Get Started

Ben Collins of minihorse Explores the Intersections of Technology, Sound, and Biology

An interview with Michigan's multitalented musician, producer, and inventor
By Eli Enis|
Get Started
Photographed by Megan McIsaac

Ben Collins is in an abusive relationship with music. The 32-year-old Michigan native and lifelong resident was practically incubated to be a musician. His parents met at music school, his younger brother became a professional percussionist and music teacher, and Collins developed an early interest in melodious sound through a Casio keyboard he tinkered with as a child. He’d end up studying Performing Arts Technology (a subset of the school’s music program) at the University of Michigan and graduate to become, among other things, a producer and instrumental handyman in Ypsilanti, Michigan’s DIY scene. 

He loves music and he loves sound, but those profound interests are literally, physically hurting him. Collins was recently diagnosed with both tinnitus and misophonia, two separate conditions that torment his most valuable tools (his ears). Although tinnitus is common and most simply described as a constant ringing in one or both ears, misophonia is a much stranger beast. 

“I found it almost more of an interesting artistic pain,” Collins tells me over the phone as he’s waiting in an airport to board a Spirit flight. Screaming infants, bellowing airport announcers, and a hectic din of chatter can heard through the phone, but Collins remains strangely peaceful while thoughtfully telling me about the other noises that drive him nuts. “In a way, I think of it as the opposite of ASMR. Whereas ASMR is people really getting these euphoric sensations from certain sounds, misophonia would be someone having a massive pit of despair open up inside them because they hear a certain kind of sound.”

For him, this effect is most exacerbated by mouth sounds, particularly the sound of someone eating loudly. “It does end up being things related to people’s physiology,” he says. “Like, if I can hear excessive breathing or mouth sounds, I’m extremely sensitive to that. I found that in producing other artists, I find myself microscopically zooming in to remove the most minute mouth sounds in a really obsessive way, until I can bear to listen to the vocal.” 

The idea of this person who physically recoils at certain sounds being not just a musician, but a producer and live sound technician for other bands—two roles that require intense focus on other people’s vocals—was so interesting to Collins that he wrote an album about it. His debut record under the name minihorse is called Living Room Art, and it sounds like a cross between m b v-era My Bloody Valentine, the psychedelic shoegaze of Spirit of the Beehive, and the muttery, downtrodden yet still keenly melodic folk of Elliott Smith. The first two-thirds of the record contain its most explosive and high-frequency moments—the songs that harken back to one of the loudest bands in musical history—and as it nears its finale the noise recedes to its quieter corners. That downward dynamic arc is an intentional representation of Collins’ issues with misophonia and tinnitus. 

“On this record I was thinking a lot about the promises that are sold to you in terms of the music industry, or wherever else. And one of those things, one of the great ironies I find, is the organ you use to discover the music, your ears, is prone to being destroyed by that music if you’re not careful. That was one of the reasons for tapering out the volume of the record. So it starts really bombastic and loud and by the end is kind of, like, whimpering.”

Try a cup on us

Order A Free Sample

Order Now

For a limited time, we’ll share a small ~2oz teaser of a fresh batch of Yes Plz so you can taste what all the fuss is about. *you cover the shipping

Collins isn’t merely relegated to talking about sonic frequencies in abstract creative terms, he has a fundamentally scientific understanding of sound. Although music production and performance were passion pursuits and side-gigs of his following graduation, his schooling involved a heavy amount of computer programming. He spent a great deal of his twenties as a senior developer building mobile apps at U-M’s college of engineering. During that time, while he was playing in bands and recording other artists, he got involved with mindfulness practice and transcendental meditation, and eventually decided to merge all of his interests into one endeavor: a mobile meditation app that uses the user’s breath to create generative music. 

“It’s hard to explain, but when you’re in a seated meditation and the sound going into your ears is a direct representative of your breath, it’s a very powerful experience that we believe ties back to some of the early foundations of meditation. The buddha’s initial meditation was just to return to your breath, so this is just a way to facilitate that. It’s also rooted in the principle of biofeedback.” 

