Amen Dunes is Damon McMahon, an American who lived in Beijing, but moved back to New York to pursue a career in music. On his latest album, Through Donkey Jaw, the crooner mixes folk, psychedelia and atmospherics with a bit of Chinese life seeping into its soothing, melodic mantras and hypnotic undercurrent. We discussed slow life. Read about making ripples, stuffing marijuana in your shoes and timelessness.
Interview by Brenda Bosma, Photos shot by Christopher Schreck in New York, USA
Does your mom like your music?
Actually, my mother does not. It makes her feel uncomfortable even.
Do you think moms are a good indicator for the quality or relevance of music?
I wonder what Weird Al Yankovic’s mother thinks about that. I don’t know why my music makes my mother uncomfortable. It’s fine though. I take great pleasure from my music.
She surely must love your band name.
Well, she must. It looks great on paper. Also I like the feeling of sand slipping through your fingers, the music sounds like that too. ‘Amen’ is in itself super beautiful, of course. It has a mysterious and gothic thing to it.
Is there Chinese poetry in your music?
There’s this one song that has all these voices in the background, they are all speaking Chinese. They are slandering me.
Is that why you left Beijing?
Yeah, because everyone was talking shit about me. No, actually my ex-girlfriend wrote something nasty about me. The song is about that.
Does time in China move fast or slow? In Chinese poetry it’s like it’s not passing at all, focusing on the stream and the wind.
China moves really fast on the surface, but underneath it’s very slow. I loved it, but I left because I wanted to try Amen Dunes. My record label wanted me to play live, so I moved back to New York. If they didn’t like my music, I would have stayed in China and just lived life wonderfully. I would buy fresh fruit from the market every day and read a lot of books. That kind of slow life.
Are you the type of person to throw rocks in a pond when the water is still?
No way, I like the pond to be still.
You don’t like to make ripples?
No, not at all.
You don’t like to be heard?
I don’t need to be heard.`
Why do you make what you make?
Because it makes me feel really good. To me it’s beautiful, so I want to share it, but I like to share it quietly. I like the rocks to be dancing on the water.
The work of performance artist Marina Abramović is often about endurance and the passing of time. She had this performance piece where she walks the Great Wall of China and after three months gets reunited with her lover, Ulay, who walked the Wall from the other end. Did you walk the Great Wall of China?
I did with my brother once and we bumped into marijuana plants. We collected some and stuffed the leaves in our shoes. I don’t know how long we were on the bridge. Could’ve been a long time.
If you could add an element of timelessness to your music what would it be?
I’d probably take a lot of things away. I’ll have it just be me and a guitar. No big message, just little ones that people can interpret for themselves. I really care about lyrics, even though they sound a bit muffled on the recordings. Blame that on my bad equipment. The songs often have nonsensical lyrics, like codes or mantras. ‘Baba Yaga’ is totally a mantra to me.
But you should never give away your mantra.
I know, but I can’t help it. That song is my mantra.
In bars time takes on this surreal quality; you sort of forget about it, you waste it (but maybe that’s also because of the alcohol). Also the music in bars never really changes. It’s always the same song. What’s the best surrounding for your music to be heard in?
I think when you’re walking around it works best. I love to walk with my headphones on, living a bit of slow life. The music also has that wandering quality. It’s a great marriage. But you can probably also listen to it in a bar when you’ve had too much to drink.
Amen Dunes plays on 15 September at Paradiso, Amsterdam and 16 September at Incubate Festival, Tilburg.