The past decade has been a time of transformation for Damon McMahon, the man behind the project Amen Dunes. For years, the New York artist actively avoid the spotlight, preferring to be something of a mysterious, globe-trotting figure who sporadically dropped abstract folk albums.
Now, nearly three years since his last record, McMahon wants a little more shine. His new record, aptly titled Freedom, is a collection of his most accessible and personal songs yet. McMahon began recording it shortly after his mother was diagnosed with a terminal cancer; his most recent single, "Believe," is a hallucinatory folk meditation that tackles this subject directly, concluding with the simple, but intensely intimate, mantra: “When things go black, I got you.”
With his golden voice at its forefront, the album, his fifth as Amen Dunes, is unassuming, catchy, and cavernous all at once. What seems contradictory is a perfect reflection of McMahon’s attempt to navigate the various sides of his personality that are sometimes, if not often, at odds. When I met him on a recent March day, he was sipping tea in an old, unassuming North Brooklyn diner. It was a perfect, low-key setting to talk to him about Freedom.
Freedom continues a trend of your music becoming more produced and accessible. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
The old records didn’t reach enough people and I wanted to reach more listeners. It’s really that simple. I also realized that for me to do my job well, I need to put myself out there. I was listening to a lot of good mainstream music too. I wasn’t listen to mainstream like Miley Cyrus, but the Michelangelos of pop. So, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, and so on. They have the best melodies, the best rhythms and the best songs. They are the people that most inspire me now. I’m no longer inspired by some, obscure Scottish music from the 1980s or something. I appreciate that, but I can only get so much from it. I just became so obsessed with albums like Thriller and the craft that goes into an album like that. So, I wanted to make music that was more complex but appeared simple.
That’s what makes them great, right? Tom Petty songs seem so simple on the surface but actually have a ton of depth.
Absolutely, and Tom Petty was actually one of the main influences of this record. That’s someone who was so open and visible and catchy, but also so complex within his simplicity. If I want more people to hear the record, then they're the best to look at. And I don’t mean to have more people hear the record in an “Instagram likes” kind of way, but rather attempting to be more useful with these songs and not hoarding them. I think that sometimes when you become part of a scene, it becomes so reclusive and exclusive that it lessens the usefulness of your music. I write pop songs and I always have, but because I came up in a kind of underground community, ‘normal’ people didn’t hear my songs. That’s a shame to me.
That reflects in the press for the record. For example, you are on the cover of the record.
Yeah, but I think that me being on the cover is also a visual representation of the themes of the record, which is that all these definitions of who I am are kind of unimportant including my “meat suit.” That’s why I put myself on there with no words. It’s just a man, a guy. That was my intention.
What is the concept behind Freedom?
A concept started to emerge over time of just exploring different sides of my past and my personality — real and fantasy selves. That’s the theme that emerged and then the album is just me negotiating all of that. The concept of Freedom means nothing in some ways, but it also means just identifying with all these different sides of myself and not getting too hung up on any one of them.
The first single off Freedom is about a real, outlaw surfer named Miki Dora. What about his life drew you to write a song about him?
I wanted to write a song about a surfer and I came upon him. I think I identified with him in many ways. He’s a good stand-in for any kind of questionable, dark hero. I mean, the song is like him kind of looking back in regret upon his life and reflecting on it. And I identify with that.
When you say “dark hero,” are you referring to redemption?
It’s definitely a song about redemption. He’s introspective as well. He’s like a microcosm of my own process on this record. It also represents something in all of us in a way. And the song kind of says that. He has this conflict and then this reflection and he kind of solves it at the end of the song, and I sing, “I’m getting on fine, still enough time to roll around with me,” and then the waves break musically with the chorus change. You can feel it in the music itself.
Freedom begins with the quote from painter Agnes Martin: “I don’t have any ideas myself; I have a vacant mind.” Tell me about her influence on you.
Agnes Martin seems to have the same exact mentality as me. She’s further down the road, but I am just so inspired by her. When I hear her talk about art, it’s exactly what I am aspiring to be. The way she puts it is that her inspiration comes from some other place and that she is just some little vessel for it. There’s a certain skill set which she has but it’s not coming from Agnes Martin scratching her head and thinking a lot about what she’s doing. I also think that what she’s referring to is that her ego has kind of evaporated. She’s basically talking about enlightenment, man. The emptying of self is kind of what my Freedom ended up being all about.
It seems like the album is the process of doing that.
Exactly. That’s the idea. I’m trying to release. Dig in, uncover, and discard.