Never Totally Isolated
“Life makes you tighten your grip, then you have these periods, certain pivotal points in your life and eternity’s like: alright man, are you ready to loosen up? Eternity makes you tighten up, and the cosmos force you to question that and see how much you’re willing to let go. If people continue to let go I think there’s something fulfilling about that. I just have to let go more, even though I resist it.”
Introduction by Adria Leeper-Sullivan
Interview & Performance Photographs by Theo Constantinou
Portrait Photographs by Sebastian Mlynarski
Being Amen Dunes is a very personal experience for Damon McMahon. He’s not a musician looking for billboards to make his face a landmark, or his music to necessarily be a catalyst to others’ peregrinations, but he is someone who is grateful for anyone that listens. Accepting that those around him have lessons to teach, his music displays influence from struggles that have faced him. Whether a woman, poverty, or something else has created negativity for McMahon he will choose to carry the burden as a reminder while building an arsenal of experience so that each day he may become a better person. Though not invested in being a hero, he is sensitive to what his music imprints on others. For Damon, music is a way to survive, but also a way to embrace the positive that lurks within every situation.
Vladimir Prop, a former scholar, described Baba Yaga as often fulfilling the function of donor; that is, her role is in supplying a hero, sometimes unwillingly with something necessary to further his quest. To supply a hero with something necessary to further his quest … The lead track off of Through Donkey Jaw carries the same title. Do you think that every man has a woman come into his life that is his Baba Yaga, who gives them something to further their life quest whether that be heartbreak, love, guidance, whatever?
Sure man … that’s a good question. Unfortunately, Baba Yaga was sort of just a title, but I was aware vaguely of who and what Baba Yaga was … If it’s relevant at all it’s sort of coincidental, but does such a thing exist for each man on his life quest? Definitely. Whether they’re making art or working at Kinkos or something; I think good or bad, more often bad …
But maybe some good?
Hopefully some good. It’d be kind of fucked up to say that that’s a woman’s purpose, but they can have that affect in certain circumstances, sure.
I mean, every song on the record is probably about women somewhere.
Do you have any examples?
If I were to tell you that Paradigm was created because of a woman and what led to that … when I write this stuff it’s all very much part of me wearing my heart on my sleeve. What guidance or catalyst have these women …
That’s funny, almost every song is about a woman …
Maybe something specific to your own life.
I think a lot of the songs are just generally about women, lust and sex in general: more generally. People don’t really ask that, but the songs are often about that in general; and then some of them are about specific women, definitely. It’s normally something kind of gone bad, or a sort of unrequited, or some damage done I think. Yeah, almost every song, now that I think about it, is about women. But obviously used for good in some way. Some kind of catharsis even if it was a bad experience.
So, I wrote this quote down in my journal; it’s by Victor Hugo from Les Miserables, he says, “Life, misfortunes, isolation, abandonment, poverty, are battlefields which have their heroes; obscure heroes, sometimes greater than the illustrious heroes.” Do you consider yourself to be one of those obscure heroes?
I hope to be. I mean, hero, I don’t know … sort of like foot-soldier, maybe. I don’t know whether people would notice or care, but I definitely think that those are battlefields that I exist in … for sure. The music is pretty much inspired by that stuff. What’s the list again?
“Life, misfortunes, isolation, abandonment and poverty.”
I definitely think they … I mean hero wouldn’t really apply but definitely like a foot-soldier.
Living life, we’ve all had misfortunes in some way … you know, “isolation, abandonment and poverty,” How do you relate those things to yourself?
The poverty thing, I can’t say that I grew up by the railroad tracks; I can’t say that poverty has inspired my music. Misfortune … what was it, misfortune, isolation and abandonment … sure man. I think I’ve had a pretty good life, but I’ve had some fucked up shit happen to me too. Specifically, I think that all music is probably that, but I think with my music, I focus very much … I think it has a bigger influence compared to other ‘battlefields’. I don’t write songs to get laid; let’s just put it that way.
This is a little lengthy, so just follow me if you can; if you get lost, let me know. I got into this debate the other night, and I actually got into it early tonight as well. This is definitely a reoccurring theme. My friend was asking me about the magazine and my punk-rock ethos, and not giving a fuck about what others think, and just going for it full go with purpose and integrity. He then posed an argument about why then am I’m publishing the kind of material that I am,if I really don’t care. He said the same stands true for artists: if they didn’t want their work to be accepted they wouldn’t put it out into the world, and he gave me an example of a poet who died without publishing any of his poems which were later published by people in his family. So my question is this, is there really an argument here, or just the fact that, no matter what people do, even if they truly don’t give a fuck, they want just a little bit of acceptance, even if the poet who died without publishing any of his work was writing for some reason, even if it wasn’t for public consumption? Again, sorry if that was hard to follow, but I’d love to hear your thoughts, since your music is so personal and that you initially had no intention of releasing anything.
