Jon Hopkins
Photo by Steve Gullick

Trip Tunes: A Conversation with Producer Jon Hopkins About Making Music for Ketamine

We caught up with Grammy-nominated producer Jon Hopkins about his latest record Music for Psychedelic Therapy, and the immense responsibility of making music for the psychedelic realm.

DoubleBlind Mag

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Published on
Updated February 9, 2022

The view at Sugar Studios peers down upon a chaotic stretch of Wilshire Blvd between Western and Oxford Avenues. It has a vintage LA aesthetic and feels like a hideout requiring a 12-floor ride on a rickety elevator. But once you’re in the suite, the psychic static of the street below doesn’t apply to you anymore—you’re above it. This feeling of refuge was particularly sedating on a warm, windy evening this past fall, when nearly a dozen people gathered for an intimate album playback of Music for Psychedelic Therapy by Grammy-nominated producer Jon Hopkins.

The draw of Sugar Studios is the plush penthouse theater equipped with Atmos Dolby surround sound. This technology adds height and spatial depth to music, giving it the tangible quality of a three-dimensional object. So it seemed obligatory to experience an album designed for the psychedelic landscape while on three puffs of a Peach OZ joint and .25 of a Penis Envy gummy. It was the least I could do.

The listening room turned black. Everyone reclined in their theater chairs, ready to sail into the ether. The slow, opening crescendo on the first track dropped like a bead of water into a vast puddle of silver liquid, creating a circular ripple radiating outward. Birds begin to chirp. The sound of Ecuadorian caves begins to echo celestial tones of fading symphonic drones. The bead of water reverses out of the puddle, ripples ebbing inward, and into the darkness. Everything is small.

I wasn’t tripping from .25 grams of mushrooms or the weed. But the multi-dimensional sounds combined with a heightened sparkle facilitated eyelid movies on par with a Miyazaki film. The rest of the listening session involved moving through the rooms of a liminal-space treehouse that led into various earth-bound nooks and galactic pockets. The energetic center around my heart felt the essence of the color amber. Knots in my solar plexus melted between piano notes.

album cover

Ram Dass’ voice triggered the sensation of water cascading from my pineal gland, down my forehead, and out through my eyes. His earthy words put my soaring spirit back into my body. When the lights in the room turned on, words from an earlier conversation I’d had with Hopkins flashed into my head: “The Bible is nothing but a collection of trip reports.”

Psychedelics and music are each respective elements of the divine. Music for Psychedelic Therapy drops a pin at their junction. That’s why this genre-bending album holds immense power to heal. We caught up with Hopkins to understand his headspace while architecting this album, his relationship to psychedelics, and why psychedelic therapy music is a burgeoning genre for an emerging culture of responsible tripping.

How were you using ketamine while creating Music For Psychedelic Therapy? Were you using it regularly through that process?

Ketamine was the vehicle I used to test out this album. The length of time happens to be exactly right for a ketamine experience: one hour. Because the last year has been so difficult, I haven’t felt any desire to do psilocybin or DMT, which traditionally aren’t very relaxing. Ketamine is, of course, relaxing by definition. Yet, it can be incredibly psychedelic, and I think it is particularly reactive to music. So I was using that to test the record probably once a month, or so. 

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I am very careful with how often I do ketamine. I find it so intensely sacred because of what it’s guided me towards, and how it’s shaped this music. I want it to remain special. It’s so easy to do here and there. But I was using it more to experience the album on the deepest level I could in order to fix what was wrong with it. Ketamine allowed me to inhabit it, like actually step into it, which is what happens when you listen to music in that state. The first draft I tripped to was wrong—it had this 20 minute sound bowl section, which I cut because it was just wrong. I didn’t discover that truly until I had entered it through the ketamine lens and it was like being ground into a paste in the ground. It was awful. But it helped me fix the sections that weren’t energetically tuned right. I’d return from these ketamine ceremonies with a clear vision about which sections are wrong and rebuild them accordingly. It was like I was following this unbelievable thread of knowledge that wasn’t even mine.

