Track By Track: Amen Dunes - Love

Damon McMahon provides an extensive, all-encompassing guide to his new Sacred Bones LP, ‘Love’.

Damon McMahon’s latest Amen Dunes record tackles heavy themes with beautiful shades. ‘Love’ is without any surprise an album about relationships. But these regularly encountered ideas are placed in a new environment by the Sacred Bones signing. ‘Lonely Richard’ is a song practically lifting off from Planet Earth whereas ‘I Can’t Dig It’ could’ve been created in the depths of hell. We asked McMahon to provide a guide to his new record, and fortunately he had a lot to say. Covering everything from bold ideas to his collaborations from Godspeed You! Black Emperor & Elias from Iceage/ Vår, here’s everything you need to know about ‘Love’.

1. White Child
This song and the lyrics kind of set the tone for the record, I think. White Child is one of several characters and self-portraits on ‘Love’ – the beauty of life being always almost right. Better than completely right, I would say…And the opening reminds me of Aztec Camera’s acoustics, which I was psyched about, plus a general aggro Magical Mystery Tour vibe on the whole track.
 
2. Lonely Richard

This is going further on into the self-portrait front…kind of exploring my place on earth/not-earth. Song came to me from elsewhere, and talks about elsewhere.  “Things like me” and my “friends on the horizon” and living “like the wind in the steppes.”  Also, “have yourself a good time” is something other than “have yourself a good time.” The song is all about the tempo and feel too. Elias from Iceage came in and sang the most beautiful outro. He is a first take kind of person which is my favourite kind of person.

3. Splits Are Parted
For some reason this song makes me think of Depeche Mode’s ‘Violator’ but I’m probably the only person who thinks that. This song is one of the more literal songs, at least it more literally talks about a relationship, and relationships in general, with lovers, with people in general.
I was happy with the way this one flows too, the way the drums and the guitars and the pianos all speak to the lyrics. My favourite thing is Parker’s crash hit after “won’t you fall.”

4. Sixteen
This is a demo of this song that I tracked during the ‘Through Donkey Jaw’ sessions and that my friend Greg Davis mixed. It felt too straight for that record though so I held off on it, like too personal to put on that one, so I hid it away for a bit. This one is about being a kid. My whole life growing up was like one big “what you going to do about it…”  Life in the suburbs, driving around in the winter, time feeling really slow. 

5. Lilac in Hand

Parker and I in particular in the band have always been obsessed with Latin music – NY salsa, specifically. Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon… This is our version of all that. I always wanted to incorporate it into Amen Dunes, and though I covered a Hector Lavoe song on ‘Murder Dull Mind’, this is the first proper incorporation of that kinda music into Amen Dunes. It’s like gothic Latin music, that’s the vibe. The piano riff makes the whole thing for me. Maybe the whole song sounds kind of like some kind of love song or something, but it’s actually just about copping drugs.We did this one in mid-July during a thunderstorm, too, so it was appropriate feel-wise. The whole thing always felt like doing narcotics in a mid-summer storm, that’s the vibe. And that falsetto voice is my brother, Xander Duell. 

6. Rocket Flare
This is maybe the only song with more abstract lyrics that are mostly open for interpretation. But it’s also kind of a drug song if you listen closely. This is the only song with more of a straight beat, but in that perfectly voided-out way that Parker does. In Amen Dunes I call it keeping it feeling lobotomized - that’s always the goal. This song is also some kind of unintentional nod to Love and The Byrds. Byrds were like the first aloof punk band in my book; they showed the first faint traces of all that stuff in my opinion, which is one of the many things that makes them great. This song is like our evil Byrds. Sophie from Godspeed You! Black Emperor plays violin on this one too, which really helps the vibe of it.  

