Amen Dunes on “Freedom”

Microphone Mathematics

Jul 16, 2018 Web Exclusive
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I found Damon McMahon on the southern route of his U.S. tour, headed to Louisville from Nashville in a van with his bandmates listening to him answer questions about, among other things, them, which is strange. "I've learned to not care about that too much," chuckled McMahon when he finally had a moment to himself. The singer/songwriter and conductor behind Amen Dunes' sensually canonizing record Freedom has cultivated genuine fraternity between those he makes and plays music with, so there's not much to hide. The contributors, some of whom travel with its showcase, helped McMahon realize a vision of a record that has enlivened many a 2018 listening situation. Freedom is richly tangible, with its share of deep grooves that unlock perhaps the most profound of music's evocations–movement. Of body and of soul. Just listen to the tone setting groove of the first track "Blue Rose" and you'll know what you're in for.

Above the sounds of the road and albeit over the phone, I listened with fascination to the distinction in a singer's speaking voice, realizing how hard it must be to modulate in order to convey the weight of words through a song. Throughout the new album, the weight of McMahon's lyrics draw from reconciliation with the tougher fabrics of his past, punched through with verve. You can hear his heart in it, and it doesn't matter that you can't always make out what he's saying. In whichever mode of voice, McMahon's is inviting. I pictured myself through his transparent vignettes, and how I'd meet the moments he described, a testament to his relatability. Here was the big takeaway: As much as getting something where it needs to be is about autonomy, it also takes a relinquishing of how you see yourself for it to be pure.

To this idea McMahon attributes the balance struck on his new work, where he positioned himself as the fulcrum between the free intuition he coasted on for much of his early recordings and an industrious process of locating cohesion this time. So the start to finish play is gratifying both from the standpoint of hearing a group of players catching and riding grooves and also of listening to precise execution, lending to thorough structural soundness.

McMahon makes no bones about referencing the sweet period on the cusp of the '80s when groups were welcoming in simulated instrumentation via keyboards, giving birth to much that still sets our playlists aglow. This sound co-mingles with tones of warm classic psychedelia on Freedom. Thanks to touches of misty reverb echoes that suggest a memory and the ethereal whispers from keyboard player Panoram, Freedom conjures the soundtrack to a movie character's life. And that's precisely what McMahon wanted. The instruments assume the form of paint brushes that with each song color in a lush scene 10 yards ahead of your every step.

During this retro glide that exhilarates like an unplanned run in the woods, Dire Straits pays visits through Mark Knopfler guitar articulations perfectly embedded in the background. Songs swell in conclusion as with "Believe" where those very guitar lines glisten in a drawn-out finale that will lower your head, ducking the soulful harmonica that sweeps into trim the top off. It's that familiar full-body tingle you get in the climax of a War on Drugs song and washes over the final passage of "Skipping School," where McMahon's practiced voice rises up to meet the crescendo like a man on fire. Then there are the surprises like on album closer "L.A." with its terrific send off to a song you thought was over. It jumps back into a full sprint after cooling off, somehow blending the energies of Genesis, Tears for Fears, and Depeche Mode in one last hurrah.

Freedom is a physical experience and speaking with its creator was a fulfilling one. It's pretty damn cool when you can get the goods on something that makes you feel good, and from the person whose express purpose was to do just that. The bonus was the realization that while a good interview allows you to get to know your subject, a better one might be when you come away knowing more about yourself.

Damon McMahon (Amen Dunes): We're headed to Louisville. We just played The Ryman Theatre in Nashville, the original Grand Ole Opry.

Charles Steinberg (Under the Radar): Wow. What was that like?

It was pretty magical man. All those [Grand Ole Opry] dudes are totally my heroes, ya know. So it was pretty special. We're on tour with Fleet Foxes. We were on tour with them earlier in the spring, then we did our own tour in Europe and now we're back with them again. We're six weeks into it now, so it's almost done. I'm going home in a week so that's good.

Not to be presumptuous but I imagine this album has to be fun to tour with.

