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Aligning Minds: My Heart is Love

Aligning Minds’s newest album, My Heart Is Love, has been described as an ethereal future city. They say it wasn’t a conscious construction, but listening to the album now, I feel myself floating in a dream; swimming through a Miyazaki film or a Philip K. Dick novel–underwater undulating breaths, heartbeats, android love songs, dripping tunnels, cathedral hollows, hypnogogic blips and clicks, and siren arias.

My Heart is Love dropped January 29th through Gravitas Recordings. The album exploded instantly with a fury, going to No. 4 on Bandcamp’s electronic music chart and inciting mass download across continents and divergent electronic music scenes.

Daniel Merrill and Michael Folk–friends since their teens–make up Aligning Minds. Although they’ve been described in many ways–from downtempo to IDM to breakbeat–Dan and Mike don’t believe in genres, “It’s more about making honest art that you really believe in,” Dan says, “an accurate reflection of how you’re reflecting on things that are going on in your life, and how you’re feeling about other people or relationships you’re in, or just a million and one things as infinite as life.”

The figure on the album’s cover radiates a double helical fountain of light–a crop from Mugwort’s The Luminous Return in all its awe-inspiring glory–and strangely mirroring the ethereal city that Aligning Minds did not even set out to write.

Mugwort says of his painting: “The Luminous Return

was a means of channeling thoughts and feelings about personal and social transformation on the microcosmic and macrocosmic scales. A city is depicted dissolving into light, fragmenting and shifting into a higher frequency, and symbolizing the crumbling of the current global paradigm that is based on ego, consumption, and competition.”

Mugwort continues: “I feel that the same transformational intention is woven into the alchemical soundscapes of Aligning Minds, and that My Heart Is Love is the soundtrack to the same celestial story. It is deep musical medicine.”

Luminous Return — — Credit: Mugwort

“It’s almost like praying,” Mike says, “Putting this energy, intent, and your feelings into this concentrated frequency that is replicated out through the speakers, and you’re just pouring yourself into it in a way that’s very much like a prayer.”

Medicine and prayer are what allow us to transit between worlds, and are also apt descriptions for music, that other celestial world: in texture, vision, language, and landscape. All of these paths are vehicles to alter consciousness; they open doors. Prayer is often thought of as a door of communication to a higher power, originating first in shared resonances–as a transmission or signal between two people finding a common language. It’s this joint quest for discovering the language that nurtures Dan and Mike’s friendship, which later evolved into Aligning Minds.

Dan and Mike grew up in Western Maryland, just three miles from each other. They didn’t know the other existed until they met at a county fair when Mike was fifteen and Dan was eighteen. “In a rural area detached from anything that we call modern civilization,” Dan emphasizes. After meeting, they started to get together every weekend to go on psychedelic voyages and play guitar. The electronica that would eventually emerge and become their language has deep and diverse roots in their upbringings. Mike and Dan, like day and night, have come from opposite ends of outsider culture.

Mike was first exposed to music through his strict Pentecostal upbringing in both church and school, where music and sound played a transformational role. From an early age, played played piano, guitar, various brass instruments, sang in the choir, performed in plays, and even channeled spirits through speaking in tongues; part of morning devotion in his school. Mike says that he often found himself in the back of the church analyzing what was happening. These experiences helped develop his analytical mind and gave him a greater understanding of trance states in general, which helped develop his love for music and understanding of production, which further developed alongside his discovery of computers and miRC [the infamous chat relay program that fostered much of the growth and advancement of underground digital culture during the early years of the internet. – Ed. Note]. Interestingly, a strict religious background that placed restrictions on what he could listen to didn’t shut down his experience at all, because his world was a deep immersion in sound.

