Death and everything else

Amen Dunes takeover: the references behind the album artwork
Art | 15 May 2024

Photo from Ross McDonnell’s 2021 series ‘Joyrider’

This week marks the release of Amen Dunes‘ much-anticipated new record, Death Jokes. Marking the occasion, we’ve invited the US musician to take over HERO online, curating a series of exclusive content that offers a unique insight into his sonic world.

Onto the album artwork. Creatively overseen by Michael Schmelling, the Death Jokes visuals expand the Amen Dunes vision. Translating imagery of death, classic 80s joke books and Ross McDonnell’s photo series Joyrider, featuring images of Dublin kids knocking about the streets, the album’s visual identity reflects its sonic narrative. Below, Schmelling traces the journey behind the artwork.

‘Death Jokes’ album artwork by Michael Schmelling

“Damon [McMahon, Amen Dunes] first told me the title he had in mind for the record sometime in 2021, we were walking at night in LA. I loved it immediately – I thought of Death personified, or Death as an image. The first thing I did getting home that night was put the title in bold serif type on a 12×12” square and save it – that was the first sketch. We kept talking about the record, and what it could look like, over the next year or so. 

In 2022 Damon and I met up in upstate NY to shoot some press photos. A bunch of different images were informing our conversations about the cover in those days, but there was an emphasis on painting – particularly those of Margaret Keene, Koak, and Stephen Shearer. Around this time Damon also showed me Ross McDonnell’s photo series Joyrider – incredible images of kids at loose ends in a Dublin housing project. Those images felt like a way forward. We got in touch with Ross and started mocking up covers with a couple of different photos. The image of the kid jumping off a balcony – the euphoria and danger and humour, the three kids above on the balcony sneering/smiling at the camera, the graphic black and white architecture – it all felt perfect for Death Jokes. And for a while that was the album cover.

‘Purpleland’ single artwork, painting by Laura Leigh

The album was finished and we sent in the artwork – Ross’ photo on the front with type, and a photo I’d shot of Damon on the back. But then the record was held for sample clearances. The release was pushed to 2024, and I don’t know if we got restless, but we started to revisit the cover and look at old/new ideas we had. For a while, the album cover was George Frederic Watt’s 1885 painting The Minotaur (it is now on the inside gatefold of the LP). 

We’d always had Death Jokes/Amen Dunes in the typeface you see here, and one day after another round of Ross’ photo and The Minotaur, I removed the images and sent Damon the cover as it is now. The design is based on the covers of comedy and joke books from the 80s (plus a little Philip Roth)Damon had been so clear about his use and intent of the comedian samples on the record that I thought maybe we could somehow bring that into the design as well.

Sadly, Ross passed away in late 2023. His image is on the back cover of the LP and was used as the single art for Boys. Damon’s wife Laura Leigh lent one of her paintings to use as the single artwork for Purple Land.”

George Frederic Watts ‘The Minotaur’, 1885

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