Up until this point Amen Dunes had always been a fragmentary, illusive concept, one captures in glimpses, something spotted out the corner of your eye. New Yorker Damon McMahon had built four fine albums, four records that suggested that something greater could come.
And now it has. New album ‘Freedom’ is magnificent; lyrically bold, musically daring, it’s his most ambitious, open, outward-reaching project to date, the moment that Amen Dunes stopped lingering in the shadows and finally emerged blinking into the beautiful light of day.
Clash catches Damon on the phone shortly before he soundchecks for his latest London show. Taking place at South London’s Omeara, it’s long since sold out; a sign that when Amen Dunes wants to communicate, then people will listen.
“I did the numbers,” he tells us, “and I was like: oh wow, I’ve played London seven or eight times already! So it’s been a few times, and it’s good to come back.”
“The audiences have been very, very supportive, which has been a big help,” Damon continues. “It gives you a purpose. They’ve just been very supportive energetically. Especially in the UK, actually – we’ve had particularly good energy this week in the UK, which has been cool.”
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It’s not just that ‘Freedom’ feels like a confident step forward – it’s a step in every direction. At times, you can feel Damon easing past self-imposed boundaries, achieving things he always held back from achieving.
“These are the best songs I’ve ever written,” he states. “They’re the most well-crafted, and thought out. I couldn’t have sung like this before. Singing is something that I’ve had to get better at, and study. The singing, the songwriting is something I couldn’t have done before. And also the choices I made, in terms of personnel. I was less in my own way on this one. Which can only come with time.”
“I was consciously trying to make a record that was more open, and that more people would understand,” Damon continues. “The past records were very introverted, and were for a more restricted audience, in a way. That’s not the type of music I really make at the end of the day, I make really melodic music and I just thought it’s a shame that a lot of people weren’t able to hear it due to it’s introversion. It’s not just the music – there are a number of factors – but part of it was the music being introverted.”
Despite the obvious artistic success of his earlier work, something in Damon’s make up was holding him back. “It’s part of it,” he admits. “A big part of it. And a big part of it was psychological. For years I was this underground artist who makes records on his own in someone’s old basement… and I changed that mentality. That’s part of the new resource.”
A record framed by age, by loss, and by grief, perhaps ‘Freedom’ was prompted by growing that little bit older, we wonder. “Absolutely,” he concurs. “It’s part of your – if you’re so inclined – spiritual progression on this Earth. I’ve become a little more introspective, y’know. A little more self-conscious… in a good way. And I think this is a product of that.”
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Using personal introspective to escape his artistic introspection, Amen Dunes first began plotting out what would become ‘Freedom’ over the Christmas holidays in 2014. It wasn’t an easy record to put together, clearly.
“Three and a half years,” he murmurs. “It’s a long, long ass time. I was in Portugal, in Lisbon after a European tour, I spent a few weeks there, and so I started the record there.”
Did he get caught up in the atmosphere of the city?
“Not really,” he replies. “I always thought it would, but the truth is if I’m catching the right vibe it can happen anywhere. Maybe for some people, but not for me. But it’s a pretty place to be. And they got good pastries!”
The core of the record was pieced together in New York’s Electric Lady Studios, and having access to facilities like this – alongside the addition of Chris Coady on production – breathed further life into the project. “I produce myself,” the songwriter insists. “Chris, he produced it, but I’m kind of my own boss. I knew when to stop. It took three years to do that, but it was time to stop at three years.”
It’s long journey in terms of both time and emotion. ‘Freedom’ deals with the threat of losing a parent to cancer, having a troubled relationship with his father, and the manner in which life will separate people, often against their will.
“Well, my songs have always been very personal,” he observes. “But they’ve been obscured intimacy, and this is more overt intimacy.” “I think there are two poles to this record,” Damon continues. “There’s the factual element of it, where this is exploring things that happened in my life, and it’s this process of working through them. And then there’s another level where this album is completely metaphorical, and the whole point of this record is that it’s not really about me.”
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“These acts of my life are mere tools to display or to explore the idea that they are not really me. Many of them are constructs of my own mind, or my own perspective, or hang ups that I have. Excessive identification with things. They’re not really any true reflection of my nature.”
“So this record is kind of just about that, but I conveniently used these things like: had a bad dad; have a dying mom who is fucked up; grew up with these kids who got into trouble; I got into trouble… or whatever. All these things were just tools to practice letting go, if that makes sense.”
So where does the true you sit in amongst all that debris?
He pauses for a moment, before saying: “I couldn’t spit that one off. I think that’s for the listener – if they choose to be so inclined to go down that path then they can.”
Remarkably, ‘Freedom’ is now all ancient history for Damon McMahon. He’s intent on moving from his native New York to Los Angeles, and when this current touring run finally finishes – sometime next year, by his account – work will begin on a new album.
“I mean, when you’re still working on it then you’re emotionally invested,” he explains. “As soon as it’s done it somehow becomes someone else’s record. It’s weird, man. I feel so disassociated from my musical self I can’t even begin to describe it. I hear people talk about this record and I feel like they’re talking about a plant, or my shoes.”
“It’s weird. I feel this strange, disassociation to the record. But I was very proud of it when I was working on it. Now, it feels like… I don’t know – a distant memory, or something.”
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'Freedom' is out now.
Photography: Rachel Lipsitz
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