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Interview: Amen Dunes is Punk in ‘Love’

Amen Dunes has a knack for music that forces trancelike introspection or solipsism, though the psychedelic tag attached to the sound never really made sense to me. The music is more of a nature-inspired folk pop. Fronted by principal songwriter and vocalist Damon McMahon, Amen Dunes have just released Love, another introspective album — but this time there’s more willingness to share. This is clear through the lyricism of the songs on the record and behind the scenes (members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Iceage contributed to it). When I meet McMahon in Greenpoint, it’s clear that he’s just as willing to share in real life as we discuss everything from staying true to yourself, disillusion with New York City living, and punk ideals. More below.

In a past interview you talked about staying true to yourself, which is something I can really relate to. I wanted to ask, how hard is that? Especially since you’ve been living in New York pretty much your whole life and this city expects you to adapt to it.

It’s really hard because you’re right, even the city changes as an entity or something like that. With music it’s always hard, it always has costs to be yourself. It’s so much easier to get into the slip stream of the majority of people in New York and just do what they do and be appeasing. There’s always resistance here, if you want to be yourself, weirdly enough. It’s a place that attracts artistic people but I feel there’s groupthink going on.

Yeah, for sure. Everyone’s trying to be an individual but just one specific kind of individual.

[Laughs] Yeah, totally. Which group individual am I going to be?

Do you find that unwavering and being true to yourself gets easier as you get older?

Yeah, totally easier. I can just speak through musically. Dealing with so much rejection over the years from just being myself. It would have been so much easier to observe the few musical elements that were popular or trendy and then just do exactly that to stay safe. I’ve seen musicians do that but eventually people recognize that and don’t respect it. It’s gotten easier over time but I’ve had to go through cycles of people not being pleased with my wanting to do what I wanted to do.

You could say that kind of happened with Sacred Bones and Spoiler.

With Spoiler you could say that no one even noticed enough to reject it [laughs]. Spoiler happened late enough so that people who like Amen Dunes would be open to that. It was less of a rejection because it happened later on. But in a way it was a rejection because it was weird in an uncool way. No one really wanted to mess with it.

How did you take that kind of reception? Did that make you think that you should take other people’s ideas into consideration?

No, because I always have one or two people that I always trust. If they think it’s good then I can disregard everybody else. With the main Amen Dunes songwriting, if I like it, it’s good enough. I really don’t care what other people think.

So going from Spoiler to Love I feel like Love is a lot warmer. Even just from the title, Love. I know you collaborated with people for the first time on this. Did the warmth come by because of the collaboration or was that already there?

That was already there I think. When I started writing it and figuring it out I knew I wanted to do an album that was more open, warmer, and generous. The other ones are definitely not that. It was a conscious choice. I think that led to being more open to collaborating.

You called the album Love because you’re on Sacred Bones and there’s all these “dark” bands and you were trying to outpunk them, which I thought was great. It also reminded me of this Anarchy 101 type-book. It’s called Days of War, Nights of Love. There’s one section of the book that says “falling in love is the ultimate act of revolution.” Does that relate to you at all?

Yeah, it’s very rebellious. Love is the opposite of what it means to be cool. The thing is, this record still has its barbs in there because I like to be antagonistic even though I’m being open. In general, it’s rebellious because it’s open — and with loving the guard is down.

I also noticed that the lyrics are a lot easier to decipher.

I don’t sing them any different. It’s recorded more clearly so you can probably hear them better. On this record the lyrics are a lot less abstract, they’re more lyrics that I actually wrote out. I spent a lot of time on them. I just would love people to read the lyrics sheet, that’s my one wish for this record. If that happens, I’ll be happy. I hope people read the lyrics and listen to the music, that’s so important to me.

Why is it important to you? What do you want them to get out of it?

The lyrics say what the song is about initially and then they can make it their own. It’s like code. You can hear it and it’ll be one thing but the lyrics will flip a song on its side. When it’s like, “love me do, love me do” maybe that doesn’t do much [laughs]. But the people that I love, I remember when I was a kid I would listen to these albums and read the lyrics and be like, holy shit! That’s what he’s saying? It flips it on its head.

I especially got that with “Lonely Richard.”

That’s why I put the lyrics online. I wanted people to see what I’m talking about. I think it adds meaning. Almost all the songs are like that. Except for “Rocket Flare” and “Lilac In Hand.” “Lilac In Hand” is just about a drug dealer, actually. That’s one of the singles that came out and people think “oh that’s a sunny, love song.” But not at all, it’s a euphemism for copping drugs. The lyrics aren’t very plentiful in that song but even that one has a little inversion.

That changes the meaning behind the video too. To me, “Lilac In Hand” was just about walking around the city alone, in your head. Now it’s just like, he’s going around doing his rounds.

Yeah, totally. All the characters in that song are different people with different lives.

Tell me about the album art for Love.

All the art for Amen Dunes has been done by one guy over the years. His name is Tuomas Korpijaakko, it’s his photo. It’s his girlfriend.

You lived in China for a while. Since moving to New York, I haven’t lived elsewhere but I’ve traveled to different places and it always gives me a different view of the city. How does actually living somewhere else affect that for you?

To be honest, it actually made it harder to be back here. It made New York feel more superficial to be honest. In China no one was concerned with what jeans you bought. The concerns people have in New York are very different from the concerns of the rest of the world. It’s always a little bit of a bummer to come back.

How do you turn that into a positive?

[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know… to be determined. I mean, my family is from here, my friends are here, my community is here. When I came back from China that’s when I recorded all those Ethio songs. I feel like it was kind of nostalgia for China with those recordings. It channels out somehow.

You consider traveling to be “true freedom.” Can you elaborate on that?

I feel like when I’m traveling I am disembodied from my normal self. I’m kind of a vessel that’s observing and get filled up with things. You kind of lose your identity. Even if you’re in Ohio! Particularly though when you go to really different places. China was years of my self totally evaporating. It was kind of cool [laughs].

I wanted to ask you about punk in general. With this record your working with members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Iceage, whose sounds are more towards the punk aesthetic. What do you take from punk ideology?

I take a lot. When I was a kid I just liked people who were antagonistic by being different and smart. It didn’t even have to be loud music. Punk rock is very important to me. Not in a “I have patches” and “listen to fast, loud, three-chord music” kind of way. What I take from it is do not look for approval from others. In fact, the more opposing to leadership status quo you can be in your art, the better. I don’t mean blasting your amps, walking offstage, and not playing. Punk doesn’t mean being an asshole to me, it means opposing group mentality. I don’t want to be a dick. This record is aiming for the opposite. I want lots of people to enjoy it. It’s May and really nice! I want lots of people to feel good from listening to Love.

Amen Dunes is celebrating the release of Love tonight at Baby’s All Right. Advance tickets are available here.

Amen Dunes

Interview and photos by Alex Martinez. She is probably sitting somewhere drinking black coffee, staring at a wall. Send her pictures of puppies @xxalexm.

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