“I was literally trying to do a spiritual jazz record,” Damon McMahon says of the new Amen Dunes album Love. “Well, a songwriter record produced by a spiritual jazz band, like if Elvis had Pharaoh Sanders back him up.”
Several members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor helped McMahon realize his vapor-trailed vision in their Montreal studio, which was further abetted by subtle contributions from saxophonist Colin Stetson and Iceage frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt. “Subtle” might seem like a strange word, given how those guest players typically plow, slash and burn through their own work, but McMahon says that’s how it ended up sounding once he was able to fine-tune the mix even back home in Brooklyn.
“I think I explained to them that Amen Dunes was always less-is-more,” says McMahon. “If you heard the original tracks, it’s like a 15-piece band — multi-track, super lush, strings, horns, all this shit — and I basically just burned it all away. Not in a brash, impulsive way. I just boiled it down to the core elements. I’m happy with that.”
As spare as Amen Dunes sounds most of the time, McMahon says there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface of his spellbound songwriting. There are sly nods to Depeche Mode, Death in June and what McMahon calls the “street drug music” of New York’s salsa scene in the ’70s. Then there was that one time Jerry Garcia visited McMahon in a dream, keeping Amen Dunes on the course he’d first explored as a kid living in rural Connecticut.
“I wasn’t brought up religious,” explains McMahon, “but I always had a deep connection to some other world. I would just wander in the woods for hours and commune with other creatures and spirits. Music became the vehicle to express that and experience it.”
He continues, “I want to get people high off of [my music]. Quite literally. I want to get high off it…It’s sort of a necessity for me. Some people take medicine or meditate; this is my equivalent.”
During the course of our conversation, McMahon discusses everything from his early days of watching Fellini films with his family and reading fantasy novels they’d never approve of, to the forgotten albums he released with other projects before fate took Amen Dunes to China for a few years.
Most people don’t know you did a record under your own name before Amen Dunes. What label was it on?
It was on Astralwerks and EMI. I’ve had many lives.
Did it get lost in the shuffle somehow?
Totally lost in the shuffle. They put all this money into it and then nothing happened. Not only did nothing happen, but everybody that heard it hated it.
What did they hate about it?
It was before the whole folk thing happened, you know? Before Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver…In general, people didn’t want emotionally honest music at that time.
Was that the tail end of bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs getting all the attention?
It was the tail end of the New York scene — kind of post-punk dance-rock. So [my album] was totally anachronistic. I don’t stand by it today. I was very young. I’m proud of myself for doing it because it was very risky, but people hated it.
How did they find you in the first place?
Astralwerks? Because I had a band before that, a pre-internet band. We only really lasted for a year and a half, but it was insanely hyped. It was called Inouk.
Oh yeah, I remember that band. Didn’t you get lumped in with Interpol a lot?
We came out right after the Strokes and Interpol. It was this cute boy-band kind of thing. To be honest, it was proof of how artificial the whole music industry was. We didn’t deserve any of that hype. We just had a certain look.
It wasn’t on a major label was it?
No, no. It was on a small label, but we had a big press guy, and everybody bought the hype.
If everybody bought into it, how did it die out so fast?
Because we were fucking crazy…Astralwerks was going to sign us, but we were so dysfunctional. It was the kind of thing where we’d have to go to the UK to tour and our guitar player hadn’t slept for three days and left his contacts in so he couldn’t see. Or another guy sold his equipment. We were all dumb and fucked up and it didn’t work. We all hated each other and were jealous, and I was an asshole and everybody was an asshole. You know, typical shit. When the band dissolved, [Astralwerks] said, “Dude you got this solo record we really like.”It was cheap; they didn’t have to put any money into it, but it tanked. Quickly.
How long have you been involved with music then?
I’ve been actively making records in New York since 2001. So I’ve been doing this for 13 years. It’s been a long road.
You must have figured out what not to do early on then.
