Amen Dunes | A World Where No One Truly Listens

Finding a Different Channel with His Lastest Album 'Death Jokes'

Written by

Emma Madden

Photographed by

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Writing about Damon McMahon’s art is both as difficult and intuitive as trying to explain a fundamental truth. As Amen Dunes, his music is a pure, open channel from the universe, a conduit to human connection. It’s the antithesis of the conservative musical marketplace he now finds himself in, a business of constriction and exploitation that favors social assets and easy answers over provocative ideas and unguarded hearts.  What happens when the element of human connection you came to music for has been removed? You find a different channel. 

If Death Jokes becomes his final album as Amen Dunes, it will be remembered as his masterpiece. But not just yet. At first, it overwhelms. Then, it slowly reveals itself. Death Jokes contains the scope of life itself, if life were a puzzle that could be solved. Filled with character vignettes and samples of J Dilla, the late comedian Lenny Bruce, music teacher Nadia Boulanger, which fit together like latticework, Death Jokes is as intricate as a well-made clock. Here, he helps guide the listener through it, and explains why he might re-channel energy now that he’s made the most complex album of his career. 

APC shirt and pants.

I'd like to start out where the album starts, which is the assertion that life is just a bunch of jokes. How do ‘jokes’ inform your own spiritual practice? 

It’s directly connected to what’s known in Hinduism as the Vedanta. It’s a non-dualist approach and it’s the idea of the universe as not some kind of human existence with a God in the sky, but rather some sort of divine essence in all existing things. Like, this meat suit that I'm in, it's not really my true or only self. I was introduced to this idea over years of my own spiritual exploring and came to take myself a little less seriously. And at the height of the pandemic, when life was really under a microscope, I kind of turned back towards that and doubled down on it. And that's where the idea of jokes came up.

To touch on the ‘death’ part of Death Jokes, what’s your relationship to death now? On your last album you sang that as a kid you were afraid of it… 

Well, my mom was dying at that time, so that's what I think it was about. I think my own spiritual life kind of inured me to death. But my mom's sickness did, too. I'd be full of shit if I said I have some kind of, total, free, casual, unencumbered relationship with my human existence. I made a lot of this music because I was trying to let go of my fear of my body and my being, especially in the pandemic. This physical form, I'm very sensitive to it. But on a spiritual, bigger level, I've always been pretty down with death. Now I love death. I can’t wait for it. 

Spiritually, death is a kind of ideal state, right? You’re free of desire… 

Yeah. It's a truth revealer. I've been through death with people, and you know, it's a very, very beautiful, very profound, very close feeling. And there's a great sense of spirit in the room. And also it's an opening up to other dimensions. Death I’m okay with, but it’s pain and discomfort I'm afraid of. There's trauma trapped in my body and that makes me especially sensitive to it. 

APC shirt and pants.

I sense a very close proximity to death across the album. It almost sounds as though it’s sung from the perspective of someone who’s recently passed over and is singing about life from an aerial perspective. How did you get there?

The pandemic put me in close proximity to it. It destroyed me internally, not permanently, but it shook me very, very deeply. I'm surprised it didn't shake everybody so deeply. I really came out of it being like, did you see the fucking boulder roll down the mountain? Everybody in town was like, no, I didn't see it. I was just in my backyard, just kind of hanging out, you know? Like, are you fucking kidding me? I will be in a state of discomfort and fear for the rest of my life. That's what forced all these songs out. And then there were many deaths throughout the course of this album. Two suicides. My dog died. A number of people I sampled on this album died. And the most tragic thing, which gave me chills when I found out, was that the photographer of the album artwork died. At the very beginning of recording this, I discovered a photographer called Ross McDonnell who took photos of these boys in Ireland, and I just fell in love with his work, and we started messaging.

Death Jokes sort of challenges the ways in which listeners are groomed to actually listen to music today: largely unthinkingly, in the background, as a way to facilitate another activity. How does it feel to put out music in this climate?

I mean, I knew I was making a request to listeners, I was consciously challenging people. We live in this very constricting and reductive digital society, and it fucks up a lot of stuff, including art. So, in answer to your question: it’s painful. Some people don’t even notice that I did anything.

APC shirt and pants.

They don’t notice?

Yeah, they don’t notice that I made art. Like, they literally think it's just like a fucking donut or a walk on the beach or something. They don't even notice that I was being contentious. That has been one of the more painful things. 

Is there anything on Death Jokes in particular that you'd like people to notice?

When people listen to my records I want them to say, why did he use that sample? What did that sample say? Who are these comedians? What are they saying? Every single thing has a purpose. So I wish people would be like, this guy's got some puzzle here, and I'm going to break his puzzle apart, and I'll challenge him if I don't like his puzzle. 

Would you like to give any hints on how to crack the puzzle?

