Over and over again on Amen Dunes’ fifth album Freedom, songwriter Damon McMahon punctuates lyrics with the word “man.” “We play religious music/I don’t think you’d understand man.” “I really gotta go/yeah man.” “Pride destroyed me, man.” The word peppers his sentences in conversation, too. It’s this and that “man,” repeatedly. Even while describing the guiding principles of feminist New Mexican artist Agnes Martin, whose creative principle — “I don’t have any ideas myself; I have a vacant mind” — is quoted at the start of the record, McMahon employs a masculine pronoun: “She’s my boy, my kind of artist.”
But McMahon’s relationship to masculinity isn’t one-sided, and it’s rarely celebratory. Like his last record, the sprawling and destined for classic status Love, the new lp opts to grapple with huge themes. McMahon didn’t go in with a design to write about mythical maleness, ego, his parents, and about the process of “relinquishing…various definitions of self,” but that’s what he ended up with, employing a wide cast of characters to set his scenes. Small-time crooks and dealers show up; so does Jesus Christ; so does awesome asshole Miki Dora, the surfer who, after being featured in films like The Endless Summer, hightailed it out of the US to avoid getting busted for fraud.
McMahon finds no small share of ugliness and beauty in these complicated character sketches. The sounds he pairs with them are just as thorny. Working with collaborators like drummer Parker Kindred, guitarist Delicate Steve, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and others, McMahon blends spiky guitar pop with electronic textures, shifting from motorik pulses to bass-heavy boogies. The spectral folk of previous records is still there, but its augmented with post-punk melodies and funky lift. It’s always been tough to describe the sound of Amen Dunes records, even with names like Skip Spence and Lou Reed at the ready, but Freedom‘s the toughest to pin down yet. Conceptually and sonically, it’s an auteurist step forward.
Speaking over the phone from New York, McMahon detailed the way it often feels like he’s channeling his songs as much as writing them. “There’s no use in being close-hearted,” he sings in “Skipping School,” and speaking with the artist, it’s clear he’s out to free himself of any notions — masculine or otherwise — that would keep him from staying all the way open. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Aquarium Drunkard: You’ve made a couple of classic albums as Amen Dunes, but Freedom sounds effortless in a way that illustrates how hard you must have worked to make it. How does this one feel different than the others?
Damon McMahon: I’ve never focused so hard on crafting music before. I gave myself time to revise and re-approach all kinds of things. I mean, even just the songs themselves. The writing of the songs on an acoustic guitar took me at least a year of consistent writing. It was an endless iteration of each song, and then once we got to the recording process, that’s a whole other stretch of time, and then vocals, lyrics, and mixing, I mean…it was extensive.
AD: At one point you had recorded a version of this record, but then scrapped it. Why?
Damon McMahon: Well, it just didn’t sound inspired, man. There wasn’t that divine spark in it, and that led it to sounding bad and the takes not being good and a little limp. It just didn’t have the energy, and I don’t think I was ready at the time. Also, it wasn’t as heavy-duty of a recording scenario as we ended up getting, so I think that affected it, too.
AD: When you go to a place like Electric Lady, as a music listener and fan, what does it feel like to make music in a space like that?
Damon McMahon: Electric Lady was a real gift. Man, that place.
AD: When I think about some of the records that have been recorded there…Voodoo. Talking Book. Horses. It’s intense. Is there an energy that hangs over the place itself?
Damon McMahon: That stuff is very real, I mean, at least for someone like me. I’m pretty sensitive to that kind of thing. I remember being in the vocal booth and yeah, the place is haunted, you know? I mean that in a good way. I was in the vocal booth, and it was like “Oh, there’s some serious juju in there. There’s some serious energy.” I did the overdubs at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. I got to track vocals standing in the very same spot, probably [using the same microphone] that Mick Jagger used to track the Exile on Main St. vocals. It was really one of the great highlights of my career. It’s pretty insane. I also was able to track in the same room that Forever Changes was recorded in. I was touched. But I will say, we didn’t use any of those recordings. That place is haunted too, but it didn’t help me out too much.
AD: Different spirits?
Damon McMahon: Different days.
AD: The introduction of the record concludes with an Agnes Martin quote: “I don’t have any ideas myself; I have a vacant mind.” Is a vacant mind something that you work toward, or is that where you start, creatively?
