Michael Garfield (Austin, Texas) is perhaps the world’s only paleontologist-futurist, a psychedelic poet-artist whose work in every medium communicates a vision of emergent planetary renaissance, and celebrates the curiosity and play required of us if we are to make it through this age of transformation. A painter, singer-songwriter, guitarist, and public speaker, Michael is part of a lineage of scholar-mystics (Wallace, Haeckel, Teilhard, and McKenna) rooted in their common awe of natural history and the living world, even as he challenges the categories of “technology” and “nature,” pointing past our hyperlinked ideas to the immediate and indivisible reality of being that’s available to us in every moment. His art has also been featured in Darren Minke’s “Alchemistas.”
Michael has recently released his album, Pavo: Music For Mystery. Marrying the singer-solo-guitarist and electronic live producer, his tunes draw listeners into lush and atmospheric, driving and dynamic spaces spanning folk tradition and the avant-garde. Michael’s music has been featured many places, from PBS to clinical MDMA trials, a testament to its broad appeal and timeliness, updating “solo artist with guitar” to suit our age of planetary renaissance.
Keyframe caught up with Michael to discuss his album, creative process, and other projects.
Keyframe: Tell us about the mythic influences that inspired and guided this release.
Michael Garfield: I became familiar with the trope of the “Peacock Angel” through Richard Doyle’s book Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, & The Evolution of the Noosphere. (I gave a talk about this book at the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, which you can listen to here.) It shows up time and time again in the trip reports on Erowid.org – people encounter this entity during psychedelic experiences all the time, and Doyle nominates it as the avatar or mascot of the evolutionary forces that led to language and human consciousness. He makes a complex argument, about psychoactive plants conferring a sexual selection benefit to the daring animals whose eloquence they augment. I give my best seven-minute rundown of his provocative thesis in this video, which also features a clip from the album.
Then I heard Erik Davis interview a guest for his podcast Expanding Mind on the Yazidi people of Iraq, who may practice the oldest living religion in the world, and are persecuted by Islamic fundamentalists for their worship of Malek Taus, whose name translates to “Peacock Angel.” They see Malek Taus as the first angel, whose refusal to obey God and bow down to human beings was due to his total devotion to God, not because he was a prideful rebel as Lucifer is portrayed in most other stories. They regard this being as the closest we can get to God, who is perfectly transcendent and unknowable. So they worship the first angel as a proxy.
I’ve always had a thing for comparative religion and world mythology, and found it interesting that this symbol would keep popping up again and again, so I looked into it, and there are compelling connections between Malek Taus and major figures in almost every other world religion – including the archangel Michael and St. George; Kartikreya in Hinduism; and Enki of Sumerian mythology. (Here’s a list of them.)
When you tug at a thread and your whole world warps around you, you know you’re onto something big.
The peacock has been an important symbol for you. What has caused you to identify with it?
I was born on January 8th, and the second week of Capricorn is under fixed star Delta Pavonis, the peacock. I only found that out recently, but it makes a lot of sense, as any of my friends will tell you that I’m very much a peacock. It’s an animal with historical significance as one of Charles Darwin’s main examples of evolution in action (Why else would a tail like that exist, if not to lure a mate?), and in addition to being a student of evolutionary biology, I’ve always been a fan of their feathers and their stately presence.
The link between Enki and Malek Taus is also fascinating, because Enki, who is often represented as a sea goat (again with Capricorn) is responsible in Sumerian mythology for the confusion of our original one language into all modern languages. The Tower of Babel myth is actually a hand-me-down from this story, which is weirdly resonant again with Darwin’s Pharmacy and how Doyle identifies the Peacock Angel as the evolutionary agency responsible for the creation of language through entropy.
Since I’ve spent the last twelve years obsessed with the synthesis of evolution, entropy, language, and consciousness into a unified theory of emergence, my own identification and biographical connection to the peacock and sea-goat is especially uncanny and bizarre. Doing this research has led me to the very lip of a mystery so big it threatens to unravel everything.