Totally, man. I’ve been around the block so many times. I’m so fortunate to still be making music and be listened to. I’ve had three lives, you know?
How would you describe this life then?
This life is a lot more functional. I was fucked up for a long time. It was a self-destructive path. The beginning of Amen Dunes was like that, too.
Was that one of the reasons you moved to China?
Kind of, yeah. That’s why I left New York. I was not in a good zone.
Why China? Artists usually run away to Europe — places like Paris, Berlin or London.
I fell in love with China when I was in college. I simultaneously took a Taoism class and started taking acid. And studying Chinese. My interwoven passions for those three things just stuck with me. I studied abroad in China for a year, too. It’s like a past life or something. And when I wanted to get out of New York, somebody offered me a job. It was easy. Perfect.
What drew you towards taking a Taoism class?
I always liked more obscure, quieter things. Taoism seemed subtle and kind of relatively uncovered in my world.
You had to take the indie religion?
[Laughs] Totally. The DIY religion. Taoism just drew me to it. It’s incredibly understated.
I think most people don’t understand it, so what’s one takeaway you had?
The main tenant of it is that you can’t define it.
So it’s always evolving? Or it’s defined by the person who follows it?
It’s defined by approach, I think. The Tao is kind of The Way, so it’s the idea of a balance, or nature, or the world, or happenstance. It’s sort of about aligning yourself with that, I suppose — explaining or understanding through not explaining and not understanding.
So it’s not the kind of thing you should look to for answers?
No, not at all. But I think you can find answers in it. It’s a state of mind.
Let’s go back a bit. You were born in Philly?
I was born in Philly, but my family didn’t feel really comfortable raising kids there in the ’80s, so we moved to Connecticut. I was there for elementary school through my teenage years. So I was in the woods for 10 years or so. That was what formed the Amen Dunes thing, I think — all that communing. My music is the woods, I think. Very non-urban.
What part of Connecticut were you in?
I was in Weston, a small town near Norwalk. It’s really beautiful. When we moved there, it was really rural — 8,000 people or something. My family was always in the city, so this was my second home. I was culturally informed by New York, and spiritually informed by the woods.
How far were you from New York?
Like 50 minutes. My uncle lived here; my grandma lived here. So I would come in and hang out with them, get in trouble and stuff.
What’s one really good memory you have from that time period?
I had one record store in the next town over where there was an old record nerd, so I would just order obscure shit from this guy. I didn’t go to shows; I wasn’t aware of zines. In 1994 in Weston, Connecticut, nobody listened to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. It did not exist. But I did research on my own and would come in with these lists.
What did you use for research back then?
You know, it’s much disparaged these days, but Rolling Stone in the early ’90s. They had a weird section in the back, and I would always skip to that. The big interviews were always really good, too… Anyway, Rolling Stone was quite a good source. That’s where I heard of Aphex Twin when I was 14. Shit like that.
What was the strangest thing that you found?
Through that magazine? I don’t know if it was through them, but when I was 14, I got pretty exploratory, pretty fast — I got Trout Mask Replica. That’s so fucking weird for a little kid. I got The Madcap Laughs when I was 14. I got The Velvet Underground & Nico. I got Future Sound of London, and all these electronic kind of things. A variety of shit.
What were people into in your town?
Kids didn’t listen to rock music. They listened to Wu-Tang, all the Hieroglyphics stuff…I was not into punk or indie rock; I was into classic rock, experimental rock music and hip-hop. I was super into hip-hop. Before I was 14, that was all I listened to. Going to New York in the early ’90s, you couldn’t find a guitar. Didn’t matter if you were a white kid. Everybody just listened to hip-hop.
What did you like so much about hip-hop?
I loved the stories. The fantasy. One of my favorite albums to this day is Nas’s Illmatic. I listened to that record as much as any other thing. He is a total fantasy dude; he didn’t live all those stories. He grew up in the projects, but he was a kid with artist parents. He was super smart, he read a lot, and he was a fucking tripper. So I identified with that. I think that’s what I’m trying to do with Amen Dunes, too — character creation stuff.
