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Interview: Amen Dunes on his latest album, the cowboy ethos and working with Godspeed! You Black Emperor


Amen Dunes performs this  Tuesday at The Mill as part of the Mission Creek Festival. -- Illustration by Jared Jewell
Amen Dunes performs this Tuesday at The Mill as part of the Mission Creek Festival. — Illustration by Jared Jewell

Amen Dunes w/ Delicate Steve, Bull Black Nova

The Mill — Tuesday, March 31 at 9 p.m.

Before he was Amen Dunes, Damon McMahon released Mansions in 2006, a record that was almost universally panned by critics. Amen Dunes was born from the ashes of that ill-fated solo endeavor, when McMahon confined himself to a Catskills cabin in 2006 and wrote DIA (2009). It wasn’t until 2014, when he released his critically acclaimed album Love, that he started receiving broader attention.

While Amen Dunes is essentially a solo project, on tour he always plays with a full band, and on March 31, McMahon and his crew will play The Mill as part of the Mission Creek Festival. Damon McMahon took time to talk to Little Village about his EP, Cowboy Worship, released this past January, as well as his decision to record with members of Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Iceage.

Little Village: Was your most recent record, Cowboy Worship, a continuation of the work you did on Love?

Damon McMahon: Love took a long time to write, and a long time to record. It was like two years of work, so there was tons of stuff that didn’t make it onto the record. I wanted to give it a chance to let it see the light of day. That was the reason behind the EP, really. We recorded with Godspeed! You Black Emperor, they played on the record, and a bunch of other people played on the record: One of the players is Harvey Milk, [another is] a guy that plays in Iceage. … I wasn’t able to put it all on the EP, there were alternate versions of the songs that I couldn’t get on there as well, but [Cowboy Worship] was my chance to get some of that stuff that I couldn’t put out originally.

How did you end up working with members of Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Iceage? Did you know them before you began working on Love?

Godspeed! You Black Emperor, those guys were fans of my record, and they wrote me like two years ago—well, I mean, whatever, they wrote my booking agent—and they asked us to go on tour with them. That was how we first met. We really got along on tour, and I mentioned that we were doing a new record and they were like, “Oh, shit, we have two studios in Montreal, you should come do it with us.” It was kind of perfect. Then Elias [Bender Rønnenfelt] from Iceage—we’ve been friends for a while—we met at a show we played together once and have just always been in touch. I like what he does and he likes what I do. He was in New York and was perfect for the song. He’s not included in the Cowboy Worship EP. The EP is just me singing the songs.

What was the concept for Cowboy Worship itself? I understand that Love was kind of your exploration of cowboy worship as an idea, but I just wonder what it means to you as an artist. Why write songs about it?

It’s sort of hard to articulate, but I think I’ve always been drawn to these cowboy figures my whole life as sort of symbols of resilience and stoicism. They’re characters who are able to face hardship. There’s something very stabilizing about these figures, whether they’re in a Western movie, or musicians, or just abstractly that kind of a cowboy idea. My music was a way of channeling that energy for myself. It’s always been that way. It’s both channeling that energy within myself and a way of communicating or channeling these characters. That’s the worship idea.

I can definitely hear some character creation going on in Amen Dunes’ records. Through some of the lyrics and stories, you can hear these different people coming through.

They’re all just sort of spirits, I guess. It’s all part of this cowboy ethos. My music is a way of bringing that up. Inciting it sort of, and sort of channeling it, I guess. It’s tribute. I think all songwriters who come from this tradition are sort of singing tribute to those who came before them. My music has always kind of been that for me too. Hence the worship part.

Are there specific artists that you’re trying to pay tribute to? Some definite influences on your music?

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Only their spirits. I think musically I’ve just ended up being my own, whatever. I’m the weird stepchild of all the shit that I’ve listened to over the years. I am not consciously ever like “I want to do this band’s sound.” Well, that’s not true; every now and then on a record I’ll be like, “I want to channel this band’s energy,” but it’s very abstract. No one would ever understand that I was going for something like that, but it’s just very abstract.

This whole Cowboy Worship, Love period, I was totally thinking about these great singers. These are people who really inspired me during this period: Elvis, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Tim Hardin, Van Morrison and Hector Lavoe. … Those kind of people. And then my family member of all family members is Bob Dylan. He sort of surpasses everything else. It’s beyond a musical influence. But, yeah, of course, he’s at the center of it all for me really.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 173


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