We met with Damon McMahon, the progenitor of the enigmatic and sparse genre-transcending project Amen Dunes, in preparation for his new full-length, Through Donkey Jaw, which due out September 16 on Sacred Bones. Also discussed were Emily Dickinson, Hawaiian shirts, and why he would not describe himself as 'the lo-fi Bono' (there were a lot of reasons).
I feel like, with your music, what I've noticed a lot is that the narrative of the process you go through to record is especially important. Everything I read about DIA mentioned that it was recorded in the Catskills, and the Murder Dull Mind EP was something you wrote while you were in China. Where were you when you recorded Through Donkey Jaw and how did that affect it?
I was in the city. I was considering going upstate again, but I kind of wanted to keep it really simple this time. I found this live room of someone's studio on 2nd Street and just rented it for a month and was there every night. It was kind of like a less exciting surrounding story.
But it kind of sounds like the Catskills sucked.So why would you want to go back?
That's what I realized, is that it was totally fucking miserable. I mean, it was practical in that I had no distractions; I could be really loud and it was affordable. It's weird, you know, people always write about the environment, but I think it was more coincidental. That was sort of what was happening in my life, and then I always record, and so, other than the Catskills, I just happened to live in China.
Why did you decide to go to the Catskills?
I had kind of gotten burnt out on New York, I think. I was really burnt out on music and the music scene and everything.
How did getting away from the music scene affect how you felt about music — did it feel more important to you or less important or did it take on a different kind of significance?
I feel like, being away from the music scene — like, in China, I definitely felt that it didn't really affect me at all. So I didn't really care what people were doing. I didn't care about what other bands were doing or what shows were going on or what kind of music people were into. That's why that EP was so simple, I think. It was just my Garage Band and my MacBook, or whatever. I'm not really answering your questions. Why did I go upstate? I wanted to get away from — I'd been in New York for like four or five years pursuing music really seriously and I was just burnt out on it. I wanted just to get the fuck out, you know.
That album has a very claustrophobic feeling to it. It seems like you sort of use music as a meditative process.
Yeah, it's weird to talk about because it sounds melodramatic or something, and people can not like that if they want, but it's sort of just the truth. Like, it was a really kind of shitty time — a difficult situation and time, and so the music kind of reflects that.
It seems like you didn't really talk to anyone…
No! Well, there's no cell phone service and there's no internet.
That's horrible! I can't even imagine that.
There was a landline.
I haven't used a landline since I was like 8.
Yeah, it was super isolated, and, yeah, the music reflects that. So, yeah, for this record, I was in New York City and I was a little more in touch with something — it was more meditative, in a way. I think the DIA record was more fractured and this record was a little more — I don't know what the word would be–
It seemed kind of more spacious. In DIA, it was very cluttered, coiled around itself, and this one seemed more —
Freer? Yeah, it's funny, I never even thought about it too much. One thing that's different about the DIA record is that it was, like, 75% totally improvised. Even the songs, I would just press record and then improvise chords and improvise vocals. There were a couple songs where I had a melody on a tape that I would listen to, relearn, and write a song about. The longest anything took was, like, one afternoon. And most of the shit was just press record and do the whole thing. In this record, they were all (except for the song “Jill” that's on the record) for the most part pre-written. So I'd have these songs, chords, and then I could build on it a little more thoughtfully. This is not the most exciting information, but it would take a couple days per song. I would actually think about what overdubs I wanted to do or have a friend come in. I thought a little bit more, whereas DIA was totally off-the-cuff.
You didn't even have plans to release DIA, right? So how did you go from that — what triggered you wanting to create records for actual consumption rather than just for you?
I didn't really want to do that. I still don't, really. It's so personal for me, and it's like, I'm so grateful for anyone's appreciation of music, because I'm not, like going for that, so I really love it when people get into it. But it's also problematic because it's so personal, so it's weird when people interpret it or expect something of it, or something… I don't know. I don't know if that makes any sense. I was just really happy to see that people liked that DIA record. The label put it out, that was the first thing, and then people responded to it, and I had this opportunity to get my music out there. I like the idea of giving it legs. But, yeah, it's weird making music for consumption.
It seems like it's something you do as a passion, and all of a sudden it becomes this viable thing.
I don't feel like I'm trying to do it to be cool or anything, you know what I mean? It's weird, I don't know, like, what's my agenda or how do I cater to my audience.
When you went to China, you were working as a journalist, right?
Yeah, I was working as a freelance writer. I didn't really work that much, it was really just so fucking cheap there. I lived in a really shitty apartment. I paid like $175 a month, and other expenses were even more minimal, so I didn't have to work that much. Any time I had or any money I had I would spend on traveling. I spent like half my time traveling and the other half working as a freelancer.
Did you travel mostly in China?
Yeah, I never did leave China. I don't know why; I wish I had.
What was your favorite thing that you saw in China?
That I saw in China? [laughter] I guess… It's a hard question. I think I really took to just being there. The energy, the people, and the energy of life there was really appealing.