So more often than not, it’s not about you?
Well it’s always about me too, weirdly…They’re like oblique self-portraits that are being communicated to me.
Do these characters have actual names if you listen closely to the lyrics?
On the first record, there was Caroline. On the next record, there was Diane. The other one was Christopher. This one, there’s Richard. There’s a million characters, and they’re all me.
What are some characteristics they all share?
They’re solitary and removed. And non-human.
What separates them from one another?
Sometimes they’re explicitly me, and sometimes they’re females I’m singing to. I’ve never thought about it so specifically. But they’re females I’m singing to non-sexually; they’re more these weird spirit creatures. But other ones are me. Or they’re like junkies, friends. Like “Christopher” [from Through Donkey Jaw] — that one is all about a drug buddy. I don’t have any specific people in mind, though. They’re these ghosts in my life. When I write, lyrics come out and I record it; I listen back and hear what I say. Diane! That’s a stupid name, but it’s just what came out. I got stuck with it.
Did you write stories as a kid?
No, but I read a lot. I do write stories of my own, now. But no, these songs are not that constructed. They’re more just delivered to me.
So when you would read, what would you gravitate toward?
Weirder stuff. Fantasy stuff. I was too distracted by trees to get into Dungeons & Dragons, though. I couldn’t sit around and learn the instructions and play with other children. But I liked that sort of thing — weird monsters and other worlds and shit…I always liked literature when I was in high school. In college, I got more in-depth. I’m a huge Emily Dickinson fan, a huge Virginia Woolf fan.
Why Emily Dickinson?
Because she was so Gothic and so emotional — so austere. She’s very strong and proud and very sad, too. She’s not sentimental; it’s not gushing. It’s very complex, but it’s not like uptight. She’s kind of perfect. She’s kind of my hero.
Virginia Woolf is that in extended form — absolutely cosmic, without meaning to be so. She’s incredibly elegant. I was sort of raised more with film and literature than I was with music. My family is very much into European cinema and classical music. That was my house growing up.
What are modern examples of music you like?
To be honest, the only kind of new music I like is experimental electronic music. I love this label Alter in the UK.
Helm’s label? You’re into the really out-there stuff then?
I like that, and I like the best of pop music. I love the Strokes. I really love Daft Punk…I don’t like anything in the middle; I like really accessible shit and really weird shit. There are two indie bands I really love. One is Kurt Vile. He’s a friend; I really respect what he’s doing. And the other is Iceage. [Frontman] Elias [Bender-Rønnenfelt] is a friend, too. It’s so subtle. So smart. So calculated. I don’t mean that in an insincere way. Amen Dunes is very calculated, too.
What are some specific electronic artists you’re into?
There’s one record I really loved this year called Basic House. That project, I love. But I wouldn’t say that I consistently love a lot of new electronic music. I hate to say it, but one byproduct of internet demand is people churn out a lot of shit. So it’s more like an idea — ‘check out this new collection of ideas for your electronic music collection.’
You’re just kind of glad that stuff exists then? That they’re pushing envelopes?
Yeah! It’s a vibe I like. But that Basic House record is amazing. And I love Helm’s stuff a lot, too.
Has it been hard to reconcile the music you listen to with the music you make?
Yeah, man. I have a million selves. The same way all these characters come into the songs, I really do listen to all kinds of music. I’m a straight-up country fan, and then I’m big into Japanese noise music. I genuinely love all these things. So yeah, it’s hard to reconcile.
Do you think the next thing you’ll work on will be a mix of these things?
I feel like David Bowie or something. There were so many things that inspired him. He could never retread. He had too many things he wanted to do in his life. So musically, I’m the same way. I’ve got too many selves I gotta get out; there’s too much I want to try and do. I’ve always wanted to make electronic music, and I did on Through Donkey Jaw. The bonus track (“Tomorrow Never Knows”) is my attempt at house. It’s my attempt at a Detroit thing — that stutter piano shit.