Yeah, it is man! That was almost one of my intentions [this time], to make music that would feel good to play. It doesn't always happen live, ya know what I mean? Live is not easy and it's a new band so it's been kind of tricky. But yeah these songs are definitely fun to play.

So the people you brought in to tour this album, you guys hadn't played much before.

No, not really. I mean there are two guys that played on the record that are with me and the others I had never played with before. Delicate Steve who plays guitar, he's been on most of these tours and then a guy called Panoram on keyboard, he's done most of the touring too.

This album seemed more collaborative than in the past.

I've always [been collaborative]. I mean, the early records were just me. I played all the instruments. But the last two records were with a group of other musicians...For this album, it was seeking out people who I really admired and I thought could bring really good stuff to the music you know? Letting people who are really good just do their thing was kind of my approach.

It seems to me when I hear stories about how an album came together, the current music industry on the alternative level seems really fraternal. You've worked with quite an array of fellow artists. You seem to have an unusual level of fraternity in the alt world.

Haha. That's cool to hear. With the dudes I do records with it is like that because it's complicated music to play and takes a certain kind of ability and mindset, so It's hard to find people to do that on record. But once you do the bond is pretty thick, ya know? I've been playing with this guy Parker Kindred on drums on and off for 12 years so we've had a very long-standing, deep fraternal bond. It goes beyond that even. And then this guy Jordie Wheeler, I've been playing with him on and off for eight years and that bond is very deep too. It's not like a punk rock band, you know what I mean?

Also, Nick Zinner [Yeah Yeah Yeahs] came in right? And this guy Panoram, who I hadn't heard of before.

Yeah, he was pretty unknown. I'm pretty specific with what I'm drawn to in other people's musicianship and if I like smell it, I kind of go after it. I try to do it with respect and love for what they do. I think I'm pretty selective with who I bring into the recording process, but once I do they can do whatever they want. So that's maybe where that fraternity comes from.

There's a real cohesion throughout the album. It feels whole. I've gotten that from your albums before. Certainly on Love, but there was a distinct leap in production level and expansiveness on this album and every song seemed to play off the one that preceded it. Is it hard to achieve that with all these different hands in it?

That's an interesting question. It is, but my main job in the studio is to be like a conductor, you know what I mean? That's really what I'm doing. I'm basically suggesting things to a degree and then letting people go from there. Then I sort of reduce it or redirect it, so I think the cohesion kind of comes from my influence on those parts. The other thing is that the people who worked on the record are so fuckin' talented man. You have Parker playing drums and Steve playing guitar and Panoram doing his synth and Chris Cody recording it and Craig Silvey mixed it. So if you have all these dudes, they're such heavy hitters. It's like a dream team man. I can't fuckin play drums or play synth like that.... But the cohesion [comes from] an overarching vision I had for it and I would never let anything get on record that didn't fit that vision. That's what it comes down to.

Yeah totally, and I think you mentioned somewhere that you had a more serious and focused approach on this record. Not to suggest that past records weren't focused. Was it like you had to bring your A game because all those people were so awesome?

Or I had to bring my A game because that's what I was demanding of myself. You're right though. There have been seven Amen Dunes albums, five LPs, and the first five releases were not focused. They were pure inspiration. Everything was first takes. But the last two albums I was like "Okay, I wanna start doing the different kind of music that I like, which is pop music." I was inspired by pop musicians and those people have inspiration and focus. This was the first time I had both of those elements. It wasn't enough to just have a cool idea.

Yeah, that dichotomy really stood out to me. Like the opening quote from Agnes Martin, who by the way is one of my favorite artists, saying "I don't have any ideas myself, I have a vacant mind." I love that you referenced her. I realized that I didn't know much about her approach. The vacant mind. The way I interpret it is that's where natural inspiration comes from. But then letting things unfold freely from a vacant mind is posed against your serious approach where a lot of thought is going into what you're doing.

