interview

Jon Hopkins: ‘I would have a ketamine session and return with notes’

The Grammy-nominated artist created his new album to complement psychedelic therapy. He tells Kevin E G Perry about making music in a remote Ecuadorian cave and listening to what plants have to tell us

Tuesday 09 November 2021 06:32
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<p>Jon Hopkins: ‘I like to think of it as the plants having a message they want to get out through the music’ </p>

Jon Hopkins: ‘I like to think of it as the plants having a message they want to get out through the music’

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In August 2018, just days after playing a ravey headline set at Wilderness Festival in Oxfordshire, the visionary techno artist Jon Hopkins found himself attached to a thin rope being lowered 200ft into an ancient cave system deep in the Amazonian jungle of Ecuador. “I’m not really a rugged outdoors type,” admits the 42-year-old over the phone from his studio in Hackney. “But when I get unusual offers I usually just say ‘yes’ without really thinking. Before you know it, you’re descending on this rope into the abyss. It was really f***ing terrifying!”

Hopkins had been invited to the Tayos Caves by Eileen Hall, whose father Stan Hall led an expedition to explore them in 1976. After he died in 2008 Eileen took up his conservation mission, hoping that by raising awareness of the site’s remarkable biodiversity, it would be granted the protection of UNESCO World Heritage status. She put together a new expedition team, including scientists and artists, which is how Hopkins came to be dangling by a thread, journeying into the deep.

At that moment, Hopkins already knew he had reached a turning point in his musical career. His fifth album, Singularity, had been released three months previously, receiving widespread acclaim and a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album. Hopkins considers Singularity and its predecessor, his Mercury Prize-nominated 2013 record Immunity, to be “sister albums”, with a shared intricate, euphoric and beat-driven sound. For his next record, he wanted to move in a new direction, “far away from a cosmic party or a set of festival bangers”. So he turned his gaze inward, taking inspiration from meditation, which he has practised since he was 21, and his experiences with DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca, a powerful psychedelic brew that Amazonian tribes have been using in spiritual ceremonies for centuries. It was these influences, coupled with his time at Tayos, that led to the creation of a new album unlike any he’s made before, Music for Psychedelic Therapy, a gorgeous musical voyage that draws on ambient, drone and classical music – as well as the sounds of the natural world – and features not a single drum beat.

When Hopkins landed on the cave floor, his first impressions were pretty much as you might expect. “Rocky terrain, puddles, tarantulas, bats and all that stuff,” Hopkins remembers. “At first I was thinking: ‘I doubt I’ve made the right choice here’, but then we went through into this enormous, cathedral-like opening.” The expedition’s guides had already set up tents within the vast space, and they had a stove burning. “Food was on its way,” recalls Hopkins. “It all just started feeling really cosy.”

Another member of the expedition team was the neuroscientist Mendel Kaelen, who made hours of high-quality field recordings. Hopkins used those recordings as the starting point for a 19-minute track (split into three for digital release) called simply “Tayos Caves, Ecuador”. It forms the centrepiece of the new record, with the music designed to capture three stages of Hopkins’ time in the caves. “The first is the experience of waking up in a tent, listening to a bird calling into the cave,” he explains. “You also hear running water, which is flowing from the rainforest floor to form the river that runs through the cave, and of course created the cave in the first place.” The second section of the track descends into low frequencies, representing the day the team hiked still further underground to meditate. “That was the deepest meditation of my life,” says Hopkins, with no pun intended. “In what felt like the centre of the Earth.” 

The track concludes by ascending back into the forest. “We were suddenly seeing sunlight for the first time in days, and hearing the life of the rainforest,” remembers Hopkins. “These extraordinary creatures calling to each other sounded so musical, so there’s a big string orchestral section at the end which is in tune with the birds and the insects that were already in the field recordings. It was all just really synchronous and amazing.” 