Is there a lot of experimental stuff you haven’t even put out?
Yeah, I’m kind of not so smart with gear. It’s a great limitation to have. As a kid, I didn’t go to indie shows; I went to clubs and raves. That’s what I grew up on.
So when you say you got into trouble, that’s what you mean?
Oh yeah. You could buy 40s at a deli when you were 14.
Were you going to superclubs, like Tunnel?
I was going to warehouse parties more. Downtown had some trance and jungle parties. And in the West 40s, there were some jungle and drum ‘n’ bass clubs.
Were you going because you loved the music or because you wanted to party?
I loved dance music! One of my best friends was a kid uptown who turned me onto acid and ketamine and Future Sound of London and Aphex Twin and all these parties and shit. I met him through a friend and we kind of connected. He was super weird. So I always wanted to make dance music. I bought sequencers. I spent a whole summer trying to make Through Donkey Jaw, which was originally going to be a super out-there record, but I literally could not figure it out…I’m technologically challenged. It’s a shame. So I had a moment of inspiration when I did “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but then that’s all I had — one moment. I would love to make dance music.
Tell me more about growing up with your parents.
They were just intellectuals. My mom was a painter. My dad worked in retail services — CVS or something. It wasn’t a very creative field. But they were intellectuals.
What are some things they exposed you to?
When I was a teen, they decided to turn me onto European cinema. So we would do family Bergman viewings and Fellini viewings. They listened to classical music.
What form of classical music? Was it weirder?
To be honest, no. It was never absorbed. It was always the one aspect of my parents I hated. I’ve listened to a million classical records, but I couldn’t tell you anything.
What did you hate about it?
It was stuffy and limiting and oppressive. My household was kind of fucked up, too. It was kind of a dark vibe there. I literally grew up in a Gothic environment. In an old-fashioned way — candlelight and severe drunkenness. It was an old farm house. It was just…It was some weird Dutch Gothic thing going on. So I didn’t like classical music. But the movies got to me. Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson had this subtlety that inspired me, and Bergman had the same thing. “Oh, this is really simple, but it’s incredibly surreal and emotionally complex.”
Would you discuss these films as a family?
We’d discuss them at dinner! That was the only good thing about growing up. We’d talk about film and literature and philosophy. My dad is super smart; he’s like an encyclopedia. He’d recount historical wars and philosophical theories. He’d dissect various philosopher’s ideas and talk about literature, and my mom would talk about John Donne, or whatever Romantic poets. From a very young age, that was our way of connecting. Otherwise, there wasn’t much connection. It was a dark scene.
Any specific philosophers or artists that you connected to personally?
It was more like a cardinal direction. Because my family had a very hard time at home, I rejected the specifics but I absorbed the tendency. It taught me to appreciate art and thoughtfulness and curiosity, but I rejected all their classical music. I didn’t like any of the artists they talked about, I didn’t listen to any of my dad’s history lessons and I read my own books. I didn’t want what they had…They hated rock ‘n’ roll. They hated my music, you know? They thought it was lowbrow and they were super highbrow.
You said you would read fantasy novels, too, right?
Yeah, they didn’t respect that. They didn’t think it was real art. But they definitely taught me to be thoughtful and all the Amen Dunes stuff is informed by that. It’s got a European sort of experience. My mom’s family is Polish Jews, so we kind of grew up like that — very traditional. So I think that came across.
When you were a kid, did you ever stop and wonder if they’re over-thinking things?
I came to appreciate analyzing. The cool thing about my dad, and anybody else who is a real intellectual, is that they don’t assume they know shit. Really smart people are open-minded. They’re the first ones to say, “Oh, I don’t know that,” or, “Oh cool; that’s a good point.” My dad was so good with that.
Most people don’t get that kind of eye-opening experience until college.
I was super lucky. Other things were less lucky.
You have a brother right?
Three brothers, yeah.
