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Jon Hopkins psychedelics music
Illustration Marija Marc

Musicians are making sounds geared towards your trips

Altered state experimentation is on the rise amid chaotic times, and more producers are drawing from the natural world and its hallucinogenic sounds – Jon Hopkins, Etch, and more talk about matching psychs to sonics

In 2018, Jon Hopkins found himself trekking through a rainforest in Ecuador before abseiling down a thin rope into a cathedral-sized cave. The trip was part of an expedition of scientists and artists to protect the biodiversity of South America’s Tayos Caves, hoping to grant it World Heritage status. “It felt almost womb-like, even though this is an ecosystem populated mostly by enormous spiders and bats,” Hopkins says. This experience, coupled with extensive meditation and trips on DMT, ayahuasca, and ketamine, would form the basis for his latest album, Music for Psychedelic Therapy.

Right now, we’re amid a psychedelic revolution. Pre-pandemic, the growing wellness movement emphasised a return to the natural, part of which was harnessing the therapeutic properties of hallucinogens, and this trend has only been accelerating ever since. One study found that, over lockdown, Gen Z turned to psychedelics while their alcohol intake decreased. Microdosing also saw an increase that wasn’t limited to Silicon Valley execs. Meanwhile, there’s a movement among female, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ communities to redress the macho culture historically associated with psychedelics.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve had to explore alternative methods of seeking highs; spending more time out among greenery, walking, or immersed in nature. COVID-19 saw some musicians summoning the healing properties of the natural world through their music – Tristan Arp’s Sculpturegardening saw him literally “approach music like gardening”: “I collaborated with machines inspired by the way a gardener collaborates with the earth”. K-LONE’s Cape Cira, also released on Wisdom Teeth, layered organic sounds in a shift away from the dancefloor. Producers including HAAi felt uncomfortable making four-to-the-floor sounds at a time when they couldn’t be enjoyed properly. Meanwhile others saw the closure of clubs as an opportunity to make slamming, heads-down material: a taste of what was missing.

Perhaps it was inevitable that mind-altering substances would increasingly be used to aid mental health. In August last year, a study suggested that psychedelics like magic mushrooms, acid, and others make users more accepting of distressing situations – a global pandemic, for example, or the onset of a climate crisis. “In contrast with the traditional pharmacological interventions, the effects of psychedelic therapy appear to last months and even years after treatment has ended,” the study’s author, Richard Zeifman, noted. A tidal wave of studies are hailing the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, and with them are coming novel developments in mental health treatment.

In the realm of psychedelic healing, music has long been used in rituals that predate modern medicine. Ayahuasca ceremonies feature the Icaros song, while the African tradition of ibogaine and the Mazatec Indians’ mushroom rituals centre around rhythmic drumming and other forms of music. How do the various styles of music affect the psychedelic experience, and can they enhance the healing process? “Knowing how psychedelics can amplify emotions or increase awareness toward music, listening to music that is not too unfamiliar may be less disruptive,” psychopharmacology researcher Ilsa Jerome PhD tells Dazed, adding that “it seems highly likely that there is no one-size fits all, ‘best’ music, within or outside of therapy.” 

“Much of the music used within psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is not especially ‘trippy’. Rather, the music is there to evoke and support emotional experiences” – Ilsa Jerome, PhD

Should we be listening to music that mimics – and so heightens – how hallucinogens make us feel? Writing in Psychedelic Support, Jerome says that “much of the music used within psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is not especially ‘trippy’. Rather, the music is there to evoke and support emotional experiences, including emotionally intense memories, thoughts or experiences.” She adds that it shouldn’t be “pushy” in what type of emotions it draws out, and that much of the music used is instrumental. If there are vocals, they should be in an unfamiliar language so as not to invoke any particular sentiment in the listener. While she says that music plays a role, “how others treat you is probably equally or more important than other aspects – whether they make you feel safe and supported.”

Music For Psychedelic Therapy takes a sharp left turn from the propulsive club beats of Hopkins’ previous records Singularity and Immunity. Over 64 minutes, the East London producer surveys an ambient expanse of gleaming electronics, immersive sounds from nature, and celestial choirs. Written during the peak of lockdown, and using his cave field recordings, it was designed to soundtrack the length of a ketamine trip (in a recent interview he said he almost called the album “Music for Ketamine Therapy”).