I think every artist gives a fuck; if they say they don’t they’re lying. I think, even the people who don’t publish it would like to be able to share … they’re making art for a reason; it’s coming from some sort of feeling, some sort of source, and so, I think anybody would want to share it. A lot of people are scared of rejection. I think anybody who just makes art and doesn’t care at all … they’re probably just doing it for fun or something. Anybody who really does it because they’re trudging those roads or battlefields, they definitely would ideally want it to be accepted.
But I mean specifically, because of stuff I’ve read for this, you’re doing it because you have to do it.
That’s a good point; even if you don’t directly expect people to hear it or see what you’re making, and I didn’t expect anyone to listen to those recordings … I think cosmically, I was doing it with some … communicating with people somehow. Even if I didn’t think anybody would hear this song, I was putting forth some message or energy towards certain people. Why did I not want to put it out there? I don’t know, but I think as soon as someone accepted it and said they liked it, I was like oh cool, I would love for people to hear it. You’re never totally isolated.
Of course. And that’s the idea; if you’re a human being, I think it’s in our nature to want to be accepted by other human beings.
Totally. I played it for my girlfriend at the time I was recording; I cared what she thought. I was so excited to share it.
I have this Chinese proverb written down; happiness seems to always be a theme with me and obviously in everybody’s lives. I always hear people talking about this one word: happiness. The proverb says, “if you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a month, get married. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else.” Do you think you can achieve happiness for a lifetime by just helping other people? Because really, all of the other forms of happiness described here are just fucking temporary. I feel that, at least if you were constantly trying to do good for the world or people, you may never reach your happiness, but at least you’re trying …
That’s definitely true man. I think, if I’m ever feeling bummed out about playing, or uncomfortable, or hung-up on something, I think I can focus on being of service with this shit. I mean, I do think about that specifically. It’s easy to assume if you’re neurotic about it, that no one wants to hear this shit, but I know that some people want to hear this stuff as much as I’m sort of harsh on it and can be self-doubting. I definitely try to remember that you’re doing a service to people by playing music. I think that provides more happiness then that other stuff, for sure. A nap’s pretty good though. Ha ha …
Just even in a broader sense, everybody fucking talks about happiness. There’s things that make you happy, maybe it’s stepping on the mound or maybe it’s these people making money from selling food or whatever it is, but the ideas that … I think the word happiness actually should be removed from the dictionary because it’s a very of-the-moment thing. Eating this food may make me happy, or smoking a cigarette, or drinking a glass of whiskey, or being with a chick; happiness in and of itself is a temporary feeling. So, I guess what the question really is, is that word just more of a theme to life? Just by doing good or whatever that means; I’ve had conversations with people and they don’t believe in right or wrong; it confuses me, but I have to accept that fact for them.
I think happiness is real, but it’s problematic because people in this society think that you should always be happy. One, I think that people feel you should always be happy; two, they equate happiness with bullshit, like getting a nice house or something. Not just in this country, but they equate it with something superficial and then they think that if they’re not happy something’s wrong, but I think I’ve got to remind myself that you can’t always expect to be happy, fucking, skipping down the street: that’s not life. But there is such a thing and I think it comes from subtler things, subtler actions; being useful to someone often gives you more fulfillment than a nap or a girl.
To revisit the Impose Magazine article, you said, “It’s always been my own thing, so I’m surprised that people even want to hear it and I’m kind of doing it for myself though; I just do it because I need to do it and it’s great that people like it.” I fucking love that. It kind of goes back to the question I asked previously about art for arts’ sake. Do you think the best work is when people are just doing it because they have to and not for some other bullshit reason, or can you, again, to kind of revisit that topic but, is that really it or is it just like, you’re doing it as an extension of yourself? With your music, it’s like, when you create something, do you think it eventually, like let’s say … The Offspring; if you look at their ‘Americana’ album, you can tell that shit’s completely fucking commercial; it completely lost the integrity of their original music. Can you talk about that idea a little?
You’re totally in a bad place if you’re writing for other people; it’s hard to avoid that I think. I gotta keep myself from fucking doing that all the time. I don’t think you can make art … it’s music; if you write a song for some purpose, you’re going to compromise yourself a little bit; I do think in this day and age it sucks because if you totally ignore the system in which it exists, then you’ll never have that satisfaction of affecting someone with your music. I feel like I have to take some things into consideration, but I think the important thing is being sincere. If you get off from what you’re doing, then that’s all that matters. If it’s super commercial … really commercial shit can be really great, like Madonna or Beyoncé … some of their songs are really good and there’s some kind of humanity in there. So I think if you’re sincerely doing something, and committed, it will work. I don’t think commercial or not is necessarily bad, because those guys aren’t doing it for themselves, they’re doing it for a big hit, but he’s super inspired … whoever wrote songs for Madonna.
