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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Music for Psychedelic Therapy Is a Trip Within a Trip

Techno producer Jon Hopkins is sculpting the sounds that he wants to trip to
Image: Domino Recording Company/Helle Arensbak/AFP via Getty Images
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The famous slogan of LSD evangelist Timothy Leary, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” set the tone for the ‘60s counterculture revolution, but it also fits many people’s lockdown experience. These words apply literally—dropping out was, to some extent, unavoidable as large parts of society shut down—but it’s also clear that the U.S. is experiencing something of a love affair with psychedelics at the moment, and quarantine has played a part. Drug-assisted therapy (via psilocybin, ketamine, and more) is increasingly available, certain states and cities have decriminalized psychedelics (Detroit did so earlier this month), and recent studies have reported increased psychedelic use in college students (and an uptick in LSD-taking overall in Americans).

Of course, people need some music to trip to. British beatmaker Jon Hopkins, known best for his emotional and somewhat spacey riffs on techno and house, spent the darkest part of lockdown trying to work out what was in his mind. In January of this year, he was grieving a breakup while finishing his beatless album inspired by trips, both global and internal. The resulting work, the recently released Music for Psychedelic Therapy, is a stirring journey that Hopkins described to Jezebel via a recent Zoom as “not so much a piece of music but a series of places or a series of types of energy you move through.”

Hopkins said that experiences with his former psychedelic of choice, DMT, gave him the knowledge base he needed to create an album far off the grid from his usual territory of quantized dance music. “There’s no tempos, there’s no time signatures, there’s no grid. And that was so liberating,” he explained of the gauzy ambiance of Therapy. “Taking away that just left all this room for experimentation with layers of sound and waves of complexity and simplicity and more emotional content that I don’t get through programming drums.” The album’s immediate substantial influence, however, wasn’t DMT—he abandoned the stuff in 2019 as a result of mounting nervousness prior to dosage—it was ketamine, which Hopkins has taken up since (though he’s careful to point out that he does it maybe once a month). The hour-and-some-change running time of Therapy represents the average duration of a ketamine trip.

All of this is to say that Hopkins isn’t a doctor nor does he play one on TV, and the similarity of his name with the highly-regarded Baltimore university/its attendant hospital Johns Hopkins is purely coincidental. “I’m just kind of guiding my own experience in the way that perhaps a shaman would guide the experiences of people in a ceremony,” he said. Music for Psychedelic Therapy, then, is a proposal, not a prescription. Hopkins said the title came to him while he was tripping, after he’d worked on at least half of the album. “It was just almost written in front of me at the end of this trip,” he said. “And it was just like, ‘There’s no choice. This is where you have to call it.’” He likes the title because it works as an homage to Music for Airports, Brian Eno’s classic 1978 album that effectively defined ambient music while setting a thrillingly high bar for the genre.

Though Hopkins read Michael Pollan’s 2018 book How to Change Your Mind, a kind of Intro to Psychonautics for laypeople, and absorbed how important music can be for the two pillars of successful trips, set and setting (that is: you’re more likely to avoid a bad trip if your mindset going into it is positive and unburdened and your surroundings are comfortable), Hopkins did not follow any official template for laying out his sonic trip experience. They exist—for example, Johns Hopkins researchers developed a playlist “to express the sweeping arc of the typical medium- or high-dose psilocybin session”—but this Hopkins was more interested in the title as “a contribution to the conversation about the music within this context and its importance.”

“Whilst I don’t claim to know what’s best for people in that state, I took enormous care to make it something that felt warm and safe,” he explained. “It doesn’t mean it hasn’t got challenging moments. It’s supposed to be listened to quite loud, and you’re supposed to feel that sub-bass that comes in. But at the same time, my intention was that it leaves you in a place where you feel like you’ve been able to safely explore some part of yourself, or maybe be immersed in the wonder of the natural world, for example, in the cave section. The recurring theme of field recordings used to bring in natural sound, all that stuff is really just the stuff that I wanted to experience myself when in those spaces.”