“The energy of the pandemic did not point towards any six-hour mushroom experiences, or anything of that intensity,” he says, describing how he took ketamine during the final stages of making the album. “It allowed me to assess what was wrong with it and to fix it so energetically – there were whole sections I realised were terrible! The ketamine space can be so utterly built by the music that it’s like entering the music entirely, and when it’s wrong, it’s horrible – it’s like wading through mud. I returned from those experiences with notes and then I fixed those sections. Some I had to rebuild entirely.”

Although ketamine was almost a tool in the production process, Hopkins’ LP communicates other medicinal experiences and how they helped him deal with “heartbreak, sadness, and loss”. Opening track ‘Welcome’, is “a pure channelling of the DMT experience,” he says. “The experiences I had between 2015 and 2019 were like I was in a kind of school. It’s a terrifying thing to watch your reality completely disappear in front of you and be presented with a different one – it's like jumping off a cliff without being able to see, and I don’t recommend it to anyone. I also don’t not recommend it. For some reason, I’ve felt compelled to do these things over the years. Looking back on it, it really seems like the inspiration for this record was trying to come through – it started to feel like a translation of those plant medicines.”

Hopkins isn’t the only artist experimenting with ketamine for productivity. “I don’t wanna be its torchbearer but I don’t give a fuck: ketamine has affected my creativity positively more than anything,” electronic producer Etch says. “But you have to understand you can’t be an idiot with these things and I have and people around me have died.” He adds: “Not all my music is made under the influence, that would be stressful as fuck.” At the same time, he doesn’t want drug experimentation to define his – or any other – music. “​​All incredible albums in their own right have dark and happy twists and turns, confusing soundscapes, and moments of pure beauty that make them fine-tuned to tripping,” he says. “But I don’t like dumbing down music to be drug music to listen to on drugs. I toy with ideas and make allusions but that shouldn’t be it.”

“I love analysing music and when I take psychs, it’s massively enhanced. The musical ideas that I come away with from these experiences really have an impact on my succeeding productions” – Adam Pits

While other producers might not be explicitly tailoring their music towards a psychedelic experience, they are filtering into their work nonetheless. “I basically have to have music on the whole time during my trips,” producer Adam Pits tells Dazed. “For me it’s the orchestrator. I love analysing music and when I take psychs, it’s massively enhanced. The musical ideas that I come away with from these experiences really have an impact on my succeeding productions. As cliché as it is, I find trip-hop to be super juicy on my ears and 90s trancey tracks like Robert Leiner’s “Aqua Viva”.”

There are touches of Leiner’s influence in Pits’s productions: tracks like “The Age of Ent” (from this year’s A Recurring Nature album, which features a vibrating mushroom on the artwork) ripple with cosmic trance sounds. “I guess I’ve taken inspiration from my memorable musical experiences while tripping,” he explains. “Aspects of music like dynamics are far more exaggerated and I use a lot of them. I find that sweeping motions – whether that’s within the melody or addition of white noise – can really pass through your body in a positive way. I use various methods of creating movement within all aspects of my productions. Chorus for width and detune, phaser and flanger for filter motion, and reverb and delay for space.”

Music and psychedelics are similar in terms of the brain responses they evoke, says Mendel Kaelen, founder of psychedelic therapy music app Wavepaths, as they bypass the intellect and bring emotional content to the forefront of consciousness. His studies have found that the interaction between the two increases the information going from the parahippocampus – a brain region specialising in personal memory – to the visual cortex, which works on the construction of mental images. Kaelen, who accompanied Hopkins on his Ecuadorian excursion, has designed playlists specifically for tripping: starting with ‘reassuring’ tracks like Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s “Against the Sky” before building into something more ‘intensely emotional’ like Henryk Górecki’s “Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile”. Interestingly, Kaelen’s studies found that classical and non-Western music were the most popular genres among users.

“That’s the kind of ultimate honour as a musician – when someone gets in touch with you to tell you that that you've genuinely helped them in some way” – Jon Hopkins

Hopkins, who has helped select music for clinical trials at Imperial College London, takes issue with the fact that music like Beethoven is often played during sessions. “It’s incredible music but it doesn’t come from a place of having had those experiences – that’s just what I think those old white guys who do those trials are into.”

In December last year, the first clinical trial using DMT to treat depression was given the go-ahead by UK regulators, and the UK’s first ketamine therapy clinic opened earlier this year. With clinical therapy increasingly more accepted, does Hopkins want people to have his music soundtrack their own experiences? “At this point I don’t consider it my job to be prescriptive,” he says. “There is the title, but really I want people to listen to it as an album, and, you know, if they find it can also help them in some way, that’s amazing. That’s the kind of ultimate honour as a musician – when someone gets in touch with you to tell you that that you’ve genuinely helped them in some way.”