Amen Dunes takeover

“It hazes you until you surrender to it” – Amen Dunes unpicks his captivating new record Death Jokes
By Alex James Taylor | Music | 13 May 2024

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. First up, an in-conversation with the musician and Death Jokes mixer, Craig Silvey.

“I kind of go into a spiritual trance state.” Amen Dunes – the moniker of NYC-based musician Damon McMahon – creates on instinct; in the moment, impassioned, uninhibited. His long-awaited new record Death Jokes is the epitomy of this singular method. Beginning the project in 2019, following the critical acclaim of his brilliant 2018 record Freedom, he decided to hit refresh: taking piano lessons for the first time and immersing himself in the fundamentals of the electronic music he’d grown up with at raves and clubs.

The next year, McMahon found himself fighting an intense illness. He suffered from long-lasting respiratory Covid issues and lost thirty pounds. During this time, he also saw the birth of his first child and moved cross country from LA to Woodstock, NY. These epic life events only made the musician’s idiosyncratic process – stitching together sounds, samples, recordings, fleeting moments – more emphasised and esoteric, resulting in 21 collaborative partnerships coming and going and an escalating pile of scrapped demos. But McMahon stuck to it, and the resulting record, Death Jokes, is a work of experimental class. Utterly liberated, it’s a sonic trip through the musician’s jigsaw mind. A Lenny Bruce stand-up routine. Roland tr-909 drum patterns. An alarm clock chimes. Protest chants. The mechanic fuzz of a copy machine. A YouTube rip of J Dilla discussing sampling. McMahon’s newborn daughter crying. A complex collage forms, layering reality and fiction, technology and emotion, past, present, and dream.

Here, McMahon reunites with Death Jokes‘ award-winning mixer Craig Silvey, who collaborated with the musician to realise the album’s vivid soundscapes.

How did you guys first meet?

Damon McMahon: I was working on the Freedom album with Chris Coady [producer] in LA and we were mixing, which isn’t an easy thing to do. Chris did an amazing job on Freedom but I just felt like it needed a different voice to the one that recorded it. So I went to Chris, “Hypothetically, if I were to go someone else, who is a really good mixer?” Chris has a very Baltimore matter-of-fact way about him, and he said, “Craig Silvey is the best mixer in the world.” I was like, interesting… Chris has very strong opinions and I’d never heard him speak about anyone in that way, so I was like, damn. I reached out to you and you said, “Come on over.”
Craig Silvey: It’s funny because Chris and I have only ever spoken a couple of times through socials or whatever and spoke about doing something together… which never happened until Freedom, basically.

DM: Interesting. So I ended up going to London…
CS: Eating a lot of Indian food.

DM: [laughs] A lot of Indian food.
CS: It’s interesting because leaning into this record [Death Jokes] would’ve been more difficult if we hadn’t had that experience on Freedom, because Freedom wasn’t even a typical mixing session.

DM: Tell me what you mean by that.
CS: It felt like what you and Chris had created was an open palette with no arrows pointing towards anything necessarily. There were people playing things but no guarantee of what actually had to be used.

DM: It’s funny, in comparison to old Amen Dunes, it was way more organised than anything else. [laughs] In the old days I’d just have a bunch of takes in real-time to figure out what worked.
CS: Mostly I remember enjoying the process of learning how each of our brains work and then syncing. I think we both had points of thinking, “That’s a really strange way of doing things,” but then being like, “Oh, maybe there’s a way to make this work.”

DM: [laughs] I think that’s more you thinking that. I never thought you were strange, but I definitely came across as strange.
CS: It was just that some of your ideas would be very left-field and would take me by surprise, but I was up for the journey. Certainly with Freedom, that journey usually ended up with fruitful results. So when we came to this record it was like, “OK, there might be some curveballs here but if you hold tight it’s going to be good.”

DM: Totally. I’m going to flatter you here, Craig. I’d say in the music production world in general, most people aren’t confident and comfortable enough in themselves to take risks, change things, try ideas that seem ‘wrong’. Of course there may have been a few days at the beginning when you were really feeling me out and was uncertain, but I’m a very unorthodox musician. The people who play with me, only some can hang, most can’t. But the really good people, they like the challenge. I have very sensitive ears too, and I’ve never been… Chris Coady was the first time I’d ever been in a studio where I was impressed with someone, because he got things to sound so beautiful. But I’d never been in a mix session where I was impressed with anything anyone did. Then, slowly as we started to know each other, you’d do things and I’d be like, “Oh, damn.” One thing you did that was cool was, sometimes people will slam stuff with effects or hard sonic opinions – “This is gonna hit!” But you’d actually use more effects than anyone but you wouldn’t notice them – they’d be so subtly integrated. That album was a beautiful adventure because it was a new relationship and we’d watch the songs grow and move.
CS: Creating the arcs was so much fun, it was a real pleasure.

