In the Shi’a branch of Islam there’s this idea of a hidden Imam, a religious leader who disappeared in the 10th century, and is waiting for the appropriate time to come out of hiding and bring peace and justice to the world. Listening to MNDSGN‘s new album Yawn Zen, his first major label debut, on the revered Stones Throw Records label nonetheless, you get the feeling thatMNDSGN grew up in the 1970s, then disappeared with a stack of psychedelic rock and avant-garde jazz records, then reappeared for a day in the late 80s to snatch up a Matrix 6 synth and some New Jack Swing records, and again in the 90s to get an SP-303 and some hip hop records. Now, in the 2010’s he’s come out of hiding to bring peace and justice through Yawn Zen, an album that gives you a full body warmth like a nice cuddling session, but still has plenty of time to make that ass rock with it’s fusion of hip hop, electronica, jazz, and the best kind of bedroom pop music possible.
MNDSGN is an LA-based musician and producer with a new album out with Stones Throw Records called Yawn Zen. MNDSGN, first of all does the title of your new album Yawn Zen refer to sort of the dreamy, laid-back vibe to your record?
Somewhat, you can definitely say that. It’s super open to the listeners’ imagination, but a lot of that came from really just having a lot of time with stuff and sometimes embracing laziness and low energy vibes, you know, being mellow.
Yeah, was there a specific space the album was done in? Were you in at a mountain-top or something?
A lot of the record was recorded and composed at Highland Park. A lot of the earlier material I started when I just moved to Highland Park two years ago. I was just isolated in my room. I can’t really say I was making the actual music on mountain-tops. Just mentally and spiritually I guess.
The press refer to your music as beat music. Do you describe your own music that way?
It’s really hard for me to box it in to just beats. I still do a lot of instrumental stuff. My background comes from making hip-hop beats but I think at this time with so many cats making such different fusings of different genres that it’s hard to come up with a name for it. I think a lot of people just use beats for lack of better word.
Sometimes it feels like journalists or like bloggers or whatever will just the term beat music. It’s used lazily or sometimes it’s even used derogatorily. It’s almost like a put-down, like simple drum loops or whatever, but I mean out there in LA, you seem to be friends with similar like-minded artists like Knowledge and all these people. Is it cool being down there?
It’s amazing, man. Coming from South Jersey where there’s realistically no scene for what I was doing. I mean the closest thing that came to it was Philadelphia which is the nearest city. It just wasn’t the same. There wasn’t as many people coming together and having a sense of camaraderie. It was very broken up and kind of isolated out East, so being out here and being able to connect with so many like-minds is definitely a plus and you can definitely say that’s one of the reasons I’m still out here.
Did you move to LA just for that reason?
About the intersection of LA’s hip-hop electronic scene. A big part of that seems to be The Boiler Room? You seem to be on a lot- or at least always at The Boiler Room. Could you explain what The Boiler Room is and why you like it?
The Boiler Room is… I’m trying to put this in a nutshell. It’s definitely become the main hubs for a lot of different kind of musicians to get on a worldwide scale. You know, promotion, you can perform for people across the world and they’ll see you. It’s just a dope way for cats like us, especially the young cats, to get on and really show the world what they’re doing. It’s in the form of live internet streaming and who’s not on the internet? It’s a great platform for music right now. I think I played Boiler Room the first time in 2011 when I was living with Sophie who is one of the curators of Boiler Room. So she’s always helped out in bringing different flavors.
Going back to the album and people calling it beat music- there’s more to it though, songs like “Camelblues” and “Exchanging” sound like bedroom pot music or like shoe-gazing music the way the vocals are mixed. It seems to be like in the middle of in-tubed inside the instruments instead of rising above it. What are you listening to? It’s not just your friends and the scene and LA and it’s not just hip-hop or electronica. It seems to be much bigger.
Um… what was the main question? My bad.
I mean the music on the album has more to it than eletronic dance music and hip hop beats. The way that the songs are mixed on “Camelblues” and “Exchanging” sound more like My Bloody Valentine or something like that. The way that the vocals are at the center of the mix and not above the music. Were you influenced by or listening to other things beside your friends in LA?
For sure, I definitely have a palate for psychedelic stuff. Whether it’s psych rock or jazz- off the top I can’t think of a particular artist that was inspiring that singer songwriter vibe, but I kind of wanted to come from a somewhat ignorant place with it because I was doing mostly beat-oriented stuff. So um, shoot man- you know who I was listening to a lot around the time I was making Track 4? My homie Koda was just playing bass and it sounded a lot like Connan Mockasin shit. I was listening to a lot of his stuff, that might have sparked wanting to do some more non-beat-sounding stuff.
Had you sung on any of your songs or on anything else? Was it nerve-wracking singing and then putting it out as like your first release on like a major label.