Do you speak Chinese?
I still have a long way to go, but yeah. My first job was that I was working for this Chinese record label. That's why I first went there. I wanted to start a subsidiary for experimental American music.
Is there a big experimental music base there?
It's not big, but there's a growing demand. It's still developing. It's why I first went there, but it was, like, impossible. I'm not a business person.
I was really happy when I first downloaded your album and saw that you had a song called “Baba Yaga.”
That song is kinda old, and I don't know why I called it “Baba Yaga.” I don't know, I think it related to the feel of the song somehow. You know, I think someone else mentioned that. It was kind of an after thought, actually.
My favorite thing about the Baba Yaga is that she travels around in a giant mortar and pestle. She eats children and rows around in a giant mortar and pestle.
Really? I didn't know that. I knew the eating children part, but I didn't know that. Does she grind them up in her mortar and pestle?
I don't know, actually. That would make her a lot more sinister.
Yeah, if she did that in her mode of transportation…
So how long have you been back in New York?
I've been back for two years. In 2009 I came back.
What have you been doing since then?
Have you been touring at all?
A little bit. I mean, I toured when the record came out, but it was pretty light. I didn't really commit to it as a live thing for a while. But I finally am. I'm hoping to tour in the States in October, and then there's this Belgian label called Crack that's putting out a split LP with this other band, Warmer Climate. So they were talking about my coming to Europe. I did that like two years ago as well.
What was your favorite place in Europe?
I like Brussels. Yeah, Brussels is pretty cool. It's kind of a shitty town, but there are some serious music people out there. And the vibe in Spain is amazing. I'm pretty pysched to go back.
Who are you most surprised to be compared to musically?
Surprised? I always think that there are really generic descriptions, generic comparisons maybe. Which is fine. People always reference psych-folk stuff, and that's not at all where I'm coming from. A lot of stuff on the DIA record is totally psych-folk, and the Murder Dull Mind record, and this one too a little bit.
There's a lot more to it…
Yeah, totally. And I think, when people are real music fans or whatever, they tend to make more nice, specific comparisons. I really love when people are real music people and they're like “oh, this sounds like that,” because I am going for something more specific. Syd Barrett or something, it's like, you know, when I was 14 I loved Syd Barrett, and he probably really influenced me when I write songs, but, like, I haven't thought about Syd Barrett since I was 17 years old.
You haven't thought about him once?
Not really! I still love him, but I don't know.
When people are talking about psychedelic music, they tend to use drug comparisons a lot.
Well, I do think that drugs are a big influence. I mean, it's not “trying to make druggy music,” but I think it is a big influence.
I think there's something almost religious-seeming about your music. It sounds kind of like someone in a trance.
Totally. That's really where I'm coming from, and I think that, like, drugs and that kind of perspective or element are kind of the same thing for me. It's all very intentional, I can say that. It's personally comforting. It's all about personal comfort for me.
Is that one of the reasons you feel kind of weird broadcasting your music?
I don't mind revealing personal things, but I feel weird having the music need to or attempt to live up to people's expectations. Do you know what I mean? That's a little funny. I'm not trying to attempt anything. I'm not trying to prove anything. It's not meant for people's approval or meant for people's accolades, or something. I feel like an audience or critics expect that that's your motivation: that you're going for some angle or some goal. And I'm not trying to do that. I wanna make cool music that's beautiful to me and heavy to me, but, other than that — does that make sense or no?
So, it's like a challenge. I don't mind the drug stuff, I think that's fine.
From what I've read in interviews, to me you came across as a very serious musician. It seemed like you were very invested in your work. Talking to you, though, it seems like you have this lighter side that didn't really come across.
That's cool. I'm interested in how it comes across. I think a lot of those interviews, too, were written, which is really weird and really stiff.
It seems much more serious written.
Yeah, totally. And I don't think music's all serious. All of my favorite bands always took the piss out of themselves. They were always shitty somehow, or had a sense of humor. So I kind of felt like this record had a sense of humor to it. I don't know if people will pick that up.
I think definitely more so than your first one or your EP…
Maybe. It's just as serious, but… I don't know. Some bands that I really love are both serious and they have a sense of humor. A band like Chrome or something, or Flipper. Any of these bands that are a little irreverent, sort of. I don't know. But yeah, I don't think I'm too serious. I'm serious about what I do, but…
And with all of the religious comparisons, are you at all religious? I noticed you're wearing a cross necklace.
I was raised Jewish, you know, but it's sort of like… I took this off for a while. It can be interpreted as a “fuck you” because I'm not religious, I'm not Catholic. It's severe, kind of. I have my own, personal kind of process. It doesn't have anything to do with organized religion or anything. It's my own kind of thing. Like, I've appropriated it for myself. My music is kind of like that; it's kind of religious in its own, personal kind of way.
I read that one of your influences for Murder Dull Mind was being away from New York, being nostalgic for it, and that nostalgia impacted you a lot. Did you experience a reverse nostalgia coming back, kind of reconciling the idealized version that you missed with what it's actually like?
