On April 28, I sat in the back garden of a swank Brooklyn grub spot in front of a weird plate of fried eggs, hummus, and tabbouleh. Across the table was Damon McMahon, the curly-haired guy behind Amen Dunes, one of the only bands in this borough writing songs that don't sound like they're for tiny baby children.
It’s hard to find music for adults these days, mostly because the buying public is composed of people who think being a grown-up means buying a chambray buttondown at J. Crew. But Damon’s band is a way for him to figure out how to age elegantly; as a joke, he and his band mate Parker Kindred used to refer to their style as “man music.”
Still, Damon can sometimes come across as a slightly damaged kid. Every time I hang out with him there’s something seriously wrong with his body. When we met a few years ago, he was nursing some semi-paralyzed vocal chords. The next time, he had a problem with his wrists. Now, he’s developing tinnitus.
Over breakfast, his ENT doctor kept calling to make an appointment to check out his recent hearing loss. These are pretty normal occupational hazards for a musician, but I still feel for the guy. He needs to be in peak physical condition: his new record, Love, has got the indie rock critical establishment spinning their heads around and 360-degree vomiting in excitement.
Their gibbering praise is—for once—deserved. The record is fantastic, built on crystal-clear melodies sung through Damon's crisp, warbling voice. I've had it on repeat since I got the promo copy, so I decided to chat with Damon about drugs, cowboys, and failure, all of which are covered extensively on the new LP.
VICE: What do you want to talk about?
Damon McMahon: I want to talk about the new record, because I’ve been working on it forever and it’s all I can think about.
I’ve been listening to it so much. It’s super good, really drugged-out vibes on this one.
Yeah. That’s pretty much the formula for Amen Dunes. I try to make music that I can get high from, because I don’t use drugs anymore.
I just developed a ton of awful addictions, and I’m more into being free these days. That’s what heroin does, and that’s also what god does.
Are you religious?
No, I don’t practice any religion, but I try to feel connected with the universe. This record is all about that. All the records are about that, but they used to be more evil, because I was pissed off. For me, music is the closest thing I have to religion—that idea of feeling free.
Do you feel like your music has a freeing effect?
I feel like when it’s at its best, it has a narcotic effect.
Are there any tricks you’ve developed on the new record to make your music more narcotic?
Totally. I learned a lot of tricks from early American music. I try to keep things reserved, and contain the emotion without blowing it. There also has to be a lot of self-respect. People who made truly narcotic music had a lot of self-respect and confidence.
You mean like the confidence of a doctor writing a prescription?
No, not really. I mean more like a drug dealer. A dealer wants his clients coming back—he doesn’t want to blow his load. He metes out just enough to keep his buyers high. Psychedelic musicians are like that, too. When I was 14, I bought The Velvet Underground & Nico, and that was just so self-respecting. There’s nothing too flashy, no showmanship, no trying to please anyone, nothing garish. You barely get any real emotions, but you get flashes of human feelings. Lou Reed only sounds semi-happy, or semi-sad. You can trust him.
It’s like cats and dogs. I don't like dogs because they don’t respect themselves. I like cats because they don’t love you too much. They don’t give it all away at once, like a drug dealer or a good musician.
OK. So what kind of effect are you shooting for with your new record?
Like I said, I want people to feel free. A lot of these songs are pure cowboy worship. My whole life I’ve gravitated towards stoic, emotional people. These are horrible examples of how to be a human, but they do it with style.
All my musical heroes, definitely. Alex Chilton, Tim Buckley, Lee Mavers from the La’s—a band that probably no one has heard of. There’s a deep elegance in failure, and most of the new record is about that. Failure is only temporary. You’re only a failure when you try to do something with all of your being. It doesn’t happen when you just half-ass something.
So do you find yourself looking up to failures?
Totally. I actually dedicated this album to them. In the liner notes there’s a circle of text that’s an ode to all my failed heroes.
Are you angry?
No, not really anymore. It’s great actually. I mean, I like using venom and nastiness as a tool, but I’m not really angry. A lot of really subversive bands—like Throbbing Gristle or Death in June—they aren’t really angry. There’s humor in their music. They’re being antagonistic to take the piss. Real anger is resentment and bitterness. I hate that.
Who do you consider to be a really angry artist?
Joan Didion, definitely. I’ve always hated her writing because it sounds super bitter.
You can pick up Damon's new record, Love, through Sacred Bones. If you live in New York, he's having an album release party tonight at Baby's All Right with Hubble and Helm. More info on that right here.
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