Artist Interview v.3
Where to Find Aligning Minds
Recent Album Release
I first found out about Aligning Minds on Turntable.FM in the deep dubstep/future garage room through a friend of theirs who dropped in and played some of their tracks. When this guy mentioned that they were from the Maryland/D.C area, I just had to look them up and reach out!
Michael Folk from Aligning Minds was quick to respond and we had a great initial conversation. After speaking for some time, I suggested an interview and album review for the Dark Matter website. Since he lived in North Carolina and just had a new baby (congratulations!) he put me in touch with group member, Daniel Merrill, who lived locally.
After listening to the album over and over again, I couldn’t wait to meet these guys. I went to see Daniel play under the alias “Deep Subject” at The Loft/411 Warehouse in D.C a few weeks back and got down to his set. We didn’t get a chance to talk since there was so much going on and I unfortunately had to hurry back to Baltimore. So instead, we agreed to meet for coffee at Joe Squared.
I listened to their album, Universal Automation, again that day. The series of epic deep tunage took me on an emotional and spiritual journey. An album full of such entrancing ethereal sounds that it sent me straight to the cosmos. I couldn’t help but daydream as I explored the deep bass abyss.
One of my favorite parts was the intro to “You’ll Wade Through It” with a flute sound so soft and sweet, it was almost like a pan pipe that flutters about like a fairy. A crisp sound so playful it could tell many stories. Easily, I imagine the music in a stop animation video or in a documentary told through a cutting edge soundrack.
Many of these tracks had been worked on and kept for years. I could feel how much thought, time and heart went into each and every composition. Each track flowed one right after the other, with a consistent vibe, presenting its own unique and contrasting layers.
I couldn’t wait to pick Daniel's brain, so as soon as we met that rainy night at Joe’s, we ordered a drink and got right to talking. We discussed life and music for quite some time. It was a great opportunity to get to know the kind of person that Daniel was, and listen to how passionate he was about his music.
Jenn: I’d like to start with a few questions about your background. Where are you originally from?
Daniel: We are both originally from a very rural area in Western MD called Grantsville, MD. A tiny little town in the Appalachian mountains bordering very Amish southern Pensylvania- and we both grew up in the woods outside of that town. Pretty much nothing but woods, farmland and mountain people actually. Sparse, isolated, alienating and for the most part incredibly boring - but it’s this solitude that shaped much of who we are as people.
Jenn: How do you like Baltimore?
Daniel: I really love this city. I’ve been here for about 7 years now and I’m quite comfortable here. It has such a genuine, essential quality to it as a city and a real feeling of community and comfortable charisma. Artistically I find it inspiring due to the diversity, ‘realness’ and continually creative attitude of so many people that live here. I feel like it’s the perfect balance for my dual nature of being introverted/extroverted. I’m happy being surrounded by artists and like-minded people and I definitely find that in this city. Mike now lives in Asheville, NC which is really an inspiring and exciting place to be right now in terms of music, community and creative alliances. There’s a vibrant ‘deep’ music scene there and of course the Moog factory, which is quite an epicenter for electronic music.
Jenn: Growing up, who were your earliest musical influences and inspirations and how has your taste changed or evolved since then?
Daniel: Well.. we’ve both been (independently and together) through a long mutation of interests and influences. We were both very into metal (gothic, thrash, black) as teenagers and were at the time very passionate about exploring that as guitarists. Before that, as a young kid I had been into classic rock, then hiphop and grunge - but in many ways my father was the biggest musical influence on me. Even though we didn’t necessarily like a lot of the same things, he taught me to love and appreciate music. For instance he used to archive and play recordings of the radio show ‘Hearts of Space’ as I was growing up, which I’ve realized was a huge influence on me. I had heard all of these ambient electronic soundscapes and I was always mesmerized by that. I always had a strong attraction to synthesized sounds and I think it definitely set a future path. After our metal phase, Mike and I were both very into industrial and a lot of my first productions were industrial, much in the style of say Frontline Assembly, Skinny Puppy or Velvet Acid Christ. The inclusion of electronics in those styles of music gradually led into the world of purely electronic music. We both love all kinds of music from world to jazz to ambient and classical... just anything that transports, inspires and has depth of soul. Obviously there are stronger interests than others... In the electronic world, we’ve been influenced by so many things. For instance I spent years being obsessed with jungle/drum n bass and Mike was completely taken with IDM/experimental (and vice-versa). Although we both love a lot of the same things, we have particular affinities for certain styles/approaches. We’ve both always brought different things to the table because of that.