Damon McMahon: The vacant mind comes from the artistic inspiration I was born with. The vacant mind comes with living in my true self, [having] a spiritual vacant mind. That’s a continuing journey. But artistically, that vacant mind…I just got lucky, man. I was just born with it. Ever since I first started writing songs…my antennas would start to vibrate. I would feel a certain mood and I would pick up the guitar and something would just kind of happen.
But the vacant mind I was talking about in that intro is something a little different. Martin was an artist, kind of a minimalist… she lived in the Southwest. Mentally, she maybe had some issues. But whatever: she was touched and there’s this incredible interview with her where she just kind of lays it out at about 80 years old. She just says, “The older I get, the better I get, because I think less about myself, and I’m less involved in my process.” [She] felt like a kindred spirit when I heard [that]. I was like, “Oh, that’s me.” But it also was like a model inspiration, too.
The album kind of has two sides to the stories and the symbols and stuff. On one hand, Freedom is a very flippant title. It’s sort of meant to be a little cheeky or kind of a punk, ridiculous thing to call your album. And in a way, that statement, “I have no ideas to myself; I have a vacant mind,” on the surface, it’s sort of like a critique [of myself]. But underneath it all, there’s a very sincere attempt to get at something with the title of the album and that quote.
AD: I think my favorite thing about music is that it allows for contradictory ideas to exist at the same time, in the same space.
Damon McMahon: Yeah, totally. Love was the same thing. Love was also a very much [a] punk [statement]. I was like, “What’s the boldest fucking album title I could ever come up with?” Love, you know? And at the same time, it was also kind of like a finger raised to the punk community a little bit. It was very sincere, too. I don’t pre-plan this shit. I get inspiration for a mood and then I follow it. It kind of writes itself. But “love” is the act of devotion.
AD: In “Blue Rose,” you sing about making religious music. What makes a song religious?
Damon McMahon: Well, once again, I was just trying to be a dick.
Damon McMahon: “Dick” is kind of a cheap kind of way of [describing it]. A cheap word. That line, “We play religious music/Don’t think you’d understand, man” is professing my sincerity. That kind of arrogance is professing a sincerity, sort of saying, “If you make music just to be fucking cool or because you think girls will like you or I don’t know, because you’re fucking off,” [we’re different]. That’s where the arrogance comes from…[In regards to] Religious music, I was thinking about my old bandmates Jordi [Wheeler] and Parker [Kindred] and me. They were kind of like the guys that I did Love with; we did a lot of the preparation work for this record together too. When we would get together, it wasn’t goofing around. When we would rehearse, sometimes we’d stay for half an hour and we’d just focus on a snare hit. We would play one or two notes and kind of quietly do that. So to me, religious music is music that’s powered by some kind of energy other than the player, some kind of sincerity. We were inspired by something other than ourselves.
AD: There are a lot of women in these songs: you talk about a character “Joanne,” you’ve got these references to babies and “cuties.” But the record seems preoccupied with unpacking a lot of ideas about masculinity. You might not have planned it, but at what point did you realize you had a record about masculinity on your hands?
Damon McMahon: I don’t even know if I knew it until it was fucking done. There are layers of this creepy kind of synchronicity. There always are, but particularly with this album, I could go on and on. We don’t have time for them all, but I didn’t really know what this album was about until it was done. I chose the album title Freedom because a song was called “Freedom,” and I just sang it one day. I wasn’t conceiving of any of it.
To answer your question, the simplest way I can sum up this record is [is to think of it as] a relinquishing of self through an exploration of self. That’s what I’m doing in this album, it’s what people have done throughout time [with their] spiritual or devotional life. I mean historically, not religiously. This idea of masculinity is what [the record’s] about. Originally, this is the irony of it, I thought it would be a good idea to make an album about my identity. I hadn’t even figured out the whole relinquishing element. Originally, it was going to be about my being a fucking Irish Jew, who came from Holocaust survivors on one hand and Irish on the other hand, and that conflict. I thought it would be a bright idea to make a whole album about that. What I discovered was something, whatever was guiding me, [steered me toward] those male characters as a critique of them.
