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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