I think the vacant mind guides the focus. It utilizes you. It's kind of about what's the mustard seed? Am I using my will and focus because I want to be successful or is the motivating force that vacant mind energy. I think you can be focused and still be pure if you're being driven originally and primarily by the vacant mindstate, you know what I mean? For example, on that song "Believe," I took like a year and a half to finish that. I did it over and over and over again and the thing that was guiding me was making it mathematical. It wasn't about making it cool or sound like [a particular band] or sell records. It was about how can I use my will to make it more mathematically correct.

So it was like you hit a certain feel straight away and then you were sculpting that feel? 

Exactly. That's what it's like, at least when you're doing it right.

Well, I really love that song. It struck me a little like Steve Gunn. It doesn't sound like him but I feel the same thing when I listen to "Believe."

I've never listened to Steve Gunn but he listens to the same songwriters that I like. He likes a lot of good traditional songwriters.

Beyond the traditional guys, you mentioned other people in the pop sphere as influencers of this album. Like Tom Petty and Michael Jackson. What about Dire Straits or Hall and Oates? 

Definitely Dire Straits. I'm a huge Dire Straits fan. That came into play more on the guitar lines than the songs but yeah. That first Dire Straits record is totally overlooked. That song "Dracula" has a lot of Dire Straits in it.

What about Billy Joel? Well, maybe that's a bad example.

No, it's not a bad example. It makes sense, man. Because if I am taking cues from those guys they all have that thing in common. Billy Joel is like mathematical Tom Petty. I'm not particularly a Billy Joel fan but it doesn't matter because the influence was their precision. That's what I was inspired by. They all kind of do it in the same way.

What were the early electronic influences and how that factored into how Panoram contributed?

Like Aphex Twin and Massive Attack and that kind of thing I grew up with. They're like The Beatles of that genre in a way. They're the most interesting and melodically complex and those were the things I had in mind. That song "L.A." is a note for note recreation of an Aphex Twin song as far as drums go. We like reproduced it with real drums.

Which one?

"Acrid Avid Jam Shred" from I Care Because You Do. If you listen to the drums at the end of "L.A." they build in the same kind of way. It was fun to do.

I saw this Capitol Theatre Instagram post the other day asking people's favorite album of the year so far and Freedom was mentioned a lot man. I thought that was pretty cool. 

That is very cool.

You've had some tough media experiences in your past so now that you're getting a kind of universal praise, are you wary of it. Is it like a dog that's been hit and abused and is protective when you reach out to pet it?

Ha. There's a little bit of that but I think after doing it for so long and having had my ass handed to me so many times, I don't expect it to make me feel good anymore. You know what I mean? I'm grateful [for the positive feedback] but I don't indulge it. If you're chasing good reviews and reading all of them, you'll never be satisfied. So I just learned to not pay attention to the bad reviews and also not pay attention to the good ones either. It's such a rabbit hole man. People sent me the Pitchfork one and I looked at it and took it in for a minute and then I was like "Alright...[shrug]" and then put it aside. It's so bad for your brain.

At what point though do you just acknowledge that you made a really good record and don't question it and trust all of the positive things people are saying? Wasn't this an album that you made for people?

Totally. That was my main motivating force.

That's something that artists won't always admit to. Like it's more internal.

[Making something for people] is something that's important to me in my life. I happen to be a musician but if I was like a carpenter or something, I would probably apply that same mentality to that work. This is a good job for it because it can affect people in a positive way.

It's a great album to listen to. It's a very physical album to me. I've been humming and dancing or skipping along to it. You don't just feel like a passive listener.

That's cool, to hear. That was one of my main goals. Me and Parker kind of wanted to make it like a dance record.

And embracing melody more. "Skipping School" stood out to me in that respect. There have to be songs that you can hum along to right?

Absolutely. Those melodies that kind of feel like you've heard them before...but you haven't. [Damon calls off to someone.] "Hey Greg, I think they're waving us over there." Sorry, they're loading us into the venue and I stepped out to move the barriers so the van could come through.

Okay. Do you need to get off?

