How sampling helped Amen Dunes sublimate social disorder into song
Death Jokes, his first album in six years, is a sincere look at the sicknesses of our society, filtered through a kaleidoscope of fragmented sound.
How sampling helped Amen Dunes sublimate social disorder into song Amen Dunes. Photo by Steven Brahms.  

Damon McMahon’s mind is eternally open to inspiration, so he tends to find it in surprising places. In early 2006, he was shaving in a hotel bathroom during South by Southwest when his manager put on J Dilla’s Donuts in the next room. The record had arrived a month earlier, preceding the legendary producer’s death by only three days.

McMahon, who grew up obsessed with hip-hop during rap’s “golden age” (the late ’80s and early ’90s) had quit the genre “cold turkey” later in the decade as its center of gravity moved toward the commercial — though, he admits, getting into drugs and more psychedelic strains of music was a factor as well. More than a decade removed from the days when he’d rush home to watch Rap City after school, he found himself deeply touched by Dilla’s short-form masterpieces. “I heard that siren motif, and it kept happening throughout the album,” he says. “All the music was so sincere and vulnerable and sad; it was like a lament. He really grabbed my heart.”

Dilla’s work isn’t immediately reflected in the early music of Amen Dunes, the project McMahon introduced to the world three years after his Donuts epiphany. Still, it’s remained a steady influence throughout the project’s constant evolution, and he’s finally paying it tribute on his new album, Death Jokes. The homage is in plain view: Dilla’s voice (along with Lenny Bruce’s) appears in the record’s opening and closing tracks. But it’s the Detroit luminary’s unique approach to sampling that contributed more subtly and holistically to the project, driving McMahon to search out his own inimitable production language.

How sampling helped Amen Dunes sublimate social disorder into song Photo by Michael Schmelling.  

Death Jokes’ creation came, as most things do for McMahon, as a result of silver-lined tragedies, happy accidents, and unsolicited revelations — not to discount the three years of monomaniacal crafting and editing he undertook to alchemize the few rough sketches he recorded on his phone in late 2019 into the 14 glimmering creations we see before us today.

In 2017, McMahon traveled to New Orleans (“just for fun”) around the time of Fats Domino’s death. One day, while exploring the city, he was swept up in the massive second-line parade honoring the late hometown hero and was blown away by the outpouring of love.

“It was fucking amazing,” he says. “There were people smoking spliffs and drinking and playing music, and we walked for like an hour through the city. The next day, I got a bunch of his records and took them home.

“There’s something about Fats that’s very magical,” he continues. “He’s a non-singer like I am, a rhythmical singer. I feel a kinship with his approach. He’s the one who made me want to learn piano, now that I think about it, so his death really kicked off the whole Death Jokes thing.”

How sampling helped Amen Dunes sublimate social disorder into song Photo by Michael Schmelling.  

Over the next two years, McMahon learned the basics of piano with the intention of working on a gospel record. Mostly, he says, he just learned Fats Domino songs. Still, the piano sessions led to the aforementioned voice memos, and the claustrophobia of COVID lockdown compelled a feverish bout of lyric writing, as well as some early experiments in sampling and drum programming. The album’s concept came to him in the shower, inspired by a Vedantic urge to eliminate his ego. Later, as he sat at home like the rest of us, watching online interaction grow more and more poisonous as society collapsed, he gave himself a second goal: to sublimate this sickness into song, a personal healing process that he’d then share with the world.

2021 was a frustrating year of rejected and botched collaborations, but also the year McMahon’s daughter was born — a personal miracle that nonetheless “fucked things up” album-wise, he says. Despite these speed bumps, he hit his stride late that year, armed with a malfunctioning Roland TR-909 drum machine, a number of new sampling inspirations — UK Garage, Type O Negative’s Peter Steele, and, less directly, Peter Gabriel — and a new team of castmates including Sam Wilkes, Panoram, Kwake Bass, Fever Ray’s Cristoffer Berg, and Beastie Boys producer Money Mark, among others. Working remotely, they sent him stem files that he treated, for the most part, like the rest of his sampled source material.

Death Jokes was completed in the summer of 2022. Its bookending tracks, which obliquely establish the record’s themes via clipped standup sets and (in Dilla’s case) interviews, were added last.

When I called McMahon on the week of Death Jokes’ release, he was on the FDR Drive, heading to a rehearsal space where he’d join the chat for his new album’s Bandcamp listening party before band practice. We talked about sample clearance, artistic autonomy, Milwaukee rap, and much more.


The FADER: “Death Jokes,” the title track of this album, is like a mini-overture. It sets up some of the sounds we’ll hear elsewhere on the record, one of which is your idiosyncratic sampling. Here, you sample the voices of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and J Dilla. We’ll get to Dilla in a minute, but what was the connection you felt to Bruce and Pryor that led to you starting the record off this way?

