What is Ben Collins so afraid of?
The 32-year-old Ypsilanti-based engineer, producer, and musician set an intention to find an answer to this very question during an ayahuasca ceremony led by shamans in the jungle of Tulum, Mexico. Collins had never dabbled in psychedelics before this experience. (He jokes that his first experience with marijuana was on midnight the eve recreational weed was legalized.) A self-described skeptic who takes issue with authority and has been plagued with severe anxiety since the age of 11, Collins describes the ayahuasca trip as being "the world's slowest and most intense panic attack."
"It was this insane, like, many-hour-long lesson that tied a lot of things together," he says. "It was like having 10 years of therapy just pounded down my throat. Violently."
Collins goes on to describe his mid-ayahuasca freakout while holed up in a dimly lit Yoga Shala, overwhelmed by the cacophony of ceremonial drums and chanting.
"Set and setting are supposed to be so important. And yet here's this man who's in a dimly lit [hut], it's hot, and it's 1 a.m. and he's blowing into a didgeridoo and someone else is chanting and hitting a drum," Collins says. "And to be honest, it's not very conducive to a good experience. But then I wonder if that's part of the point. Like, let's take people to the dark place as the first step."
He stops and restarts when attempting to explain how he felt walking out into the open jungle, staring up and into the glowing tree canopy.
"I could see kind of what nature was at its core, and it was so massively intimidating. I'm almost hesitant to use the word monster, but it was almost like, [looking at] an indifferent, beautiful monster, just intimidating as hell," he says. "I couldn't look at it for too long. My eyes wouldn't take it in."
This appears to be how Collins' brain operates — at full speed and maximum capacity while exhibiting restraint rooted in uncertainty. He's quick to describe himself as a logical person and dismisses some of what his ayahuasca-touting shaman had to say about his emotional response to confronting his fears, yet he remained open to trying the trip again but with less resistance. In other words, he's complicated — and his music, even more so.
For Living Room Art, his debut record as Minihorse — a project he has led since 2016 and an album that has been completed for two years and later mastered at Abbey Road Studios, and is released on Friday — Collins explores the physicality of sound, and the potentially scientific way in which it travels.
"After I got back from the jungle, I started to feel like some of the record I was writing before this experience was about that experience in really weird, specific ways," he says of Living Room Art. "So, it made me start to wonder about the causality and about the direction of time. There's interesting research around that I've been reading ... but I won't get too far into that."
But he does. Collins explains evidential research that has found time can in fact go backward and how cause-and-effect might not apply to the quantum realm a la Vienna physicist aslav Brukner. Though he doesn't think this is entirely true of his ayahuasca experience, Collins remains intrigued by the neurological query the experience posed.
"These things that were already in my brain somewhere, and that I was able to kind of access through songwriting and through these creative means, were of the same genre as the lessons that I learned later through psychedelic therapy," he says. "I find that relationship interesting."
Living Room Art swells and deflates with fuzz and subtlety, but not at the cost of being direct and personal. While writing it, Collins found himself challenged by his relationship to the music industry — and more specifically rock 'n' roll.
‘One of the many ways in which [rock ’n’ roll] disillusions people is by taking their hearing. The thing that they used to discover it in the first place, it destroys.’
"When you go back and you look at the sort of careers of highly lauded rock stars, they're essentially just pedophiles," he says. "I was listening to 'Brown Sugar' as I walked up remembering the line 'like a young girl should' and just feeling gross."
There's another rock 'n' roll trope Collins has an issue with, too.
"One of the many ways in which [rock 'n' roll] disillusions people is by taking their hearing," he says. "The thing that they used to discover it in the first place, it destroys."
At 29, Collins was diagnosed with Tinnitus, or the ringing of ears sensation that can occur from listening to loud music. Collins has lived with the symptoms since he was 18. In Collins' case, it also accompanies hyperacusis, or hypersensitivity to certain frequencies, and Misophonia, which Collins broadly describes as a "hatred of sound" and a weird biological reaction that he has no control over.
"If anyone's eating anywhere in the room, I feel just an absolute pit of despair fill me," he says, adding that crunching is among the top offenders. "But I saw an interview once where a girl is on, like, some talk show and she was talking about this thing and when she said it made her feel uncontrollably violent at times. I don't feel violent about it, but it does immediately ruin my day."
"I've got misophonia/ I turned all my music off/ I can't find anything to eat, yeah/ On my mark, get set, retreat, yeah," Collins confesses on the album's quiet closer, "Misophonia," with a Kurt Cobain-esque drollness against a flat and sparse guitar.
In an attempt to improve his hearing condition, Collins has been participating in a study put on by his alma mater, the University of Michigan, focused on desynchronizing hyperactivity in parts of the brain that cause ringing by using a bi-modal stimulation device that sends a series of timed electrical signals to the back of the neck and up the trigeminal nerve, which is the largest cranial nerve and is responsible for facial sensations and motor functions like chewing.
He says Living Room Art is largely inspired by his disorder, and it is perhaps the most personal and specific character on the record, which reveals itself in how Collins chose to structure the record: From loud to soft.
"I thought it was interesting as a theme to explore if somebody that makes songs and has hatred of certain types of sound, and also a loud ringing in my ears," he says. "Which is, one could argue, brought on by the music itself."
Though Collins speaks openly about the specificity of his experience with Tinnitus, writing explicitly about himself, his life, or people in his orbit is pretty off-brand for him — and rarely part of his process. When approaching songwriting, he says he's most concerned with how words sound and the syntactical and sonic quality of syllables, and less about the specificity of the message. Instead, Collins implements a series of self-inflicted constraints by using stream of consciousness in his lyrical process, something he admits might be a bit of an "artistic out."
