Sense of Adventure: Instrumental Duo Mindful Dynasty Experiments With Different Genres on “The Barn Waltz” Album
The South Lyon instrumental duo of Jason Wiseley (guitar, percussion, strings) and Toshana Grim (bass, strings) experiments and improvises with several genres—ranging from psych rock to EDM to flamenco—on its latest double album.
“It’s like going through an adventure, and there are highs and lows; there are also fast parts and slow parts. There are parts that are a little funky and maybe ones that make you laugh a little because there’s a wonky note,” Grim said.
“There are also parts where you might think, ‘This is so beautiful.’ That’s just life—in my opinion—because it is an adventure. The more you can just relax and go with the flow, the more fun you have.”
That carefree attitude and creative mindset flow throughout The Barn Waltz’s 17 tracks, which also feature elements of metal, classical, and funk interspersed with film samples.
“I write for everybody, but in my mind’s eye, it’s [especially] for somebody who plays an instrument. … I just want people to feel inspired. I want people to [hear] our music and think, ‘Oh Jason’s goofy, I can do that, too,’” said Wiseley, who workshopped the album’s tracks live with Grim during a past residency at Zerbo’s Market & Bistro in Commerce Township.
“Part of the reason why The Barn Waltz is dark and has all the movie samples is because I wanted to juxtapose the pretentiousness of the guitar playing. I wanted to put in this silly stuff and put in all of the dance music to pull back the idea that to have that level of fun playing music requires you to actually not have any fun at all.”
I recently spoke with Wiseley and Grim about their backgrounds, the origin of Mindful Dynasty, the evolution of their sound, select tracks from The Barn Waltz, the creative process for the album, and upcoming plans.
Q: How did your interest in music start while growing up in Ann Arbor and Hell, respectively?
Jason Wiseley (JW): I grew up in Ann Arbor … and I had a guitar when I was five, but I didn’t know anything about it. I just liked making up songs; I don’t sing at all, and I don’t write lyrics. There’s not a lot that came from that outside of the fact that just being artistic and playing music made me feel better as a little kid. In middle school, I played the saxophone. I didn’t start playing at a level that I considered myself playing an instrument until my senior year of high school. I started playing drums, but I didn’t own a drum kit and would go to my friend’s house and bang on them.
There was a lock-in at my high school, and I was playing bass and this dude was playing drums. I was just messing around and he told me he thought it was pretty good. I liked doing it … so I got a bass. I never wanted to learn cover songs, but to pass the time and feel good about myself … I was playing bass and setting up all these things I could do.
Toshana Grim (TG): I grew up in Hell, and my father played the guitar a lot … so music was always around. My uncles played acoustic guitar and country-Western music. I never took up too much of an instrument; I was more of a singer and dancer.
When I got [together] with Jason, it just came naturally. I wanted to be part of what he was doing. As for the bass, I love the tones of it. He’s a great teacher and it just went from there. It was two years in August  that I started playing bass.
Q: What artists inspired you along the way? How did that lead to learning and playing different instruments?
JW: Tool has been something that I’ve listened to my whole life. I love that band and A Perfect Circle and all of that. I like heavy metal, too … including Dream Theater, Joe Satriani, and Yngwie Malmsteen. When I play bass, the people I love the most and listen to their chops all the time are Victor Wooten, Flea, and Marcus Miller. When I moved over to guitar, I immediately found Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen because people recommended them to me.
I also listen to a lot of flamenco … and when I first started playing, a lot of people would say, “You sound like you’re playing flamenco, or you’re trying to play flamenco.” I often put on a Pandora flamenco channel when I’m burned out from everything else, and it’s just the most wicked guitar players.
TG: At that age, it was the Eagles and Shania Twain. As I got older, I was really into ‘60s and ‘70s music, like The Doors, who didn’t have a bass player, but I enjoyed them. Led Zeppelin and pretty much anything from that era was what I listened to as a teenager. I [also] loved ‘80s music and Madonna. Once I started playing bass, I realized that a lot of the music that I love so much has awesome basslines. It’s like a rediscovery of my favorite music.
Q: How did you two meet and come to form Mindful Dynasty in 2015? How does your band name represent your music and creative vision?
