J.D. McKay (Coral Morphologic) Mix & Interview


Jared McKay is half of the Miami based exploration initiative Coral Morphologic. For the past 15 years Jared and Colin Foord have studied the forms of marine invertebrates and reflected that through a symbiosis of science and the arts. They grow and film coral in their lab. Utilizing their cutting edge footage and manipulating time to open our perspective of marine biology. By speeding up these processes before our eyes, these sedentary creatures come to life, moving and engaging with their environment. While their lab work provides incredible insight, their work extends to the natural environment off Miami’s shores as well as the intersection of urban development and the sea. Seeing how coral adapts to the ever expanding artificial structures of the city provides a unique view of the future and how coral may pioneer as we continue to encroach on marine habitats. 

We recently released Jared’s album Coral Morphologic 1 which serves as a magical accompaniment to visions of an underwater world. The sound he’s developed as a musician truly reflects the sea. It’s almost as if he’s captured the language of coral. 



Tell us about the formative years of Coral Morphologic. The early days where you and Colin stepped deeper into this project.

At first, CM was a humble little thing and we had only an abstract mind-map of where we’d take it. Although we’re known as artists these days, we didn’t consider ourselves artists back then. We had to focus on perfecting the skills of coral husbandry. Without those skills, there is no art. Colin had been keeping corals in aquariums for a little over ten years when we started CM in 2007, but our coral-keeping skills weren’t perfected until around 2010. During those three years, we met some very talented artists that enthusiastically fostered our ideas. People like Bhakti Baxter, Jason Hedges, and Naomi Fisher nudged us into the creative deep end. Just being around them forced us to take our own ideas more seriously, to go full-steam. It was a feedback loop, and along with a city going through perpetual growing pains and identity crises, the feeling of building something bigger than ourselves was everywhere.

 Beginning to create and share our coral films was a giant leap for us. When they resonated deeply with people we realized we were translating an unspoken language with our work—life lessons from a class of sea creatures—and we said “ok, we’re artists.”

What has the coral taught you?

True symbiosis. In my teens I read a book called Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, about a person who had a telepathic relationship with a gorilla. A quote from that book that stuck with me was “With man gone, will there be hope for gorilla? / With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?” I had grasped the edges of that lesson, but it wasn’t until Colin and I took on the responsibility of operating our first coral laboratory and film studio that I fully understood it. Keeping corals alive is a psychic weight, it instills this lesson of symbiosis in you whether you like it or not. Colin frequently says “If the corals aren’t happy, then neither am I.”

Tell us about your process in recording this first album.

In 2018 I was getting anxious to record new sounds after we worked with Animal Collective on Tangerine Reef. We wanted to make the sister-album/movie to that work but we didn’t have the time or money, so I started writing the music first in my free time. I spent about a month of nights tracking melodies live, but the process of consolidation and refinement took close to two years.

Animal Collective performing Tangerine Reef

 Tell us a little about your studio set up and your approach to production workflow.

I used Critter & Guitari and Teenage Engineering synths as well as NASA space radio samples and Logic software to create, edit and mix the tracks. These tiny synthesizers like the Organelle and OP-1 that do a million things extremely well are just amazing. After pairing recordings and samples, I sculpted everything down until it was sounding like the world we wanted to soundtrack.

I’d always work on CM 1 late at night, up in the “Witch's Hat” as our friend Dave Tompkins calls the home studio. I collected a bunch of science fiction book covers, photos of Ansel Adams-like landscapes, and photos of galaxies from the Hubble telescope and collaged them on my computer desktop during recording. Our whole M.O. is to present corals as cosmic vagabonds on their way to the next planet, and science fiction is the main inspiration behind all of this.

Movie posters and soundtracks, book covers, things that incite wonder and curiosity. I think wonder and curiosity are among humankind's few true virtues. That’s the type of idea space territory we like to work in. 

What were some of your influences that guided your approach to this work?

We’re coasting through space on this album, and then we’re in orbit, preparing a descent. Robert Beatty’s album art perfectly captures where and what the album is traveling to…

Since the music is meant for a future album/movie, I considered the music “scenes,” not songs, just like the classic Larry Heard album title suggests of the intent of his music. Intention is a big thing for me when writing music. I really need a reason. At that point in time I yearned for and found a reason. This movie still does not exist but when we finally have that time and money to make it, it will be glorious.

Also, the Eno brothers’ album Apollo was a big influence. That album was made as a soundtrack for the movie For All Mankind, documenting the moon missions. Similarly, I wanted to have an exploratory space theme to the album that reflected how in-tune corals are with the cosmos. Brian’s unabashed admittal that he was better at making choices than making music struck me heavily a while ago, and I used a couple of his non-musical studio tricks on CM 1 that helped bring out the cinematic stardust I was looking for.

 What are some of the most beautiful things you’ve witnessed coral display?

