Damon McMahon wrestles with the male ego on his swirling rock album, Freedom.
This interview will appear in AdHoc 27.
Damon McMahon’s fifth album, Freedom, made nearly every year-end list in 2018, though it’s a fact of which he seems only dimly aware. The enigmatic singer-songwriter behind Amen Dunes, who cut his teeth in the New York underground scene before moving across the country to Los Angeles, is too busy creating dynamic, effervescent rock music.
On Freedom, meandering guitars and funky synths set the stage for folksy tales about men grappling with their demons. According to the artist, each of them contains traces of himself: The heartthrob surfer Miki Dora, who symbolizes the mythological masculine psyche; Paul the Suffering, named for the singer’s dad, a spirit who hovers above Earth, pained with regret; a delusional, haggard dreamer in Los Angeles, grasping for unattainable power.
The typically guarded McMahon bares his soul through these characters, stepping as far into the spotlight as he can stomach with his signature, bleating vibrato, which at times transforms words beyond recognition. Still, Freedom was a team effort, with assists from Brooklyn guitarist “Delicate” Steve Marion and the Rome-based underground electronic producer Rafaelle “Panoram” Martirani, among others. McMahon’s brother, fellow musician Xander Duell, even lent a hand with the harmonica on “Skipping School.”
Ahead of Amen Dunes’ February 1 show at Warsaw, McMahon spoke to AdHoc about how he pieced together his acclaimed album and seeing his profile rise.
AdHoc: Freedom is your fifth record, but it’s the first album of yours that many of your listeners have heard. How does it feel to have this one be the breakout?
Damon McMahon: It feels a little weird, because [the album] was initiated a long time ago. For people to think of this as my first album is strange. I literally don’t read any press or see any of it unless someone sends it to me without me asking for it. I’ve been told that it made year-end lists, and a friend accidentally told me, like, what number it made it on one of the lists, but besides that, I have no idea what’s going on. I just don’t think about it too much. It also makes sense, because the other stuff is less accessible.
Why do you elect to not read any press about yourself?
I think it really pollutes the process to be involved in that shit, man. When I was younger, earlier on in my music-making life, I would read reviews and stuff, and man, that’s a bad idea. Regardless of if they’re good or bad, it’s just a bad idea either way.
This record took about three years to make. Rewind to nearly four years ago—what were you thinking this album would be?
Four years ago, I was in Lisbon after a tour, and that’s when I began writing these songs. I was going fishing for what this album was supposed to be. At first, I thought it was going to be a proto-punk record. It didn’t become that; it changed.
So how did you land on the sound we hear on Freedom?
It just came to me as the right direction, reflected back from what I was listening to: Tom Petty, Bob Marley, and the radio.
The album opens with the voice of a little kid doing a rendition of Kurt Russell’s pre-game speech in the hockey movie Miracle, and we hear it again on the final track, “L.A.” Why did you decide to use that recording?
It’s a universal voice. It’s a God voice. A revenge voice. He’s hopeful. I’ve never seen the movie. My bandmate had that audio clip, and it just fit perfectly.
The last part of the intro track is a quote by the artist Agnes Martin, read by your mother: “I don’t have any ideas myself. I have a vacant mind.” How did you come across it, and what does it mean within the broader context of the record?
A friend sent it to me. It’s both a criticism of our times and the answer to it, depending how you look at it.
The first single off the album, “Miki Dora,” is about a surfer from the ’50s and ’60s. How did you land on him as a subject?
I was sitting in my room, wanting to write a song about a surfer, and I googled [Miki Dora]. I watched an interview of his. I think he’s a very lovable creature. He’s just like me, or you, or like anybody. That’s all. He’s right-sized.
What’s the story behind “Calling the Paul the Suffering,” in which you reference your dad?
The phrase “Calling Paul the Suffering” [came to me], and it told me that that was the lyric; I didn’t choose it. And though it’s his name, it’s not about him—“Satudarah” and “Blue Rose” are about him. “Calling Paul the Suffering” I wrote when I was living in Harlem; I wrote it around 11 a.m. in my apartment, and I was [just] thinking about the band when I first wrote it.
