Article Sean Feinstein
If you’re not familiar with Amen Dunes, then let me suggest that you get acquainted with the music. I spoke to Damon McMahon about his musical project and his refreshing take on song writing. Amen Dunes album Love has received critical acclaim. If you are an aspiring artist or songwriter then you should definitely and wholeheartedly read on, as you will surely relate to what he has to say.
Saul Feinstein (SF): Why do you think Love has received critical acclaim? Is there something universal in it?
Damon McMahon (DM): I think it’s a lot more of an acceptable record. You know the songs are more melodic and the production is a little more clear and open. I think it’s just more accessible, thematically too. That was my intention when I wrote it. I think people have been noticing that and responding to it you know? I will say that the title track, the song “Love” itself, is the one song that I am most proud of, from all the songs I’ve written.
SF:It feels like a lot your songs are introspective. Would you say you pull the listener into your musical world?
DM: Yeah, I mean all my music is introspective and I think [Love] is more in that vibe.
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SF: I have some questions on the songs themselves. Who is “Lonely Richard”, the second song on the album?
DM: I don’t actually know. When I write songs, the lyrics just come to me. So when I was sitting down to play that day it was the lyric that came out. But the song is about self and awareness and stuff. I mean Lonely Richard is me, but also not me. I have a bunch of songs with characters in them. I don’t know where the characters come from. They just arrive.
SF:Like a novelist! The way they can just dream up characters?
DM:Yeah! Totally. I don’t really know who they are, necessarily. But I think it’s some version of me.
SF: So would you say that nostalgia is also a theme in your music?
DM: Nostalgia just happens with my music. I don’t consciously write about it. Some people will consciously write about it, but I don’t really do that. I will sit down and write a melody that comes to me and the theme just kind of arrives in the lyrics – kind of built in there. So nostalgia ends up being what I express. It’s sort of happenstance. My songs are all like my mantras. I feel a certain a way and sit down and play and the songs come out. After the fact I realize what I was writing about, for example “Lonely Richard”.
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SF:Do you ever have to work for inspiration?
DM:Good question. I’ve tried to search for it but it doesn’t work to well [laughs]. I mean I’ve definitely decided to sit down and pick up my guitar and say to myself, “I’m gonna write a song right now.” Sometimes if you poke at the fire, a song might rear up and other times you try it, it’s just stale. So normally I have to wait to be inspired and then I can just sit down and write something.
SF: Does heartache help create better songs?
DM: For sure, man. I think pain in general creates better songs. If you haven’t had any kind of suffering in your life, your songs are gonna suck. [laughs] Their songs are just not gonna have any weight to them. You have to a life struggle to write, I think.
SF:Your song “I Know Myself” reminds me quite a lot of Syd Barrett (song writer who left Pink Floyd in 1970 and write to solo albums shortly after). Is he any influence?
DM: Funny you say that. People often say “Syd Barrett” with the Amen Dunes stuff. He was somebody who when I was 14 years old, I got [his album] The Madcap Laughs and when I was young I was blown away and inspired by him. But I haven’t really listened to him in fifteen years or so. He was an influence when I was very young. He isn’t a conscious influence though, like, it’s more in my DNA.
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SF: Do you have a musical preference? For example what are your favourite records?
DM: There are people that have lasted with me over the years. And they never go away; like Bob Dylan, Throbbing Gristle, Death in June. These are people I’ve listened to over the years and always go back to.
SF:Do you listen to any contemporary music?
DM: Yeah, mostly electronic experimental music, hip hop, newer more aggressive music. I don’t listen to a lot of indie rock so I’m not familiar with a lot of those bands. But I do like Kurt Vile and Iceage a lot.
SF:Fair enough. Some people might lump your music into indie rock, for lack of a better genre.
DM: They certainly do – because it’s contemporary song writing with other elements in it. They do lump my music with indie rock. But there is not a lot that I like. I don’t mind the genre but there is a weak quality control [over what comes out in Indie Rock] sometimes.
SF:Get ready for this one. It’s a bit of a loaded question. Why do you make music?
DM:Well I have to. Psychically I make music. It’s like therapy for me. It’s like family for me, relationships for me. I feel sort of more connected to music more than I do people you know? It’s essential to me.
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SF: Do you have a musical background or did you grow up with music in your family?
DM: My Dad’s side of the family is from West Virginia and his mother was a country singer and I was raised around country music.But I haven’t really studied music. I took like a year of guitar lessons but I stopped because I hated it. I hate a rigid formulaic thinking about music. It drives me nuts.
SF: Have you ever felt like giving up on music as a career choice?
DM:Yeah man. It’s fucking rough sometimes. I don’t make pop music and it’s hard to make a living making music. I mean, I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been making records actively since I was 21. So it’s been [my reality] for about 13 years now. So it hasn’t been an easy road. That’s sort of what this record is about and I hope people can hear that. The song “love” is about exactly this. It’s about failure, perseverance and making music. There have been times I have been tired of slogging along and playing to nobody, playing for no money. “Paying to play” as they say. I’m a lifer and I haven’t given up yet and I don’t plan on it either.
SF: Would you say Love has been a financial success?
DM: Financially I don’t know yet. I’d certainly say my fees are better. It’s been good lately. I can’t complain.
SF:What is your take on the music industry today? What’s it like to be a musician as oppose to ten or fifteen years ago?
DM: Well, when I was a kid, I had this pop band and the money back then was insane. People [The heads of record companies] would take you out for fancy lunches in midtown with lawyers – that kind of world. It wasn’t uncommon. If you were a good band, with some kind of hype around you, there was money to be made and support [was given]. Now it no longer exists unless you’re a commercial pop band.
SF: Last question. What advice would you give to aspiring songwriters?
DM: I would say really really study the best songwriters and study the shit out of them! Dissect the details of all those good musicians! If you’re a songwriter you’re deluding yourself if you think you can just listen to new bands these days. You gotta listen to the old stuff to make new music!
Amen Dunes plays with Syngia as part of the Suoni Per Il Popolo festival at Casa del Popolo (4873 St-Laurent Blvd.) on June 21. $10.