The Mycology TikToker Embracing the Sound of Shrooms

There’s pure silence in the air until Noah Kalos stretches his hand into the video’s frame and clamps a white wire onto a bowling ball-sized cluster of oyster mushrooms. Pink and fleshy with pronounced gills, they look like they were plucked from a desert garden on Mars — and they sound even more otherworldly. A deep cacophony of bleeps and bloops ensues, and I can only imagine this is what one hears while playing Mario Kart on ketamine.

Kalos is a bespectacled, heavily bearded guy living in rural North Carolina. He’s down to earth and used to the quiet life, but he’s also a #mushtok influencer with more than 600,000 followers and eight and a half million likes on TikTok, where his name is MycoLyco. Fans of the mushroom-obsessed electronic musician show up to watch him record what happens when he connects synthesizers to fungus. A mushroom’s skin, like that of a human, has electrical properties. Unlike ready-to-play synths with keyboards, Kalos’ many-wired modular synths aren’t preset to make a certain sound when you hit a certain button. Instead, they don’t make any sound at all until they are hooked up to something that creates energy. The cellular activity of a mushroom produces a bioelectrical voltage that rushes through the wires and is translated into these wonky sounds. (Think about this: Two instruments can create voltage by playing the exact same note but sound different. What we hear, as explained by Explain That Stuff, all depends on how the instrument — or mushroom, in this case — “vibrates and makes the air around or inside it vibrate in sympathy.”)

Sometimes he’ll even put two specimens together, and it sounds as if the two toadstools are talking to each other. “It’s a creative collaboration between humans, mushrooms, and machines,” he tells Rolling Stone from a room he frequents often — the spare bedroom he renovated to become part recording studio, part mycology lab.

One of the first videos Kalos posted on YouTube went viral, clocking in over a million views. “I made like $5,000 in two weeks from it,” he says, adding that TikTok doesn’t generate nearly as much revenue even though he’s now more popular there, though he declines to cite any numbers. “If you say how much you make from it, they can kick you out of the Creator Fund.” (Kalos doesn’t think that’s fair — but he doesn’t “want to be the one to have to sue TikTok,” he says. “I don’t have lawyer money.”)

Since going viral, Kalos has popped up on quite a few celebrities’ radars. He didn’t even realize that SZA had started following him until a fan pointed it out. “I was like, ‘Oh really? Let me follow her back,’” he says, bashful. Kalos then messaged SZA about possibly collaborating. “She said yes,” he shares. “But I haven’t heard from her for like a month, so I don’t know what’s up with that. She’s probably busy — or ghosting me. But the fact that I can say I’m getting ghosted by SZA is cool.”

CANDLER, NC -- November 12, 2021:Noah Kalos stands for a portrait outside his home in Candler, North Carolina on Friday, November 12, 2021. Kalos is a mycologist and audio video synthesist in western North Carolina. CREDIT: Jacob Biba for Rolling Stone

Kalos remembers being fascinated by mushrooms during summer camp, but it was frowned upon. “Wilderness survival people were very mycophobic back then,” he says.

Jacob Biba for Rolling Stone

Netflix recently worked with him too; Kalos’ music is featured in Vivo, a children’s movie that the streaming company released this summer. “They had me connect some wildflowers to my synthesizer for that,” he says, explaining that the corporation was “afraid of the mushrooms” — even though they’re not psychedelic — in developing a kid-friendly project.

Kalos, who grew up in Massachusetts, studied art at Oberlin College in Ohio. Fascinated by permaculture — a more low-tech, sustainable approach to agriculture — he sought out a good chunk of land he could call his own and ended up with about 1.7 acres a few hours outside of Asheville. With books by Sepp Holzer — the self-proclaimed “rebel farmer” — under Kalos’ arm, he took a job as a field instructor for a local wilderness therapy program.

He’s always loved the wild. In between college semesters, he worked as a camp counselor. And as a kid himself, he went to summer camp, where he learned about wilderness survival and started mushroom-foraging — much to his counselors’ dismay. “Wilderness survival people were very mycophobic back then,” he says, explaining many were scared of people eating the wrong mushroom and dying as a result. “I think, in the last 10 years, we’ve seen a big shift in this country. A lot more people are getting out and foraging, and learning to identify mushrooms.”

Kalos isn’t wrong in thinking that public perception has changed. Thirteen years ago, renowned mycologist Paul Stamets led what’s become a wildly popular Ted Talk, “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World,” which now has three and a half million views on YouTube. Stamets also appears in Fantastic Fungi, a cinematic documentary narrated by Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson that came out in 2019 and promptly scored 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. This year, Johns Hopkins received the first federal grant in 50 years for research on psilocybin as a medicinal treatment. And just this month, Detroit decriminalized psychedelic mushrooms, following in the footsteps of progressive cities like Denver and Oakland, as well as the state of Oregon.

But Kalos wants it known that his social media has nothing to do with psychedelia. He’s more interested in making art from culinary-grade mushrooms and ingesting immune-boosting mushrooms. He even considered getting a tincture business off the ground, an idea he’s been forced to put on hold until he can create an out-of-home facility free of animal hair and other possible supplement pollutants. He was, at the time, particularly interested in cordyceps, which are parasitic mushrooms that often grow on insects, and are known in the holistic community for boosting energy and strength in humans, while supposedly fighting inflammation. “The idea originally was to turn this whole studio into a cordyceps growing room and kind of put the music away for a little bit just to make some money, get the family moved into a bigger house,” he says, referring to his wife and two kids — who are two and four, and whose art can be seen hanging on the wall behind Kalos’ head. “But I hit some red tape with being able to sell them because I’m drying them in a house with a dog and all that sort of stuff.” When social media presented him with a new revenue stream, though, he decided to “go with the flow.”

