“Have yourself a good time”, sings Damon McMahon of Amen Dunes on “Lonely Richard”, the interplanetary third track from his band’s new album Love. It’s one of the key lyrics – surprisingly perhaps on a post-breakup record – that defines the altered direction and sound of Amen Dunes following the ill-received fuck you of last year’s Spoiler album, one so wonky (and McMahon is no stranger to wonk) that his usual record label Sacred Bones decided they’d be better off not releasing it.
For the second of many times in our conversation McMahon mentions two artists in particular who proved to be vital in the development of the album: Pharaoh Sanders and Alice Coltrane, who I say is a personal favourite of mine and perhaps a sound he took inspiration from? “Oh yeah, Sanders’ Karma, Alice Coltrane for sure, Marvin Gaye records from the 70s, the last two Talk Talk records…those kind of big jungles of acoustic instruments, that’s kind of what I was looking for.” Was there a temptation to throw everything at the record? Strings, horn sections…the lot? “Oh definitely! I think what happened was, you’re hearing the end result,” says McMahon, “but I did throw a shitload of stuff on every track. You know, half of Godspeed play on every song along with string players and horn players from Montreal…so the original tracks had tons of overdubs but they way I work is that I like to strip things down to their pure core, so you just end up with piano, drum and vocals – which I love! I like things when they are super-pure. John Wesley Harding - I love that record because it’s far more potent when your ears can only listen to what’s happening with the bass, the drum and the vocal.”
As well as members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor ( a particularly excellent moment is Sophie Trudeau’s violin on the Byrdsian “Rocket Flares”) and Colin Stetson on Love, it also features vocal contributions by Iceage’s Elias Bender Rønnenfelt on the stunning psych chug of “Lonely Richard” and the terrific vibraphone-laden doom-ballad duet “Green Eyes”. I ask - how did he end up on the record? “He [Elias] and I are both secret crooners! I met him a few years ago when we played some shows together and we’re mutual admirers of each others’ music, so the idea of working together was exciting and he happened to be in town – and I love his voice! I like good singers, and he’s a good singer. And the Godspeed guys [there’s production from Dave Bryant and Thee Silver Mount Zion’s Efrim Menuck], they just really liked Amen Dunes; two years ago they asked us to go on tour with them and they just seem to like our music. They said ‘why don’t you come up [to Montreal] and it was very much like entering their world up there. Except for Elias, they were all kind of the Godspeed friends.” It must have been an honour to go up to Hotel2Tango as those guys don’t often let people into their world…”It’s rare that they bring people from the outside in, so I was really flattered that they wanted to do that.”
It’s often the case on Love, and on previous Amen Dunes albums, that McMahon enjoys manipulating his voice, but there’s something striking about the way he delivers the vocal on “Lonely Richard”. It’s clearly more high-pitched and nasally than on other tracks, so what was the thinking behind that? “I’m not really aware of that,” he says. “I try to mess around on every song! My whole thing is that I like to mess around with my voice; I like to put it in uncomfortable places or try and play with it a bit. The original version of “Lonely Richard” was super-weird; I sang it in – and I don’t know why – in this like Thai English accent or something…it has this South East Asian kinda pysch feeling to it.” I say that it’s the one track that really sticks out as not sounding like McMahon, that it’s definitely another voice coming through him: “Oh totally,” he agrees. “That’s funny that it comes through. I wrote it and recorded it like the way I explained and then tried to make it into my own but…yeah I’m singing about other people and other planets and stuff. Whenever I sing, I try and sing through another self.” It comes through on the title track as well, doesn’t it? “Definitely on the title track; I was super far out on that one….I was like, I wanna make an eight or nine minute song, not an eight or nine minute jam session, that’s easy, anyone can do that. There’s this song, “The Creator Has a Master Plan”, that’s one of my favourite records ever, and [vocalist] Leon Thomas is a big inspiration, so “Love” was kind of our Pharaoh Sanders riff.” We’re back to Sanders and Coltrane, aren’t we? “Yeah! Before making Love there were these big musical presences presenting themselves – Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders were the big ones.” I say that Coltrane was incredible, the sounds she achieved on the harp with no effects pedals, and just that whole atmosphere of otherworldliness found purely through music… “Oh, she’s the best right? That production is what I wanted for this record: my goal is to put these American singers like Elvis, Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye – I know Morrison isn’t American but he has that style - at the centre of a Coltrane and Sanders environment. I’m not a fan of pedals at all, so that’s why I like the way Alice Coltrane made things druggy and cosmic just by the way she played – pure.”
Love is out now via Sacred Bones. Amen Dunes plays London Electric Ballroom tomorrow with Follakzoid & Wooden Shjips