So the women you’re talking about, they’re just foils for these men. The whole album is a series of identities of mine. The album ends with “L.A”, and you have all these characters like Miki Dora, my father, my mom…”L.A.” ends up with this schlub, this kind of greaser Sinatra guy who’s fantasizing about being emperor of Rome, and he wakes up, and he says, “Hi, welcome to Hollywood Hills/I’m barely awake/Got my arm around some clown.” And he just resents not being successful. He’s kind of a womanizer. He ends the album with the most base male depiction of just wanting to have sex with his ex-girlfriend, “If you’re in town/come around.” There’s a little bit of humor in it, like, that’s where we end up? That’s the life? It’s about men, really, this album. Long story short.
AD: Did it feel like a weird time to make a record about men?
Damon McMahon: I’ll tell you, man, I did not even fucking know I was doing that until about two months ago. I’m so grateful that it’s about men because I realize that my whole music thing is about being of service. If I had set out to make some statement, it would’ve come off as being angry, unhelpful, resentful, and bitter. But I think because it just happened, it’s like a perfect storm or something.
AD: We’re seeing a lot of reckoning with maleness in society. You can see it socially, you can see it politically. Did that influence the music?
Damon McMahon: It was purely internal, man.
Damon McMahon: I guess at the end of the day, the inside’s the outside, the outside’s the inside.
AD: That’s true.
Damon McMahon: I happened upon the kind of parallel, to be honest with you. And I think it comes from the fact that, in my life, I really just keep the focus on my little 4×4 square feet around me or something. My journey is kind of inward and it just happened to reflect all this shit that’s going on. I got this amazing compliment from a woman today. On social media, she said something like, “Thank you for making music that’s so timely. You’d make Nina Simone proud.” I was like, “Ah man, that’s the fucking coolest compliment.”
AD: It doesn’t get better than that.
Damon McMahon: No, it doesn’t. It was unintentional too, so I’m just grateful it’s unfolding that way.
AD: The name Paul pops up a lot on the record, and while you mentioned not being religious yourself, was there a specific Paul in mind? I think of the apostle Paul as a sufferer.
Damon McMahon: Paul is my dad, man. Paul is actually his name. I was trying to convey this with “Blue Rose,” but the primary male identity, that kind of blueprint, is the father, and that’s the primary one we struggle with. So yeah, man, I specifically was writing about him in “Blue Rose,” but that song “Calling Paul the Suffering,” that’s another example. That’s an older song, but when I wrote that song, like I always do, I was just picking on my guitar and singing and humming a melody, and then I recorded it and listened back and said, “Sounds like he’s going ‘[sings ‘Calling Paul the Suffering’].” So it just kind of came out of my mouth, but that’s my dad.
AD: The “shape” of words coming out of your mouth is a defining element of Amen Dunes’ sound. When I first heard “Miki Dora,” I didn’t actually know anything about the man himself. I was simply struck by the way the words sounded with your melody. It’s a perfect combination of vowels and consonants. It could mean nothing if you wanted, like “shoo-bop.”
Damon McMahon: [Laughs] Yeah, totally. To be honest, I did start with his name. It was a very beautiful afternoon. I just sat down at my desk and thought to myself, “I want to write a song about a surfer.” And then I was like, “I want to write a song about a bad surfer.” And I think I literally went to my computer and Googled “bad surfer.” And Miki Dora came up. I listened to the interview and I was like, “Oh my god, this guy is so compelling.” I started singing about him. [And] I did pull some shit from his interviews.
AD: He’s a study in complicated masculinity. He’s got this charm, this pull, but also he’s drawn to destroy things. It’s like he can’t can’t stop himself.
Damon McMahon: Yeah. It’s his ego. That’s what I identified with. And at first, I identified with him as this idea of being an underground artist, which I’m sure so many of us can identify [with]. I was like, “Oh Miki Dora. He’s the guy who’s like, ‘I’m better than all of you, but I got a bad hand, so I’m not as successful as you and so fuck you.'”
AD: You empathized with his ego?
Damon McMahon: That whole bit in that song, “You’re copping all my tricks, man, but you don’t do it like me.” There, I’m singing about myself. On one hand I’m being sincere, but on the other hand, I’m like, “I’ve got the same problem, too, as he does.”
AD: The record is about relinquishing the self. In identifying with Dora’s ego are you exploring your own struggle with holding on to defined notions of who you “are?”
Damon McMahon: Absolutely. It’s a combination of admiration and criticism of both him and myself.