JW: It was within the first year [that we met] that we started Mindful Dynasty. I was already in a solo recording project; I had put out maybe three albums before Mindful Dynasty started. I didn’t have a name for it—it was always like The Adventures of Blue Ninja or Jason Wiseley Presents. Then I started working on this idea of Mind Tribe because I had all these different instruments and different players in my head. There was an engineering company called Mine Tribe already, and Toshana got a bunch of synonyms for Mind Tribe, and we came up with Mindful Dynasty.
It does vary directly to how we play music … but one of my biggest pet peeves about bands is the dysfunction that can happen in them when people are like, “You’re playing too many notes or you need to play my idea the way I want it played.” The foundation of Mindful Dynasty is when we write a song, I show Toshana the root notes, and I’m like, “These are the chords I’m playing.” Outside of that, she writes her own basslines as a creative expression. It’s not about us dominating the song; it’s about us exploring the song together and coming up with this thing together. If she wants to play the bass really heavy, then as a guitarist I will listen and complement that. If she wants to be really chill, then I’ll complement that.
She’s very vice versa. If I write this piece and I’m feeling really crazy about this part, she’ll beef up her bassline. For anyone who plays with us, I don’t want them to feel like they can’t play what they want to play. With that being said, you have to be a good listener and a compassionate person, and you have to be like, “This is what the song needs.” You also have to be willing to take a chance and say, “This isn’t what’s going on in the song, but this is what I’m feeling.” Then you try it, and everyone else should be like, “Bam! Well, that’s what you’re feeling? We’ll back you up.”
Q: How does your music and creative vision also focus on the concept of mindfulness?
TG: Mindfulness is also a big part of [our] adjacent life. We both try hard to practice mindfulness and we meditate, do yoga, and try to keep ourselves healthy and balanced. We try to have that at our shows and transpose that into our tea lounge and work with people who are on that path.
When we first started, I didn’t play instruments. We didn’t want to have an act that was exclusively instrumentals. And as we moved forward with the tea lounge and the things that we do, we want to incorporate all types of art, including dancers, comedians, and anyone who has something to share. The Mindful Dynasty name kind of found us, and we’re trying to live up to it now.
The listeners’ experience is also about mindfulness because we’re trying to inspire thoughts and creativity. We work with tarot card readers who do metaphysical work, and they enjoy our music. We can be set up in the same room with all of this other stuff going on and still be very inspirational and part of what is happening.
Q: How has your sound evolved to include more EDM influences over the past five years?
JW: I went to Electric Forest right around the time I was finishing other projects and starting [2019’s] Into Madness. I became infatuated with giant kick drums and how awesome they could sound. After going to Electric Forest and being exposed more to DJ stuff, I started learning how to mix bass drums and bass so you can hear both of them well.
That became a big focus of mine and it kind of still is; I mix everything based on that philosophy for Into Madness and the idea that people don’t dance to music with chops because music to chops isn’t called dance music. I saw Electric Forest and thought, “You can put chops all over this music. You could bring Steve Vai to jam with Bassnectar.” I took the idea of [2015’s] Armageddon and [2016’s] Acoustic Dreams and these chops-oriented things, and I’ve been doing my best to produce EDM-style dance music and disguise this classical, chops-heavy music as dance music. I want it to sound like dance music, but I want it to have all of the stuff that you can get from metal and classical [music].
Q: Why did you decide to name your album The Barn Waltz? How does that title reflect the experimental and improvisational approach you took with it?
JW: The [album cover] is a photo of a barn at Kensington Metropark. I just drove up there one day and took a photo of it. The title was Toshana’s idea.
TG: Zerbo’s was our lab [for the album], and it’s inside a giant, elaborate, and fancy barn—and that’s why we wanted to run with that idea for the album. We also mix some EDM and house music with classical stuff on the album, and we wanted to [reflect] that in the title.
Q: The Barn Waltz features a bunch of film samples throughout it. How do those samples provide a storyline in a way?
JW: Toshana loves Wax Tailor, and he has all these movie samples. I was listening to a ton of Wax Tailor with her, and I thought, “This is so cool; I bet I could download [these].” I did some research and found a bunch of sample packs that are $15-$20, and they have upwards of 1,000 different 30-second or 2-minute to 3-minute [samples] of people talking. I didn’t want to make them as much of a focus as Wax Tailor does, but I wanted to make them like a story.