Your music has recently been used by MAPS MDMA trials (Phase 2 clinical trials for MDMA as a treatment for PTSD). How did that come to be?
It was such an honor to find out about that! I met some of the clinicians involved when I played a fundraising concert for the Phase 2 trials here in Austin. It was hosted by Aubrey Marcus of Onnit, who’s a really cool guy, and I’m always glad to have a chance to work with him – and at the party they showed videos from Phase 1, in which this woman visibly overcame years of trauma in minutes, in a single major revelation. They were playing music from the soundtrack to The Fountain during this really intense process of introspection, to assist with the therapy in which they reconsolidate her painful memories while in a safe and loving space and state of mind.
I asked the people representing MAPS if they would like to use my music in the next round of trials, since the Clint Mansell & Mogwai soundtrack to The Fountain is a major influence on me and if they’re interested in that kind of emotionally-intense instrumental music, they might find that mine also works well for their purposes.
So I sent them a bunch of music, and 18 months later I’m at the MAPS Conference to play a set on their donor’s cruise, and one of the researchers bumps into me and tells me they used my music extensively in Phase 2 and are planning to use it in Phase 3. Needless to say, I’m over the Moon for being involved in any way at all with the work to heal people of their trauma, and to legitimize this therapeutic model to the US legal system so that more people can be healed.
Basically: If you’re doing this work, legally or underground, please feel invited to deploy my tunes for the benefit of your patients. That’s what it’s here for.
You’re a prolific artist whose art has also been featured in Darren Minke’s “Alchemistas.” Tell us about your creative process.
As a painter, I’ve done 95% of my work at concerts and festivals – setting up plain air open studios in “nontraditional” settings where there’s a lot going on and I can soak up inspiration and use the art as a way to lure people into conversation. The conversations inspired by exposing my process as a painter are as much “the art” as the paintings themselves, which is why I got into podcasting. Now I paint from home more frequently, and livestream to my Facebook and Instagram accounts, because that’s a lot less of a hassle.
Luckily I’m still invited from time to time to paint and play music at cool festivals like Rainbow Serpent and Earth Frequency in Australia last summer – which is why I was down there with all my gear, and ready to seize the moment to play the set that became Pavo at my friend Adam Scott Miller’s visionary art class. The art and music dovetail nicely, in part because my process as a musician is so similar – it’s kind of like a cooking show, in which I improvise a concert layer by layer and construct these atmospheric grooves in front of people. You can watch the whole thing unfold before your eyes.
We’re living through a historical shift from the mystique of the artist exemplified by acts like David Bowie and Led Zeppelin to the artist revealing their creative process and inner world – it’s related to the shrinking privacy and growing demands for transparency in society at large.
My work in every medium explores this, leaving the creation of the finished piece exposed, in one way or another. Maybe it’s from my past life as a paleontologist, studying dinosaur bones, and thinking about animals and rocks in terms of sedimented layers that erode and reveal hidden fossil treasures…
Which upcoming events are you looking forward to?
I’ll be speaking on evolution and time at Oregon Eclipse Festival this August, as well as playing a sunrise set at Utopia Fest in Texas in September – but mostly this summer I’m staying home and working on my book and podcast.
What other projects are you working on?
The two big projects that I’m piecing together in front of everyone are Future Fossils Podcast and my book, How to Live in the Future, which I’m publishing chapter by chapter as it’s written. Both of these explore the intersection of science and mythology, the ancient world and the future, that I explore musically in works like Pavo.
I’m recording a studio album, slowly, bit by bit. It’s very different than anything I have released in ten years, and I’m keeping quiet about it for the time being.
Everything I do, I put out first for subscribers on my Patreon account – plus lots of little extra things. I’ll have a bunch of other talks and music from the same Australia tour as Pavo up there soon, in case you’re reading this and want one easy place to stay up on everything I’m doing.
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