It’s taken him 12 years, but gritty R&B stylist Damon McMahon thinks he’s achieved a tangible level of sonic perfection on “Freedom,” his latest fifth album under the moniker Amen Dunes. His guitar is guttural in places, smooth and fluid in others, but always terse and sinewy, complementing his seasoned, world-weary rasp. If he sounds like he’s lived every last note of ominous darkness in the somnolent songs, he has, he admits. “The one thing I’ve learned after all this time in the business is, you just have to make yourself happy with your art, because the one person you will always have to answer to is yourself,” says the New York-raised, Los Angeles-based 38-year-old. “And I definitely learned that the hard way.”
You played basketball as a kid, then suddenly got into music. How did that synapse connect?
Music was really my main focus, something I discovered at 15 when I started smoking pot, got the Velvet Underground and Nico album, and learned that music like that was a major consolation for me. High school wasn’t so good for me, err, not the best time, and it took me a long to get comfortable in my own skin. But once I left high school at 17, things started coming together. I started to write songs, and I took a year of guitar lessons. It was pretty bare bones. All I had was an acoustic guitar, and I didn’t know any other musicians, so I just wrote folk songs at home pretty much.
There’s a Leonard Cohen kind of darkness in your work.
Yeah. My guitar teacher gave me an incredibly sophisticated cassette mix of a lot of Delta blues musicians, and he taught me a couple of different finger-picking patterns, which was as advanced as I got — I never really went beyond that. So he introduced me to American roots music, and then socially, I went to New York raves at the same time, so it was kind of an odd mix. But I must say, I don’t really gravitate toward anybody’s music who hasn’t had some difficult life experiences.
What influences would surprise your fans?
Movies. It’s one of the things my parents gifted me with. They turned me on to art house cinema, films from Bergman, Fellini, Breton — that kind of stuff. And we’d rent them from the library. But I’m way more hungry for good books, because I feel like I’ve tapped out my musical sources. I mean, it’s not very often that I hear something that I really haven’t heard before. Something that’s actually any good. And — all that being said — I’m actually quite happy!
IF YOU GO
Where: August Hall, 420 Mason St., S.F.
When: 8:30 p.m. Jan. 10
Contact: (415) 872-5745, www.ticketweb.com