Like many others, Kalos also sees the benefits of mushrooms as a multi-use re. While Stamets, for example, believes fungi can clean up oil spills, fashion designer Stella McCartney, a vegan who has never used animal skin, feathers, or fur in her lines, sees them as a great leather substitute. In early October, McCartney introduced the world to the first mushroom-leather purse on a runway at her Paris Fashion Week show. The material she used — made of mycelium, the root-like extensions of mushrooms — comes from a startup called Bolt Threads, which focuses on plant-based alternatives and has already partnered with Adidas, Lululemon, and Kering, as well as McCartney. For the fashion show, she hired Stamets to do the opening narration, but she also licensed Kalos’ bleeps and bloops. “I wanted to immerse viewers in an entirely sensory experience which led me to discover the incredible Noah Kalos, who was such a natural choice for the show soundtrack,” she says. “Noah’s practice is phenomenal.”

McCartney calls the implementation of “Mylo” technology a “massive milestone” that’s been years in the making over email with Rolling Stone. She adds that she’s always experimenting with new materials for a more sustainable future but that a viewing of the Fantastic Fungi documentary inspired her: “It was a driving force in my creative process for the Summer 2022 collection.”

Kalos says that McCartney and him “might be doing some more work,” but that nothing’s been set. “There’s a potential that her dad might get involved, so that’s cool,” he says, holding back a smile while the pitch of his voice heightens as if he doesn’t want to jinx the situation. If Paul McCartney ends up remixing anything of his, he says, it’ll probably only be available inside a Stella McCartney event or store.

CANDLER, NC -- November 12, 2021:Noah Kalos connects an oyster mushroom to a synthesizer in his home in Candler, North Carolina on Friday, November 12, 2021. Kalos is a mycologist and audio video synthesist in western North Carolina. CREDIT: Jacob Biba for Rolling Stone

A connection being made in Kalos’ studio.

Jacob Biba for Rolling Stone

While he hopes to hear from the Beatles legend, Kalos continues to create content on a daily basis. He also started applying his process to crystals, attracting the interest of Lizzo. “More crystals plsss,” the pop star commented on a video of him playing around with some carnelian. “I was excited about that,” he says. 

Since mushrooms are alive, Kalos feels confident that he’s capturing fungal frequencies: The hardware is recording what’s called “electrodermal activity,” which is part of what’s measured when humans take a lie detector test. The crystal phenomenon, he confesses, is more perplexing. “A lot of times I don’t know if it’s the crystal or if it’s just picking up my Wi-Fi signals,” he laughs, seemingly half-serious. “Now, what I do like to think is that maybe the crystal is somehow modifying the Wi-Fi interference in some ways — and that it’s an interaction. Also, in the wire that’s wrapping around it, there’s a frequency that goes through it, and that induces a magnetic field inside of the crystal — and the crystal is going to have resonant frequencies.” He says that creates a unique “feedback” situation. 

There’s no telling how much audio Kalos will end up sorting through by the time he finishes his next album, which he’s currently working on. He also dropped an album last year, but that was basically just a compilation of sounds. “This is going to be more like minimal techno,” he says. “Maybe get some bass music sounds… Maybe get a little psy trance-y.” He says a London-based record label contacted him about creating a full-length set this spring, but that they gave his tracks to another producer who took his art in an entirely different direction, so he’s decided to release independently.

“There is something about [Kalos’ process] that is so alien-like and trippy,” says Teresa Egbert, a mushroom farmer and content creator who goes by both Herbal.Visionz and Shroomy_Baby on Instagram and has collaborated with Kalos. She recently let him record the biodata sonification that came from her finger being connected to some resinous polypore mushrooms the pair found while camping in the woods. “It’s like a form of communication from the mushroom in a musical way. It’s not something you see every day.”

Egbert admits that she doesn’t “fully understand” what’s happening in her video, which came together when she ended up in North Carolina on a mushroom-hunting trip and realized that Kalos, who’s part of a cordyceps Facebook group that Egbert is in, lived nearby. “I know it’s something about electrical signals but I’d rather think that I am becoming One with the mushroom overlords when we are connected through the synth,” she says with a wink. A bit of a nomad, Egbert regularly finds herself on the road seeking out fellow “mushroom nerds” to learn from and hike with.

Much like the organisms it praises, the mushroom community is growing rapidly these days. The “mushtok” hashtag has 52.5 million views on TikTok, and that number might have actually been lessened by the platform. “From like March to April, I didn’t know what was going on,” Kalos says. “Old videos of mine would get flagged and removed.” He thinks TikTok employees were misclassifying the mushrooms he uses. “I would appeal them and email, and sometimes I’d get them brought back up and other times not. One time, I got an email saying, ‘Oh yeah, we checked your profile and it’s all good,’ but they never put the video back up.”

Kalos says videos about lion’s mane — which is used in various homeopathic remedies — were being considered advertisements for “illegal goods and services.” While lion’s mane is far from illegal, Kalos admits that he “may have accidentally caused a lion’s mane shortage last year.” He says that a reporter contacted him about a story on a lion’s mane farmer, who said a TikTok surge was likely to blame for their inability to keep the product on shelves. “If you look at TikTok, and you see lion’s mane, and I have a video with like five million views about how it regrows brain cells…” He shrugs. Luckily, though, lion’s mane literally does grow on trees.

And Kalos doesn’t think that the demand will drain the supply. He says that his DMs are filled with inquiries about how to build at-home labs: “Honestly, I’m not sure what’s growing faster — the people who want to start a mushroom business or the people who are consuming the mushrooms.”

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