Perhaps it will strike some as odd that Amen Dunes – the nom de scène of sorts for singer/songwriter Damon McMahon – would select in the interview below a relatively obscure Canadian black metal as the group he was most impressed with in the past few years.
“Through Donkey Jaw” – the latest Amen Dunes album – was one of the most mysterious and moving collections of musical mantras we had the pleasure to become obsessed with over the recently concluded year, though we had convinced ourselves that these Dunes had more in common with our old friend Syd, rather than the equally quirky Quorthon.
Such is the beauty of our evolving listening experience. With this information in hand (which led to a head-spinning introduction to the poetry of Albert Lozeau), “Through Donkey Jaw” has taken on an altogether different atmosphere on our repeat listens, though an atmosphere no more wanting for mysticism and moving passages.
In advance of his appearance at Austin Psych Fest 5, we’re happy to present this interview with Amen Dunes. Enjoy.
If it’s appropriate to start with a topic just outside of your music, can you tell us a little bit about the photo used on the cover of “Through Donkey Jaw”? What is its origin? It’s an arresting image, not least because our memory of the photo is never quite defined – we see something different each time we look. What were your thoughts when you first saw the photograph and how have those thoughts changed, if at all, now that the photo has a lasting connection to the songs contained therein? Do you find that your impressions of visual art have a notable impact on the music you create?
The photo was taken by the artist Deborah Turbeville. She is a friend of my friend, Tuomas Korpijaakko, who helps with all the Amen Dunes layout. After trying to figure out different possible album covers that didn’t work (like one idea was that we went out and found my mom and asked her to dig a ditch with a shovel … but that didn’t end up working too well), Tuomas called Deborah. She was super sweet and was just like, “Yeah, come over.” So we went up to her penthouse on W. 72nd St., this beautiful old apartment, truly Gothic European layout and decor and everything, and just hung out and looked at old prints of hers. The one that really stood out was the one that ended up on the cover. She just said it was just a photo of a friend of hers while they were at the beach one afternoon. I just thought the image matched the music. I am not super concerned with visual art per se, but I am super concerned with visuals and art and aesthetics. What I mean is I don’t care about the art world, but I am really sensitive to aesthetics. I wouldn’t say it influences my music, but it definitely is part of the music’s message, if that makes sense. I think an album’s visual representation, cover, etc., is super, super important. It basically tells you if the person who is making the music knows what’s up, to be honest, or at least in my opinion. It tells you if they have taste or awareness. So with Amen Dunes albums, I really care about the aesthetic – second of course to the music, though they are interdependent.
What led to your decision to give the album its title, “Through Donkey Jaw”? Does the title itself relate in any specific way to the songs on the album, or perhaps to a particular emotion felt in the recording of the album? We know the donkey jaw primarily from its biblical connection (Judges 15:16 – “Samson said, ‘With the jawbone of a donkey, heaps on heaps; with the jawbone of a donkey I have struck a thousand men.’”) – is there a spiritual dimension to the album title for you?
I originally wanted to call track four on “DIA,” “Through Donkey Jaw.” That’s what the sounds on that song sounded like to me, but the label screwed up and printed and distributed all the working titles instead. So I had this title left over, and came to realize that the sounds that would come through a donkey’s jaw were also like the sounds of my singing voice in a way. Also, I felt a metaphorical kinship with the mule – ha! So I thought this would be a good title for an album of more sincere songs, ones that were more directly biographical.
I think there is an emotional and spiritual dimension to the title in a way, because I kind of see my creative path as “workhorse-like” in many ways, and my singing and music strained and struggled in a slightly similar way, too.
Continuing briefly on the theme of spirituality, one could easily mistake the album’s opening song, “Baba Yaga,” as one of distinct spiritual intent. It’s a brilliant song, unfolding in such a slow and dramatic fashion as to recall an invocation of some sort. Yet the lyrics point to something far more grounded and relatable – “You say I’m negative, but you know that it’s all made up” (and we should point to the very real possibility that our headphones are deceiving us). What can you tell us about the origin of this song? Was there a particular emotion that you were seeking to express when writing the song? Is there any relationship between the song itself and its title? Or is it “all made up”?