Would you say that music made specifically for psychedelic therapy is becoming a genre?

I think of it as a genre. I think if you look at my last album Singularity, you have tracks that are quite precise and built for making people move, and I love the idea of influencing the dance floor culture of music with spirituality and the medicine space—but [with] this one, all of that was swept aside. I had a much much clearer vision and a much more compromising vision for it that came through me, not from me, in quite a profound trance-state type of way. I think I would describe what came out as definitely a different type of genre for me. 

I wouldn’t call it ambient because when I think of ambient, I think of Brian Eno’s quote: “It’s as ignorable as it is interesting.” This is not that. This is something that is supposed to grab you, and you’re supposed to listen to it at a decent volume and immersively. So, I don’t really think it’s ambient, [and] it’s not classical [nor] drone, but it has elements of all three. I think drone is probably the genre it has most in common with. Drone is something that stretches back through all sorts of music. If you look at Indian spiritual music there’s a harmonium and a drone, which is essentially one note that goes through a track. There’s something about it that creates a trance state or supports the trance state.

Read: Shrooming at the Symphony: How Does Music Affect the Psychedelic Experience?

How did Ram Dass come to be on the album?

Through musician East Forest. Once you get into the psychedelic world and you start making psychedelic art, you start to see all the synchronicities and the links between things. The Ram Dass recording appeared to me at the exact moment I realized that I was writing an album. So, suddenly I got this opportunity to incorporate a recording of his exact voice. He was in a Unitarian church in Massachusetts, and this talk is particularly tapped in. You can hear it in his voice. He is totally present, and I’m sure he was always, especially around then and right through the entirety of his life. But, just hearing him and the soothing presence of his voice telling you things you maybe knew already on a deep, deep level but need constant reminding of—that was important to me. The timing is amazing how it all happened. Now, he can talk to people that listen to my music, who maybe haven’t listened to his talks before and also people who have encountered his talks before and then find this will be interested in the music. His message is purposely at the end of the album to sum up all the journeying through the heartspace and exploring your own internal stuff. Ram Dass is there to help tie everything in a bow.

What makes Music For Psychedelic Therapy stand out in your body of work, aside from it being specifically designed for the psychedelic realm?

Normally when you’re writing an album, you’re like, “Oh, it will be very exciting to release this, I can’t wait to see how this one might make people feel and how they might dance, and maybe it’ll help them out with some emotional stuff.” But this one just felt so much more important, and so much more serious because we are at a point, perhaps as a species, where we all need to be doing what we can to progress things, and my belief on this after 20 years of meditating is that consciousness elevation is the only answer.

But, it really feels like my whole life’s work went into this. A part of me feels that with every album, but more than ever with this one. Everything feels like it was pointing towards this. It just has a layer of ego removed from it, and for me, that is manifested in the beats I was making. I love dance music, but I find that taking away its inherent structure and leaving everything else is so freeing. It’s allowed that other stuff to evolve in a way that is so much more inclusive of naturally occurring sounds and nature, and it just lets everything breathe. The result is something that sounds completely different from the other things I’ve made, which is exciting. It feels more egoless and more honest and more transparent. If there’s one thing we need right now, it’s that we’ve got to be more upfront and truthful, and to stop pretending.

Jon Hopkins
Photo by Steve Gullick

We all have to cut the bullshit and be more transparent. That message is so relevant right now. You mentioned a divine-like thread of knowledge that you channeled while you created this album. Can you go into that a bit?

There was a long period where we weren’t able to see our friends. Then, suddenly, you could have four people at a minimum get together. One of the first times I did that, I think it was late February or early March, and we had some MDMA with two of my best friends. Their dog was there, too, but the dog didn’t have MDMA, of course. He seemed to sense that we had taken some, though.