7. I Know Myself
This song could also kind of sum up the whole record. It was originally gonna be called ‘Black Orchid Pedal.’ This one was so hard to sing.  I kept on not getting it right, but then I went into this weird room by the front door of the studio and had this magic take where it just flowed. Didn’t hurt that there was an Elvis portrait above my head. I tried to sing it all through him and I think it worked… and the best part was the second the last chord finished ringing out and I put my arm down, the front doorbell rang and Parker walked in. Pretty sweet. Also we were deep into an early Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke thing during the making of this record, and that’s what we were going for with the outro. I just wanted to do Sam Cooke. The harmonies on this one are also all done by my brother, Xander Duell - I don’t know anyone who can do harmonies like him.

8. Everybody is Crazy
This one is kind of like ‘Splits Are Parted’, or ‘Rocket Flare’, and it’s a little more straight ahead with the lyrics and meaning than the others. It was actually a love song in a way to my brother, an apology, and some kind of admission of being jealous, spiteful, etc., from when we used to play in this band together. Musically it’s really simple and all about the flow between Jordi’s guitar and the drums that Parker tuned to sound like synths.

9. Green Eyes
‘Green Eyes’ had a ton of other instruments on it for a while. Stephen Tanner from Harvey Milk played bass on it, there were a ton of guitars, vibraphone throughout the whole thing, this aggressive synth part, etc. But as with most of the songs on the record, I tried to strip it back to its most essential parts, and felt it was the harshest with just piano, drums, percussion and vocals. 

Like a lot of Amen Dunes songs this one is like an ode to negation… negation through drugs, “the curious part of town,” self-reduction through devotion and then it starts to more specifically talk about this one person in my life. It originally had a love verse and ended with a hate verse, but then I decided to make them both hate verses!

Elias sings this one as a duet with me.  Such a beautiful interpretation of the melody… his voice really speaks to the lyrics, and he hadn’t even ever heard the song before he stepped in front of the microphone.  And he had been tripping all night and was still hallucinating when he arrived at the studio, which was pretty nice and interesting. The song alludes to being a love song, but in a harsh kind of way.  Also, for the outro Elias did shit that no one else could pull off. You can hear his “shhhhh” clearly still, which I thought was the weirdest and best idea for an outro vocal, but in addition to that he also barked and howled like a dog for the outro. That kinda got lost in the mix but really blew me away when he did it. So good…

10. I Can’t Dig It

This was written in China. I was vibing on all the good ways of failing and generally fucking stuff up… Black sheep living, celebrating the goodness of being no good. Failing at coping, failing at loving, etc. - lazy beneath the banyan and doing just fine.

More specifically it features Efrim from Godspeed You! Black Emperor on the outro Brian Eno/Warm Jets electric guitar and Colin Stetson on the sax solos. We had tried different versions of this song (I did all kinds of insane overdubs, talking harmonies, extra guitars, etc.) but decided it was best super pure and raw and simple for the first half, basically just me and Parker. And then for the outro wanted it to open up, skies opening kind of thing… I think I was subconsciously thinking of a VU/Loaded melody for the outro. I love Parker’s addition of bongos and cowbell too. Some kinda T Rex thing.

11. Love
This song means more to me than any song I’ve ever written actually. Started as this little folk melody, and then I built it out to this 8-9 minute song. We tried it a million times with more traditional guitar arrangements, but nothing was working, it felt super stiff or something. So I played Pharaoh Sanders’ Karma in the studio and was like “let’s do that,” and then it all just clicked. What’s on the record is the first take of our trying the Pharaoh Sanders approach. Parker played the kit with his hands, Jordi played piano, and I sang, all in the same room together. It just happened so perfectly.  One of my favorite music memories ever… I wrote all these parts for sax and French horn, and it was pretty filled out musically for a while, but I once again decided to strip it back to a simpler performance from those instruments in the mix.  The sax is Colin again. When people have been asking what the album is about, I’ve been saying it’s like a Cowboy worship record, which is kind of the best way to explain it. 
 
This is the song that sums that idea all up. It’s a song about a relationship, but also about much more than just that. It’s kind of hard to explain and the lyrics do it more justice than I could explaining it… It’s about always being around, in all forms, in all time, in self, through this song, and otherwise… ”feel me pass like a stag in the grass even though I’m not around.”

Amen Dunes’ ‘Love’ is out now on Sacred Bones.

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