Photography by Michael Schmelling

“I was thinking about Prince and it was as if he was sat on the couch with me listening.”

DM: Your mixes sort of bloom and blossom. I don’t know if you’re intentional about this or not?
CS: Yeah. I feel like that’s what makes Freedom, pouring milk in water, that kind of flow, moving into different shapes and spaces – that’s what makes it special.

DM: That’s right. The biggest ones for me are Miki Dora, Skipping School, Believe. The songs would sort of balloon, but you don’t hear anything poking out, there are these weird undulations as if it’s one instrument. One amazing memory from Freedom… It was like March, 2017, I was in your studio in London working on the record and some songs were harder than others. There’s a track called Freedom, and it really wasn’t working. Somehow we cracked the code of pulling things away and I don’t think I’ve ever told you this but… I’m a weird guy. And on every album I’ve sort of had spirit animals present. For some reason, and I’m not even a huge fan, but I’d been really thinking about Prince, like him being with me almost. I’d watched interviews with him and absorb his energy. I was meditating a lot about him, I don’t know why. We were sitting in the room and you were really fine-tuning something the beginning of Freedom, it was humming, the lights were low, and I was sitting on the couch. It was very emotional and it felt very profound. I was thinking about Prince and it was as if he was sat on the couch with me listening. I was riding it, the organs were riding, the song was crescendoing, and then the whole fucking studio just died. All the power went out suddenly. You were like, “I’ve never had that before.” It was completely out of nowhere. I don’t think I told you that story, I didn’t want to share it. I was like, “I guess [Prince] likes it.”
CS: Or he hated it! [both laugh]

“I tried to straighten it out but was like, “No way, I won’t budge.””

DM: For Death Jokes, it took me four years to have rough mixes – I did it all at home – and I went through so many different collaborators – like 21 different people. Musicians to be the band, producers, engineers. Probably like four of them submitted music I rejected, but about seventeen, eighteen people said no to me. That summer, maybe 2021, I was like, “Craig man, I’m fucked. I don’t know what to do, I can’t get this music to work. Can you just come to LA and start from scratch.” You were such a trooper, you flew out to LA and we rented a room at EastWest Studios, which is legendary – Sinatra recorded My Way, Madonna, Whitney Houston…
CS: Beach Boys.

DM: We didn’t even use the Beach Boys room. We used the bigger Mamas & the Papas room. So we did a whole week of recordings and again, it was so cool because Craig let me do my thing and I let him do his and we did a whole record. I went home and was like, “Something’s not right here.” Spirit didn’t come out. And I just scrapped it. Actually there’s one thing I kept, Money Mark’s [Mark Romos Nishita, Beastie Boys] Casio on Exodus. I kept that – that’s it! [laughs] One of the beautiful things about this album is that it’s all [created in my] basement plus a moment in EastWest, a moment here, a moment there. Like a little rosemary on the roast chicken, a little dressing. So I said, “Sorry Craig, it’s just not working.” I took a whole year to do it again and finish it – it’s almost painful to tell the story. You were the only person I let into this album, other than Panoram, my bandmate. Nobody else would get it. It takes such an open-minded musician to get it. So I said, “Craig, I’m finally done, can we mix it again?” And you were like, “OK, I’ll come out to New York.” What was that studio?
CS: Sear Sound. It’s a funny old studio in Midtown. It’s where John Lennon recorded a bunch of Double Fantasy. There’s a classic Bob Gruen photo of him sitting at the desk. The place was so bonkers. We could’ve used some probably better studios in Brooklyn, more hip, but instead we were in this place where they had bad coffee and doughnuts in the morning. It kind of inspired a whole different zone. It was great.

DM: You were in a different studio, like a control room, low ceiling…
Craig: Yeah. I have my own studio here in London where I’ve been for twenty years now and it’s like, as soon as I leave this room, I lose 100 hit points, my power is reduced. [laughs] Again, that is the challenge. From my point of the story, earlier, even before the LA sessions, when you sent the tracks, Dani [Bennett-Spragg, assistant engineer] opened them up and was like, “There’s something wrong with the transfers, the rhythms are all scrambled.” Then you sent them again and they were all the same, and it was like, “Ah, alright, I see what we’re up against.” [both laugh] In some of those LA sessions, we were going through all the technical ideas to try and make it make sense in the ‘normal world’. We probably tried to force it a bit and it wasn’t meant to happen. Then by the time we got to New York – I was thinking about it for weeks before because you’d sent over more of the tracks, and it had more of the essence of the demos than the stuff we made in LA. As a mixer, I was thinking about the concept of trying to translate your vision into what the listener is going to hear, and in a studio where I wasn’t as comfortable as I would be here. That gave me a whole scramble that… and as the story will continue, New York wasn’t truly successful, but I think we had to go through that stage. For me, that was the most important stage in transitioning from your vision to what would become the final album. It was the place where I was trying to do things I would never have done. I was thinking more about the textures and emotions than the sonics.

