluctant to talk about it too much—but there were three kinds of music that went into Freedom. Freedom is like a mix of rock music, pop music, and electronic music. Michael Jackson was a big influence. People like Tom Petty, like early Oasis, like late Nirvana, unplugged Nirvana, that kind of rock music. And then things like Aphex Twin, Massive Attack, those kinds of mainstream electronic music. Mainstream music was what I was interested in—really, really good mainstream music.

It feels like we, the audience, have seen a lot more of your face with this release than in the past. Is that a conscious decision?

Yeah, it was conscious. Part of my being useful as a musician—part of what makes the people I have looked up to in the past useful—was their visibility. I don’t think I used to necessarily think about this, but if someone had asked me, I would have said someone like Tom Petty was sort of self-obsessed. But the older I get, the more I realize: It’s actually incredibly generous what those guys do. The more they made themselves available, the more me as a fan could get something out of them. That’s been my experience, especially with pop music. And so I was like, if I want to make music that will really reach the most people, I need to be more open with myself. I think it’s a way of making the music more effective. That’s part of it. The other part of it is like… this is basically a concept album, y’know? So my being on the cover ties into what this album is all about, thematically.

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What’s the concept?

The concept for the album is basically letting go of ideas of who you are. Through, kind of, exploring them. So each song is an exploration of some side of me, and letting go of—relinquishing, that’s the word—relinquishing ideas of self. That’s my goal in life, and these songs ended up being like a manifestation of that goal. Me being on the cover is another way of—it’s me, but that doesn’t actually mean anything. There’s no words. I wanted it to be like, neutral man, neutral guy, human male neutral. It’s like a visual parallel for the idea of the album as a whole. That was not my reason, but that’s the purpose that it serves.

Let’s talk about Agnes Martin. How did you encounter her work?

To be honest with you, I don’t know shit about visual art. I encountered her through a friend. This is how this shit works, man. In the middle of making this record, my friend was like, ‘Check out this hour-long Agnes Martin interview, it’s insane.’ I watched it and was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m in love with her. She’s insane.’ I just got obsessed. This is it, this is what I’d been doing this whole time and didn’t even know it. And then when my mom was sick I was like, what if I started the whole album with this statement? She’s a guiding post. I would hope when people listen to the record, that sets it up.

What else did she talk about in this interview that stood out to you?

It’s this young, heavy art academic person, this guy asking her all these questions, and she just says, ‘The older I get the better I get, the older I get the less I know. All my good shit doesn’t come from me. I have no idea what I’m doing. I just wait for the muse to present itself and then I abide. I don’t have any ideas myself, I’m a vacant mind.’ She’s just super deep. Very profound. She’s basically like—She’s saying the stuff that all the other good people say, you know what I mean? All the good people say that.

They say, “It wasn’t me, it just came to me?”

Yeah! And they mean it, they’re not being falsely humble. That’s why they’re misunderstood. People called her crazy and stuff—maybe she had some issues, I don’t know enough about her. But I heard that and I was like, That’s it, man. It’s nascent in me. This idea is very recent, the last two years. So when I heard her, I was like, I’m supposed to hear this.

Something that’s especially prominent on songs like “Blue Rose” is the relationship with your father, or with the character’s father. Is that autobiographical to an extent?

Yeah, definitely, man. I think that was something that I was processing on this record. It just came out. And yeah, my father was a very difficult person. My music is in direct opposition to who he is, and it’s always been. This was some sort of exorcising, you know?

You say “direct opposition”—would he have not supported you playing music?

Yeah, he was like—I was going to say something really crude. But he didn’t think it was what a grown man should be doing. My whole life. He came from very… they didn’t have a lot of money, and it wasn’t something that he thought was a reasonable thing to do.

It’s pretty ironic that your brother’s also a musician, then. Is he older than you or younger?

He’s younger. Yeah, both of us are musicians. Poor Dad. [Laughs.] But yeah, I mean, all this stuff operates on different levels, y’know? I started off this album thinking I was going to make an album that was like, exploring what it means to be a man, exploring identity. That’s what was coming out. There’s so much of it in the world right now, and I think I was just observing from a distance the public conversation. In the beginning I was like, How can I engage with this conversation as a musician? What is my identity? Who’s my dad? What’s my mom’s story? Blah blah blah.

And so these songs were coming out that were about me. But the more I went into forming this album from a truthful place, the more I saw it was just bullshit. It was bullshit to make me—to be another person out there in the world going here’s me, and here’s my pain, and this is so important, and I am so important, and I’ve got green eyes and a blue hat, and I do this and that. I think it dawned on me—it wasn’t conscious, but the whole point was: You can explore things like your dad, or like being Jewish, or fuckin’ Miki Dora, or whatever it is, these other rogue characters—but the idea is to let go of that shit. That “freedom” idea is just that. My stupid face on the cover, all these different historical things that happened to me: They’re not important. I realized: Oh shit, if I want to be useful with this record, that’s a message that I would want to put out in the world. Not like, Look at me, but actually like, None of this important.

You hear that pain in the songs, though—you hear the voice of somebody who’s really disappointed that their dad was not always there for them.

Definitely. An exorcism, again. I think the only way to relinquish yourself is to get in there and be honest and reveal it a little bit. But if I don’t have the right perspective, I can get really attached. Like, here’s my story, I was fuckin’ abused, I was this and that—and it’s me, I stay stuck with it. The goal of the Freedom thing was to let it go. At the very end of it all, it was like, Oh, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve actually been letting it go this whole time.

Tags: Amen Dunes