Are you close to them?
Pretty close! One of them I was in Inouk with. He sings on the new record — Xander Duell — and I’m putting out stuff by him. He’s got his own record coming out in the fall. One of my younger brothers is not blood related, but the other guy I’m pretty close to. He’s gone on kind of a fucked-up path at the moment.
So you’re pretty close to Xander?
We’re really close! He was my running buddy, you know? We got in trouble together. He would go to New York with me. And then just generally we started making music together and doing drugs together, and we were inseparable.
Was he one of the reasons Inouk lasted as long as it did? It doesn’t seem like you two had a falling out.
Oh, there was. I tried to get my act together and he didn’t. It was just a mess…There are violent tendencies in my family. It was very ugly at the end.
How did you fix things?
It took a few years of not talking at all. And then he got married and that sort of brought us back together.
Did you make up before you moved to China?
No, after. I heard his new music and I sort of fell in love with it. And I was at his wedding and we connected over his music again.
How would you compare his music to yours?
Super similar. All the emotional elements of Amen Dunes; it’s that same kind of intensity and weirdness and poppiness. But I would say he’s into tighter melodies and shorter songs and British music more than I am. I’m more into Bob Dylan.
Because of what you guys went through, is it hard to think about working together again?
I’m busy right now, but we’re going to work on something again. You can’t fuck with that brother bond. You almost can’t compare anything to two brothers singing together. My dad’s side of the family is from the South — West Virginia — and my grandma was a country singer. She had a little country trio, so that was very much in our blood. Singing harmonies is second nature. That was the one kind of straight music that my dad liked: country music. I loved that shit. It’s in my blood. It was almost my first influence in a way.
Up until what year?
Still! I listen to country music all the time. Country music and raves. What an improbable combination!
Because of the storytelling aspect?
No, the emotional aspect. It’s beautiful, sad music. I think of Amen Dunes as very sad but very proud. It’s not mopey. It’s not defeated. It’s making lemonade out of lemons.
Did you travel a lot growing up?
I kind of just had a desire, you know? My parents traveled a lot. We didn’t go with them too much on trips. But we’d been to Europe when I was a young kid. I think that curiosity led me to go to China.
Did you stay longer than expected?
When I went in 2007, I thought I was going to move there for like five years. Looking back, I have no idea what I was thinking.
How was your grasp of the language?
I was decent went I got there, but I was pretty fluent when I left.
Did you pick it up the language easily?
Well, my reading and writing sucks. But as a singer and a musician, it’s much easier. Listening to little kids in the streets was my first way of picking things up and copying the exact way they said things. I was pretty fluent when I left.
Was it important for you to learn the language?
Yeah. When I go to new places, I like to become invisible and try to blend in as much as possible. That was part of my goal in China.
Did you not know anybody there?
Didn’t know anybody. But the second time I went back for a job. I worked for this Chinese record label. “Worked.”
What was the label you worked for?
They’re called Modern Sky. They’re the first indie label in China. They’re pretty cool. All Chinese artists, and one American. And they hired me to produce this [Modern Sky] festival. So I brought the Yeah Yeah Yeahs over and stuff.
How big was it?
Pretty big! The first big indie festival in China. The kids loved it. They have so little exposure to stuff. There were like 10 bands that sounded like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs after they played there…It was so cheap to live there. My first time there, I spent like $30 a month on rent.
But were those really shitty conditions?
Pretty shitty. Concrete room. But it was livable. My other room in Bejing was $200 a month, maybe less? You didn’t have to work that much. Just travel. I would stop over in Japan, but I really just explored China. I took these multiple week trips by bus.
What’s one part of China that most people don’t really think to go to?
Xijiang! In the Northwest, there’s a big desert. And oh man, I fell in love.
What do you do there?
Well, it’s pretty varied. It’s considered a Muslim province. Very traditional. Not China really, but it’s been subsumed by China. It’s a very controversial place. There’s a lot of unrest there, a lot of conflict between traditional values and Chinese values. It’s very removed, man — so far out there.
