Names are a strange thing. As a musician, a band name can become a costume of sorts, something you put on, but ultimately disregard as a caricature of yourself. It can become something one fights with their label about, a la Prince, or something one must ultimately shed completely. Vishnu Dass, fka Michael Gungor, knows all about labels. As one half the formerly Christian husband-and-wife alternative band Gungor, a quick Google of his name reveals incendiary articles on his faith, Twitter spats among fans, and some of his recent, more revealing projects like his existential podcast Loving THIS with Michael Gungor.
After Gungor’s farewell outing in 2019, dubbed “The End of the World Tour,” it was time to make new music with a new name altogether. He had adopted the name Vishnu Dass (meaning “servant of the creator”) in 2017 – it was given to him by the spiritual leader Ram Dass, aka Richard Alpert, author of 1971’s hippie manifesto Be Here Now. He detailed this choice on an episode of The Liturgists, a podcast he co-founded in 2014 with Mike McHargue, aka Science Mike, in order to explore “where faith, science, and art collide.” That name change signified a letting go, a release from the drama and pain of the past. A name that would lead him into a new future.
Now, Vishnu Dass has a new solo project he’s calling Weiwu, and it has been a long time coming. It is the culmination of a spiritual journey that started during a 2010 meditation retreat in Assisi, Italy, as Michael was struggling with his belief in God – which was a huge problem, considering he was, at that time, in a multiple Grammy-nominated Christian band with his wife Lisa.
“I was in spiritual crisis. I just needed to get away, figure out what was happening. Get my life back in some sort of manageable state,” Vishnu Dass says of that time. “I was questioning the existence of God a lot. I was questioning Christianity. What is true, what is not. Is there a God? What is God if God is real? I was meditating all the time and had this feeling or realization, this opening up – whatever we call God is just what is. I just remember writing in my journal: God is. Infinity is infinite. There is no parsing it out or dividing it.”
His revelation in the moment led to him dancing joyously in the fields in Assisi, finally at peace within himself. That peace, however, didn’t last long once he returned home. He chased that feeling of oneness, exhausting himself for years. It wasn’t until he fully let go of his obsession, that he came back to spirituality with a new sense of purpose. The name change, the podcast, and everything that came after – including a 2019 book he wrote titled THIS: Becoming Free, that details how he climbed out of the proverbial cave to meet the divine on his own terms – was a direct result of that reckoning of faith. Weiwu represents the next part of that journey.
Meaning “action that is not action,” Weiwu is a Taoist concept that Vishnu Dass utilized within the writing process of his upcoming album. He wrote the entire album in a “flow state,” resisting the urge to edit and forcing himself to stop and delete anything that was not created within flow. This may be the first music Vishnu Dass has written entirely by himself and for himself, a concept we spoke about in depth. In his band Gungor, the music was written, if not directly to God, most definitely for God, or as a way for the audience to praise or experience God. In this new work, Vishnu Dass has allowed himself to fully participate in all aspects of creation, from writing in flow to sound mixing the final edit. “When I take myself out of the equation, it’s not actually being selfless. It’s just being unconscious,” he says. The album is a mix of meditation and dance, meant to be listened to in one sitting, with the sound turned up.
“My friend Hillary McBride turned me onto this thing called Five Rhythms Dance,” Vishnu Dass explains. “Gabrielle Roth came up with this kind of philosophy, ways of moving your body through the world. Those five ways are flow, staccato, chaos, miracle, and stillness. I want this music to move my body in these ways. Get the music out of my head and into my body.”
The video for “Ya Wei” is a series of visuals, one form leading to the next in a seamless loop. It’s a mix of spiritual imagery with science, reiterating the themes Vishnu Dass has championed throughout his career. The song itself has many of the elements that Gungor was known for: the wall of sound technique, multiple layered voices rising to crescendo. Yet many of the instruments and music patterns in this latest work are drawn from other cultures, and move beyond the evangelical background that informed Gungor. It’s a promising new direction for a musician who has spent the majority of his career in service to religion. The themes remain mystical, but the statements of past songs are turned into questions.
Vishnu Dass, aka Michael Gungor, aka Weiwu, has a sense of humor when it comes to his journey as a musician. He doesn’t flinch from conflict or shy away from a difficult conversation. In the end, his new identity has given him the strength to be honest, the joy to create, and the wonder to approach every day with fresh eyes.
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