When Damon McMahon says Amen Dune‘s second album is synonymous with “snow and 6 a.m.,” it’s easy to get swept up in his romanticized view of the whole record. After all, the whole thing burns like a vat of midnight oil and seeps into your speakers like the vaporous visions of a fever dream. That is until you realize that the reclusive singer-songwriter is as inspired by isolation as he is by Michael Jackson and Aphex Twin. Hear what we mean in the exclusive feature below, which includes a complete stream of Through Donkey Jaw and a track-by-track commentary…
1. Baba Yaga
I wrote this song a pretty long time ago, in the summer in an apt on 19th St. It’s about being what it says at the end—negative and eager—and is kind of a meditation on that. Most of the playing on the record is just me, but for a number of songs my friend Parker played drums, as he does on this song. Parker is one of the best humans out there. The sounds at the very end are made by an erhu. It’s a Chinese violin that I studied when I lived in China, and play shittily to this day.
2. Lower Mind
I wrote this when I had just moved to China and had yet to really know anyone there. I would just wander around at night and kind of get lost in the city, and the melody for this song came to me on a night walk like that. The song is about some specific things, but generally I’d say about being comforted by lower behaviors and lower thoughts. We recorded the record in a basement I rented for the month of January on 2nd St. in NYC, and this was one of the first songs I finished. This is also a Parker drum track with my doing a random bass part. I can’t really play bass, nor do I know which notes to always hit, so I like to just kind of jump into playing and see what sounds right in the moment, which you can kind of hear. The vocals at the end came from my buying a PS3 pitch shifter pedal, which is all over the record.
3. Swim Up Behind Me
This song was written probably the same week as “Lower Mind.” Normally the lyrics are just first emotional response kind of things, or just vocalizations that I put words to later, but this one I actually wrote out. I got ideas from scanning through a book I was reading at the time and taking words here and there, like “rooks form a line.” This is actually a really different version of a song that I did way later on in the recording process. I’m always listening to stuff that is really different from the songs I write, so I had been on a serious Chrome bender all winter and so decided at like 5 in the morning in a questionable state to do a complete Chrome ending to this song, with tons of flange and chorus on the drums and two super loud shitty guitar solos. Decided to scrap that, though in retrospect would have been funny to keep I think. The synth on this song (and all over the record) is a Prophet 600 that my friend Jordan from Coconuts lent me, which saved the day. I originally had it higher in the mix but I hit some major wrong chords so had to bury it a bit and then added the guitars and the drums. The slide was a nod to Sister Lovers.
“I was in a really shitty mood too that night, which I think comes through on the recording.”
This was recorded during the mixing sessions at the old Mighty Robot space on S 6th St., in a room full of giant pink styrofoam animals and people that Matt upstairs would make. I thought the riff sounded like Top Gun so that’s why I called it “1985,” though I later found out that the movie came out in ’86. The song reminded me of being a kid for some reason.
I was borrowing a guitar from my friend Tim; also from Coconuts. He said he made it from the wood of a tree in Tasmania where he’s from, and strung it with bass strings and low E guitar strings. It is heavy as shit, but Tim is like 6’6” so he can handle it. This song is about 10 minutes long, but I just included a section.
5. Not a Slave
“Not A Slave” is probably the oldest song on the record. Not really one I want to talk about too much, but it’s coming from a similar world as “Lower Mind.” Parker is also on drums. He was gone most of that month and so only had one night to do all of his drum parts. He got to the space at like 9 p.m. and we did six songs in one night, finishing with this one at 5 in the morning.
Half of what I like to do is song-based, and half is kind of free stuff. Sometimes I’ve considered starting another project for more free stuff but have decided to go the way of including it all under one umbrella, and though the two sides are different, I feel like they all come from a similar space. “Jill” was an improv I did one night, and is one of my favorite tracks on the record. I borrowed a guitar from the guy in the space next door and started with a loop of the two guitars. (He was kind of pissed because he said it was so loud you could hear it in the elevator.) Then I ran a drum machine through a bunch of things and into a guitar amp.
Everything was just a first take; like most of the parts on the record. I get too distracted to redo things so I just keep whatever comes up first, first idea best idea. Then I just press record and sing whatever comes to mind. I was thinking of Michael Jackson on this one for some reason, and remember that I was in a really shitty mood too that night, which I think comes through on the recording. The original title for this song was “Naked Fat Girl,” but my friend said that was a bad idea.
This was the last song written in China on the record. It’s about an island somewhere, where the people have a holiday to celebrate the day of Sunday. They worship Sunday by just laying around, and through laying around and doing nothing they find they are able to transport to exotic places they’ve always dreamed of going, from Mexico to Hainan island in China, and finally to an imaginary place called Hais. It’s a song about tuning out. That’s my brother Alexander talking in the beginning. He played piano on this song with his friend Sam playing flute through my pitch shifter.