No, I'm good on time. It was kind of weird, I was just in the van with the band this whole time [we've been talking]. So yeah, the "Skipping School" melody. Again, a good melody is mathematical. It's structural man. That's all a melody is. People kind of think it's the notes. Bob Dylan always said that melody was the only thing that was important in his songs. Lyrics are totally unimportant. He was like, "Sure I write cool lyrics, but only because of the rhythmic dynamics. My lyrics are tools to create phrasing." That is exactly what I think too. "Skipping School" is a relatively monochromatic melody but works like it's mathematical. Every guitar line and every drum beat. That's how I made this record. Have a song with a melodic and rhythmic core and then build all the architecture on top of it.

One of the lyrics is indicative of that: "Powerful two-chord blues coming through from me to you."

Yeah, yeah. That's the idea. That's music.

Would you say that was always your approach or was that something very specific to this process?

That's always been my approach but the old records weren't recorded as well so it was more obscure you know? I wish they were recorded better. I definitely didn't intend to record them like that. That was just the best I could do at the time.

Yeah, well to me it's not like they were bad recordings, just different.

It works but trust me I wish I could have fuckin' recorded them better. It is what it is.

It seems like you have something in mind that you're trying to accomplish with each album. If each album is a search, what was something you found by accident on this one that you perhaps weren't looking for?

Well, I'll tell you. One of the things that an album is about to me is an abandonment of what I want it to be about. That was the whole lesson of the record. There's this guy Ramana Maharshi who has kind of become one of my main dudes. He kind of fell into my life which is how that always happens. His whole thing is not identifying with all of the things that we say is us. So I originally starting making this record saying, "Cool, I'm going to make a record that's about all the stuff that I came from. About being a half-Jew from New York and half Irish from Philadelphia. About having an abusive father and having an alcoholic mother. About being this and that and the kids I grew up with that got into drugs." All this stuff I was clinging to that I actually should have been letting go of. So the epiphany for me as I was writing the record was, "No dude, that's not what you should be singing about. You should be singing about letting go of all that stuff."

Yeah...Yeah!

Ya know? So that was truly a massive epiphany. I learned something as I was making it, that all the things that I thought were important were not so important. So this album is basically a musical depiction of my spiritual experience. That's essentially what this is. I don't say that too often. I thought people would ask me that more but they never do, but just to be simple about it, that's sort of what this album is displaying.

I gotcha. Would you say that's reflected in the way you sing on Freedom? I noticed the vocal inflection and projection was different than in the past.

That's interesting. I think it actually is man. I've also gotten better at singing and I've learned more, but I think it is probably that too.

Because when you say you're letting go of something and eschewing it, you're saying "I'm standing up to you" in a way. Like, "I'm confronting you and addressing you and saying you're not as big of a force as maybe my mind can sometimes make you out to be," and the way the singing comes across is that confrontation. There seems to be more of an attitude in your projection.

There's definitely more of an attitude. That attitude is kind of accessing that character or that side of me. The kid who's skipping school or the guy in "L.A." That's where the attitude comes from. And in the nature of the singing, that's just me getting better at singing, I think. Or it might be more open [than that]!

Well, I have one more question for you. Kind of an overarching question. When you make such a leap in your sound and the way you produce an album and the song structure and all the things you're referencing in your lyrics, do you feel like you had to unpack this album more than others you've done?

Absolutely man. There's a lot to unpack. And I'm learning how much to leave it to the listener and how much to explain, ya know?

Have you felt that in all the explaining you've reached a different understanding of the work itself?

This one was so thorough man that I think I knew the answers going into it. I thought about this so much. It's a concept album. Everything was so thought out that I knew from the beginning what it was all about. But addressing that is a whole other challenge.

It's gotta be. I've loved reading about and hearing your takes on it. There are a lot of different points of interest in the way it all came together. I just want to tell you, it's great. It's one of my favorite albums in a while. Thanks for unpacking it once again.

Thank you, man. These were some great questions, which always makes it more enjoyable.

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