Damon McMahon: Those vocal samples came at the very end of [making] the album, summer 2022. It was like the icing on top. They set the stage, but they don’t speak fully to the themes of the record. That same Lenny Bruce clip is used on “Poor Cops” at the end of the album, as is J Dilla, but it’s teased here. It’s just a hint at the implications of what he’ll later say. These comedians are meant to represent irritants, miscreants, contentious voices. Originally, Andrew Dice Clay and George Carlin were in there, too, but George Carlin’s estate wrote, and they were like, “We do not agree with the philosophies of this record. It goes against George Carlin’s ethos.” And then Andrew Dice Clay wrote back, like, “Nah, I don’t like this music. I’m not gonna do it.”

And Dilla, he’s just introducing himself as a character who will speak more thoroughly later on the record.

Speaking of Dilla, you’ve mentioned Donuts as one of three key influences on this record, along with UK Garage and your (then) new 909. Was putting Dilla’s voice on the record a simple paying of respects, or were there other reasons for its inclusion?

[Dilla’s voice] also came in very, very late in [making] Death Jokes, because the Beatles wouldn’t let me use a cover of “Yesterday” that Lenny Bruce and his daughter had done right before Lenny died. I was like, “Fuck this.” Of course, I understand. I paid for every sample on the record, so I was willing to pay for it. It wasn’t anything personal, like, “Oh, Paul McCarty doesn’t want me to use ‘Yesterday.’” It was indicative of the red tape and the stinginess in the music world — audience and creators. There’s this scarcity mentality in the music world, and there’s no generosity. There’s no abundance. No one pays for music, and as a result the musicians are left to be so stingy and uptight. So I was like, “Who can speak about this situation? Ah, J Dilla.”

Did you start to listen to hip-hop again after that Donuts experience? Are there any newer rappers you’re currently into?

I go in and out. I’m not as hungry as I once was, but I always check out the world. My favorite rapper today… I’m obsessed with this kid Niontay. He’s my favorite. He has this musicality that I think a lot of MCs don’t have anymore. He’s a wonderful singer; rappers are singers. I love Niontay, and Veeze out of Detroit, people who have really good flow. That “Law N Order” track… I can’t get it out of my head. I find the Milwaukee scene very exciting too — so nerdy and weird and awkward, but also aggressive.

The songs that feel most like Donuts tracks on the record are “Predator” and “Solo Tape,” for obvious reasons: They’re these quick, playful interludes that came from late-night bursts of inspiration. Have you ever worked like that in the past, or have you generally been more meticulous?

I think most people know Amen Dunes through the Freedom record, where I was going for this clean melodic sound, but that’s the total outlier. I think Death Jokes speaks to the first [Amen Dunes album], DIA, in that it’s a solo project. It’s pure improvisation. It’s crafted over time, but it’s improvisation, and it’s impulsive. So yeah, I have worked like that in the past. DIA was all first takes. Shit, most of the records are first, second, and third takes that I then craft.

But yes, [“Predator” and “Solo Tape”] are like these interstitial moments that I find in the electronic music I love, and in J Dilla — this idea of these little moments that are brief but beautiful.

Another thing the opening track sets up well is the disorientation that hits us from the very beginning. You open the track between beats, in a way, and then you shift the pulse so much throughout the song that you don’t really give the listener a chance to settle in. It all seems very linked to the chaotic, broken society you highlight throughout the album.

This record is one’s processing of the disorder. My processing, but it might be your processing. I’m also talking about the world’s processing. That chaos is a musical environment, but I recently realized this record is directed by the internet, really. The internet directs me. This record is a manifestation of my sublimation of the internet. I’m guided by the algorithm, but I made it beautiful and I made it folky and I made it my own. I got intimate with it. I mean, [the song is] fucking psychotic. There’s a Schumann piece, and then there are these beats, and there’s J Dilla, and it makes you wanna puke in many respects. It’s like the glut of the internet, and I was trying to sublimate it at the same time.

So is that intro meant to represent the internet as raw data before it gets processed or sublimated?

In a way. But it’s raw data that I gave a hug to.

I’m interested in the strange series of events that led to “Rugby Child” — the broken 909 causing the tempo changes, which in turn give the strings this bizarrely layered feel that’s hard to describe.

The music was written during the Freedom sessions, but the lyrics were written during the pandemic, and it was very much a reflection of feeling trapped. A friend had overdosed in the early lockdown, and I used him as an example of the tea kettle exploding. But then I was like, “I don’t want to do it like an Amen Dunes song; I want this to feel fun and free.” I’m a big Lil Peep fan. I love all that he engendered, so I was like, “What’s the cheapest way I could do this song? What if I put a kick drum on top of a folky finger-pick guitar?” I used the Lil Peep song “Benz Truck” as a model.

I had this fun format, but I realized I didn’t know what I was doing, so I started programming all these beats. In Ableton, you’re supposed to abide by the computer’s grid, which is a BPM that’s mapped out so all of your instruments can be edited within that format. I didn’t do that, so I was recording a 909 with a broken clock, manually nudging the beat as I went. Since it wasn’t on the grid, when I did overdubs they wouldn’t line up with the drums. It was fucking crazy. I hired an engineer, and he spent maybe two weeks on and off with me trying to edit “Rugby Child” to be straight. It didn’t work. I made it work, in the end, by editing every kick drum by hand, so your ears can’t tell that it’s truly off.

