Caught by the River

Mycelium Music

28th May 2023

Anton Spice talks to LA’s Matthewdavid about mushrooms, audio surrealism, and profound, underground connections between seemingly disparate threads.

In his book Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake employs a musical analogy to explain what a mycelium is. The example he uses is of an Aka song from the Central African Republic, named by the recordist Louis Sarno as ‘Women Gathering Mushrooms’, in which several voices sing intertwined melodies that seem at once independent and part of a coherent whole. ‘Mycelium is polyphony in bodily form’, Sheldrake writes. ‘[It] is what happens when fungal hyphae commingle.’ A mycelium, in other words, is a network of interdependent fungal threads that form mesh-like structures underground. 

Sheldrake’s book may be an obvious place to start, but it is also a pertinent one. While mushrooms have long played a peripheral role in psychedelic counterculture, the ascendance of their fungal root networks into the popular consciousness is a relatively recent phenomenon. Complex biological processes are rarely the stuff of best-sellers, not least when they are most commonly associated with decaying matter.

Matthew David McQueen, known by his stage name Matthewdavid, is not new to this field. In 2017 the LA-based producer, who first emerged into the city’s beats scene in the early 2010s, began formalising a musical practice around mushrooms. In 2019, he released an EP called Spore Drive, which hinted more explicitly towards this fascination, and in 2023 he brought forth On Mushrooms, a 6-track primer for his fungal opus Mycelium Music.

Engaged in what he calls “an exercise in audio surrealism”, Matthewdavid would sit in his studio and ask himself the question, what do mushrooms sound like? His answers were both inspired and initiated by mushrooms.

“It’s just a strategy, like pulling a tarot card,” he explains, over video call from LA. “But instead of pulling a card I can revert to this idea. The well of creative inspiration is also eating mushrooms — micro-dosing, macro-dosing whatever, it’s always been there as part of my creative practice.”

Plugged into the network, Matthewdavid hit record and gathered as much material as possible. “When I’m in that state, it’s like how does this feel? And how can I translate this to the sonic world?” Strands of synthetic melody, vibrating sheets of sound, gurgling, babbling, autoharp improvisations — a sense of stop-motion wonder rendered in minute detail to be re-sampled and formed into tracks on the album. “It’s electric, it’s earthen, it’s alien, it’s terrestrial, it’s extra-terrestrial, it’s uncomfortable, it’s comfortable,” he enthuses. 

Crucially though, it’s also not about what sounds mushrooms make themselves. In recent years, advancements in biosensors, contact microphones and biodata instruments like MIDI Sprout have seen the stock of music made from plant sources bloom. Matthewdavid’s approach is more impressionistic, perhaps a little more intimate. “I want to get down to the core of the feeling of it,” he explains, suggesting that sometimes the eco-musicological intentions of this kind of work can get in the way of its artistic interest. If the mushrooms are already speaking through him, “maybe messing around with these devices would be a distraction.”

Matthewdavid’s engagement with mycelial music-making draws instead on an instrument that shares something of the self-organising properties of the network. Part hardware, part software, and part online community, Norns is an open-source generative music-making instrument around which much of his work has revolved in recent years. 

“The devices in this community are geared towards raw experimentation and unabashed sound making,” he elaborates. “A lot of the times it can be quite chaotic and loose and unhinged. It allows for happy accidents in a way that feels extremely intuitive and therapeutic for me.”

It’s this which also hints at another thread in the mesh of Matthewdavid’s creative process — the role of psylocibin and music-making as grounding, conscious practices in helping him with depression and anxiety. “I talk about music-making now as an act of intuitive therapy, especially with these tools that are playful and fun for me. It’s something that I can really get into and lose track of time. It’s profound.”

As co-founder of LA-based Leaving Records, he has cultivated an “all genre” approach to running a record label, gravitating in recent years to the radiant spheres of ambient and new age music, going some way to reframe its 1980s self-help connotations for the 21st century era of self-care. Their monthly “Listen to Music Outside in the Daylight Under a Tree” live sessions in LA’s Elysian Park began as a response to pandemic conditions but has evolved into an institution in its own right. Cradled in the roots of an old oak tree, the label roster, and the physical community he has built around it, reflect something of its decentralised structure. 

In July 2021, he launched GENRE DAO, a collectively governed Web 3.0 online entity with its own $GENRE token used as a kind of currency for, and membership of, the Leaving Records community. “The fact of the technology allowing for autonomy and the potential for a new system in the music industry was really exciting to me,” Matthewdavid continues. “That’s what attracted me during the height of the pandemic when the NFT, Web 3.0 stuff was coming about.” Not to over-stress the point, but the decentralised nature of blockchain has perhaps as much, if not more, in common with the structure of a mycelial network than the term “wood wide web”, coined to compare the mycelial networks beneath forest floors with the connectivity of the internet. 

What’s clear is that the notion of mycelium music is more than just an album concept for Matthewdavid and is instead beginning to probe its hyphal tips into all aspects of his world. He may not be the first musician to be inspired by eating mushrooms, but few have attempted to engage its more-than-human potential in such holistic terms. 

“I don’t know if this music is necessarily for everybody,” he muses. “The mycelial network is a complicated system and concept and there’s still a lot we don’t know about it. It’s something that is becoming more and more important to learn about, but it still feels a little bit challenging.”

Comprehension is only part of the picture. Listen on headphones and turn up the volume, and you begin to get a sense of just how entangled the weave of electro-acoustic patterning is. “It’s a fabric and it’s multi-layered and it’s not always heard on the first listen,” he continues. “My personal experience with all this material is pretty deep and if one was to really sit with it, it can engage and interact with the listener in a way that feels fluid and visceral and hopefully connect one with their surroundings and others.”

Perhaps this also leans on why people have found mycelial networks so compelling. The autonomy and the interdependence, the personal and the collective, the polyphony of voices commingling. Or simply the realisation that things which we imagined to be discrete are in fact profoundly connected.


‘Mycelium Music’ is out now.

Follow Anton Spice on Instagram here.