The aforementioned cave section of the album—a three-track suite in its first half—features field recordings taken in Ecuador’s Tayos Caves. Hopkins said his trip there in 2018 provided the seed for Music for Psychedelic Therapy. “It’s sort of fitting really that the starting point for the making of this album was deep underground in the Amazon, whereas the starting point for every other album has been sitting in a room in London or Los Angeles and playing around with sounds,” he explained. Other field recordings come from the English woodland near where Hopkins experienced his DMT trips. Otherwise, the album features sounds from his Moog synth and piano (albeit heavily processed), and was sonically shaped via the music software Ableton. “A lot of things come from taking preexisting sounds and just messing with them,” he said. “Following a kind of train of thought with them until they sound like what I’m looking for. I don’t even know what I’m looking for until I find it, quite often. It’s like putting together pieces of a puzzle, but you don’t know what the puzzle you’re actually putting together is supposed to look like until it’s finished. It’s really quite an abstract thing, and it doesn’t involve huge amount of technical thought.”

For weeks, I’d been enjoying Music for Psychedelic Therapy sober while meditating (I prefer listening to ambient/drone while meditating as it gives me something tangible to rest my mind on). But the day before my interview with Hopkins, I took a moderate dose of psilocybin to experience the album as intended. It was, in a word, a trip. A trip within a trip.

The album opens with a series of bells that bend before sounding like they’re whooshing up into and past the stratosphere—with my eyes blindfolded, my mind stacked visual trails as the sound reverberated. Elsewhere, scraping sounds on “Love Flows Over Us in Prismatic Waves” etched thin patters into my mind’s eye and the sense of racing in “Deep in the Glowing Heart” put what felt like G force on my body. During the “Tayos Caves, Ecuador” suite, I felt confined and safe. “How did he know how to score my visions?” I wondered before realizing that, in fact, what I was seeing was visual scoring to his sound. I cannot say whether the music helped me therapeutically, but it certainly did provide a lovely underpinning to the day’s trip (ambient music is my preferred soundtrack to a trip). The sounds are often soft and precious, because so is life. I cried both times I listened to the last track, “Sit Around the Fire,” which features the words of guru and psychedelic enthusiast Ram Dass. “In each of us there once was a fire and for some of us, there seem as if there are only ashes now,” says Dass in a recording that Hopkins’s collaborator East Forest shared with him. “But when we dig in the ashes we find one ember, and very gently we fan that ember. Blow on it, it gets brighter…The ember gets stronger, the flame starts to flicker a bit and pretty soon you realize that all we’re going to do for eternity is sit around the fire.”

Hopkins was raised atheist but has since adopted a more agonistic mindset as a result of his psychedelic experiences. “[The first DMT experience], there’s no way to describe it apart from saying that you’re in the presence of ultimate reality or some sort of God. And by God, I don’t mean a being. I mean, an intelligence that that’s infinite and that’s behind everything, this sort of self-organizing nature of the universe or whatever you want to call it, the source of all things,” he explained. “And to feel that and to go, ‘Oh, well, that’s just the construction of the brain,’ it’s equally valid to say that as it is to say, ‘That’s an independently existing thing,’ or something that we’re all intricately linked to, which is, I suppose, my belief ultimately.”

He was similarly philosophical discussing the connections that reverberate from his music.

“It feels like almost like a bizarre superpower that you can sit there and make sounds. And then via the psychedelic experience, you can actually enter those sounds as if they were a place,” he said. “You know, that’s like creating your own universe. I’m essentially creating the places I want to visit and then opening them up to everyone by releasing it. The fact that it then goes out and gets given marks out of ten and things like that, with something that is as completely honest as this, is harder than normal, you know? I was filled with such an immense sense of purpose when making this. It was it was extraordinary.”