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.”