Hopkins’s mind-expanding trip to the Amazonian rainforest came at a turning point in his career

After returning from his mind-expanding Ecuador trip, Hopkins put the material he had been working on to one side until he had time to give it his full attention. That opportunity presented itself during the isolated months of the pandemic, and he recorded the majority of the new record “in something of a trance” during the early months of 2021. The opening track, “Welcome”, was directly inspired by his DMT experiences. “DMT comes from the bark of a tree, and interacts with the human brain in a way that results in this particular kind of music coming out of me,” he says. “I like to think of it as the plants having a message they want to get out through the music.” 

He stops himself with a self-deprecating laugh. “That sort of talk is very common in psychedelic circles, but as soon as you start saying that to your family or your mates you look insane,” he says. “The point is, it doesn’t really matter what you believe is happening. The effect is the same. The fact that you can take something from a tree bark, something from the earth, and it infuses into your brain to the point where it radically changes the art you make is just infinitely interesting to me.”

Hopkins stopped taking DMT in 2019, after deciding it was no longer offering him anything new. “It wasn’t that the experience was dark, I just started to find the level of intensity unappealing and overwhelming,” he explains. “Looking back now, I think I was in school for writing this record, and by then all the building blocks were in place.” He had begun to think about the record he was working on in terms of the burgeoning field of psychedelic therapy, which recent clinical trials have suggested could revolutionise the way we treat a variety of mental-health conditions such as depression and PTSD. Music is an essential component of psychedelic therapy, used by therapists to guide a patient’s journey while under the influence. As Hopkins knows from his travels in the Amazon, this concept easily pre-dates modern medicine. “If you were to ask a traditional ayahuasca shaman: ‘Would you do this in silence?’ they’d say no!” he points out. “Vibration is everything, and music is just vibration, so that’s how you guide somebody.” 

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To ensure the album was fit for purpose, Hopkins listened back to it several times after taking ketamine, a dissociative anaesthetic sometimes used in psychedelic therapy. “Ketamine, for me, has always had an extraordinary synergy with music, particularly electronic and devotional music,” he says. “Maybe three months before mastering, when the album was starting to form as a complete thing, I would have a ketamine session and just lie there and return with notes on what was good and what was not good. It was my mind exploring tool. I almost called the album ‘Music for Ketamine Therapy’, which would be getting ridiculously niche, but for me that’s what it’s best suited for.”

In what can only be considered a cosmic coincidence, the playlist that’s currently most often used by psychedelic therapists is referred to by the name of the university hospital where it was developed, the Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Playlist. “My name has caused a number of confusions in my life, going back a long time,” says Hopkins with a laugh. That playlist, which was put together by a team of psychologists, features a variety of classical pieces by composers like Gorecki, Vivaldi and Bach, before concluding with songs selected to ease the transition back to reality, including the Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”. “Those are wonderful pieces of music,” says Hopkins. “But I really think there’s value in exploring music that’s created specifically with this intention, and by people who are informed about the space. Possibly The Beatles were, but it seems unlikely Gorecki was!”

Of course, none of this should imply that Music for Psychedelic Therapy is only suitable for therapeutic use, or that it can only be enjoyed while taking psychedelics yourself. “When you do a deep listen, on a medicine, with a reasonable volume, it becomes a very emotionally intense thing,” says Hopkins. “But I think even a sober listener, listening at a decent volume, doing nothing else, will be taken somewhere.” He recommends listening to the album in a single sitting, lying down in the dark. “It asks something different of the listener because of the time scale it operates over,” he says. “Longform music is an incredible thing, and I like the idea of reacting to decreasing attention spans by making things that ask a little bit more, but hopefully give more as well.”

However listeners end up experiencing this album, Hopkins believes further research into the potential of psychedelic therapy can only benefit humanity as a species – particularly if it encourages us all to listen a little harder to what those plants are trying to tell us. “I see it as a protection method the Earth has got,” he says. “You can eat a psilocybin mushroom from the ground, and it teaches you a lesson about the importance of the ecosystem that generated that very mushroom. The message is right there, so it’s kind of impossible to ignore.”

‘Music for Psychedelic Therapy’ by Jon Hopkins will be released on 12 November

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