Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Peder Clark. Dr. Clark is a historian of modern Britain, with research interests in drugs, subcultures, health, everyday life, and visual culture. He completed his PhD in 2019 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and currently holds a position at the University of Strathclyde.
“Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To”, the title of British indie band Spacemen 3’s 1990 album, sums up for many the symbiotic relationship between rock music and psychoactive substances. From “Cocaine Blues” to Jefferson Airplane and from “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” to Amy Winehouse, rock’s back pages are soaked in the celebration, inspiration, and (sometimes) repudiation of drug-fueled intoxication.
The conspicuous consumption of drugs—or winking allusions to drugs—is a tried-and-tested way for young musicians to illustrate their edginess, to promote their counter-cultural associations, and to make real the moral danger that they might feel is inherent in the art-form. No need, however, to bore Points readers with musings better suited to ghost-written Keith Richards memoirs.
What about musicians that aim for a more considered, less debauched approach to chemically-enhanced states of mind? This is all by way of introduction to a recent bubbling up of psychedelic consciousness amongst musicians of a certain vintage—and a renewed attention to the role of music in psychedelic therapy.
Angus Andrew of Liars, a band closely associated with the Brooklyn art-rock scene of the early 2000s, has recently been doing the interview rounds, proselytizing the benefits of psilocybin-containing mushrooms. The Australian musician is promoting Liars’ latest album by detailing his experiences swapping his prescribed anti-anxiety medication paroxetine for “small doses of magic mushrooms—less than half a gramme of dried product every few days.”
Andrew’s interview with the drugs journalist Mike Power barely touches on the music of Liars and instead focuses on the transformative effective that this “mini-dosing” has had on the musician’s mental health. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given Power’s self-confessed “skin in [the] game,” via his “20 years reporting on and investigating drug culture” and his recent co-founding of “OEV Partners”, a “consultancy” with aims to address the burgeoning monetization of psychedelic therapeutics.
But Andrew’s interview with the Guardian newspaper followed a similarly confessional formula. Maybe this suggests that his recent musical output is somewhat less interesting than his personal psychedelic experiences. Or perhaps it reflects wider interest in the combination of music, illegal drugs, and psychotherapy? As Power notes, “[t]here’s an awful lot of this about right now. MDMA, LSD, and DMT … are now touted daily as suicide-prevention panaceas by a new wave of psychedelic corporations.”
Jon Hopkins’s forthcoming Music for Psychedelic Therapy arguably represents the confluence of this cultural moment. Hopkins is an electronic musician whose previous album Singularity was nominated for a Grammy. Since the early 200s, he has collaborated extensively with Brian Eno and Coldplay. (Not to be confused of course with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which is conducting its own research into psychedelic therapies!). Hopkins’s music is polite and unthreatening—“the kind of gauzy, broadly emotive pieces that BBC drama soundtrack supervisors dream about”—and, consequently, it’s easy to see how it might prove useful as ambient wallpaper for a psychotherapeutic session.
Hopkins’s ambitions, however, stretch beyond the clinic, into a more spiritual, less medicalized domain. While Music for Psychedelic Therapy is timed to last for the typical length of a ketamine trip, it also features Baba Ram Dass, the American New Age guru, who died in 2019. Ram Dass was of course the “disciple, enemy and, at the end, friend” of Timothy Leary. As Richard Alpert, he was dismissed from Harvard for providing psilocybin to a student in 1963. The “spiritual” and the “pharmaceutical” are hard to disentangle in psychedelic therapy.
Journalist Michelle Lhooq points out in her recent article on the subject that the role of music in this psycho-spiritual realm is a well-established one, particularly outside of the Global North. “South American ayahuasca shamans sing sacred songs called icaros, Mexican mushroom mystic [sic] Maria Sabina was renowned for her poetic chants,” Lhooq writes, “and the ibogaine rituals of the Bwiti religion of west-central Africa employ rapid tempos of up to 170 beats per minute.”
Indeed, Hopkins seems to have been inspired by his own travels to the Cueva de los Tayos in Ecuador to produce art that he describes as “[s]omething that is more like having an experience than listening to a piece of music … a merging of music, nature and my own desire to heal.”
There’s an uncomfortable tang of cultural appropriation that lingers around some of this “new” New Age rhetoric, and Hopkins’s proximity to the “wellness” world of Gwyneth Paltrow via his earlier association with Coldplay might also be off-putting for some listeners. Hopkins’s simultaneous desire to soundtrack clinical encounters—”[w]e’re entering an era where this kind of therapy is going to be legal and widespread, and you need to have music for it”—also suggests a perhaps uncritical attitude towards the mainstreaming of the psychedelic renaissance.
As any drugs historian will of course tell you, of course, this renewed interest in LSD or MDMA as therapeutic adjuncts merely returns them from their recreational contexts back to their origins in psychiatric use. So, perhaps, it is worth reflecting on the role of music in these earlier encounters. Erica Dyck cites the 1959 guidebook by Duncan Blewett and Nick Chwelos about the therapeutic use of LSD for groups and individuals as noting that: “A record player and a dozen or so recordings of classical selections covering a variety of moods are so useful as to [be] virtually essential. Music is an important feature in permitting the person to get outside his usual self-concept.”
The recent publication of correspondence between Aldous Huxley and the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond gives further insight into this. The pair frequently discussed, for example, the appropriateness of Bach’s music or the unsuitability of “even good religious music” like Mozart or Verdi’s “Requiems.” Indeed, loud or cacophonous music could help to induce a therapeutic bad or “bummer” trip, as Dyck and Chris Elcock recently explored.
More contemporary research—such as that conducted at Imperial College London—has used music by neo-classical artists like Brian McBride (of Stars of the Lid), Ólafur Arnalds, Arve Henriksen, and Greg Haines. Tasteful, gentle music that at the same time is unfamiliar to the listener. Researcher Mendel Kaelen explained to Vice that “If music is too familiar, it can reduce the ability to have a new experience, because you already had an experience with that song before in your life.”
Hopkins, the musician, claims expansively that “I’ve got to be really careful of sounding too grandiose, but it really feels to me like there is a frontier here—a new genre of music.”
It’s hard to make a case for that broad assertion.
Even the deployment of recordings of Ram Dass in therapy sessions, for example, recalls Ash Ra Tempel’s 1970s work with Timothy Leary or Space Time Continuum’s early 1990s collaboration with Terence McKenna. Likewise, the recent resurgence of New Age music—spurred by record nerds restoring neglected meditation tapes—is as influential on Hopkins’s aesthetic as the resurrection of psychedelic therapy.
Although Hopkins and Andrew and others diverge from the hackneyed hedonism of rock star drug consumption, their interest in psychoactive substances—and those substance’s relationship to music—reflects wider cultural curiosity about the possible benefits of psychedelic therapy.