Michael Folk — — Credit: Graham Meyer

Dan was introduced to music by his father, a life-long guitarist and in latter years also a bluegrass banjo player. Dan’s father traveled and collected his own experiences of the 60’s and 70’s psychedelic movement. Dan grew up around bluegrass and folk musicians, and was also exposed to world music, classic rock, synth-pop, and ambient music. He was also equally influenced by his mother, a multi-faceted spiritual healer who introduced him early on to more esoteric practices–from reiki and energy healing to meditation and the study of eastern philosophy. His parents’ influences and his father’s skill as a proficient computer technician paved the way for him to discover his calling through electronic music from an early age.

“My dad used to religiously tape the ambient radio show, Hearts of Space,” Dan said. “I realize [the show] actually influenced me quite a bit. It gave me an early love for music that had an ability to hypnotize over time and transcend the foreground reality.”

“[Dan’s father] also started teaching me to play guitar when I was eight or nine, and at first I resisted it. I thought he was forcing me to do something that I didn’t want to do, and I was always practicing the music he was into, which was great–old classic rock, the Beatles, all the really good stuff–but then I remember wishing that I had music that spoke more directly to me as an individual–music that was my own.”

Daniel Merrill — — Credit: Theresa Keil

Throughout their teenage years, Mike and Dan learned to use 4-track recorders and home recording gear to write their own guitar-driven, multi-instrumental compositions. Composing their own songs, they realized music would become their life-long pursuit.

Beginning with the angry explosions of instrumental Metal through to the grinding, electronic density of Industrial, both musical influences spoke to their rebellion and frustration with growing up in an isolated area, while Industrial music simultaneously opened a door on the unexplored world of synthesizers and ushered them into electronic music culture. In this new sound, they heard something that transcended the limitations of conventional music, which they began relating to less and less. They also started to explore the relationship between psychedelics and sound–leading them even deeper into new territory. Mike and Dan began to grow weary of heavy music vibrations, and then a shift occurred. Anger gave way to joy. Creation transformed to beauty, and music took on a whole new meaning. Their first explorations immediately hooked them into a feeling of being mesmerized, transfixed, and spellbound. “We would just slip into this meditative state for hours and hours, the sun came up and we barely realized that the night had gone by. Those first sessions awakened something in us that made us feel selfless, it was like we had no choice but to explore it.”

In this time, they continued to teach themselves music production and composition, while absorbing as many different strains of electronic music as they could find. They hungrily collected and learned from diverse forms ranging from house, drum n’ bass and downtempo, to more experimental avant-garde IDM and armchair techno. They didn’t attend events for the first few years of this immersion. Instead, Dan and Mike were each other’s sole source of feedback. “It was actually pretty lonely in a lot of ways, most people around us didn’t understand what we were doing. They just didn’t get it. We felt isolated and misunderstood, but we had each other to keep going, which was invaluable. I think otherwise we might still be out in the woods, making beats for the trees and insects.”

Left: Aligning Minds — Credit: Graham Meyer; Right: Aligning Minds with Matthias Seyour — Credit Graham Meyer

When they started playing live, Dan reflected on what their first encounters with rave culture were like, “It was an incredible experience, but there was something lacking for us. A lot of the first raves we went to were just straight up dirty, let’s-just-do-as-many-drugs-as-we-can raves, which was formative, but there were elements we weren’t into. There was a large part of our origin that wasn’t being represented at these events, so we came back, and we’re like, ‘Yeah, that was cool, but now let’s go out in the woods and eat some mushrooms together and listen to some Aphex Twin.’ Let’s do things our way.”

Mike says, “One of the first moments we realized we had found ourselves was in 2005, at a psytrance festival called Gaian Mind. It was the first time we had experienced community that wasn’t urban rave-oriented, and it was out in the woods. It was actually a conscious community. We had no idea about any of that stuff or that it even existed. We had always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a place where you could be out in the woods and hear beautiful electronic music floating through trees, and other people who were there for the same reasons, hanging out in meadows and streams?’ And then we went to Gaian Mind, and we realized it was half an hour from our house.”

Dan interjects, “It had been going on the whole time, a half-hour from where we lived, and we didn’t even know it existed and we had to go to the city to get connected to the proper communication circles in order to find out about these awesome things. Then we were pointed back to where we were from . So that was really interesting, the only thing that stopped us from experiencing this reality was the reality that we already thought existed.”

