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Amen Dunes @ Boot and Saddle on Tuesday.

May 12, 2014

Amen Dunes FullText by Michele Zipkin. Images by Tuomas Kopijaakko.

Tomorrow, May 13th, marks the release of Amen Dunes’ third full-length album, Love, via Sacred Bones Records. Having previously performed under a couple different monikers, Damon McMahon is the man at the musical helm. Jordi Wheeler and Parker Kindred contribute piano and percussion to this project, respectively. The band will headline at South Philly’s Boot and Saddle tomorrow night in celebration of their newest creation.  Far-out Fangtooth and Jackie Paper will also take the stage tomorrow evening.

Dave Bryant and Efrim Menuck of Godspeed You! Black Emperors recorded and played on the album, while MacMahon produced. Saxophonist Colin Stetson, as well as Elias Bender-Ronnenfelt of the band Iceage, can also be heard on a couple of tracks.

Damon MacMcMahon took a different approach to making Love than he had for past projects. The first few Amen Dunes records he made were very much built on solo improvisation, recorded and finished in mere weeks. However, he sat down with his writing partners and spent about a year and a half recording and producing the songs on this latest effort, and it shows.

“I’m not sure why, I was just tired of being sonically limited, ” McMahon said. “I wanted to make a record that sounded like Alice Coltrane, or the later Talk Talk records, something with that vibe.  I wanted to get horns, string instruments and vibraphone on this record.”

McMahon, Wheeler and Kindred compose the core elements of the band, with MacMahon writing the bulk of the songs and arrangements. But the instrumental construction of each song is a joint effort.  The three musicians will play and interpret together, letting the song take shape.

“I really trust [Jordi and Parker] so I trust it to go wherever we take it.  I had never collaborated with anybody for any Amen Dunes records, so this process was very new for me,” he said.

At its center, Love bears the soul of a cowboy worship album, so MacMahon says. Its songs touch on an eclectic mix of stories. Some are steeped in relationships, others are about god or professional failures. Each tune has its own meticulously thought-out lyrics and arrangements. For instance, the song “Lilac in Hand” is about copping drugs.

“It sounds like a love song but it’s actually a drug song,” MacMahon said. [That song] is my attempt at Latin music. There’s this guy Hector Lavoe that we really like, so that song is our tribute to him. He was the Elvis or Bob Dylan of Latin music.”

He had covered one of Lavoe’s songs on an earlier Amen Dunes album and that, in a way, marked his desire to incorporate elements of Latin music into his own creations.

“That’s why there’s so much percussion on the record. Parker, the drummer, is a master of that… he would make these little ambient percussion worlds.”

Many musicians make use of pedals or other equipment to put unusual sounds into their music, but MacMahon tends toward the instrumental route to create different timbres and rhythms, especially on this record. “I like to get weird with simple stuff, as opposed to relying on gear to get weird,” he said. “For Jordi and Parker, the way they play their instruments- that’s what makes them special.”

MacMahon’s reluctance to swim with the current, so to speak, is what makes Amen Dunes unlike most any other band on the scene today. But he does not shy away from the norm for the sake of being abnormal, he embraces his individuality and allows it to manifests in his music.

“I’ve never really ‘played the game’ so much.  I have always done just what I wanted, often times obstinately,” he said. “When I did my solo record, I intentionally made it a straight folk record, and no one was really doing that.  It was weirdly anachronistic.”

For MacMahon, cultivating his own voice and letting it guide his musical career has presented some challenges. But his persistence in keeping his music going despite never having made a lot of money is tied to his belief in failing admirably. This notion plays a significant role in the meaning behind this album.

“All the musicians I love always failed admirably,” he said. “Those are the people that I’ve looked up to.  This record is dedicated to them.”

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