“I didn’t finish until 6 a.m. and came outside to snow almost up to my knees, driving home with this song in my head.”
8. For All
I had a girlfriend from Ningxia, China. She came to visit me from time to time once I moved back to New York. She hated everything she loved once she saw it here. After her last trip here she wrote a story about it. It talked about how one behaves in New York; how one becomes focused on what she saw were the wrong things in life. She always used to tell me I was very ‘un-Zhuangzi.’ After I read her story, I decided to write something back. I’m singing from my perspective and all the other voices are the things said by her, and really things said by people in general, by people who disagree with you or slander you or speculate. I felt that all the things that she said bring me down were actually the things that allowed me to survive, and by shunning them conversely kept her down. The song was like my issuing her a life sentence or something, in my little fantasy world. The voices that swell up in the choruses are like a chorus of life’s disapprovals. They gossip things in Chinese like “Let me tell you something”; “Oh really?”; “He only ever thinks of himself”; “Even he knows that”; “Oh god, I know”; and things like that.
In the end, it says if you destroy my name, I destroy yours.
9. Good Bad Dreams
This song was an improvised recording that I relearned and wrote words to. They ended up being like little mind wanderings; kind of like thoughts you would have about yourself in a dream. This was another Chrome moment, where I recorded the drums my friend Sebastian played with phase, couldn’t resist. We could barely keep it together on this one, which I kind of like. Also, one of the things I was most happy about on this record is the bass, and I was particularly into the bass on this one. It’s like my attempt at soul music, with the call and response vocals. Or African music or something, like a handicapped sleepwalking Ethiopian band.
10. Bedroom Drum
I wrote this over the summer. It starts as a love song to drums—”making my time expand to you,” “see it in my eyes,” etc.—trying not to write about what I was really writing about I guess, but then it kind of moves out from there. It’s a song to someone who isn’t interested, and about what you in turn find yourself doing. “What do I do/Keep on you/Prey on you.”
11. Lezzy Head
This is probably my favorite song on the record and maybe the oldest. I’m just remembering now that I wrote this the night before I moved to China actually. It was hard to mix because of all the different vocals that come in on all different tracks. I did the whole record on a [small] 8-track, so it’s not like you can see which track is what like you can on a computer. Plus I mixed the record live, so I had to adjust everything on the fly.
This was the kind of song where the feel and sound of the lyrics are more important than any direct meaning. I guess it’s generally about things ending. I was really getting into vocals on this song; kind of taking a cue from Martyn Bates from Eyeless in Gaza, who is one of my favorite singers and really stretches out his vocals even on pretty mellow songs. No one might hear that parallel except for me, but I think he was a major influence on this one (and the whole record actually). Also, the whole album was recorded during the worst period of snowstorms in a really long time in New York. The night I recorded this I didn’t finish until 6 a.m. and came outside to snow almost up to my knees, driving home with this song in my head. I kind of associate the whole record with snow and 6 a.m.
“It’s like a hippie version of Model 500 or Larry Heard or something”
I wanted to write a pop song. This one starts as a down look at one’s self and then turning that down out on others. I had just come back home [from China] when I wrote this song, and was just feeling what a bummer a lot of social interaction can be sometimes; people telling each other stories, competing for attention, etc. And so the song was written as a kind ode to self and how it’s good to stay quiet. It’s also about the culture that surrounds a certain community of people, and about getting yours before they do. I had this idea as well of an ideal woman being a tinted Aquarius for some reason, so it’s about looking for one of those too, under rocks, in your closet, up a tree, all over.
13. Gem Head (bonus track)
I had been watching a documentary on Captain Beefheart and after seeing the Safe as Milk section, I ran downstairs to try and copy a riff I heard them play and ended up with this song. The original was even more guitar heavy with multiple solos at once, which I tried to copy here, and then added a synth and Parker on drums on top.
14. Tomorrow Never Knows (bonus track)
This was recorded the first night I got to the studio space. I knew I had a bunch of actual songs I needed to record, so I wanted to get at some other things before I started going off into song world. If I had time I would love to do a whole project like this, ’cause it was so much fun. It was my chance to work out my Detroit/Chicago obsession. It’s like a hippie version of Model 500 or Larry Heard or something. I grew up listening to electronic music and dance music—I heard [Aphex Twin’s] I Care Because You Do and [The Future Sound of London’s] ISDN before I ever heard Dark Side of The Moon—and always wanted to make it, but never really tried. Never had any gear or anything (this was just the Prophet 600 and a looped drum machine live into my tape machine). Even though it is different stylistically, I think it’s all part of the same thing for me, so I included it on the record. And it was a long, weird song at the end of a record, so I called it “Tomorrow Never Knows.”