How imagined alternate dimensions, 80s drum loops, and vintage synths led to a fascinating concept album.
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Psychedelic Suds and Transformative Love: The Making of Mndsgn's 'Body Wash'
Executing an effective concept album is no easy feat. In addition to creating a series of tracks that sound good together, artists must finagle the songs into a cohesive narrative flow. Perhaps this is why many musicians steer clear of such projects.
Though the prospect of recording a concept album might seem overwhelming, when the framework is embraced and applied casually it can be liberating. This was the experience of veteran producer and south Jersey native Mndsgn, who dropped Body Wash on Stones Throw Records in 2016. As stated in the liner notes, “the album was built around a backstory, a loose narrative thread through which he could filter his unformed ideas.”
The “loose narrative thread” revolves around an unnamed homeless man who is welcomed into the dwelling of a mysterious woman. Things take a surreal and surprising turn when it comes time for him to clean himself up. “She instructs him to bathe with a very peculiar body wash,” the line notes state. “As he soaks and sinks deeper in a thick lather of this unknown solution, the man finds himself transported to an alternate dimension.”
Though some might find the premise of multi-dimensional travel via body wash a bit absurd, Mndsgn stated in the liner notes that he saw the plot as a useful storytelling device, “that would allow me to speak on topics that were universally relatable. The story actually became a true outlet for me to address worldly issues with Self.”
As he explored these topics, as well as the album’s key concept—“the psychedelic, transformative power of love”—Mndsgn played with the perspectives from which he wrote and sang his lyrics. Utilizing both a first-person and third-person point of view, he tried seeing things through the eyes of the homeless man during the recording process. “Throughout the record I go back and forth between the narrator and the main character who’s using the body wash,” he told Nitish Pahwa in a 2016 Passion of the Weiss interview. “It isn’t necessarily a biographical thing, but I do sometimes try to put myself in my character’s shoes.”
After reading the Passion of the Weiss article and seeing the Body Wash album cover, some might infer that a shirtless Mndsgn soaking in a tub obviously symbolizes the homeless man. In fact, the cover is more about an increased level of openness with his audience. “Since I felt like there was more of me on this record, especially with the vocals, putting myself on the cover signified me being more vulnerable, being more open with my listeners,” he told Passion of the Weiss.
So how does one go about composing the music for an artistically vulnerable project with such a bizarre idea as the main driving force?
An album about alternate dimensions and “the psychedelic, transformative power of love” might seem primed to call upon sounds from the 60s and 70s for sampling purposes, but Mndsgn actually went to a more recent spot on the musical timeline for inspiration. Drawing on legendary musicians/producers like Dave Grusin, Kashif, and Leon Sylvers III, he looked to people who, “embodied that potent feeling in the early 80s boogie/funk/soul/jazz/fusion wave.”
The gravitational pull towards these kind of artists and their records became stronger when Mndsgn used them in DJ sets prior to making Body Wash. The more he played their songs during his performances, the more he wanted to flip them in his own way. “If I’m listening to something, I’m prone to wanting to make something like it,” he told Passion of the Weiss.
Also drawn to elements of early-90s R & B at the time, Mndsgn sought to combine these two eras with a modern twist. To achieve the desired sound, he started many tracks by sampling juicy 80s drum loops before adding his own synthesizer sounds. “I would just be real inspired by that loop, and try to play some of my own instrumentation on top,” he told Tom Clark in a 2017 Time Out Shanghai interview.
As he meshed sampled drums, sounds from a Yamaha DX5 synthesizer, and a variety of other keyboards together with Ableton, Mndsgn found that looping expertly produced drumbeats from early 1980s was preferable to recreating them from scratch. It kept the difficult to emulate qualities of those classic records in tact while allowing him to incorporate his own textures. “It would be a fusion of original music but borrowing the drum sounds from back in the day, because the way it sounds sampling off those records is so timeless as opposed to trying to recreate it with software,” he told Time Out Shanghai “It has its own grit to it.”
The combination of sampled grit and polished synths brings about many notable moments. The opening drums of “Transmissionnn” plays like DJ Screw slowing down The Gap Band’s “Outstanding” as Mndsgn’s vocals and synths effortlessly blend into the track. “Vague//Recalibrate” is a bit more mellow and understated than many of the other cuts but remains musically potent nonetheless. And the uptempo instrumental sequence of “Searchin I (4 That Familiar Feelin),” “Searchin II (4 Sumthn New),” and “Searchin III (4 Nothin Else)” provides some interesting and unexpected variation towards the conclusion of a rather vocal-heavy album.
In the end, Mndsgn used bits and pieces of his favorite records from the early 80s and 90s and built his own crazy musical story around them. After he was done, he recommended that listeners bring the far out tale to their own conclusion. "Think about it as a box of crayons for you to draw emotions with," he said in the liner notes.
Whether you care about following the Body Wash narrative or you just want to listen to some lush instrumentals and soulful singing, Mndsgn’s daring 2016 effort is well worth revisiting.
Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!