Jenn: What are some of your favorite instruments/sounds? Both organic and electronic?
Daniel: In the electronic realm we’re both very attracted to spatial, textural, dreamy sounds. Soundscapes that evoke an emotional state or create an ethereal aura from which to build on. Often this ends up being different combinations of warm, moving pads and sequences that are layered and interacting in different ways to achieve different results. Bass. Lots of sub bass. Both electronic and and acoustic drum samples that are also layered in different ways... Our music is very often a combination of electronic and organic sounds that work together to achieve a cohesive whole. We both use alot of field recordings, vocal samples, lo-fi sound collage and humanistic sounds that give our tracks that added dimension of analogous character. There is a fascination of mixing and layering the two until they’re indistinguishable and create something new. We also like to manipulate electronic sounds in an organic way, like using ‘accidents’ to our advantage. Weird tunings, artifacts and ‘imperfect’ snippets of various things that all can be used to good effect.
Jenn: When did you first get involved with the EDM scene? Back when it was still rave?
Daniel: Honestly, we were both very absorbed with electronic music several years before going to any events in a rave/club type setting. We had gotten very interested in it musically before there was any cultural/experiential context put to it. In our minds, there wasn’t a 'scene' - there was music, and what could be done with it. How far we could take it - where we could take our minds and hearts with it. It wasn’t until later, say around 2004 that we started actually going out and experiencing the rave scene. Even then, after years of that - and still to this day, our music is kind of independent of anything to do with any scene. I don’t mean that to sound presumptuous in any way - and we've been greatly influenced by many aspects of psychedlic/rave/club/festival culture. However, we’ve never really made 'party' music. We were mostly just as happy playing tracks while driving around than going to events - it was/is a very personal experience.
Jenn: When and how did you decide to get into producing? Self taught? Have any mentors? Both?
Daniel: We're both self taught. When I started I had no internet connection and I was just reading lots of synth manuals all day... I was using a demo version of the first version of Fruity Loops and Cakewalk 7. Rudimentary. Mike started getting serious about it shortly after that and then at least we had each other to learn from and bounce ideas off of. I then got a job where there was a lot of down time and I would just read tutorials and hang out on forums all day, taking notes and learning concepts - then I would run home and try and apply them. It was just time, patience and determination really. We just spent all the time we could either making it, or learning and discussing it. We had each other to really reinforce our drive for it, and of course there has always been a healthy competition between us. Things are a lot easier these days - the resources are right there at any one's fingertips who wants to start producing. I would say we did have mentors - but they were just the producers whose work we avidly followed and never actually met. We would just continually find music we loved and immersed ourselves in it as much as possible - analyzing and extracting techniques whenever we could. We learned a lot that way, we were forced to really dig and fight for the knowledge. It became an obsession that is obviously here to stay...
Jenn: How and when did you and Mike meet?
Daniel: We met when I was 17 and Mike was 15 through some mutual friends. It turns out that for years while growing up, we had each been interested in the same things at pretty much the same time periods. Comic books, hiphop, martial arts, metal... but had never actually met until then. We were to each other the only other person we knew that were into those sorts of things... Nerds:) We started hanging out constantly, experimenting musically together and things just progressed. We would hang out in Mike’s basement and play death metal guitar riffs until 6 in the morning until his dad would want to strangle us. We were able to discuss artistic process and vision, and we enabled each other to evolve musically with a lot less pain and struggle.
Jenn: When did you guys decide to form Aligning Minds?
Daniel: After some time of producing our own early stuff independently, around 2000-2001 - there was a lot of...'consciousness expansion’ taking place. We were really interested in exploring how electronic music could be used as a tool to explore one’s consciousness and then gradually in sharing these explorations with other people. Electronic music started to transcend what we had ever been able to do before, we started to feel that it was a very deep spiritual practice. We started Aligning Minds so that we could combine our mutual interest of these concepts into a shared reality, a reality that we eventually wanted to share with others in the world. It gave us a focal point and a mutual outlet for our ideas and intentions. We then set about fusing our ideas together to really develop as a collaborative project and realize the music as best we could.