I decided to use them as an intro … and I found all these random movie clips, and I love collaging. I collaged together my own story out of these eight, totally disconnected movies. I didn’t quote my favorite movies; it was just a [sample] pack that said it was an award-winning, 50s horror movie pack. I love horror movies and that’s what I like to watch. I picked through them and listened to the emotion in people’s voices. If it struck me and I was like, “Oh wow, I like the way they’re saying that,” then I’d just take two or different things like that and put them together into my intro bit.
Q: “Unicorn” features thumping EDM basslines, wah-wah electric guitar, and galloping bass that mimics the sounds of a unicorn trotting across a landscape. How does this track sonically symbolize a unicorn and its movements to you?
JW: A lot of these tracks we didn’t name until we were just getting ready to release the album. “Unicorn” is followed by a track called “In the Mirror.” We have a painting of a unicorn looking at itself in the mirror. I was naming all the tracks, and I was staring around the apartment thinking, “What am I going to name this track?”
And then I saw the unicorn and … thought I was gonna name it “Unicorn in the Mirror,” but then I decided I wanted the bass and guitar tracks to go together more so I named it “Unicorn” and the other track is called “In the Mirror.” I like to word things in a way that puts an image in someone’s head. It has this intro and a sense of adventure, so I try and put these pieces together for someone to listen to the album who’s never heard it before.
Q: “A2” includes a rhythmic and percussive mixture of metal and EDM. How did you come to write this track? How does it serve as a theme for Ann Arbor?
JW: When we first started writing songs, “A2” was the second composition I had written for Toshana. As we were going through them, I came up with these crazy names for the compositions because I had spent so much time on them. Toshana said, “You have to start the name of the track with the key the track is written in.” Her bassline starts on the second note in the key of A. When we started playing it for people, we noticed some friends that we have who are in other bands … they released a song called “Ypsi.”
We have “A2,” but it’s a totally different thing. What I really wanted to focus on was teaching [Toshana] hits … and I wrote out four chords because the first two songs we had written together were “Easy Step” and “A2.” For my guitar lines, every time I went through the chords, it was like a jazz melody where I played them in different octaves and had different melodies that went through them. For her, it [was] the same thing. The takeaway from it was the super-tight rhythm and the hits. It was like an exercise that I turned into an awesome song. In a way, it became about Ann Arbor.
TG: For me, I went into a different octave, too. I had moved to Ann Arbor about 10 years ago, and I called it never-never land. I had moved from Jackson, so it was my first experience with a college town even though I was 24 and already had my degree. When I moved there, I was swept away [because] everybody is so young, and everybody has so many ideas … and it’s so captivating. And you can get lost in it and maybe fall down a bit. For this song, going from one octave to another, I had to pay attention, really count, and think, “OK, now it’s time to go up high and play it, and now it’s time to go slow and be able to do that without getting swept away and without being on the wrong octave.”
Q: “Knight Jester” features upbeat electric guitar, bass, and EDM sounds. How did knights and jesters inspire this track? How does it take listeners on a medieval adventure?
JW: The electric guitar songs I named as I wrote them while the acoustic and double-bass songs were things that I wrote and later named. We were batching the names out one night and one of the ones we came up with was “Night Clown.”
We were talking about Batman or something silly, and we were talking about “Night Clown” and how it would be funny to name it “A Knight Clown in Shining Armor.” “Jester” is more [reflective] of that era, and Toshana was like, “A jester is the most powerful person in a kingdom because they’re the only person who can make fun of a king.” A “Knight Jester” would be like the most powerful person … and we named it that because it was such a funny, accurate title for a power dichotomy.
Q: “Pink Spiral” twists and turns with shimmery EDM beats, deep bass, and light percussion. How does that track reflect the color pink for you and have a spiral sensation?
JW: The song right after that one is called “Shades of Blue.” In 2009, I was working on it with my younger sister, and we wrote one song, and that song was called “Shades of Blue.” I have this poster that has pink and blue spirals on it, so I named one song “Shades of Blue,” and I was going to name the other song “Shades of Pink.” But I didn’t want them to be that close [in terms of song titles], so I named one “Shades of Blue” as an homage to my sister, and the other one I named “Pink Spiral” because it is a pink spiral.
