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Web Of Influences - Amen Dunes

Web Of Influences

Talking folk, noise, and rap shows on cable TV.

By Ted Davis


Damon McMahon describes himself as a folk songwriter. Yet for someone who identifies with a genre so steeped in tradition, his work under the Amen Dunes moniker isn’t quite similar to anything else in the genre. McMahon’s sound is blunted, unpredictable, and often brings electronic instrumentation into the fold—far removed from the understated poeticism of forebears like Bob Dylan and Nick Drake.

McMahon did a stint in the mid-2000s New York City underground, but he decamped to China in 2007 and went on creative hiatus shortly after tracking his first full-length, D.I.A., the year before. When the album finally surfaced in 2009, it quickly garnered comparisons to the likes of Royal Trux and Spacemen 3, thrusting Amen Dunes out of the DIY circuit and towards a more visible place at the intersection of hip hop, indie rock, and experimental music. After several releases on the brooding Brooklyn imprint Sacred Bones, McMahon’s new full-length, Death Jokes, is the first Amen Dunes record for legendary Seattle label Sub Pop. Across 46 minutes, gnarled guitar and keyboards hover atop blocky drum machines. In the scope of an already singular discography, Death Jokes reinforces McMahon’s knack for bookish left turns and wonky lyricism.

I recently had the chance to pick McMahon’s brain about the eclectic set of influences that inspire Death Jokes. It turns out he’s been touched by everything from cable TV rap programs to unjustly forgotten noise artists.

Are there any albums you heard when you were younger that have left a big impression on you all these years later?

Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, a hundred of them, you know? I have albums that I was influenced by as a kid in some kind of elemental way, and there are lots of albums that I was influenced by more specifically production-wise. Yeah, it runs the gamut, for sure. The only reason I know how to make any music is from listening. I didn’t really learn to write songs or make music from studying or anything like that. I feel like the only way to learn how to write songs well is to listen carefully to other people. There’s tons of albums that did that for me.

What were some of your first brushes with subculture?

My first exposure to subculture was probably a tape that I found when I was nine or 10 years old. I mean, my first exposure was when Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction came out. I was eight years old and it was pretty extreme for an eight year old. And then the next year I found a tape of the Geto Boys and that changed my life, and that kind of led me down a path of listening to hip hop and all that. And then as a kid I would watch … BET had a show called Rap City. It was a late afternoon show, and that’s where they’d play all the new rap music. I would watch that. Those were my biggest early influences, as far as subculture goes.

Outside of your bandmates, is there anyone who’s had a big impact on your artistic identity?

I toured with a couple people early on that left a big impression on me. Someone that comes to mind is this guy Paul Metzger, who’s a relatively unknown person, he’s sort of an avant-noise, improv person. He was an elder statesman to me, probably mid-50s at the time, from Minneapolis. He kind of taught me how to be a grown up in live music—how to own your space and how to deal with an audience and deal with promoters and deal with touring. He had a great amount of poise to him, and he was a very special guy. So yeah, Paul Metzger was probably my first influence—kind of a peer, if you will, who was a big influence on me.

Who was the first person who helped you get your break as an artist?

There’s two people. There was a record store in New York called Other Music, and one of the main buyers there was this woman Amanda Colbenson. She had a PR company, but she was just a head, you know? And she heard the first Amen Dunes record, and that was in the fall of 2006. There was a CD-R that I burned and she totally loved it—she got it. I didn’t plan to share that with anyone, but she was, like, “You should talk to this label in Chicago.” It was a label called Locust Music—this guy Dawson Prayter, it was a one person operation. He really changed my life. He legitimized me and he took me seriously as an artist. This was back in the day when labels really cared about the music they put out. It wasn’t just a product trying to get attention or to make themselves look cool. It was this curation of this community, and Dawson really helped kind of create the Amen Dunes mythology. He was a very special guy. The label’s now defunct, sadly, but he kind of changed my life.

Do you feel like you’re part of a music community right now?

Hell no! I’ve never felt like part of a music community. I mean, that’s not totally true. When I was on Sacred Bones, I felt like I was part of their community—like, relatively regional, outsider song, synth, guitar-oriented music. Kind of, like, dark music or whatever. That was the only community I’ve ever felt a part of, but I’ve never felt musically similar to anyone, really; no one that I knew. So no, I think part of what’s made Amen Dunes challenging and rewarding is that I’ve never felt real kinship with any other musicians. I’ve never felt similarity. I’ve of course enjoyed friendships, but I’ve never felt similar to anyone.

Are there any artists you consider your musical peers?

No. I can’t think of a single artist that feels similar to me. I mean, I have all of these people who are my contemporaries, who would kind of get lumped into the songwriter category. I’m a folk songwriter, that’s what I am. But musically and culturally, I’ve changed so much that I don’t feel kindred or part of any culture, really.

Fair enough. Fuck a community.

Not fuck community. I love the community in the town I live in, local mom-and-pop shops—that kind of community. Friendship. But musically, I’ve never really felt a part of any community. I was always too straight for the real out people, and I’ve always been too weird for the straight people, you know?

Yeah, that makes sense. I was just joking around.

No, no. I hear you. In a way, too, like, fuck musical community. The Fall is one of my favorite bands of all time. Mark E. Smith … I relate to his approach, because he’s not a traditional musician. He used to always say, “I don’t like playing with the mus-os,” he called them—people who are just more students of a trade rather than artists. I like people who approach music artistically rather than scientifically.

So, I think your sound is very experimental, but also in many ways very timeless. I’m curious if you could talk about the ways in which you merge your folk songwriting with more leftfield, modern production techniques.

I have these instrumental songs on the record that are just, like, ramblings. But those aren’t songs, obviously. The majority of the Amen Dunes stuff is folk songs. They always start on a piano or guitar—most of the time, guitar; 95 percent of the time, guitar. And then once they’re solidified, I decide what they deserve to be dressed up as. It just depends; it depends on the album. Each album has its kind of language as far as production goes. And then the songs just get filtered through that.

Do you have any dream collaborations?

I’ve sort of talked loosely to a couple people that I would really like to work with, more in a production role—that’s really what I’m interested in right now. I was talking to Julian Casablancas’s people. I’m a big Strokes fan, and a big Julian Casablancas fan, his role in The Strokes, so I would love to work with him, and kind of produce him. And then there’s a bunch of rappers that I’d like to work with. There’s this guy Niontay who I really like. Those are the two that come to mind.

Are there any younger artists you feel like you’ve had an impact on?

I don’t know. Every now and then I get some really nice messages from people that I am surprised by. Like I said, I’m not really part of a community, really. Although I follow music very closely, I don’t, like, connect with other musicians. So I get nice messages here and there from people. But I love younger artists. There’s this kid called Prentiss, from Mississippi, who I really like. And I was corresponding with this woman in Mexico named Mabe Fratti. She’s going to be supporting me on some shows, which I’m excited about. I’m always discovering younger artists that I really like.

Can you talk to me a little bit about some of your non-musical influences?

I would say film and literature influence me as a person, and influence me as an artist. I think, actually, literature affects the way I write lyrics, and I’ve always been a big reader and care very much about language. And then film … They’re sort of similar mediums in a way, music and film. And I’ve always watched a lot of classic art house cinema. I feel like the rhythms of a good movie are similar to the rhythms of good music. The direction of a good movie is very similar to the direction of a good production. But I’m not a visual art person, to say the least. I don’t give a shit about visual art. I like the Sistine Chapel, but that’s about as far as it goes.

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