What does “Satudarah” mean?
It’s the name of a motorcycle gang that has both positive and negative qualities; the song I wrote is about my dad, my family. That’s all I can explain.
You enlisted a bunch of people to work on Freedom. How did you meet guitarist Delicate Steve?
He came to my show at Bowery Ballroom and introduced himself, and then I ended up playing a show with him in Iowa. I was very impressed with his sound, so I just asked him to collaborate.
How did you end up working with the Italian producer Panoram?
I was in London on tour. I went to my favorite record shop in London and asked them what’s good. They just handed me his record, and I fell in love with it. I put him on my best-of-the-year list in 2014; he thanked me over email, and we became pen pals. I was creating tracks, and we started collaborating over the Internet. A very modern friendship—his avatar fell in love with my avatar. I went to Rome on tour toward the very end of the record, and we did some work in person, but most of it was over the Internet.
The album was recorded in New York and L.A. Which songs were done where?
All the basics were done at Electric Lady Studios [in New York]; the overdubs were mostly done in L.A., and then again in Brooklyn. It was done in many different stages.
Since you recorded Freedom mostly in New York, how do you feel the music matches the vibe of the city?
Some songs like “Skipping School” are about kids I grew up around [in Connecticut], but the vibe in general sounds the way New York City feels.
You named the last song on the record after L.A., and you just moved there. What’s your relationship like with the city?
My personal life and the music are very separate, you know. I was definitely done with New York, and I always liked California, so I was drawn here. The song “L.A.” has nothing to do with me, or L.A., or anything. It’s about this guy. He’s dreaming that he’s Emperor Nero in Rome—this powerful, kind of horrible figure. All of the characters on this album are Emperor Nero, really.
He’s dreaming he’s [the emperor], and he wakes up, and he’s in L.A. It’s a Frank Sinatra kind of character. Like a bum— a real dirtbag. There’s a sort of depravity in L.A., I think. [But the song] didn’t have anything to do with my liking L.A. or wanting to live here. It could’ve been called “Cincinnati,” you know, if the character fit in Cincinnati.
What do you mean that every character we’re introduced to on the album is like Emperor Nero?
They’re all people or characters that struggle with ego, really—or anything that pulls them away from their inner self. So they’re all flawed heroes, in a way.
Something I find striking about your music is the unique way you make words sound when you’re singing. Do you put much thought into the delivery of your lyrics?
It’s not a conscious thought, but I put a lot of subconscious effort into delivery. Delivery is super important to me. My favorite singers, like Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, have extraterrestrial delivery, where words would change. I don’t think about it; I just put effort into giving energy to the words, and they take their own shape.
What do you mean by “extraterrestrial delivery”?
It means that the ideas, melody, and inspiration just come to you when your antenna is in tune.
In the album credits, you describe the instrumentals in an interesting way—“Dancing Past Gas Lamps on a Dark Night” guitar, for example. How did you come up with these descriptions?
I kind of have synesthesia. That’s how I hear sounds, especially when amazing people are playing them. So when Steve was playing, that was my guidance for him: I would say, “I want you to play like a robot falling asleep on the beach,” or something. Or “I want you to play like you’re underwater,” or “strawberry guitar.” That’s how I hear sounds, so it was a literal description.
Did he immediately know what you were talking about when you described these sounds?
He did. All the good ones know.
You named the album “Freedom.” Was putting this record out into the world a freeing experience for you?
No, it was an entrapping experience. The album is just a public self-inquiry; it’s not a guaranteed success. It was a display of my process; it wasn’t necessarily a means to an end. If anything, putting out an album and being a performer actually challenges the process even more, but maybe that’s the point.
So why did you name the album “Freedom”?
[Freedom] is the objective. There’s two sides. [It’s something that] reflects my spiritual life or whatever, but then also, the album title is sarcastic. It’s just as sarcastic as the previous album, which was called “Love.” It’s a joke, but it’s also incredibly sincere.