Being in a spiral feels like you’re going somewhere, so the [name] “Pink Spiral” feeds into a powerful adventure idea and ties into “Shades of Blue.” After the electric-guitar songs, I wanted the double-bass and acoustic songs to share in their titles because they’re both five minutes each and the electric-guitar songs are 10 minutes each.
Q: The title track highlights tranquil EDM sounds mixed with Spanish guitar and bass. What inspired the dreamy soundscapes on this track? How does it conjure up a “Barn Waltz” for listeners?
JW: Bringing EDM and Spanish guitar together is the epitome of my musical goal. If you listen to a lot of flamenco music, which has a lot of the beats in it, and if you just cranked the bass drum, it would sound a lot like dance music. It’s already there, but people are so “genre-fied” when it comes to music that people who play that style are like, “I can’t have that type of bass drum because it’s not flamenco.” I just really dislike that mentality and believe creativity and expression are the only reasons you should play music. If the music you play doesn’t fit a genre, then you just have to think of a new name for the genre you’re making.
It was just really easy to put flamenco to dance music; I think that any sort of world music already caters to the idea of EDM. It’s a consistent beat, and it has a very simplistic structure to play on and a lot of room for improvisation. It’s pretty much what you’re going to find in all world music and all EDM, but the one thing EDM lacks is that lead melodic player.
This song is also the first one we technically ever wrote. … It was like, “This is the guitar riff that I’m going to play,” and we worked out a bassline. When we were improvising through it, there’s a sense of a body or a guide [in it], and it’s not just completely freeform. I wanted that to be our last song because it was our first song. When we were coming up with the title of it, we had initially put the name “Barn Waltz” in the middle of the album. When we decided to call [the album] The Barn Waltz, we simultaneously decided to put that song at the end of it.
TG: I also like the fact that we put the [title track] at the end of the album because not everybody puts it at the end of the album. At the end, we have this acoustic and almost sad [song], but that’s how you experience The Barn Waltz.
Q: With 17 tracks, The Barn Waltz could be considered at least a double album. Did you intentionally set out to create such an in-depth sonic experience for listeners?
JW: I do consider it a double album—or even a triple album—though just because of the amount of material. It’s a lot of improv stuff and a lot of composition mixed with improv mashed together. It came from three very different places and got put into one theatrical place. I’ve just never even made anything this long before.
Q: How long did you spend writing and recording the 17 tracks for The Barn Waltz? What was the recording process like for it?
JW: This whole album took about a year and a half from the day I started it to the day we finished and produced it. When I write an album, it usually takes about a year. The individual songs came together pretty fast, but I spent more time developing the songs before writing them.
For this album, I had the leads done before any of the backing tracks because Toshana and I wrote it as a band. I prefer writing with another person. … It makes the whole process a little bit more fluid. This album was a lot more fun for me to write than the other ones, and it’s a lot different than the other stuff I’ve produced. It’s a lot more honest as to how I am as a musician. I love connecting with people in music.
I did all of the percussion, and Toshana and I did all of the strings. I recorded all the backing tracks [at home], but the lead bass and lead guitar we recorded at Big Sky Recording. Josef [Deas] tracked that out for us and then he mastered the album. He was a really big advocate for The Barn Waltz; he thought it sounded cool, too. Josef was able to bring a lot of that synth and stuff out while he was mastering it.
Q: What’s up next for you two? Any plans to write new material or go back into the studio?
JW: We already have a whole ’nother thing in the works as an expansion to [The Barn Waltz]. A really big idea I had, and part of the reason this album has so much material, is when you get booked [for a live show], you only play for about an hour. I [thought] if we released a two-hour album, then we’ll always be able to play something different at every show.
Moving forward, I just want to keep producing tracks, and I don’t want to release another album for probably another year or maybe two years. I want to amass all of this material and start blending it in with The Barn Waltz and DJ sets that include The Barn Waltz as well as new material. For the next year, we can beta-test this new material … and when we’re ready to release another album, we’ve done the market research on our next batch of songs.
Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.