A fascinating thing about coral is their similarity to other animals. Despite being so alien, essentially an animal with attributes of plants and minerals, and living in water rather than on land, us humans share with coral all of the most basic characteristics of being alive. And it goes beyond physicalities into the deepest of behaviorisms. Love and war exist in their version of this world much as they do in ours.

What can you tell us about coral spawning?

Coral spawning is the holy grail of coral research. Our friends at Project Coral are doing amazing things in this realm, replicating the rhythms of nature in a laboratory setting to induce corals to release eggs and sperm, and rearing fertilized eggs to maturity. In the ocean, corals spawn once a year around the time of a full moon, which is their cosmic cue, and it’s a real coral orgy. The sea becomes a soup of reproductive cells connecting with one another and settling down on the reef.

In what ways are Miami’s reefs unique to the rest of the world and in what ways do you see a common thread?

 Miami is unique in that Biscayne Bay is largely a man-made habitat, and everything that exists here has become a science experiment by default. The corals that have pioneered into the city are our main focus, scientifically and artistically. The now-common terms “urban coral” and “super coral” were born out of our investigations into a couple of very surprising coral recruits.

 Scientists from other coastal cities around the world have taken notice of their urban coral populations as well, and it’s an exciting new frontier of coral research. Here in Miami, the corals we are studying seem to be far more resilient to disease and bleaching than their offshore relatives.

 Where do you see coral reflected in other life on earth?

 The mathematical symmetry of coral skeletons and flesh morphology are very similar to terrestrial organisms of the same size like cacti or fungi. These reflections continue down in size to planktonic diatoms, and far further to atomic structure, but also scale all the way up to galactic magnitudes. There are corals that resemble brains. Some corals look phallic, some look vaginal. Corals are definitely honorary members in the club of archetypal forms.

How has your work with coral shaped your perception of time and how does that reflect in your Music?

 Time is everything in our work. There is an inherent ouroboros to the lives’ of coral, the constant building up and over themselves, literally living on the bones of their ancestors. Time is relative to coral. When we project a video of coral onto a limestone wall, we’re shining a light on the cyclical ouroboros of life and death.

 Corals have been synchronizing their sex lives with the sun and moon for 500 million years, making them the original time keepers of this planet. CM 1 highlights this cosmic connection, and I tried to make it as explicit as possible with the songs being a soundtrack of an endlessly repeating journey. People forget we’re all spinning through space at a crazy speed, luckily tied to life-giving cosmic bodies via gravitational pull. This album is a reminder.

Tell us about your mix and your connection to some of the songs you’ve shared in it.

 Each song has a real connection to the creation of CM 1. The Luz Oscura track basically inspired me to start recording. I was struck by the stately beauty and committed repetition of ‘Liberar’ - it felt like it was in orbit, and a sort of continuation to the Eno brothers’ ‘Drift,’ a track written for For All Mankind. Likewise, ‘Ocean’ by Lucette Bourdin floors me every time I listen. The story of the later part of her life, a visual artist who took to making healing music after being diagnosed with cancer, because “If not now, when?” I found to be equally joyous and devastating. The Bernard Parmegiani, Eduard Artemiev, and Robert Turman tracks are absolute masterpieces of electronic music that have been invaluable to me as a student of sound design. I personally consider both CM 1 and every song on this mix to be “cinematic” music rather than labeled generally as “ambient.”

 What can you tell us about camp crystal lake?

 Camp Crystal Lake is the summer camp in the movie Friday the 13th. The actual location of that camp is in New Jersey, but Colin and I each grew up a few miles in separate directions from another Crystal Lake, in New Hampshire. Our whole childhood and adolescence there was a local urban legend that our Crystal Lake was the actual inspiration and desired location for the movie, apparently the filmmakers vacationed there as children. But the girls camp, Camp Waukeela, would not allow the filming of a horror movie to take place on their property, so a similar-looking site in New Jersey was chosen.

 I learned to swim in this lake and can confirm the scariest thing about it was the snapping turtles. Its bottom is made of a gray alluvial clay deposited during the last ice-age. Sometimes I’d find sparkly little sheets of mica in it. And in other unforgettable Crystal Lake nostalgia, during the 90’s the girls camp road sign was frequently graffitied with magic marker by adding a “Sonic” above “Youth Camp.” It was wild to show Thurston Moore a photo of this sign when he came by the lab earlier this year.

 What do you think of when you look up at the night sky?

 I think about the impossible-to-conceive vastness of it all and how I’m only seeing light from the distant past. I’ll always remember a night in my childhood talking with my father about black holes. Looking at the stars through a sun-roof as we sped through the mountains of New Hampshire, my little brain was unable to comprehend the gravity of a black hole. Pitch black crushing infinity. It’s like my mind’s eye was dangling from a rope swing at the event horizon of understanding, not quite ready to let go.


 Coral Morphologic 1 is available through the link below on vinyl, cd, and cassette.

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