Arts

Jon Hopkins’s Psychedelic Journey to a New Way of Creating Music

When Jon Hopkins was bullied as a London teenager, he found two complementary coping mechanisms: weed and ambient music.

A little sullen and shy, Hopkins was a contest-winning classical pianist who also adored the ineffable mystery of electronic pop production, huddling near the stereo to wonder how exactly Depeche Mode or Abba worked. Just as he started to approximate some of those sounds, his world faltered. Old friends at his all-boys school became enemies. His parents split. He would retire to his room, get stoned, lie down and enter a new dimension, alone inside headphones.

“I would disappear into other realms, hiding in this kaleidoscopic world of magic,” Hopkins, 42, said in a phone interview, announcing that he was lying on a gray couch in the dim recording studio attached to his East London home. “For years, I looked down on that period because I thought I was just escaping, too sensitive to deal with life. But I was learning. That was the formation of everything.”

Shaken by his weed habit and concomitant isolation (both short-lived), Hopkins didn’t take another drug for a decade. But 15 years ago, a psilocybin trip on a remote Scottish shore revealed new wonder with the world, sparking an interest in the benefits of altered states so profound that Hopkins will release a new album called “Music for Psychedelic Therapy” on Friday.

A 64-minute rhythmless expanse of delicate electronics, immersive natural sounds and celestial choirs, it is meant to soundtrack a ketamine trip or, more broadly, guide listeners toward their own “other realms.” After more than a decade as a feted producer for artists including Coldplay and Purity Ring — and three lauded LPs and an array of smaller projects since 2009 of his own — Hopkins has gone quieter, in an ambient way.

“There’s no way the extraordinary beauty of these moments cannot enhance your life,” Hopkins said of that seaside morning that changed his trajectory, and a more recent odyssey amid the Mojave’s Joshua trees. “I’m not advocating for people doing these things, but, for me, they keep the wonder of being alive present.” (Medical experts recommend using psilocybin or ketamine only with a doctor’s prescription, and warn of risks associated with their casual use.)

“When you live in a city, you can forget how extraordinary it is that anything exists at all,” he added.

It is fitting that “Music for Psychedelic Therapy” began taking shape in an uncomfortable way for Hopkins — by descending 200 feet beneath the Ecuadorean rain forest into a cave teeming with scorpions, tarantulas and bats, his neighbors for four days and three nights.

“This was an opportunity to drop every level of pretense,” Hopkins said of his new album. “I was just trying to translate the honest experience of living.”Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times

At a summer festival in 2017, the musician met Eileen Hall, the daughter of a Scottish civil engineer who led a gold-seeking expedition into Cueva de los Tayos in the 1970s that prompted the identification of several hundred species and an ongoing campaign to secure UNESCO World Heritage status. A painter fascinated by the intersection of psychedelics and spirituality, Hall hoped to build on her father’s legacy through artistic residencies that found new ways to express existence underground.

She expected Hopkins to pass politely on her 2018 invitation, as he prepared for a spree of tours behind “Singularity,” the album he released months before the planned trek. “It’s a nuts thing,” Hall said by phone, laughing, “to go into a massive hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere in a country he’d never been to with people he didn’t know.”

But Hopkins immediately said yes, telling his management to mark it as vacation. He flew to Ecuador’s capital, Quito, in a haze induced by two sleepless nights of partying at an enormous festival he headlined. His instinct made instant sense.

“The part of my brain looking for something to fix or worry about quieted down,” Hopkins said. A practitioner of Transcendental Meditation and the breathing ideas of the Dutch endurance athlete Wim Hof, Hopkins felt as if he disappeared into the earth itself while perched on a rock inside a cathedral-size chamber. “There were some moments of actual silence in my head.”

As Hopkins’s peers snapped photographs, made films and captured the Tayos soundscape, he relished in the mission’s most laissez-faire charge: to absorb his surroundings and, someday, translate them into music. He presumed the 20-minute collage he recorded — a flow state of ecstatic bird song and rushing water captured underground, undergirded by seraphic drones — would be a stand-alone release. But then, a 1975 talk by the hallucinogenic mystic Ram Dass at a Unitarian church in Massachusetts arrived in his inbox.