I’d actually be curious to know this too. I’m a big early Pink Floyd fan, that’s kind of an example of art for art’s sake …
I think you’re intensions don’t matter, but you’ve got to be sincere about it; I like music that’s fucking for real, that’s like the one indicator for me. I feel like I can listen to something and right away be like, is this shit coming from some place of feeling or importance or like struggle or self-awareness … that’s important to me. I don’t know if that answers your question.
No it’s good; it’s just conversation: these things start in conversation. Alright, so this is, it’s actually the last one, and I actually wrote this at like 2am yesterday when I was reading Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces. It was interesting because I’m at the return part, I don’t know if you’ve read Joseph Campbell; I really recommend checking it out … just the idea of the hero in the sense that, not even what we think to be heroes, just the journey of life and the idea of you’ve got to bring something back; that’s the theme that I’m really getting out of it. If you just go out there and you journey, and you don’t bring anything back for the world, then it’s a fucking waste of time. You’ve got to give something to somebody in some way. I’m at the part of the return and Campbell is talking about finding the fountain of youth, but this guy said, and this was really fascinating to me because again, everything I’m really interested in is like death and people’s perception of death and what life is and getting old … just to preface this question. It’s actually just more of what he said and just kind of hearing your thoughts.
“All things are in process, rising and returning. Plants come to blossom but only to return to root. Returning into the root is like seeking tranquility. Seeking tranquility is like moving toward destiny. To move toward destiny is like eternity. To know eternity is enlightenment, and not to recognize eternity brings disorder and evil. Knowing eternity makes one comprehensive; comprehension makes one broad minded; breadth and vision brings nobility; nobility is like heaven. The heavenly is like Tao. Tao is eternal. The decay of the body is not to be feared.”
So, why do you think it is that people fear death, especially getting old and not … someone tonight was like ,“yo Theo, I think it’s awesome that you’re doing what you’re doing.” There’s still a perception about it and it’s not a struggle what I’m doing. I don’t fear death anymore because what I’m doing, I’m giving something to somebody and there’s no fear of getting old or whatever because fuck it, if it’s my time to pass then it is what it is. So I’m just kind of curious to hear your thoughts on that. You seem like a journeyman yourself, having been to China and doing your thing …
That’s a pretty heavy question, but I think … I didn’t used to fear death at all, and I feel like in the last couple years I started to for the first time. I’m a little older now, and I remember being in China around then, I was sort of like … I really enjoyed being on the fringe of my existence and over exposing myself to the elements and the weird situations. Then I sort of had this … I think what happens is, inevitably, you go through a period where you sort of retract, you retreat from that; all of a sudden you are aware of your mortality and you’re like, I don’t want to put myself out there as much. You find yourself becoming a little more conservative in a way, not even in your habits and things, but like in your appreciation of your own lifespan. I never used to give a shit; when I was a kid I used to dream those falling dreams and I used to always let myself hit. I would drop through the ravine and just feel the slamming down.
You wouldn’t wake up?
No, I wouldn’t wake up; so I embraced that for a while. Recently, I went back to China and had a weird experience; I went on tour there in November and, where I used to be really open and free, I kind of found myself protective and constrained. Since then I’ve been sort of realizing again that it’s like eternity testing you, the closer you get … old people say this kind of shit; you’re tested how much you’re willing to let go, I think. So, I think that fear of death is just not willing to let go of control, and it’s part of our nature to test that: how much are you willing to loosen your grip. When I was younger, I never tightened my grip.
Why do you think that’s changed?
Well I’m only fucking 31 going on 32, and it’s like, I feel like throughout life it’s this test. Life makes you tighten your grip, then you have these periods, certain pivotal points in your life and eternity’s like: alright man, are you ready to loosen up? Eternity makes you tighten up, and the cosmos force you to question that and see how much you’re willing to let go. If people continue to let go I think there’s something fulfilling about that. I just have to let go more, even though I resist it.
But you had it at one point, right?
Yeah and I lost it. I weirdly lost it.
But it’s weird that you lost it though, because it seems like you’re in a place now where you’re creating … at least, again, it’s just a perception, but it’s a shame to hear you say that because …
It is weird man, I think because I’m supposed to test my willingness to let go; I really think it’s that … the cosmos are prepping you for death.
I think the same shit all the time.
