On a recent warm evening, a few dozen listeners packed into Stones Throw’s little storefront space in Highland Park to take in three hours of new age music. The walls were lined with succulents, and a projector in the back played a video of a California coastal landscape.
As attendees shifted their way in, Matthewdavid stood at the back of the room in a flowing Eastern-style robe, lanky and stern like a mantis, blowing softly into a flute. The audience proceeded to suspend whatever reservations they might have had about new age (as well as fluttering flutes and flowing robes) and, cross-legged on the floor, enjoyed waves of calm analog synthesizers and softly distorted guitar.
The show marked the release of the second batch of tapes in the Modern New Age series from Leaving Records, the label Matthewdavid runs. Label artists Gifted & Blessed and Cool Maritime, one-man bands themselves, also played.
Modern New Age is the newest Leaving passion project for Matthewdavid, whose real name is Matthew McQueen. The label itself is a glorious amalgam of McQueen passion projects, from solo guitarists to postmodern pop singers. Leaving's latest releases include Benedik's Coolin' EP, a simmering synth-funk stew, and Flutes, Echoes, It's All Happening! by DJ/producer Carlos Niño, a soulful, psychedelic set featuring the likes of Kamasi Washington and Madlib.
Modern New Age is another tangent, but a tangent with a concrete goal: to revive and reinvigorate new age music, a genre cursed by years of overexposure and poor quality control.
"I’m trying to innovate and redefine now for this generation of open-minded young people what new age is,” McQueen says. “And it’s not scary. It’s something cool, and it’s something that can unite us as a human race.”
We’re sitting in McQueen’s sunny living room, where he has a desk facing the window flanked by a rack of synthesizers. There are shelves and shelves of records; a gong waits at the ready by one of the bedroom doors. His Mount Washington house is invisible from the street — behind a narrow gate, up three flights of stairs, and then up again, through his Secret Garden–like front yard. It seems to float above the city, a little cloud sanctuary.
“New age now is much different than in the '80s or even in the '90s,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “Our parents’ perception of new age doesn’t have to be our perception of it. It doesn’t have to be Windham Hill cheesy elevator music or whatever you think it is. It can be really enjoyable, psychedelic electronic music."
The tapes McQueen has commissioned for the Modern New Age series could have been released 30 years ago. Gifted & Blessed’s Emotional Topography, for instance, sounds positively vintage, full of gently bending synthesizer shapes. Cool Maritime’s Some Sort of Wave Portal is warm and rumbling, evoking a waxing tide on a summer day. (Another tape, by White Rainbow, was dropped from the label after the musician was accused of assault by his then-girlfriend.)
Cool Maritime is the recording name of Sean Hellfritsch, an animator and filmmaker. (He recently co-directed Panda Bear’s hallucinogenic “Boys Latin” video.) Before moving to L.A., Hellfritsch lived in Bolinas, a small, secluded beach town in Marin County. When Hellfritsch wasn’t working or surfing, he worked on the tape. He says he wanted to create music that “reinforced a positive state."
“It’s like making a really nice garden,” Hellfritsch says. “If you do good landscaping and put the chairs in the right spot, people are going to sit in it and feel really good.”
In March, McQueen put out his own new age double-LP under the name Matthewdavid's Mindflight, featuring music culled from his improvisational radio show on the online station Dublab. McQueen has been known for years primarily as a creator of extravagantly textured beats, but Trust the Guide and Glide is pure spiritual healing music, a 90-minute swirl of nature sounds, shimmering synthesizers and deeply reverberating tones.
New age, essentially, is ambient music with a spiritual agenda. McQueen discovered new age in college, when he started collecting private press tapes as curiosities and working them into his beat mélange. "That stuff was written off as cheesy, but I was looking for anything people weren’t trying to sample,” he says.
When new age first started, it was subversive music, distributed off the grid, meant to free listeners from the machinations of modern life. Pioneering artists like Laraaji and Steven Halpern started making relatively spare but inspired recordings in the mid-'70s, releasing the albums themselves and circulating them to health food stores and yoga centers.
As guided relaxation became a yuppie trend, the popularity of new age music grew. By the early ’90s, Tower Records had a new age section; major cities across the country launched new age radio stations. An entire generation grew up gently inundated by the sound of Pure Moods infomercials and Yanni cassettes.
Part of McQueen’s goal is to reach young listeners who may have spent their entire lives avoiding the music. “My label being cool and trendy can open up a hip-hop kid, who is into my label on that side, to exploring what new age is,” he says, leaning forward, delivering each word melodically. “And hopefully leading to a discovering of themselves and a connectedness with their surroundings."
McQueen himself didn’t buy into the spiritual trappings of new age until years after he got into the music. A private press synthesizer record from 1981 called Planetary Unfolding by Michael Stearns helped him out of a “dark place.” (When asked if he wants to elaborate, McQueen turns his back and says, “I was wrapped up in my own ego and my own actions in a very self-righteous, self-centered way. And in turn I hurt someone I really loved.”) He took on mentors he considers “spiritual leaders” and started reading books on new age thinking.
I listened to Planetary Unfolding later and was affected by it, too; it’s a stunning, massive-sounding record. I felt like a speck of dust floating down a river. This, I supposed, is how every new age composer wants to make you feel.
In addition to the tape series, Leaving has reissued a set of long-out-of-print albums by Laraaji, and in May is planning to rerelease an old, privately circulated recording by an obscure artist named SunPath.
McQueen is not the only one sifting through the mountains of music created during the music's heyday. Numero Group has reissued albums by nearly forgotten legends like Iasos and Jordan De La Sierra. Experimental musicians like Blues Control and Sun Araw have called on Laraaji for collaborations. And in 2013, a compilation called I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America 1950-1990, released by Light in the Attic, collected new age works that have aged particularly well. The record served in part as a clarion call for a new age revolution.
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McQueen hopes he can get even more brave souls involved. “It’s my responsibility and purpose now as a curator to be bold,” he says. "I [want to] usher in folks from different backgrounds and walks of life to this, dare I say, more expanded frame of consciousness."
For more on the Modern New Age series, visit leavingrecords.com.