At the age of 32, Ben Collins has already lived an entire lifetime. From working with some of Michigan’s most talented indie rockers to traveling the world as practical bodyguard to a robot (yes, you read that right) and expanding his mind through life-changing ayahuasca trips, he’s accrued a breadth of experience most people only dream of—and all before releasing his first album, no less. Living Room Art, the first album from Collins’ minihorse project, is equal parts dreamy and disturbing, nailing a softly psychedelic sound not unlike indie heroes Grandaddy and Olivia Tremor Control. The trio’s blend of crunchy guitars, wavering atmospherics, and Collins’ cushion-soft vocals feels totally unique and revitalizing right now, creating a world as tactile and fascinating as Collins’ life itself.
As the theoretical brains behind minihorse, the 32-year-old Collins has had music in his life practically since birth; his parents met at music school, and his younger brother is a band director. “Everyone in my family plays music—I’m probably the worst musician in my family,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh. After attending the University of Michigan to study performing arts technology, which he describes as “a strange degree that covers all sorts of media—music, performance, film, sound recording,” Collins struck out working as an engineer at the age of 18 while going to school.
“The best way to engineer is just by doing it,” he explains, and the CV he’s since accumulated is a practical who’s who of Midwestern indie talent, from Bonny Doon and Double Winter to Stef Chura and Fred Thomas; he also played on the most recent album from Ian Svenonius’ Chain and the Gang project and gigged with Ann Arbor outfit Starling Electric. Around 2015, a few of the band’s members heard rough demos and implored him to form a new project around them. “I stole those members and started this band,” he remembers with a chuckle as to how he linked up with bassist Christian Anderson and drummer John Fossum.
Collins refers to to Minihorse as “a home recording project—the culmination of building a lot of gear and learning how to go back and record to tape.” Accordingly, 2016’s Big Lack EP was mostly formulated around those demos that caught his band members’ ears: “We never could record those songs better than the demos, so we kept the demos.” Overall, he refers the writing and recording process behind that release as “very weird,” as he delved into experimental treatments ranging from sleep deprivation and transcranial direct current stimulation to experience their own effects on his creativity. “I find songwriting to be the hardest thing in the world,” he explains. “You have these moments of inspiration where a song comes easily, and then years go by without it happening again. You find yourself in these strange patterns, trying to coax out creativity.”
Around this time, he also began working with the world-famous social humanoid robot Sophia — a gig that led from his involvement in creating Breathscape, an app that generates algorithmic music based on your breathing patterns. He is currently part of the team that operates and programs Sophia, and has been teaching her how to perform music as well. “The job is very strange—part bodyguard, part publicist,” he marvels. “I’ve been joking that it should be a TV show, because it’s such a surreal experience to carry a robot in a suitcase and fly it to speak at global events.”
Despite this surreal side hustle, Collins and minihorse nevertheless found time to record Living Room Art‘s ten indelible cuts in his home studio, as well as Ann Arbor’s Big Sky Studio—and they weren’t alone. “I tried to bring friends into the studio to make it more collaborative,” he explains, and Living Room Art indeed represents a true Midwestern come-together, with contributions from Fred Thomas, Kelly Moran, and Anna Burch—the latter of which sings on and appears in the video for first single “Drink You Dry,” as well as the title track. “She’s a genius, and has toured with us a bit,” he enthuses. “We thought it would be fun to incorporate her into some of these songs.”
Gooey and tactile, Living Room Art often takes on surreal shapes, from the overwhelming waves of guitar on “Summer Itch” to the careening melody of its title track. “I’ve often told people that I don’t care about the words, but I do care about the lyrics,” Collins explains when discussing his songwriting approach. “These songs have been educational for me, personally. Some of the songs start out lyrically impressionistic, but later it becomes clear what they were about. I’m blind to it in the moment..”
Despite possessing a natural aversion to drug use (“I’ve had anxieties for so long that I’m capable of having a bad trip while I’m eating an ice cream cone”), Collins had a lyrical breakthrough of sorts after taking part in a sacred medicine ceremony in Tulum, where he took ayahuasca. “I felt these strange, cyclical things happening with some of the newer songs where they felt connected with that experience. Lyrics I’d written before the ceremony ended up describing lessons I learned during it. It makes you question the nature of time.”
“When you watch your thoughts, you don’t feel responsible for them,” he continues. “They happen toyou. You feel more like an observer or a victim of thought. It’s freeing—when you don’t feel like you’re in control, you can actually listen to what your brain is doing.” His perspective often hovers over these songs, even when they’re directly connected to his past; “Drink You Dry” centers around a car crash he experienced in 2011, but he describes the song as “a shadowy figure in our band’s career. People come up to me and say ‘I love that song.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, it sucks—I can’t beat it,’” He says with a laugh.
Then there’s the haunting closing track “Misophonia,” which features contributions by Moran: “It’s about this idea of having an aversion to sound, which I’ve always dealt with. I just hate certain sounds—certain types of sound grate on my ears to the point where they’re psychically difficult to handle. I thought that was a really interesting theme to explore—someone having these sonic aversions. Kelly did a great job with sound painting on this track.” The result mirrors to the experience of listening to Living Room Art as a whole: it’s alluringly just out of reach, to the point where you can’t help but hit “play” once more to unlock this record’s strange pleasures.