The title was just a convenience, but the lyrics were more directly related. I can’t say too much comfortably about what this song is about, but it is a cathartic hate song. A lot of my songs are, but particularly this one …
I think it sounds spiritual because it’s cathartic, but the origins are not spiritual at all. I was living on 18th Street that summer, in a very bad cycle of things, and kind of consumed by a negative environment and kind of scary people and habits. Now that I think back and remember, it was partially a confessional, on my negativity – “eager in my den” – and at the same time hinting that a song could be some kind of redemption from that – “a song is a sign, let it be soft.” This might sound kind of cheesy describing it now, but I don’t really give a shit – it was subconscious (that’s why the lyrics are only half logical – I wrote down whatever I hummed the first time around) and was my reality at that moment.
How much forethought did you put into the sequencing of songs on “Through Donkey Jaw”? Was this a change of pace from previous Amen Dunes releases? The new album seems to contain less improvisation within the songs than its predecessor, while the album as a whole seems to come more unglued as it progresses. Is this intentional, or are we potentially guilty of attaching our own neuroses to your songs?
I always put a ton of effort into the sequencing of albums, so this one was no less involved. It didn’t intentionally become more loose, if that’s how it appears.
This album definitely was intentionally a collection of straighter songs, save two or three tracks on the record. That was the idea – to lay down a collection of more straight ahead songs.
Would you care to comment on the rumor (the rumor that we are attempting to start right now) that you have recently completed recording on a limited-edition cassette tape for Amen Dune Fan Club members, consisting solely of Peter Gabriel covers, entitled “Shock the Donkey”?
Ha – no comment.
What is the most unexpectedly moving musical performance you have seen in the past few years – meaning a performance that you attended with minimal expectations yet came away from being very fulfilled? What was it about that performance that struck you? What do you attempt to capture in a live Amen Dunes performance that may be different than its recorded corollary?
I don’t think I try anything different live than on record. It’s just naturally more stripped down by virtue of the band being a three piece, sometimes just me and a drummer. I guess live it becomes a more tense, minimal kind of thing.
The best shows … the best show I saw was this band from Canada called Akitsa. They are total outsiders in many ways in the black metal world, but they kick the shit out of all the stupid hipster black metal projects I’ve seen. They have their own look – they were super clean Aryan looking dudes – and a total non-metal sound live that is insanely simple powerful and creative. His voice was like Diamanda Galas or something.
They were totally, boldly different from everyone there – they looked like someones uncle or something – but their music was totally unaffected, non-trendy, nasty ass heavy musical shit.
You basically never see bands that are like this – unpretentious, authentic, emotional and heavy. Everyone has some stupid gimmick these days.
How do you think your overall relationship with music has evolved since you first started Amen Dunes, if at all? Do you still find yourself being able to be surprised by new music, or by being introduced to certain music for the first time? Has anybody ever told you that, on certain inflections, your singing voice sounds a bit like Brian Wilson?
No, they haven’t, but thank you.
There are some newer bands I like a lot, like Ouroborus, Actress, Fabulous Diamonds, Inner City, El-G, The Men … but there aren’t that many. I think by virtue of the internet it’s become a lot harder to give music a full enough listen. Which is totally a shame, but its becoming true.
What music have you been listening to lately? If push comes to shove, what is your favorite Beach Boys song of all time?
I’ve been listening to the new Alva Noto record, Hanatarash (today), Eyeless in Gaza (like always), Gareth Williams, Lifetones … Christmas music.
Favorite Beach Boys? “Wind Chimes,” maybe? “Please Let Me Wonder”?
Siddhārtha Gautama (a huge Brian Jonestown Massacre fan, from what we hear) once said the following:
“Rage is a powerful energy that with diligent practice can be transformed into fierce compassion. However much we disagree with our enemies, our task is to identify with them. They too feel justified in their point of view.” Your thoughts? Do you feel you’ve channeled rage into the music of Amen Dunes in any way?
I think he has the right idea, but easier said than done, Siddhartha …
I definitely channel rage into the music of Amen Dunes. In fact, that’s 99% of the influence for Amen Dunes.
What’s next for Amen Dunes?
I’m planning the self-release of an LP or EP of a little more out songs and sound pieces, and then going to start writing and recording the next Amen Dunes record.