Yeah, I would. No one’s asked me about the fucking sample on ‘Around The World’. No one. If someone were to listen to it and know what it is, it would be a fucking thorn in their side. And I did that to provoke thoughts.


Tell me the story of the sample.

Well, I need to say that I can't legally. I'm actually legally not allowed to say who the sample is, unless I’m asked.

Is it Woody Allen?

It is Woody Allen. And in this joke, Woody Allen is at the height of his career. 1965. He is one of the most beloved, open minded artists, kind of left-leaning. And he makes this very controversial joke about the KKK, and everybody in the audience laughs. So obviously, in this joke, the KKK are the bad guys, and he's the good guy, right? Well, fast forward to now, and we know he’s maybe not the best guy in the world, to say the least, right? But in 1965, you might have been certain in your stance that he was one of the good guys. So I essentially use the sample to present the potentiality that one might be incorrect about another’s character. And after that sample, Nadia Boulanger comes in. She says to her students: I would prefer you take risks and be contentious in your artmaking, and do it imperfectly, than to be sort of conservative and toe the line and be insincere.

You know, rigidity is part of what is creating Death Jokes. And so Lenny Bruce then comes in. And what is his joke? It's the last live performance before his overdose, where he reenacts the court case where they hung him up to dry for a misunderstood performance that they transcribed. That's what the whole joke is. And he does it with empathy. He calls him a poor cop, you know. It breaks my heart. What he's saying essentially is that this constriction, this lack of consideration and open mindedness is, first of all, killing art. But it's like also killing our connection to one another. 


For an album that’s largely about the constriction of art by all kinds of legalities and bureaucracies, I find it very interesting and quite admirable that you were willing to put yourself through that wringer, and go through the lengthy process of having to clear all the samples on Death Jokes.  

You’re right. It really feeds into Lenny Bruce’s obsession with legality and the legal process. Isn’t it a funny joke that I myself went through all these legal intricacies? So, yes, Lenny Bruce's spiel at the end is, like, reflective of my little legal journey. And why is my legal journey relevant? Not because I think people shouldn't ask for money. Not at all. I think people absolutely should be paid for their samples. That's totally fine. But it's interesting how in some parts of the world, people ask for so much without giving back.

How do you maintain your grace and love when you put your art into a world like this? 

It's a fucking great question. How do I maintain that? I asked myself that all the time. How can I do this when the world doesn't seem to care? The bigger picture is like, if no one cares about art, then why should I make it? The system in which I have to exist as an artist is so fucked up and so abusive, and not in the ways that people would maybe think. I sometimes wonder, is this really the right place to be open hearted? I kind of feel like a politician who’s quit politics.

Do you have any ideas of where you'd go next? Where would welcome your open heart? 

I’ll always make music, I’d love to produce other people, but I no longer want to be subjected to the music marketplace. And I love the idea of producing people. But will I continue channeling my love through music? I don't know about that. Not to get or woo-woo or whatever, but I've had a spiritual practice for a long time on and off, and I've pursued that part of the world in a variety of ways. I don't know, I may work with people individually. I’ve never said this publicly before but I am more interested in doing that kind of approach to life rather than this music thing. 


Did becoming a father make you feel a greater sense of servitude to the universe?

Hm. Not servitude, because that began in 2013 when I started the Love album, and that’s when my life started getting strange, all these things happened to me that recalibrated my brain. And then I treated music as a kind of devotion and service of love. But my daughters. Their power and beauty. They’re just what it’s like to really feel a pure being. They’re the most amazing thing in my life. People say that all the time and I never understood it, but it’s true. It’s hard to explain. It’s almost like being young and having a sweetheart, you know? Like falling in love with someone. 

Death Jokes seems a little more extrovert in nature than your previous albums, it’s almost like a musical call-to-action. Did you feel the need to sand down some of the more personal aspects of your artistry?

Yeah. On one song. I don't normally sand that kind of thing down, but there's a song called ‘Mary Anne’ on the record, and there is a lyric in the third verse that was about what I had to share publicly in 2018 - I don't know if you're familiar with that, but a journalist took a quote out of context and tried to publicly attack me, and I had to divulge all this fucking personal shit - the lyric was specifically about my denial of it around my family. The lyrics were about these predators. I tried to track the song like six times and it kept not working. And I finally was like, maybe it’s the fucking lyric, maybe it doesn't want to be out there. The song is about forgiveness, letting bygones be bygones.

Let’s end with death. If this were your last day on earth, how would you summarize your time here? 

To summarize life on earth: not as bad as you’d think. I’d be fucking sad that it's over. Probably. And I think people who pass on or people at the end of their lives say that kind of thing. You can be stuck in your bullshit all day, but you’re going to be bummed when it’s all over.

Photographed by Madeline Hampton

Written by Emma Madden

Styled by Manny Angelo

Producer: Bree Castillo

Location: NoMo SoHo

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Amen Dunes, Damon McMahon, Death Jokes, album, music, new release