It was interesting how the whole singing thing came to be. I recorded the song “Sheets”- I would say that was probably the first thing I’d ever recorded for Yawn Zen and that was in like 2012, I believe. The fall of 2012. I just made the instrumental first and I really wanted to get a vocalist on it, but I didn’t really know too many people that would like fit that vibe so I just tried to do it myself and it- I don’t know. I exported it and shared it with a few homies and Sophie got a hold of it. I sent it to her and she sent it to Wolf and he was feeling it and wanted to hear more of that stuff. So did I, cause I was just experimenting and am still experimenting with that sound too. From that song on, I just wanted to dive into that world of singing and songwriting.
What’s it like being signed to Stones Throw? Is it like a dream come true? It seems like Peanut Butter Wolf or anybody else will let you do whatever you want and back you 100% on it.
It’s super surreal. In high school I was listening to the louder stuff from Stones Throw. At the time I wasn’t even aware of the actual label. I was just a huge fan of the music they were putting out and later found out that it was all under the same umbrella. To be part of that legacy is definitely an honor and those cats that are there now, the newer generation of Stones Throw, are super talented. They really are bringing that flavor and I’m definitely grateful. I try not to trip out on it too much.
Do you get to like go to parties with Madlib and everyone else from the label?
Madlib was actually- I don’t know him personally that well, but we did a Boiler Room show at my house and he actually showed up with Wolf and Dam-Funk. So that was cool to have them play [chuckles]. Just being on the same label as a cat like him is crazy. Never would have thought this would have happened when I moved out here.
Including Stones Throw artists, what artists were you listening to when you were a kid?
Probably the Mad Villain stuff and Jaylib record. That was probably one of the first things I came up on. And then later I got into Georgia Anne [Muldrow] and Dam-Funk. So it was definitely that classic era because a lot of what they were putting out was just like dirty hip hop shit. Lootpack as well, I used to b-boy to that shit back in the day.
When’d you actually start making music?
I started getting into beats in middle school. Like middle school into high school because my older brother was making music. He was using free loops. A lot of us that came from that generation started with free loops. From then on, I started making shit. Before that, I always had one of those cheap Yamaha 61-key keyboards. I always had that around in the house. I was already kind of experimenting I just wasn’t recording. I was playing shit on the keyboard.
When was the point that you started taking it seriously? Or thought this was what you could do?
There were a lot of phases to where I was taking it seriously. At first, out of high school, where everyone went off to college I just wanted to make beats for rappers. In a sense I was kind of taking it serious in that aspect, but after I kept making stuff that I thought was catered towards artists, it kept getting more complex and I was able to listen to it by itself, you know, without any rapper or vocalist on it. That was probably around 2006 or 2007 when I kind of stopped depending on an artist having to be on the track. Not that I really had a crazy discography with hella rappers rapping on my stuff, but early on it was oriented on that.
Did the music change when you stopped needing to have rappers on it? You said it was getting more complex.
Yeah, you gotta tell the story with different instruments other than the vocals. You got to be thoughtful and pay a lot more attention to detail.
You were using loops at that time, but what do you use now?
My main recording software is Ableton Live, but I use a couple of keyboards here and there. A lot of borrowed stuff [chuckles] right now I’m borrowing a Yamaha DX5, which is a classic 80s keyboard, you know all of the cheesy keyboard sounds are on there.
Do you get to go to like Dam-Funk’s house and like use all his keyboards?
Exactly, there’s one patch that sounds exactly like a Dam-Funk patch you don’t even need to do anything to do it. But anything I can get my hands on,but mainly everything is composed in Ableton Live.
Do you have a philosophy in sampling? Like songs you won’t do or songs you like a lot, but you won’t do it because you like the song too much.
I’m pretty grimy when it comes to sampling. I’ll sample anything, honestly. I don’t have any rules or guidelines. Whether it’s a record or cassette tape or an mp3 online- especially with that kind of low-fi sound I tend to have sometimes, it kind of makes it easier for me to sample anything. It doesn’t have to be high quality. It’s anything and everything that I can plug an input into.
Ok now a question completely different. Your bio on the Stones Throw page says that you were born in the jungles of the Phillipines where your parents were a part of Aum Shinrikyo a Japanese nu-religion movement that blended aspects of doomsday Christian ideology and various Asian religious movements. The group eventually carried out a sarin gas attack in Tokyo subway killing thirteen people. The group is now classified as a terrorist organization in the US. So what was it like growing up with that? Did your parents talk about it or did you have to find out secretly?
Honestly, I can’t really go to deep into it. I grew up- I did most of my growing up in Jersey so it wasn’t too crazy. I’d rather not get too much into that honestly.
Ok, but your dad became a researcher at the Princeton neuroscience department. Was there pressure to become like a doctor or a neuroscience researcher in the house?
Not at all, man. My parents were pretty liberal and I was free to make whatever choices I wanted to. Growing up I felt zero pressure in having to fulfill some sort of conventional career. It was definitely a blessing for them to let me do whatever I wanted to do.illustration by Gangster Doodles
In the past you seemed to be interested in religion or at least spiritualism. Not only is your album called Yawn Zen, but before that you released an album on Bandcamp called Breatharian. It’s a sect of Hinduism that believes you can live without food and water only needing cosmic life forces to sustain you. Can you talk about your interest in religion or spiritualism?