Yeah, definitely. I think I was nostalgic for America more than New York. I mean, New York a little bit. Being an American in China, you identify a lot more with that weird world… Yeah, coming back to New York was a little bit of harsh reality. It was a little bit of a shock, you know.
How so was it shocking?
I mean, just like, the vast majority of the population in China don't care about the things that young people in New York care about. It's like a strange bubble. So, after a while, you start to blind yourself with what people in your environment care about. It's weird to come back and hear people talking about, like, cool shit. You know, I just wasn't in that zone for a long time. I was living in, like, municipal housing in China. I wasn't really around cool shit. It was definitely a little rough. You know, the bummer about New York in ways is you stay here a month and you get absorbed again.
Do you feel like you've changed a lot since you got back from China?
Mm-hm. I feel like I've retained, like, my vibe, but I definitely became part of New York again. Which kind of bums me out sometimes.
What does DIA mean?
It was a nickname my friends gave me. And then I wrote this song where one of the lyrics was “you're a d-i-a, you're a diamond,” so DIA was just the beginning of diamond, and then my friends started calling me DIA. It was a nickname people started using. So the record Amen Dunes' DIA was me, kind of. That's what I thought of when I was writing DIA. No one knows that, really.
Now they do…
Haha, yeah, now they do.
And you do all your own album art, right?
Yeah. The cover for the DIA record was a still from a Maya Deren movie that I just, like, photocopied. But, yeah, I did the art. And Murder Dull Mind was a photograph that I took in China. And then this one, though — I was super lucky — a friend worked for this photographer named Deborah Turbeville, who is this fucking amazing photographer, and we didn't have cover art, and she was like, “oh, yeah, why don't you come over to my apartment and see if you like any of my stuff,” so we got to go to her insane apartment and look through all these old prints of hers. And her photos are all throughout, on the sleeve of the record and everything.
Through Donkey Jaw is a very rural sounding, non-'cool shit' name.
Yeah. Through Donkey Jaw, I was going to name a song on DIA that, because I thought it sounded like donkeys, like — what is the verb for what donkeys do?
Braying! You're right. So it sounded like donkeys braying, this one song.
It's called “Fleshless Esta–” whatever it's called. The fourth track on DIA. But the label fucked that up. That was a temporary title, “Fleshless Esta Mira.” They published that without using the correct song title, so I wanted to use “Through Donkey Jaw” for something.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Swarthmore.
What did you study?
I studied Chinese, but I was an English Lit major. It was kind of a bullshit major. I was an English Lit and Performance double major.
I didn't have to do a thesis.
What is performance? Like, music performance?
No, theater. Experimental theater. Not acting, the actual historical aspect. Like Polish in New York experimental theater. I just basically fucked around in college.
Are you at all involved in theater now? Do you see plays a lot?
No, most of it really sucks. There's one guy — I don't know shit, really, about it — but there are two good groups. Richard Maxwell's pretty awesome, but it's not really theater. It's more like performance, theater-ish. It's unbelievable how little I've retained. I don't know how that's possible.
Because you obviously have a theoretical background, do you have a special way you view the act of performing music?
I don't know. I don't think of it, really. It's weird. I think it's cathartic. That's the only thing I think about. For me, personally. I don't feel like I'm entertaining anybody. I feel like I'm imposing myself on people most of the time. It's always been my own thing, so I'm surprised that people even want to hear it. And I'm kind of doing it for myself, though. I just do it because I need to do it, and it's great that people like it.
You feel a compulsion to write music?
A compulsion to perform it, yeah. And an obligation to write it.
What's your favorite place to perform?
I like playing at Glasslands a little bit. Performing kind of makes me uncomfortable in general, so it's conflicted. I have to be in the right zone. I'm weird about it. Sometimes I'm psyched and sometimes I don't like it. I like being on tour because then you get really comfortable. You have to get a hold of the right mindset.
It doesn't get exhausting at all?
No. The more I do it, the more I like it. It's kind of like some physical exercise.
What's your tour set-up like?
Me and a drummer normally, but now I've added a third member. So it's me, a guitar player, and a kind of keyboard-synth guy.
What contemporary bands do you like?
I like Gary War, and he's a good friend of mine. My friends have this band called Coconuts that I like. I like Sightings a lot. I like a lot more random shit.
It seems like you have a wide variety of influences — like Ethiopian music —
Yeah, yeah. Actually, I'm covering these Ethiopian songs for this Crack EP. It did my own shitty versions, note for note. I learned every instrument and every word. It sounds like a shitty version of it.
How did you get into Ethiopian music?
Actually, where I'm staying now, my friend's place — his upstairs roommate was this big Ethiopian music fan and he always had these tapes. It was just when I moved back from China, and I would wake up at, like, four in the morning when he came home and would be blasting Ethiopian music.
And that made you like it? That would make me hate it.
It was good enough that it worked!