Trevor Oswalt, an artist who records psychoactive soundtracks sporting names like “Music for Mushrooms” and “Spores,” had also become a new friend. Years earlier, Oswalt had visited Dass in Maui, recording conversations he turned into a winsome collection of inspirational tunes. When Dass died in late 2019, his foundation, Love Remember Serve, dispatched a clutch of archival lectures to Oswalt, who came to Hopkins for help.

Oswalt had already stripped the two-hour reel of overt religious content, creating a 15-minute edit. “We wanted something universal and uplifting, that’s hard to argue with,” Oswalt said in a video interview from his studio, a painting of Dass peering over his shoulder.

In October 2020, Hopkins sat at the polished upright piano in the corner of his own studio, improvising to his first impressions of Dass’s words. “Quiet the mind. Open the heart,” Dass encouraged in a voice as calming as a cup of chamomile. This, Hopkins realized, was an album’s end; the music he’d found in Ecuadorean silence was its beginning.

“I always know when the spark of something has appeared,” he said. “That is one of the best feelings, when you know something is going to be important.”

Hopkins spent the next four months of lockdown searching for tones to fill the frame, finding the right sounds serendipitously — in a beer glass he tapped, and the noise from a software fail. He shipped tracks to Dan Kijowski, a childhood friend with whom he had shared several psychedelic trips, and Kijowski broadcast them through eight speakers suspended in trees around his family farm, recording the playback. Hopkins wove the results into the album, repeatedly listening from his studio’s couch until he knew this was his paragon of music for psychedelic therapy.

“On previous records, I’d been aware I wanted them to do well commercially, that I needed a big track,” Hopkins said, frowning beneath the thin beard that framed his patrician face. “This was an opportunity to drop every level of pretense. I was just trying to translate the honest experience of living.”

The album feels so personal that Hopkins doesn’t know if, when or how he will perform it live, a potential violation of its sacred intimacy. The record is instead being played at a series of small listening events through powerful speakers, like a ritualistic sound bath. Hopkins attended the September premiere in Texas, watching as a few hundred people sprawled on the floor, as he did as a bullied teenager. Some cried. Others chanted.

Hopkins hadn’t anticipated how vulnerable the experience would feel. “Oh my God, what have you done? You’ve revealed everything,” he thought to himself, made anxious by his own prescription. Oswalt remembered Hopkins pacing the floor and fiddling with earplugs, as if working through preperformance jitters. But when “Sit Around the Fire,” the Dass-narrated finale, began, Hopkins climbed onstage to improvise an alternate grand-piano ending. He was cured.

“It’s an analogy for my life, really: I can sit there in an anxious state, overthinking things,” he said, chuckling nervously. “Then I go play, and it all makes sense again.”

How Jon Hopkins Found His World of Sounds

SERENDIPITOUS

“Beer Glass”

When Hopkins is working at night, he often has a beer at his side. While listening to what he’d already recorded for “Love Flows Over Us in Prismatic Waves,” he tapped his pint glass and found, much to his delight, that the chime was the exact note he needed. “I filtered it all,” he said, “so it sounded like a lo-fi recording of a distant bell.”

“Sun on Water Sounds”

Hopkins was 23 and living with his mother near the River Thames when he became obsessed with trying to recreate with sound the sensation of watching sunlight hit water. It eluded him for two decades until a piece of pitch-shifting software faltered, momentarily making the noise he had longed to hear. The second time the glitch happened, he managed to record it. “It became the basis for so many of the sections that sound alive,” he said.

INTENTIONAL

“Quad Surround”

Hopkins raves about his childhood friend Dan Kijowski’s secluded farm. Cold-water swimming, handmade furniture, off-grid electricity — it’s a veritable Eden in the English countryside. When Kijowski installed a quadrophonic sound system on his property, Hopkins sent him bits of the album to play back and rerecord among the birds and bees, all audible on the finished album. “I wanted to move the consciousness of the listener from inside to outside, to feel that space,” Hopkins said. “There’s nothing you can do with processing or effects to impart that on a sound.”

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