When we interviewed Australian duo Slumberjack earlier this spring we learned about Morgan Then (pictured left) and his unique form of synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second pathway. Morgan was born mostly colorblind, so while synesthesia is commonly known as the experience of sound as seeing or hearing colors, Morgan experiences it primarily as taste, which is actually more common than you’d think according to a study from University of California San Diego. We caught up with Morgan to learn more about how his music production is affected, or as we learned even enhanced, by the condition.
In our last interview, Morgan explained that he discovered his synesthesia through his sister, who although undiagnosed was able to communicate with Morgan by describing music by what color or taste she associated with a particular piece of music. His official diagnosis is that of an extremely rare form of synesthesia called lexical-gustatory synesthesia, meaning that his taste and hearing senses do not operate independently of each other. “A specific note or line of notes will trigger it,” Morgan explained. “The first time I heard dubstep I loved the sound but it tasted weird, like plastic and rubber. I also come from a world where sometimes food doesn’t taste good but you just eat it and make yourself like it then it becomes associative – if you don’t like something immediately you make positive associations with it then you like it.”
Morgan grew up in Borneo and had what he describes as a highly disciplined, traditional Southeast Asian life and began to discover the nature of his condition while playing piano. Fortunately for him all of the sensations he experiences are entirely physical, as opposed to some forms of synesthesia which can trigger emotional responses, so when it comes to making music it’s a balancing act of pursuing tasty sounds and integrating those he loves hearing that don’t taste the best. “Red candy tastes like a fat, meaty chord to me – like Flume.” He loves Sugus candy, which Morgan says has the ultimate red taste, so he can use that to ground himself by using the taste of red to clear out any lingering sensations and get into a happy, red candy state of creativity.
Morgan believes his brain is compensating for the lack of color in his sensory experience by filling in the gaps, but he’s also fortunate enough not to suffer from sensory overload, which is extremely common amongst synesthetes. His only serious trigger is the progression of the notes C, E-flat, F, and F-sharp played in sequence. “If you play that for me on purpose, I will hate you for life. I hear it a lot, it’s very common in blues and I like blues except when they do that. It’s this terrible taste of cliche to my mouth and a lot of EDM producers use it too, I get a strong feeling of disgust that makes me feel like I’m going to vomit.” His musical partner Fletcher, the other half of Slumberjack, has learned to work within Morgan’s unique sensory framework and the duo claim to even have a consistent, overall taste to their sound even though Morgan says it’s something he’s never personally tasted before.
“Have you ever had Lotus Root? It’s very common in Asia. I haven’t had it raw, only cooked, but I imagine raw Lotus Root is what Slumberjack tastes like. It’s a very complex, Earth-y flavor – yummy but kind of scary.” We’ve never heard the words yummy and scary used together, but are inevitably intrigued. In order to better understand the sensory universe Morgan lives in, we gave him five very different sounding tracks to analyze using his ears and tastebuds. As he explained, specific genres of music don’t necessarily elicit a similar taste, but rather specific notes or short sequences. Below are the conclusions of this modest experiment, many thanks to Slumberjack for their time and to Morgan for his candor in discussing this fascinating, complex, and deeply personal matter.
Omar Souleyman – Es Samra
Sweet-ish Sauerkraut. Almost as if sprinkled later with sugar. Salivating for sure.
Beethoven – Moonlight Sonata (Performed by Glenn Morrison)
Vanilla. Scent not taste, I reckon it will taste quite oily. Maybe it’s wax I’m thinking about. I have a feeling this is more of a associative one for me since I’ve heard it a lot in my conservatory days. Maybe because I associate it with romanticism (Beethoven) and/or I know that the word moonlight implies dark-lit rooms hence the wax (candles). Weird.
Chance the Rapper feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz – No Problem
No problem: Brown paper. It’s not like white paper which is kinda tasteless, but brown paper is kinda stinky. I like the song tho haha.
Lorde – Green Light (Hotel Garuda Remix)
Neopolitan ice-cream with red chewy gummy bears stuck in it. Not a fan of sweet stuff (don’t hate it tho) but fan of song.
Axel Boy – Bun Up ‘N’ Tun Up
ooo yummy. I know u told u dubstep sounds mostly taste vomit-y for me, but this one is kinda like blue cheese (perhaps the vomit-y flavour has somehow in a weird way evolved to dairy) and lobsters (seafood sometimes gets people weird? Idk). It’s ‘meaty’ for sure.