Jenn: Tell me about some of your early work/collaborations that you guys did together, or on your own.
Daniel: My first focused effort was really just for myself - a project I called MorVizion. I finished an album just to see if I could realize my vision, and of course I played it for Mike a few times. Ha! It was super weird and self indulgent, aspiring to be mysterious, mystical and melodic electronica with very freeform structures. Mike called himself Philo and also produced (at least) an album or two which was also really melodic, symphonic idm kind of stuff... if you listen back to it all now I think it’s pretty easy to tell what our tastes were then and still are today. You can hear the development. We did alot of various experiments, little sub-projects and alter ego’s... Really just to play for each other, as everyone around us at the time thought we were...strange. Then our earliest stuff together came from a long series of weekends in a small recording studio that I had built with my father to record local bands and stuff. We’d go up there and I would setup a laptop with midi controllers running like Ableton Live v1.2 and Mike would setup a Final Scratch rig run through a Kaoss pad with a box of old, warped records. I would write beats, bass and melodic loops and play them improvisationally while Mike would manipulate textures and samples and add experimental/atmospheric sound collage. There was, again, a lot of psychonaut exploration going on,... and we would record our sessions. They started to take a pretty distinctive form and sonic direction.
Jenn: Universal Automation explores the deep spaced out elements of both EDM & IDM. The energy clearly transcends a cosmic vibe, and the production quality exceptional. I haven’t heard nearly enough atmospheric/deep break-beat before & now I’m totally hooked. This is a tremendous accomplishment. Where there any particular inspirations while producing this album?
Daniel: All of the tracks span a pretty wide variety of time - stretching from tracks that were started as far back as 2006 to 2010. So there were all kinds of elements that inspired the creation of the actual tracks. I think there are some very deep and residual influences that definitely helped these sorts of tracks come to life - artists like Leftfield, Orbital, Sasha, Tipper, Underworld. Stuff that had influenced us very early on that never went away. We didn’t set out to attain a certain form, the music just came out that way. I love rich, epic, emotional atmospheric music that sounds like it swept out of some celestial realm... So tracks like the ones you’re referring to just came from the desire to explore those kinds of spaces and feelings.
Jenn: How long did this project take for you two to complete considering you two live far away from each other?
Daniel: This album was completed before the move split us apart geographically. It had a little bit of shelf life before it actually saw the light of day, so some time has passed. It’s actually really hard to say how long the album took - as we’ve made so much music in such an expanse of time and only a small amount of it made it to this album. The tracks came from a few different time periods and we kind of fused them all together and updated them to create cohesion. That whole process took a few months, but of course the creation of the tracks took alot of time.. hours, days, weeks? Oddly enough, it’s kind of hard to say!
Jenn: What type of equipment do you guys use produce?
Daniel: We’ve been through a variety of gear over the years, but now it’s pretty simple. We both use Ableton Live on decently powerful pc laptops, running a variety of plugins such as Native Instrument’s Reaktor, Spectrasonics plugins, Waves, etc. Midi controllers such as Akai APC 40’s, Novation Remote SL’s - and decent monitors. Old records. All kinds of things. It’s really not what you use but how you use it.
Jenn: Do you each have your own studio and setup?
Daniel: Yes, we each always have a dedicated studio in our homes, and we used to have a mutual studio for combining ideas and finalizing things. These days we live in different states so we have our own studios and use Dropbox to send things back and forth.
Jenn: For any up and coming producers getting into to deep EDM & IDM, any advice you’d like to give them?
Daniel: Find a few powerful tools and learn them thoroughly, don’t try to use 18 things that you ‘kind of know’ because you’re too lazy to really learn one thing inside and out. Definitely had to learn that the hard way... Also, emulation is great to learn techniques - but know when to stop emulating and begin creating. Don’t get stuck on trends and what is going to get you the most market success or fame in a certain scene. Do it for the music, not the ego. Originality will come from that and that’s what will take you far. Make the music that you envision when you’re not paying so much attention to the external. Let the music within you breathe and allow it take forms that have not been experienced before.