DM: It was almost like you got hazed by the music – and that’s Amen Dunes, it hazes you until you surrender to it. I got hazed too, I tried to straighten it out but was like, “No way, I won’t budge.” Also, I need to admire you again, because no other mix engineer would ever do this. Mixing isn’t willy-nilly, it’s sort of scientific in a way, so nobody would be like, “Sure, I’ll go to a random studio and try make some unorthodox music.” They’d definitely apply some rules. You have a very bold approach to mixing. I remember we were eating Chinese food in the room where John Lennon performed Double Fantasy, sitting there eating noodles, and I was like, “Craig, I hate to say it but the music just isn’t working.” Most people would be like, “I hear you, but you gave me bad shit.” Or, “Give me a couple of days, just trust me.” But your response was, “Well, if it’s not right, maybe you should mix with someone else.” But not in a [nasty way]. I was like, “Wow,” and that made me trust you even more. We tried our best to land the plane but within days of you getting back to London, I called you like, “Dude, can you do it from home?” And you were willing to do it again. I’m curious, when you got back to London, that final time, how did you approach it? What made it work?
CS: The New York session was about scrambling the palette, creating the foundation of how it would feel, which then allowed me to be forensic back here in London. I was able to be way more subjective here.

DM: Did you take those songs and try find who is the lead instrument for levels at first? Or do you try to get sonics first? I’ve never even asked you.
CS: In Freedom, it was a classic example of finding the groove and space. But on Death Jokes, there’s way more of a collage of a song, so it was about trying to find where the emotional moment was, and it could come from the drums, the vocals, the beat. There wasn’t necessarily a foundation to hold onto.

DM: There’s nothing to hold onto, absolutely.
CS: Only the overall emotional response of what the song is. It’s how much are you cooking it?

DM: Right, you don’t want to overcook it.
CS: I’ve grown so much from that record. I’ve learned so much about how to think outside the box and to trust that you can come out the other side and be pushed into this realm that I would never naturally go to. Now I’ve done that, I’ve got another little bag of arsenal I can use. I’m psyched.

DM: I know what you mean. I feel the same way.

Speaking about the samples used throughout the album…

DM: I’m very sensitive to arrangements, to when you need something to come in. Honestly, I kind of go into a spiritual trance state, especially with my computer, and I can’t remember [finding and incorporating the samples] sometimes. There’s no series of thought where I’m like, “Ah, at the end of What I Want I should put a loop from a rave.” No, I’d just be like… fuck, I don’t even remember how I got to the drums. Then something would come over me like, “Go on the internet, look up raves.” And I’d find stuff. The weirdest thing was that I’d always find what I needed. I did not spend 45 minutes looking through samples, cherry-picking. I’d be like, “Rotterdam 1991” and hit it frantically, open the link, cut it, rip it, throw it immediately into the session. And I wouldn’t particularly line it up either, I’d just throw it in and hit play.
CS: And we won’t even get into the phase of the record when we were trying to get those samples cleared. [both laugh]

DM: That’s why it took so long to come out.
CS: We tried to recreate some of them.

DM: Oh yes, one of the comedians who I wasn’t allowed to legally use at first.
CS: You did a pretty good job.

DM: In terms of samples, there are some songs that are very profound experiences, namely on Round the World where I used Nadia Boulanger, Lenny Bruce on Poor Cops and J Dilla on Poor Cops. Whereas at the end of Boys, that’s just fun. You know what that is? That’s the guy who recorded the drums. He sent the files of him playing and I’d catch him talking between takes, and on one take he got interrupted by his neighbour who walks in and goes, “Oh, you scared me! Are you a drummer?” And he goes, “Yeah, by trade.” [both laugh] So that was a dig at all my collaborators who are like, “I’m just doing this for a job, this guy’s an idiot.” J Dilla was very specific, like, who can speak about sample clearances? Because what J Dilla replaced was a sample of The Beatles’ Yesterday performed by Lenny Bruce and his daughter that I found out The Beatles wouldn’t let him use. I thought, “I understand this, but it’s representative of a conservativism and a greediness in the art world.” I thought, “Who could comment on this better than anyone? J Dilla!” So I searched on YouTube ‘J Dilla sample interview’. The first fucking interview I opened up, I kid you not, the opening song was a cover of Yesterday. It’s fucked up. So I scroll ahead and there he is talking to this Dutch guy, he’s like, “Sample clearances, you know, they charged me 100,000 dollars for that beat.” And he goes, “Where is the love?!” And that’s how I end the album, because that’s the question.
CS: And no problem clearing that one.

DM: No, the estate wrote back within five days like, “Of course.”
CS: There’s the love.

DM: Exactly.

Amen Dunes’ new record Death Jokes is out now via Sub Pop. 
Stay tuned for a full week of Amen Dunes’ HERO takeover. 


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