Collins says the sounds one hears while using the app most closely resemble ambient music, but the user never hears the same exact composition twice (since each breath is slightly different, and breathing patterns change). His business partner Robert Alexander recorded professional violinists and singers, and the two of them created code that manipulates those recordings as well as synths and bass tones in real-time. 

“So if you imagine a tape recorder and you’ve got a speed knob on it,” he says, making a noise with his mouth that resembles a tape fast-forwarding. “So imagine that’s over the sound of water. And breathing in causes the sound of water to rush more intensely and breathing out causes you to feel like you’re diving beneath the surface.” 

The app hasn’t launched yet, but it’s ironic that Collins is working on something that takes people’s mouth noises (sounds he physically can’t bear to hear) and turns them into serene music. “Maybe it’s the exact therapy I need. Because in a way it turns a piece of biology directly into something more sonorous or melodic.” 

His intrigue with the biomechanical isn’t solely sonic. Through the recommendation of his business partner, Collins landed a job as a handler for Sophia. Her company, Hanson Robotics, calls her “the world’s most advanced humanoid robot,” as her prosthetic design and abilities to engage in conversation and read people’s emotions gives her a remarkably lifelike quality. Every few months, Collins is recruited to travel with Sophia to various television events or other public appearances and prep her for her presentations. Through this, he’s gotten to operate Sophia on Jimmy Fallon, The Today Show, The Neil Degrasse Tyson Show, and other various media appearances. 

“I did a thing with Arnold Schwarzenneger in Ukraine last year,” Collins recalls without a twinge in his calm demeanor. “Which was kind of funny to see him see me holding the torso of a humanoid robot. And also just to be holding a humanoid robot near The Terminator was pretty surreal.” 

He says that although a lot of people think Sophia is creepy, whether it be her see-through head or her eerily mortal attributes, he’s never spooked while dealing with her day-to-day upkeep. Throughout our conversation, Collins demonstrates his dense and multifaceted knowledge of the intersection between technology, sound, and biology. He’s an engineer, after all, and he understands both futuristic technologies and his own aural ailments as an expert would. The experience of his that finally gets him to change his friendly yet confident speaking tone from assured to in-awe is his ayahuasca trip. Which he tells me about while seated in the cabin of an airplane moments before takeoff. 

When he and Alexander were in the early stages of their app development, the two decided to take an exploratory research vacation to the jungles of Tulum, Mexico so they could partake in a “sacred medicine ceremony.” At first, Collins was unsure of whether he wanted to participate, given he had always been prone to panic attacks. Eventually he decided to give it a try, and it resulted in a series of mind-blowing revelations that weirdly came back to the music he had written for Living Room Art. 

“The first part of the experience is quite rough, and I had a number of people refer to it to me as cosmic surgery—which I think is pretty accurate. The way it came through to me was through the form of a panic attack, but a very useful one. It was maybe the most intense panic attack that I’ve ever had but it took so long and it [was] in such slow motion that I was able to, with lucid eyes, get a sense of where it was coming from. Sort of like having a blueprint in front of me.”

“The first part of the experience is quite rough, and I had a number of people refer to it to me as cosmic surgery—which I think is pretty accurate.”

During this trip, Living Room Art was already entirely recorded and entering the mastering phase, so what Collins derived from the experience made him “question the order that time flows.” 

“I just started to feel like songs that I had written before, and were on the record, were almost in an uncanny way relevant to that experience. It was almost as if I couldn’t have intentionally written a song about that experience more accurately than the one I had written going into that.”

It’s the completely random (or maybe not?) moments of being a musician and an artist that keep Collins hooked. “I think that the momentary discoveries are where a lot of the reward comes with these things, and sort of learning about your subconscious.”

More to Read

Bill Callahan - Dyed in the Wool

With the long-awaited release of Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, has Bill Callahan changed? Or does the song remain the same?

A Paean to The Pan

Nicole Rucker on the magic of venerable burger & pies oasis Apple Pan

Rocks in Your Head

Speaking with Sonny Smith of S.F.’s Newest Indie Label