I think you’re forced to learn to let go more. When you’re a kid it’s so easy to fucking take acid and watch a house burn down, walk over railroad tracks … none of that kind of scared me, but I think when life becomes more structured, family and shit.
It’s really weird too because I think about … I was actually talking recently about Hunter S. Thompson, Ernest Hemmingway; just some of these authors who took their own lives, but I think it was more of just this fear … like fuck it; if I don’t know when it’s coming I’m going to do it myself.
Totally man. That’s why I went to China originally. When I was in college I took a class on Daoism, that’s what made me start learning Chinese; that’s why I went there. I’m not going to claim I know anything about Daoism, but it’s that idea; forcing yourself … not being scared of that. I think the embrace of it is the most important part.
In a fulfilled life, if you’re actually truly living, there should be no fear. You can make music, you can play baseball, I can interview people and do magazines, and that can last for a long period of time but it’s going to eventually end: we’re all going to die; that’s all that I really know. I try to test myself and push the scope of okay, well I might not be super comfortable with it, but at least I know I’m trying to do the best I can. I completely agree with the whole crucible thing; my acceptance of it will only last for so long, then I will get to a point where I will have to re-accept the fact that it’s coming. People at the end of their lives, people holding on to their lives, old people who are scared to die: that’s real fear. Then other people are psyched for it, or open to it. Every time I talk to people about it … I always try to include some life or death question, people get really weirded out talking about it.
People respond negatively to it?
I think what I’m starting to realize is that everybody’s just trying to figure it out. As much as I try to push these kind of questions on other people to get their answers, that death is scary … I could be fucking eighty years old, if I live that long, and I still won’t know.
Agreed. Everybody’s on their own journey.
But it’s about just asking the questions and trying to make it make sense I guess, in some kind of weird way, but even that, to me, is kind of awesome because it’s like I used to fear death, I don’t anymore, but I know there’s going to be a point in my life where I’m not ready to die.
I had the least fear of death, but I don’t know what happened.
Do you think there was a specific catalyst or turning point?
Yeah, something affected it. I almost died in an earthquake in China. That was a weird experience and forced me to kind of want to hold on more … but I feel like I’m coming out of the crucible again …
The body is controlled by the mind; the body is going to decay, we know this. However, my great uncle, sure he walks a lot slower, but he’s fucking sharp, you know what I mean? And I think that just the exercise of this long term is what’s going to keep you going. Obviously, this body is going to decay, like I find out I have a problem with my foot … I’m getting old, whatever, but my mind is still sharp. So I think if I can keep this sharp for as long as I can … I know my body is going to deteriorate, my mind will stay. Interesting man, because I almost died in a plane crash like three, four years ago, it was an emergency landing and I was terrified of flying. For two years I was terrified to get onto planes; the entire plane ride, all I thought about was it burning and crashing to the ground. There was this moment where I just closed my eyes on the plane and said, just fall asleep and let it be, let it go, and it happened.
And it went away?
It went away. So I got over that, but I still was afraid to die because I was working in corporate America … I got over that fear but it was still part of that same process. A year later, when I jumped off of corporate America to do this, that was about three months ago, I was just laying in my bed and I said, I’m ready now. I don’t want to die at all, I still, I don’t want that to happen, but if it does, at least I know I’m pushing the scope of everything I can do.
You kind of have to be willing to die: it’s true. That fear gets transferred, like the fear of flying went away and was transferred to something else.
Now my fear is that I’m not going to be able to interview enough people and get enough information to give to other kids to kind of change their lives: now that’s my real fear. I just need to keep doing this as fast as … it’s like anything in life: it takes time. If I was just an internet sensation, then fuck it. I want this thing to get people thinking … Longterm.
That’s awesome man.
And just getting more ideas for people to actually sink their teeth into because again, even with this interview with you tonight, you said some things that just changed my perspective, that to me, a kid might read it and change his perspective. I keep telling people, if I can just change one person’s life, I know I’m doing okay …
That’s true man, that’s what you can live for; giving some kind of experience to somebody. If I play some show and some kid’s like, you’re music really affected me, that’s all that matters: that’s awesome. That makes the day. So many people don’t care when they ask questions, so it’s really awesome that you … it is valuable and it will … I’m not saying that my answers will be anything valuable necessarily, but in general, these kinds of questions will create something that will have an effect on people.
It’s life. You do what you do and people already know that you’re Damon and you make music as Amen Dunes; a million other people are going to ask you what you’re inspirations are. Life is a struggle, its madness, it’s everything: those are the topics. This is stuff that interests me. I just want people to kind of gain some type of experience through my ability to maybe interact with you, and have you say something along the lines of women or death; these are the things that we actually deal with.
Women and death: those are two good ones.
(Laughing) That’s what life means for me.