Amen Dunes’ Damon McMahon Talks Spirituality, Tom Petty and His New Album, 'Freedom' | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Amen Dunes’ Damon McMahon Talks Spirituality, Tom Petty and His New Album, 'Freedom'

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Damon McMahon - COURTESY OF MICHAEL SCHMELLING
  • Courtesy Of Michael Schmelling
  • Damon McMahon

Miki Dora was a famous, game-changing surfer who rose to prominence in the 1960s. Known as much for his mad carving skills and churlish attitude as for a litany of fraud charges and other troubles with the law, his legacy is permanently trapped between hero and villain.

New York City singer-songwriter Damon McMahon cast Dora as the titular subject of the lead single from Freedom, the latest album from his psych-pop project Amen Dunes. In a promotional statement, McMahon wrote that Dora was "a true embodiment of the distorted male psyche" and that the song "is a reflection on all manifestations of mythical heroic maleness and its illusions."

Freedom is thickly shrouded with poetic flair and radiant instrumentation. The album reflects on manhood at a time when much of the national conversation in the arts and elsewhere centers on toxic masculinity, the male gaze, and the reckoning regarding sexual assault and harassment. McMahon's childhood, coming of age and his relationship with his father served as fodder for the new record.

Further adding to its mystique, McMahon tapped his mother to read a quote from painter Agnes Martin on the album's opener, "Intro": "I don't have any ideas myself. I am a vacant mind." The snippet's inclusion implies that McMahon, too, views himself as an empty vessel through which his art manifests from the ether.

Amen Dunes were set to open for Fleet Foxes on Saturday, May 26, at the Shelburne Museum, as part of the 2018 Ben & Jerry's Concerts on the Green series, but had to cancel just prior to press time.

Seven Days caught up with McMahon by phone.

SEVEN DAYS: In all of the press you've done surrounding Freedom, is there anything you think has been missed?

DAMON MCMAHON: Not that I really want to go into it — because it's a taboo and uncomfortable subject — [but] people don't ask about spirituality. I don't even know if I want to talk about it, [but] I find it interesting that no one has been pushing me on that.

SD: Um, well that's actually a good segue into my next question. I understand that you've been delving into the teachings of Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi. What impact has he had on your life and your art?

DM: Ramana Maharshi — he's one of my main guys. I actually didn't discover him until the album was essentially done. But he'd kind of been with me all along. I was interested and inspired by the concept of nondualism for a couple of years now, and that has kind of affected my life pretty profoundly [and] found its way into the album.

SD: Do you consider yourself Hindu?

DM: No. I have a very nontheistic view of spirituality. I think there's amazing stuff in all [religions]. There's a lot of ego and all that shit that kind of messed it up. I kind of take what I like and leave the rest. And that's what's cool about Ramana Maharshi. He was kind of nontheistic.

SD: With all of the digging into yourself, your past and your childhood you did for Freedom, was anything stirred up you hadn't thought about for a long time?

DM: Not really, man. I think whatever was on the surface prompted the songs, as opposed to the songs bringing stuff up.

SD: You've talked about how the record coincidentally came at a time when a large part of the national dialogue is discussing those themes. Do you feel like Freedom adds to that conversation?

DM: In terms of it being parallel to the current zeitgeist or whatever, that's just a great coincidence. I think it adds to [the conversation], because I think the big difference is a lot of the public discourse around [masculinity] is very much, like, finger-pointing outward. My record is finger-pointing inward.

SD: Some other albums that have come out recently are very pointed dissections of certain contemporary themes. I think you do it in this way that doesn't come across as heavy-handed.

DM: You're right that it's sort of unconscious. It's not an aggressive finger-pointing, even if that finger is pointing inward. All that it is is self-inquiry.

I think this record is very much just looking at my own stuff and kind of publicly displaying that — but not in a gratuitous, performative way. I kind of do it for myself. I think the more you do it for yourself, the more useful it is for others.

SD: You've talked about Tom Petty as an inspiration for Freedom. Did his passing last year change the way that you looked at his music, or how it was influencing your own?

DM: To be honest, man, a lot of these public figures' [deaths] don't really affect me. The only ones that affected me were [the Fall's] Mark E. Smith. For some reason that was very emotional [for me]. And, obviously, when David Bowie died, [it was] an unbelievably huge moment.

The other ones — I don't know how to put this into words — they were never really here to begin with. Bowie was a different kind of guy, because he was very much of people, or something. His spirit was very present with people. But these other guys — I love Tom Petty, but I didn't have any relationship to him. He might as well have never been alive. He's almost like a figment of my imagination.

SD: I read that you stopped reading the news after the 2016 election.

DM: [Laughs.] Yeah.

SD: With that kind of media blackout, how will you make informed decisions for upcoming elections — assuming you plan to vote?

DM: I could use some improvement in that area. I'll come out of my blackout for a minute so I can make an informed decision.

SD: I assume your media blackout means you're also not big on social media.

DM: No, I really don't like social media. Until this album came out, I didn't have Instagram or Facebook or anything. And I have to do it because I'm a fuckin' musician. But if I wasn't a musician, God knows I wouldn't be on social media, man.

SD: Do you have someone running your socials for you, or are you handling it yourself?

DM: My manager does my Facebook and Twitter, but I do my own Instagram.

SD: I also recently joined Instagram, because I was sick of telling people I wasn't on Instagram. Have you been having fun with it?

DM: Not really. It's just a lot of photos of myself.

SD: I get the impression that putting a picture of yourself on the album cover was sort of a bold decision.

DM: That was different, though, putting myself on the cover.

SD: Why?

DM: Because the album cover is art, and social media is business.

SD: Some might argue that Instagram is a kind of art form.

DM: That's valid. But it's not art for me because the intention behind it is promoting the product as opposed to an artistic vision. But I totally respect people who treat [Instagram] as art.

SD: What's the most degrading job you've ever had?

DM: Well, I can't really talk about that publicly. But I can talk about my second most degrading job. I was the nightshift sandwich guy at a deli [in] uptown [New York City]. I worked for, like, $4 an hour.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Dust in the Wind"

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