Jenn: If you had to pick one word to describe your music what would it be? (I picked Cosmic)
Jenn: Do you have a personal favorite song on the album that means most to you? If so, please explain:
Daniel: I have a fondness for them all, but I guess if I had to choose one it would be Fortune and Solitude. That track really blew us away when we made it, and it was such a beautiful thing to unravel. It brought euphoria to so many people that heard it when we would play it out and there are alot of personal memories and experiences bound to it.
Michael: Each track is special to me for many reasons, mainly because each track came from a different phase of our lives and work. It's hard to really say just one, but if I had to choose just one it would have to be "Happy Hollow". Mainly because of all the phases that I went through throughout its creation. The track was started around 2004 in my bedroom during a big snowstorm and really captured a nostalgic period in my life. Then it kind of became one of those back pocket tracks that you pull out every few months and add some stuff to. In the winter of 2010 I showed it to Marcio Alvarez (Alvin Risk) and he said he wanted to put some vocals to it. So we ran over to his house and he did a few quick takes with lyrics that were written for the track and then finally it was finished in the spring of 2010 right before the album was sent off. It just really captured a certain innocence that always reminds me of what's really important in life, I just learned a lot throughout all the experiences, people, places and melodies that surrounded its creation, it will always hold a special place in my heart.
Jenn’s Top 3 Favorite Tracks on the Universal Automation:
Fortune and Solitude [Breaks/Track 2]:
Jenn: Naturally, I tend to lean towards break beat since I’m an old Buzz kid, so I’m all about breaks and drum and bass. So two out of my three favorites are obviously breaks. This track was an instant favorite. I love how smooth and melodic the bass line is, all the twinkly piano variations and what sounds like a haunting violin in the back ground. At 3:30 in the breakdown and also the last 2 minutes of the song it switches up (though the tempo stays the same, just the drum beat changes, right?) and it sounds like some of the deep dubstep that I listen to which is part of the reason why I’m so fond of it, methinks.
You’ll Wade Through It [Electronica/Track 5]
Jenn: This has to be my most favorite. What I love about this tune is the soft fluttering flute in the beginning that is absolutely gorgeous. There is this other really playful sample in there I love that ascends then decends at different levels that almost sounds like “woooo” which makes me think of scratching vinyl and a slide whistle combined. To me, this track is essentially melodic dubstep (or within the same family), yet I see that Beatport has classified it under electronica. Is that not to be confused with mainstream dubstep? I can even go as far to compare this sound to some of my favorite dubstep producers such as Synkro or Phaeleh. Has anyone ever made that comparison?
Daniel: No actually you’re the first. :) The electronic music genre-makers would never consider this dubstep at all... Electronica is the umbrella term that is often used to describe freeform music that doesn't just follow one genre or structure. I think what you’re hearing is that ‘future soul’ sound that we’ve always been attracted to - this track was actually made before dubstep like that was popping up, at least that we had heard at the time. It just happens to come from the same place, I think.
Secret Society [Breaks]
Jenn: I love how chill and completely danceable this is at the same time. Everything is so well balanced from the percussion, to the bass, to the atmospherics. The intro is sick, everything from the dreamy loop sequences to that glitchy sound in the percussion, which gives a nice contrast considering how smooth everything else is. What other artists do you listen to that produce atmospheric breaks? I need to know!
Daniel: Hybrid, Charlie May, Junkie XL, Kilowatts, Tipper, Sasha, Lusine, Bill Bless, Son of the Electric Ghost, Futexture, Ulrich Schnauss, Si Begg, there are many, but I haven’t been keeping up a little while honestly. We’re both going through a period of secular development to some degree, just making music of the imagination and not getting to attached to what’s currently going on. It's very nice to be influenced, but not to be swayed!
Jenn: Last question for you. This is very important: Do you scrunch or fold your toilet paper?
Daniel: I fold, and then I scrunch!
Jenn: Thank you so much for your time, and most of all for your music.
Daniel: You're very welcome!