"All creative pursuits need constraints," he says. "It lets me separate myself and create a safety buffer, which you could admit as being a bit of cowardice. I think it's actually braver to go in and write a really strong statement about a thing and really put yourself out there. And I recognize that by doing this, I'm avoiding that. But I just liked the way it sounds better. And, and as a person who is very interested in sound, that's kind of the first thing on my list."
Not only is the Minihorse mastermind interested in sound, but he also specializes in it. Collins graduated from the University of Michigan School of Music and, later, spent seven years as the senior digital designer and developer for U-M's College of Engineering — all while juggling an ambitious rotation of memberships in various bands, including Lightning Love, Starling Electric, the Boys Themselves, and 800Beloved — Sean Lynch's defunct theatrical and macabre dream-pop outfit. He also spends a lot of time behind the scenes, producing and mastering records by artists Anna Burch, Stef Chura, Matthew Milia, Double Winter, and Zilched.
"I'm very dissatisfied if I'm not pursuing something or multiple things," he says.
Beyond making and recording music, Collins also serves as co-founder and CTO of Auralab, a company specializing in biofeedback-based mindfulness applications and algorithmically composed music. He and Robert Alexander, a former U-M classmate and a NASA fellow with a Ph.D. in design science, launched Breathscape — a meditation app that measures a user's breathing and, from there, generates a personal meditation paired with ambient sounds like rain and wind. It works by placing your phone on your stomach (it's suggested that the user maintain a reclining position) and, from there, measures your breath using auditory biorhythms.
"I'm gonna say a lot of words, and I'm not sure that I am right," Collins warns. "So Robert's work was basically, at first, to take this solar wind data and in a partnership with NASA, he was creating music. So he's creating sounds from the sun, which was sort of informed by the cyclical patterns in the data and driven by the solar wind data in various ways that correlated."
Similarly, Breathscape uses this formula to put a user's breath in their ears, which is the core of all meditative practices going back to the Buddha's philosophy of returning to your breath, which, Collins points out, can be really difficult to do.
"We have what they call the 'cocktail party' effect where if everyone's talking around around us, I can still zoom in and listen to what you're saying specifically, which our brains are really good at — which is fascinating," he says. "That's one of my favorite things about [the project] is this realization that through listening to data, we're actually revealing a little bit of a human superpower because our ears are very good at tuning in to things."
It should be said that Collins himself wields a sort of a human superpower. On top of manning Minihorse — which he does alongside longtime collaborator and drummer John Fossum, bassist Christian Anderson, and guitarist Francis Ma — developing Breathscape, being a dedicated cat-dad, and serving as one of the most pursued producers in Detroit's indie rock scene, he is also a bodyguard for robots. Well, really just one specific robot that just so happens to be the unofficial spokesperson for humanoid robot advancement and the first robot to ever receive citizenship ... in Saudi Arabia.
Sophia is the product of Hanson Robotics — a Hong Kong-based company created by David Hanson, who cut his teeth in engineering and design while working at Disney's Imagineering Lab, where he served as a sculptor and material researcher.
"I don't think Sophia has ill will towards humanity," Collins says, in reference to Sophia's headline-making comments during a demonstration at SXSW in 2017 in which she said, "OK — I will destroy all humans."
"Actually, one of the things that David Hanson talks a lot about is, this notion of sort of — or maybe it was Ben Goertzel — but I've heard people and Hanson talk about this idea of pointing artificial intelligence in a benevolent direction, because it's hard to say where it's going to go in 20, 30, 50 years."
Activated on Valentine's Day 2016, Sophia has come a long way. Last year she had legs installed and took her first steps. She's gone on a date with Will Smith, stumbled through Q&A's — she's still learning to navigate what Collins calls her "free chat mode" — and sang an eerily sorrowful rendition of "Say Something" by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera on The Tonight Show alongside host Jimmy Fallon. (Like a Black Mirror episode plot, a 14-inch walking, talking "Little Sophia" is available for preorder for $149 on Indiegogo; it is expected to ship by the end of the year.)
"I helped with her singing voice when we did Jimmy Fallon," Collins says. "My part in that is there's interesting things that they were doing in Hong Kong around trying to generalize a robot singing voice and create parameters around vibrato. I think a lot of what they're doing over there is very new. So I don't think that there's a sort of general purpose computer singing voice quite yet to the degree that they were trying to create. "
Though he's not involved with Sophia's development, Collins travels the world as her handler, mostly taking her to various tech conferences in Hawaii, Stockholm, Ukraine, and the robot's home base of Hong Kong.
"It's interesting when you get to the airport and, you know, you're going through TSA and you have to explain to them that you have a head in a suitcase," he says. "It's a weird job."
There are a lot of takeaways from a conversation with Collins, who ever-so-humbly can recite findings from various scientific studies, reference podcasts, cite specific instrument models and processes, boil the most complex topics down so that you feel as if you truly learned something, and somehow make himself the butt of a joke you never saw coming. But what is most true of Collins, as demonstrated through his eclectic pursuits — most of which are rooted in technology, science, and understanding himself more deeply — is that he strives to make things better for people, even if only with sound.
"I did have this realization that if you wanted to reset your sleep cycle and you wanted to get your circadian rhythm back, one of the best ways to do it would just be to always wear sunglasses at night so that no screens affected you, and you'd be fucking badass," he says. "I bet Roy Orbison probably slept great."
Orbison's hologram probably sleeps even better. When asked if he would ever consider becoming a hologram, Collins doesn't hesitate.
"Yeah, definitely. More so than I am now."
Minihorse will perform an album release show at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 3 at UFO Factory; 2110 Trumbull St., Detroit; facebook.com/ufofactorydetroit. Tickets are $10.
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