That didn’t make you feel uncomfortable?
I love that kind of thing! But I mean, I was there right after Ramadan when the government had really cracked down, and there was serious violence. I was taking these buses along the southern edge of the desert and there were these murders in every town. I was on a long bus ride with somebody who was potentially responsible for some of these things — you know, covered in blood — and people came on the bus with machine guns.
And that’s never bothered you?
It did, but it was exhilarating. I love that kind of thing. I got stranded at this town in the middle of the desert. I just ended up in these very insane situations.
Did you feel safe because it was clear you weren’t part of the conflict?
I didn’t feel safe. But I really loved it. I liked getting out there, whether by doing drugs or whatever. It was pretty far out. About as far out as you can get.
And you’d always go by yourself?
Always by myself. And I loved not knowing where I was going. So I’d just get on a bus and go to the next town and kind of wander. And I ended up on the border of Tajikistan.
What did your bosses think of that?
At that point I was writing for a Chinese newspaper — an English-language one.
You’d write about music?
Random crap. Profiles. I was also in an earthquake and that’s what got me a job.
They asked you for a first-person account of it?
Yeah. And I recorded the second Amen Dunes record in China. The cover photo is actually on the border of Tajikistan. I took it. I mean, it was so insane. So amazing.
Did you write a ton while you were there?
Well, all I had was my GarageBand on my laptop and an acoustic guitar. I went to China to leave music — to stop doing it, to get away from it. But I dunno; when you’re abroad you always feel more connected to where you’re from. So I felt really American. In fact, I did a whole series of Aretha Franklin covers over there that I haven’t released, but I really want to. They’re like Death in June covers of Aretha Franklin. I’m almost embarrassed by them, because they’re so sincere. But nobody’s watching in China. I was just being myself, fully. I think that’s why that record is all acoustic, and very American and pretty.
Did you play in the streets?
Never played out! I was really…I had atrophied, you know what I mean? I couldn’t really do music that much. But I’d still do it at home little bit.
So you had no escape plan? There was nothing else you were trying to do there?
I was just trying to get as far out as possible.
Did you finish your first record (Dia) before you moved to China?
Yeah. [Dawson Prater] wrote me the week I showed up in China and said, “Dude, I like your music; let’s talk.” And I was like, “I just moved to China for four years.” I sent it to a couple labels before I left. Sub Pop was going to sign Amen Dunes, but then they were like, “We like your music, but we’re going to ask you to change five of 12 songs.” I was like, “No”…I’m happy it didn’t get put out on Sub Pop. You know those big labels; they just tell you what to do.
Working with Locust Music also gave the record a sort of aura. I remember reading an Aquarius newsletter about it and they made you sound like such a weird, isolated dude.
That Aquarius review was one of the happiest moments of my life. And those dudes are so smart.
So if Locust wrote you the first week you were in China, what was your discussion like?
He was like, “I want to put this out; when are you coming home?” And I was like, “Well, four years, but maybe we can talk later this year?” He was like, “All right, let’s stay in touch.” Eventually he convinced me [to move back home]. I didn’t start playing out until 2009, when the record came out.
What was the final breaking point to move back?
I just wasn’t able to live without making music. I felt really fucked up. I was not making music and I felt like a shell of a person.
How did you feel when you got back?
I was really fucked up! Because I was just hanging out in mosques in the desert and stuff. And then I come home and people are like, “Where’d you get your jeans?” It was just like horrifying. Because in China, people just care about different things. They move slow in many ways. I really missed the way of life there. It was super harsh — brutal, actually.
How did you adjust?
I had a girlfriend back [in China], and I was connected through her. I went back to China! I couldn’t hang.
How long did you last?
Were you going to try and do a long-distance thing?
