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How Amen Dunes Chases Beautiful Randomness 

The NYC songwriter embraced logical madness on new album, Death Jokes.

by Maggie McPhee

Photo by Michael Schmelling

When I catch up with Damon McMahon, AKA Amen Dunes, he’s on the go. Sandwiched between appointments and juggling an album release and a move from Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighbourhood to Manhattan, he’s able to find time for a conversation with RANGE while driving from point A to B. After a few minutes of bustling Brooklyn sidewalk, we enter the refuge of his car. “Man,” he says, “this is typical New York life being bombarded with a thousand stimuli.” That descriptor could be applied to the musician’s newest album Death Jokes, a cacophony of polyrhythms used to glue 90s rave classics, quotes, and McMahon’s own musical experiments into an avant-garde collage.

Death Jokes departs from McMahon’s previous output in a number of ways, including the use of piano and digital recording software, tools he picked up in the last five years. But it also represents a full circle return to his earliest days as Amen Dunes, when he would record alone in isolated enclaves. Over two decades, he’s expanded his sonic palette proportionately to the cast of musicians he’s involved as collaborators, which culminated in his groundbreaking 2018 album Freedom, hailed by Pitchfork as one of the best records of the 2010s. But as the expansion reached ever more experimental realms, collaborators withdrew, and McMahon was left, once again, to his own devices. 

Always a proponent of avant-jazz explorations, McMahon claims his methods on Death Jokes are “more extreme than ever.” At first, he enlisted the piano, Ableton, and drum machines — tools he wasn’t totally familiar with and hadn’t mastered — as a way to discover something unknown. “It was an opportunity to turn myself upside down,” he says. “I like staying kind of childlike in my music making; challenging myself and seeing what happens from mistakes.” As a result, when he showed other musicians demos, they dismissed them and refused to help. “That pushed me back into these tools, and the album blossomed naively from that.” 

Early detractors were tripped up over McMahon’s unconventional use of percussion. “Rhythm is a dead art. It’s a dead quality in contemporary music because computers run our rhythms,” he explains. “In the old days, you would use analog equipment and there’d be mistakes, or you’d play instruments yourself. But these days, everything is done with computers. You can make insane rhythms from computers, of course, and there’s a lot of contemporary music I find beautiful or complex rhythmically. But most of the time, it’s like stockbroker music, banker music, conservative computer music. There’s this conservatism that is unprecedented in music. Maybe in 1951, we had this kind of conservatism, but it’s been a long time.” 

Working with drum machines and Ableton for the first time, McMahon leaned into his amateur approach in pursuit of the unplanned. He limited himself to learning approximately 50 percent of Ableton. He programmed unpolished drum patterns and would course correct using delays or manually adjusting the BPM. Writing “Rugby Child” marked his first time recording himself on a computer with a drum machine — a 909 with a broken internal clock to boot. When using software to produce percussion, he would draw the pattern on his DAW based more on shapes than composition. “I got intimate with it, I made it my own, but I fucked around more than doing it quote-unquote properly,” he says. “I was more interested in seeing what would occur.” 

Yet McMahon balanced this openness with an obsessive patience, revisiting songs hundreds of times, tweaking or rerecording without restraint. He describes that contradiction as “spirituality” — that rare combination of “beauty and happenstance.” “It’s these moments that I can’t manifest, but they happen if you play with the paintbrush long enough. I just waited for it to be beautifully wrong and sometimes it would take years. So yes, I’m a total perfectionist, but I’m a perfectionist in the pursuit of beautiful randomness.”  

“I don’t know if I have good hands, you know what I mean, but I got good ears,” he continues. “I play and then I’m very good at catching special moments. I think that’s what I’ve always done, all my collaborators, I work with these amazing people and I’m good at capturing their strong suits.” 

That propensity towards curation underscores Death Jokes’ generous use of sampling. Music sources range from J Dilla to “Hurrian Hymn No. 6,” the oldest known melody. Spoken word references include comedians Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, as well as French orchestra conductor Nadia Boulanger. On nine-minute polemic “Round the World,” Boulanger implores her students to find a new language — “when you compose, I prefer you to be mistaken, if you must, but to remain neutral and free, rather than wishing to appear other than what you really are.” It’s advice McMahon has taken to heart. 

“I took this childlike, naive approach and I’m seeking solace in the world. These samples were like guiding voices,” he emphasises. “Collage is political because it’s like group protest.” 

McMahon’s use of expressionistic percussion, collage, and a crooning delivery that packs each lyric with meaning all converge towards a logical madness. On “I Don’t Mind,” McMahon overwhelmed the track with competing polyrhythms and samples. “It’s an embodiment of fucking ecstasy,” he explains. “This music is very sensual, emotional, and liberating. That’s my goal.” 

Death Jokes unconventional form propelled its political message. During the pandemic, with social media as the only window into the world, McMahon grew sensitive to a crisis of meaning in himself and the digital communes. “This idea that my whole life, all my information, all my expression of feeling, all my reception of feeling is filtered through this brutal, flattening sieve device that is the digital world,” he says. “It just squishes all of our beings into these shitty little digital tubes that spit us out into the world.” His point that computers run our rhythms extends beyond music production — as does the salvation he’s discovered via his unorthodox artmaking.

Death Jokes sublimates a problem into a solution. It offers an alternative to destructive individualism and the confining effects of the Internet. “When one exists in that kind of ecosystem, and we do, we are all subject to this threat of termination. It extinguishes so much of self, authenticity, love, connection, and that’s very bad for people, but it’s really fucking bad for art.” 

“So the album is a treatise against that, it’s like a calling out to allow people to be heart-centred and honest and contentious and provocative,” he continues. “I would hope that it would encourage that kind of provocation in others. But a loving provocation.”