Top: Aligning Minds after their performance at Moogfest 2012; Bottom: Aligning Minds at XAVL featuring movement and dance by Sami Te' — — Credit: Micah MacKenzie

From off-the-map to bursting onto the electronic music scene, Mike & Dan became Aligning Minds, shaped by their sensibility toward sound, the product of finding a shared language and common experience. Yet their world changed drastically when they entered into electronic music event culture and the isolation that fostered their private dialogue quickly turned into a fast-paced social scene.

Dan says, “It became harder to reconcile the party thing with what was deeper and more sacred to me. There wasn’t the same communication and it felt like the original motives were getting lost. I just wasn’t happy with that, and it made me feel like I wasn’t being honest with myself.”

Being a father and working to create a stable life for his son, Nevan, Dan decided to take time away from the project. Around this same period, Mike became a father and relocated to Asheville, North Carolina with his girlfriend Cara while Dan remained based in Baltimore.

During this time, Dan and Mike didn’t talk for a year and embraced the cocoon of separation the window of time offered, although they kept writing music individually.  During this period, their debut full-length album, Universal Automation, which had been shelved and awaiting release, eventually emerged on Beats & Pieces Records, a sub-label of the well-known Aleph Zero Records in September of 2011. They describe it as necessary time away, but eventually distance gave way to writing each other and collaborating on music again. My Heart is Love is the album on the other side of this separation; the point of reconnection and re-communication.

Mike says, “We didn’t realize it until after the fact, but this album represents a transformation for both of us. This album is all about letting go of the past, surrendering ideals that might be hindering you, embracing your gift and allowing it to flow. If you look at the cover of the first album in comparison to the new one, they both feature a single figure of a being, surrounded by energy. On the cover of Universal Automation, the figure is immersed by the flower of life, but he is reserved, alone, closed off. On My Heart is Love, the figure has his arms outstretched, embracing, channeling, giving and receiving with open arms; energy is just streaming through him and around him. He is a conduit. We didn’t even realize this until after everything was said and done.”

Universal Automation cover — http:/ — Credit: Rafael Hernandez

Dan comments, “It came into existence right under our noses. It was very subconscious and reflects how we feel as individuals, artists, and about the state of the world and consciousness at this moment. 2013 really does feel like a precipice we can jump off of into a new, empowered state of both personal and communal consciousness.”

This journey into 2013 from the personal to the communal for Aligning Minds continues with a tour beginning in late April through summer with the Gratifly Festival as one of the stops, performing alongside Emancipator, Phutureprimitive, Kilowatts and many other electronic music luminaries. If you catch them on tour, stay tuned for the possibility of a 3D-mapped projection stage. And, after their tour, Aligning Minds will be working on a new EP to be released in 2013 with fresh collaborations and remixes.

My Heart is Love 2013 Spring Tour Poster

At one point in the interview I ask them if their music has a social agenda. The story embodied in Mugwort’s Luminous Return is the personal transformation exploded outward into the realm of the social, but where is Aligning Minds in relation to this? They’ve never described their music this way to me. It feels that I’m coming from left field, but I’m guided by the articulation of a new world in their music. Mike explains how their writing process is subconscious, and Dan clarifies how having a preset intention can shut down creativity, but the question opens a new space–a possibility hangs in the air, as if maybe their music could or should have a social agenda even if it’s not a premeditated one.

Mike says, “We just focus on writing and expressing ourselves, not so much the end result. I guess we’ve always thought that if the music touches us as it’s being written, it will come across that way to others, anything else is a blessing.”

Perhaps all art that is pursued as pure vision can’t help but open the door to the next world. What’s more revolutionary than discovering yourself in language and projecting your appreciation of life out to the world? My Heart is Love is a quest to express a heart so full you can hear the birth pangs of the new world borne forward.

Album cover image by Mugwort, courtesy of the artist.

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