We did for a while, yeah. It didn’t really work out. But I dealt with it through music; I started recording those [Ethiopian] covers, because that was the music I heard when I got home. [McMahon recorded a limited edition 7-inch entitled Ethio Songs, inspired by the Ethiopiques series — Ed.] And I turned her onto it. So it was our connection, and it reminded me of China somehow. So it was my way of connecting with China weirdly. I was reading Chinese blogs every day.
Do you still do that?
Yeah! I keep up on all the stuff. I definitely do. Being back in New York is hard. You quickly get sucked up in it.
You went back for how long?
Visits here and there. Then I gave up trying to stay connected. It’s super expensive. We split the costs, me and her. But yeah, it was bad. And you know, I was here in New York, and I had a duty to the band. The record was out and Sacred Bones wrote me, so I was like, “Oh, this is actually a real thing. Maybe I’ll do music again.” New York has a way of roping you back in. You can definitely fall in love with Asia. It’s so beautiful. I’ve never been to Southeast Asia, but China is pretty incredible; Japan is pretty incredible.
So we didn’t really talk much about this new record. I assume it wasn’t impacted by going to Montreal in the same way as the last one was by going to China.
The songs were written over the course of two years. I started producing it at the end of 2012, around the time of Hurricane Sandy. In fact, one of the last songs I wrote for the record was written the night of Hurricane Sandy. It’s called “Sandy Channel” actually. It’s a bonus track.
Was it influenced by what was going on?
It definitely was, energy wise! My ex-girlfriend lives around here, and we were breaking up, so it was a heavy vibe. The version on the record is the recording of when I wrote the song, at the exact time the storm hit. It’s like an iPhone recording. But yeah, [Love] is a New York record. It was all written in the context of that relationship.
So that is the connective thread, if anything?
Well, some of the songs are a little older. Like “White Child” — maybe a third of the record. But then another few were written that year and very much informed by that relationship. Or just relationships in general.
Let’s talk about that. People could look at an album being called Love as being hokey, although it doesn’t take long to realize it’s obviously not.
My first thought was that I like to always be slightly antagonistic with Amen Dunes records, in a Virginia Woolf way. I was like, “What’s the most ballsy name I could come up with for the new record?” And I was like, “Well everybody is more Gothic and dark on their next record. I want to be the first person to fight against that.” What’s the most ballsy thing I could do? Go with the least weird, dark name I could think of.
I feel more purpose right now as a musician than I’ve ever felt in my life. Because I feel like I’m less hung up on myself. I’m a little bit older. It feels less…I’ve had a revelation of what my purpose is.
You weren’t sure all those years?
No, I was hung up. Many years, I was just all fucked up.
Did you have more of an ego then?
Yeah, Inouk’s ego was through the roof. And Through Donkey Jaw was very angry, very stuck. Like, I kind of regret that record. There’s great energy in it — intense energy — but I was thinking too much. For this new record, the relationship I was in ended the month I started working, so it was a total moment of self-reflection. I was like, “Your purpose as a musician is to be of service to people.” The less hung-up on myself I can be, the more useful I can be as a musician. Love is that idea of devotion, of self-annihilation. I think of it in a Virginia Woolf way, too; there’s something cold and hard about that word. For me, it becomes sort of cosmic. That’s what Love is really talking about. I don’t know if people will hear that.
So that word for you doesn’t necessarily mean two people, literally in love?
Cheaply it does. Or superficially. The first door that you open, it’s about a relationship. But then behind that, it’s like — no, no. The people that inspired me on this record were these American heroes, singers who were spiritual visionaries: Elvis, Marvin Gaye, Jerry Garcia. I don’t mean Grateful Dead; I mean Jerry Garcia. He’s like a great American singer to me…He came to me in a dream, and he basically said “I relate to you.” So he kind of stuck with me. Elvis too; I had a picture of him on the wall, and a portrait of him happened to be in the studio where I was tracking. Marvin Gaye was all we were listening to in Montreal. It was just these presences. I mean, Marvin Gaye, when he sings about love, he’s not talking about a fucking date he went on.