I got home that night around 2:30 or 3:00 am or something, and I was still high, and I got to bed and I was just like, “Oh yeah, I have that ketamine—I haven’t had any for ages.” So I had a very reasonable amount, and I put on a playlist of things and I just had this full-blown out-of-body spiritual epiphany, and it ended with the knowledge that the album was going to be called Music For Psychedelic Therapy. I was like OK, that’s what I’m doing. I realize that, of course, by calling it that, I am inviting a very specific conversation, but again it’s about honesty because I believe that the psychedelic space needs a lot of new music that is designed for it.

I love that the process of creating this album involved channeling messages from the psychedelic realm. What is it, then, that ketamine gives to your creativity?

It’s difficult to quantify because all of these experiences are things that go into pockets inside the subconscious and inform the subconscious. So, to me it feels like a very safe way to explore and re-calibrate what’s going on in the deepest self. Through my journey of meditation and breathwork, I bring them into the ketamine experience and I’m able to locate my consciousness fully in my heart, at least for that time, rather than flying around here. Ketamine allows me to make that choice, whereas I find DMT doesn’t give a shit where you want to be. You can’t be centered because there is no center. And mushrooms are more curated in a way—they have their own ideas, they’re pretty tricksy and mischievous. But with ketamine, I find that there’s some autonomy, especially if you choose the right music, so I like to go in and experience the heart center as much as possible, and the core, and maybe the pineal, but I’m a little bit too much in the pineal and in the crown. So I use ketamine as a kind of a grounding medicine.

Read: Rick Strassman on DMT and the Mystical State

When you talk about DMT, are you talking about its synthetic form, or are you talking about ayahuasca?

Neither, actually. I’m talking about DMT extracted from Mimosa bark. It does not have the MAO inhibitor, which means that it is a brief 15-minute trip, but it’s potent, and I wouldn’t recommend it [laughs]. But, I also wouldn’t advise someone not to do it either. It tends to appear when you’re ready for it in my experience.

The first experience I had on it back in 2015 was so blissful. Looking back at it now, it felt like a welcoming of some kind. It was as if the energies I encountered made it so blissful and safe. I have never felt anything like it. The level of love was so extreme, so of course I kept doing it over the years. Maybe twice a year I would have a ceremony with a friend, and we would do a couple of journeys each. But they would get more and more intense, so they were very difficult towards the end. They were never dark, but they were really intense. It was as if I was receiving downloads of an extraordinary amount of information that I couldn’t possibly follow or keep up with. But I totally believe that information was going in anyway, and the purpose of it going in was [for it] to come out in the music.

Do you yourself do any sort of integration work or integration therapy?

No, not professionally after these experiences. But my form of integration was just to talk to my friend who sat with me while I took the medicine. He is very deep into shamanic work and is very shamanic in his outlook in general. I have also met with the psychedelic therapy community in England—you know the people who are running the trails at Imperial College London—so I have a lot of people I can talk to. But no structural integration therapy. I think maybe for me, integration is making this music. Music is the therapy.

How does understanding a specific psychedelic realm help you design music for that landscape?

When I’m writing, I slip into a different state where I’m not in my normal state of consciousness. Even though I’m staring at a screen and I’m interfacing with technology, which is something I don’t actually enjoy particularly, you can get into the realm where you are just creating. I’m more aware than ever that the states I’ve allowed to overtake me before with plant medicines and ketamine and MDMA, things like that…They are coming through into the music.

I don’t think it’s any tremendous conscious skill, apart from just having had psychedelic experiences and learning how to make music electronically, which takes a very long time to do to the degree that I wanted. It’s a culmination of all that time, having those experiences, and having the confidence to just sit back and be aware that it will come out the way it wants. Because the energy of this music feels like it wants to exist, in the same way that this whole movement feels like it wants to exist. Ultimately, we create the art that we want to see or hear in the world. So, I’m creating something that I feel like is lacking. I’m making the music that I want to listen to.

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