Todd Steed's latest music project, Unmind: A Solution for Modern Life, might seem like a joke, but it isn't. At least not entirely. It's funny, and it's kind of satirical, but it's also something else that's not quite so easy to identify, and might take a long time to understand.
"These days I don't want to be a guy who just mocks stuff," Steed says. "It's not very good art, and it's not very good for you."
Unmind is an album of droning, drifting ambient music underneath spoken-word readings by Bob Deck, who performs as the character Manfred Minsk, director of the fictional Unmind Institute for Positive Waves. (The Institute's mission, according to its website, is "to help people relax and deal with life's obstacles. And to stop thinking so much about having to relax.") The album seems like a parody at first glance, and it definitely has some of Steed's trademark smirking humor, but its origins run deep.
"It kind of comes from a sad place," Steed says. "I lost three family members back to back over the course of a year and a half. I didn't write a lot of music—I just didn't feel like it. I started wondering, what's the meaning of life? Not exactly, but I did wonder, how do other people handle these things?"
Steed started looking for insight from Eastern religion and in self-help books. A series of conversations over tea with Deck, who had hit what he calls his own "mid-life malaise," helped crystallize some of the ideas that eventually took the form of Unmind. "Instead of bonding over beer and hot chicks, like most guys, we'd drink tea and have little private salons," Deck says. "There's more than a kernel of truth in it, about what it's like to be alive at this point in the 21st century. It's asking, how are we supposed to make sense of this?"
As the project took gradual shape, Steed struggled with finding the appropriate tone for the music—whether to make it a straight parody of self-help audiobooks and bad music for meditation, or to underpin the text with genuinely expressive compositions.
"That was tough," Steed says. "I had to decide whether to make it cheesy—there's so much horrible New Age music out there, it's uncountable—or ambient, like [Steed's 2005 ambient album] Music for Bus Stations. Eventually I mixed it up; there are some New Age synthesizers but also some guitar, some ebow, more Brian Eno and Adrian Belew kind of stuff."
Over time, the process of putting the music and text for Unmind together became as important a step in Steed's journey as any of the particular insights he found in Buddhism or self-help manuals.
"I threw everything that was going on at the time into it," he says. "I really do believe you can train the mind to be more effective in handling things. When I was working on the track ‘Calming the Mind,' I started getting kind of blissed out. Some of it was working."
Unmind is available for download at iTunes and Amazon, and the physical CD will be available on Dec. 7. Steed and Deck will perform pieces from the album at three upcoming shows with Steed's regular backing band, the Suns of Phere: on Sunday, Dec. 19, with R.B. Morris at a fund-raiser for Laurel High School at Relix Variety Theatre; at Sapphire on Thursday, Dec. 23; and at the Blue Plate Special show at WDVX at noon on Friday, Dec. 24.