“Round the World” is a sample saga, but the central sample is of your own piano playing. Do you approach sampling yourself and sampling others differently?

No, I don’t think so. Everything’s material. [On “Round the World”], I did that out of necessity. Like a lot of my songs, it was an improvisation that I recorded with my iPhone, and I tried to transcribe it. The problem was that it was nine minutes long and the chords changed constantly. My music is rhythm music, so my voice and all the subtle melodic changes went along with every chord change. If you straightened it out, it’d just be trash.

One of the many themes of this was artistic flexibility and autonomy, not being told by the man that you can’t do what you want to do. I wanted to discuss the constriction that exists these days that has a chokehold on art making. Lenny Bruce talks about it in the last track. “Round the World” is an example of that stranglehold: I perceived that I would be foolish to do it alone because it’s so unorthodox, so I hired these two jazz pianists to do it for me, and they basically scoffed at me, like, “You’re a fucking idiot. This is stupid. You don’t need to do this. Just straighten it out.” They tried it, and it sounded terrible.

I tried to do it myself, but it didn’t sound right either, so eventually I went to the original improv, chopped it up in my phone into 15 different chord voicings, and pasted it throughout a nine-minute grid in the Ableton session.

“There’s this scarcity mentality in the music world, and there’s no generosity. There’s no abundance. No one pays for music, and as a result the musicians are left to be so stingy and uptight.”

Before starting this record, you learned to play piano from a psychic medium named Jonichi. What inspired that?

Every time I do an Amen Dunes record, I try to do something new and challenge myself because idiosyncrasy comes from accidents. Originally, I wanted to make a gospel record, so I was like, “Alright, I’ll play piano,” but I didn’t really learn. I just got good enough that I could bang out some chords and do some walking bass lines. Basically, I could play Fats Domino songs. I wanted a new tool to write new songs with, and then Jonichi brought a whole other thing.

He was taught by Nadia Boulanger, who was a legend — she was blind and she taught everyone from Ravel [(not actually, but Aaron Copland and Astor Piazzola for sure)] to Quincy Jones — so I learned from him to respect tradition. He would come and show me some basics, and then he’d lecture me about the way she taught and what she believed was important in artmaking.

Basically, she believed that it’s important to challenge convention, to not be a sheep, to not kowtow to trends. We need contention in art, or it’ll fucking die on the vine. But how does one get there? Her method was through tradition, actually; the only way to be avant garde is to have your shit together and know your predecessors and have a practice and take it seriously.

“Poor Cops,” Death Jokes’ closer, gives the album a satisfying sense of symmetry, with Lenny Bruce and J Dilla coming back. You said these bookends came at the end of the recording process, but the album’s core concept was obviously something you’d been thinking about for some time. From what I understand, you didn’t mean for this album to be ironic or comedic, so in what sense are these songs “death jokes”?

There are two meanings to death jokes. There’s this Hindu idea of non-dualism: essentially that this human body that I identify with as Damon — this body and mind and personality and egoic structure — is not really my true self. Death jokes are these songs, poems, whatever, that encouraged me to relinquish my attachment to this inauthentic self.

The pandemic forced me to do that. We all were in this gauntlet, like, “Are you gonna hold on or are you going to let go?” The death jokes were my songs that I was offering to everyone, to help me relinquish this clinging and remember who I really was. That summer, I had one magical day. I listened to a hip-hop album — someone I’m not gonna mention, someone I don’t really like, but he was a shining star and he had these amazing intros and all interstitial moments — and I was so jealous, like, “Goddammit, I wanna do this. I don’t have any fucking intros, outros, anything.” I was so pissed.

“We need contention in art, or it’ll die on the fucking vine.”

I was in Woodstock, and there was an unbelievable fucking thunderstorm. And in that next three-hour span, I did “Death Jokes” and “Poor Cops,” and I did the sampling for “Round The World.” At that point, I saw this secondary theme emerge, which was speaking out against social constriction, the giant flattening poisonous cauldron of our digital existence that forces us to capitulate and fucking conform and attack one another. That’s what I started realizing I was so fucking angry about. I made this album because it hurts my heart to see the world behave this way.

Inauthenticity: that’s what I was speaking out against. One side effect of that is that artists are as dead inside as ever, really, because people are afraid to be contentious and to dialogue and to challenge. So who emerges? I go to YouTube and I explore, and within minutes I’m like, “Oh yeah, fucking Lenny Bruce.” He came up and just fucking laid it on me — he’s dead, but he laid it on me. His jokes that I use in “Poor Cops” basically do my whole job for me. He basically fucking did my whole album for me. He says it all.

If you want to know what Death Jokes is about, listen carefully to what he’s saying; It’s genius. He reenacts the trial where they basically sentence him to death [(four months in a workhouse)]. They’re afraid of him, so they lazily and quickly paint a picture they can use against him to insincerely take him down. He says, “Poor cops.” “They know not what they do,” really, is what he’s saying. That’s what Death Jokes is about.


How sampling helped Amen Dunes sublimate social disorder into song