I think there’s definitely some truth in every kind of belief system. In the case of Breatharianism in particular- my older brother put me onto that because he was reading onto that. It was interesting- even something as silly as outlandish as that might be I still feel like there’s some truth to it for sure. Just being open to all kinds of religions is a healthy thing to practice. I, myself, am super open, I don’t confine myself to a certain belief system. I just try to enjoy it all. But yeah, Breatharianism is crazy, like, I don’t condone it. I’m not trying to tell people to try it out, but it’s definitely something worth considering or respecting.
Did you try it?
Haha, no. When I first started researching it I found this dude named Wiley Brooks who was televised speaking in the 70s. Over the years, he’s been exposed for being kind of phony because he would tell people to not eat anything, but if you had to eat something it had to be like a double cheeseburger and like two-liter coke that has to be in a plastic bottle. He has allegedly lived off that for X amount of years, I don’t really know. I thought that was funny. In other countries, you’ll definitely find people who are actually about it and there is scientific proof of these gurus who are just living without food and just living off the sun. To each his own, man. That shit’s cool.
That guy sounds like he’s a secret spokesperson for McDonald’s or something.
It’s so funny- his name’s Wiley Brooks. It’s hilarious. I think he’s offering some kind of seminar on his website but it cost like a million dollars to sign up.
He just needs one person to sign up and he’s good for the rest of his life.
At the same time, it goes to show that every religion kind of has the heads who actually understand the truth of it but there’s also the other side that’s just too intense. You can find that with any religion.
Now, back to the music. Your new album Yawn Zen is mostly instrumental except for the couple songs where you’re singing on them. But you’ve also produced a couple of songs for rappers like Danny Brown and DOJA CAT. Do you want to do more of that- producing for rappers? Or is it more like if somebody asks, I’ll do it or something?
It’s more of the latter, honestly. I don’t seek it a lot. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of remixes which I think is fun, but as far as working with other vocalists and rappers and stuff- I’m super open to it. It’s just I’m always focused on my own shit at the same time. You know, I might want to rap, instead of getting someone else to rap. I feel like as an artist you should be able to experiment with a bunch of different things. But, yeah, whatever comes into my path.
Did Danny Brown or DOJA CAT ask you before or did they just use the song and you had to find out about it?
That happened with DOJA CAT. She had recorded the song and posted it on her Soundcloud and I think one of her friends showed me. And usually I would kind of just brush it off cause that shit’s gonna happen. Cats are gonna bootleg your shit and record a song over it and say that it’s produced by you, but in that particular case I was actually digging the track. And some of her other work was cool, but I let that one go through for sure. But with Danny Brown, my homie Sweeney Kovar actually curated that. I’d never actually worked with him in the studio [Danny] or like met him personally, so that was just like straight-up internet file transfer collaboration steez.
Recently in El Paso, you played a show with Killah Priest from the Wu-Tang Clan?
Yeah, he headlined. I played a little bit earlier that night. He was killing it. I used to listen to some of his stuff when I was in high school. But, didn’t think I’d be playing his show and that was kind of crazy. There was a lot of Wu-Tang heads out there. Pretty cool.
What’s it like playing a show where people are like- I guess you’ve got some hardcore songs, but like I think people at a Killah Priest concert are trying to go pretty hard. Was it weird? Was it fun?
It was cool, everyone was open and I got a lot of good feedback from people who had never heard of my music. As opposed to already being familiar, it’s always a good experience playing somewhere where they don’t know you. There was a lot of good reception.
Did he reach out to you to play the show?
Killah Priest? Himself? No, he didn’t. That would have been cool. A promoter from out there.
Are you thinking about touring more?
Definitely, I’m going to be going to South Africa on the 24th for a couple of days. I’m playing some shows: one in Capetown and one in Johannesburg. Towards the end of October I’ll be going to Japan and some other Asian cities as well. Not to far from that when I get back, I got to get ready to do Europe, that’s in November into December, so I have some dates lined up for the rest of the year. And then I really just want to get back and play some more music.
Is that what’s next? More instrumental tracks from MNDSGN? Maybe some rapping?
Definitely more vocal stuff, that’s for sure. The vocal tracks from Yawn Zen and even the vocal tracks on the Surface Outtakes cassette tape I released is kind of hinting at the direction I’m trying to take it. I’m still experimenting so I personally don’t know what to expect but there’s going to be more song-writing in the process.
Nice, well, I’m excited.
Awesome, Thanks man!
Is that it?
Yeah, unless you wanna say something else
Much love and thank you for your time. I appreciate everyone tuning in and listening and I’ll do my best to keep it coming.
Interview by Sam Ribakoff
Transcription by Lorraine Ye