Towards the tail end of 2006, needing a break from the rigors of living and playing music in New York City, Damon McMahon headed off to a remote cabin in the Catskill Mountains. With his recording equipment in tow and virtually no distractions to contend with, McMahon set out to create music solely for himself, with no real interest in releasing the end results. Fortunately, for us though, this material has now surfaced via the Locust Music label. Now christened Amen Dunes, we hear on his recently released “DIA” a gritty psychedelic stunner, a fully realized long player that finds that McMahon had indeed tapped into something special in his time alone in the mountains. Through a series of e-mail exchanges, Damon was kind enough to shed more light on the recording of “DIA” and Amen Dunes in general.
In November of 2006 I rented a house in the Catskills with the intent to record. I wasn’t sure it was going to be an album or anything, but I knew that I wanted to go somewhere where I wasn’t able to do anything else. So I brought all my gear and my tape machine up there, and because I didn’t have anything else with me, no computer (I’m a bit of a luddite, didn’t get one till after I made that record), no TV, etc, I was able, or forced, to make music all the time for a month. Also, it was about a half hour to the nearest town, which was a gas station and a grocery store, so there was nothing I could do even if I wanted.
I had been living in New York for a while, and had put out a solo record that summer. I had been playing music in NYC for a number of years at that point, and was kind of sick of it all, and so I just decided to split and do something that was just for me, no intentions of releasing the recordings or even playing it for anyone at that point. I remember coming back to the city and reluctantly playing the recordings for a girl I was seeing at the time because I was worried they might kind of freak her out, ha. I wasn’t sure what to make of the stuff really, so didn’t want to go around playing it for people, plus I wasn’t really interested in doing so anyway.
When I first played it for people, most people seemed to like it, though others were definitely not so sure, one guy asked me in an email "if I was ok." ha. Another guy when I played it to him looked at me and with serious concern asked me if I realized that "none of the instruments even link up at all."
The record I did before “DIA”, well, I had a whole bunch of straight songs that I had written from about 19-23, in college and when I first got to NYC, and because I had never had a chance to do anything with them, I wanted to get them out of the way, and so in 2004 I recorded them, also just for myself, real simply. Two years later a label heard the recordings and wanted to put them out. I liked the songs, and still stand by them, but I knew that they were different from what anyone was doing at the time in New York, people had been all psychy for a while at that point, and I honestly thought it would be kind of a punk move to put out the record with no adornment at all, super non trendy, just stripped down and straight and see what happened. So, it wasn’t something that was representative of where I was at or what I was listening to at that point, but I liked the songs, had the record done, and had a label that wanted to put it out, so I just went ahead with it. People in NYC were real supportive of it, and I started to do shows in the city with a band which were great, but outside New York people didn’t get it and the whole thing was kind of rough, didn’t go anywhere and was misunderstood. So, that fall I kind of said fuck it, I’m going to do what I want to do this time, without a band, or shows, or a label, or press or anything to worry about and so I went to do “DIA” with that mindset. So I would say “DIA” was where I was really at, and was kind of a response to what was going on in New York at the time, kind of like an anti-New York album (though only I could probably really tell), and the other record was more of where I had been at years before I guess. Amen Dunes and the idea of putting it out, forming a band, etc, didn’t come till much later.
I left the group Inouk right after I recorded my solo album in winter of 2004.
As far as inspiration, well I had always had the same inspirations but wasn’t really able to express in practice what I listened to when I was in Inouk, and then wasn’t able to again either when I released the solo record, but the things that inspired me that led up to “DIA”?... I remember I was listening to Eye Hate God's album “Dopesick” a bunch that month, ha...that’s good for the woods.
...can’t remember what else.
Well, though they weren’t necessarily things I was just getting into at that moment, the record was influenced by a lot of bands/people who have a more free, spontaneous approach to making music, using mistakes, physical playing, etc. I’ve always loved that kind of music the most I think...people like Dead C, Harry Pussy, stuff like that, that along with good songs, I guess I have always liked the combination of those two things.
About six months after I finished “DIA” I moved to China, and before I left a friend passed on the record to Dawson at Locust because she thought he would like it. Dawson wrote me while I was in China saying he wanted to put it out, but I told him I wasn’t sure when I was coming back to the US, at that point I was thinking it would be like four years or so, I had made China my home...So, I was sitting on the record, and it took about three years from when it was recorded to get it out. As for additional work, half the record was completely improvised songs, all first takes, and the other half of the songs were snippets that I finished when I was up there, wrote out before I recorded them, but were also all first takes, just however it came out I kept it cause I always think the right energy happens the first time anyway, so, there really was no additional work other than mixing the recordings when I was done.
In China I was writing for a newspaper, working some odd jobs, traveling a ton, and just got as far away from New York as possible, so the only music I did was in my bedroom really. I really wanted a break so I didn’t even tell people that I made music or anything, kind of just kept it to myself.
As far as the sequencing, I’m happy it worked! That was the only part of the record, along with the mixing, that I slaved over, so I’m happy it has a good effect. As for other material, there were about 6 or 7 other songs or recordings I left off, like one song that’s just multiple drums, panned and eq'ed and stuff, a "free" kind of fucked up early hardcore song, stuff like that that I don’t think would fit anywhere! I have always loved "albums" and have kind of studied them forever, so I was really careful to make it work as a whole...I had like ten different sequences and would drive around in my car at night listening to them all to find the one that worked.
Thanks man, I’m happy you like the vocals...yeah I guess I think of myself as a singer more than any other kind of "musician" cause I’m not much of a technical musician, it’s what I like to do the most and what I can get the most out of too I guess, I know how to work it as a tool at this point I think, though I definitely don’t technically sing "right" or anything.
As far as where it came from, well, my grandmother was a country singer from West Virginia, and had a little trio, so maybe got something from her, and I was raised listening to mostly country music by my dad, so country has a huge influence...then a lot of singers in sixties/psych music were a big influence when I was a teenager...but I guess ultimately I just like the people who could really stretch it with control, who could sing really high or really low and kind of keep it fluid, maybe like religious singing or something? Who could get really negative and mean with their singing while still being sincere and not affected. Does that make sense? I guess just raw singers, whether they can "sing" or not.
When I recorded “DIA” I allowed myself to record what I had always done privately but was maybe timid about putting out there on record, which is just physical singing, kind of like elemental vocalizations. I had gotten sick of lyrics that were linear (for the most part). I feel that (for me at least) words just fuck up the flow and get in the way sometimes, and so with this record I would just sing melodies and mouth sounds that I thought conveyed a meaning or intention more than words would. One of the things I liked best about Japanese psych actually, has always been that I didn’t understand what they were saying, yet I also knew exactly what they were saying as well, just from the inflection of the vocals.
Future stuff...I’m currently working on new recordings (this week actually) and plan to put out another record with Locust in 2010 or maybe even a 7" this fall, haven’t decided yet. Playing a show in a few weeks in NYC with Mike Bones, and then planning another one in September with Silk Flowers and Psychic Ills, and then in November I’m doing a couple shows in Europe, one in Paris with Chris Corsano and Prince Rama of Ayodhya, and then some other dates in France, Switzerland and maybe Spain that are in the works.
Live its normally me and my friend Sara Shaw on harmonium/guitar/samples (from the band Effi Briest/The Occasion), so two guitars no drums, but lately we have been playing with my friend Brad Truax on bass (he played with me all through my solo record period) and Ryan Sawyer on drums.
-- David Perron (5 August, 2009)