Don’t be fooled, ‘Music For Psychedelic Therapy’ isn’t Jon Hopkins going all wallpaper ambient on us. It’s a weighty album he says needs to be listened to loud. We turn up the volume 

The title of Jon Hopkins’ latest album is as unambiguously descriptive as it could be, yet its author refutes the claim it seems to make about itself. Not only that, he tends to define this new music in terms of what it isn’t, rather than what it is, and he says it has no specific purpose. All of which suggests ‘Music For Psychedelic Therapy’ suffers from an identity crisis. It doesn’t. To borrow the language of posthumous guest Baba Ram Dass, it simply is. And it will, Hopkins hopes, “be listened to with an open mind and without expectations”.

Despite appearances, neither does it fit the ambient tag because that would imply a passive aural experience, whereas Hopkins’ album has a powerful, radiant force.

“When I think of the term ambient – and I love loads of ambient – I think of it in the way Brian Eno described it, which was ‘as interesting as it is ignorable’,” he says. “And that’s absolutely not the intention. People need to listen loud and properly. If you had it on quietly in the background then absolutely, you could call it an ambient record because there are no beats to jump out. But I would blast it.”

Neither would Hopkins classify ‘Music For Psychedelic Therapy’ as classical, drone or new age (although there are elements of all three), so what the holy heck is it? Long-form is the straight answer. Running at 64 minutes and initially conceived as just two tracks, it’s been “arbitrarily divided” into nine because, as Hopkins points out, “On streaming, if you release a two-track album then you’ll literally never be able to earn a living from it”. Entirely free of beats, it features piano (often processed), synths, treated violin, a crystal singing bowl and vocals, including dulcet choral effects and excerpts from a seldom-aired talk by Ram Dass, the late US spiritual teacher of ‘Be Here Now’ fame and colleague of Timothy Leary.

Hopkins admits the title is partly a homage to the Eno albums ‘Music For Airports’ and ‘Music For Films’, but says his latest set is “no more just for psychedelic therapy than ‘Music For Airports’ is only to be listened to in an airport”. He’s aware its release chimes with a growing interest in the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics and talk of possible legislative changes, but since music is never mentioned in that context, he reckoned “it seemed really important to add a note to the conversation and to try and make a weighty album in this genre”. Primarily, though, he thinks it’s a beautiful title – “I love how it looked, written down”.

The album represents a significant development in the career of the musician, producer and DJ, who trained as a classical pianist and cut his teeth playing keyboards for Imogen Heap. Hopkins went on to become a repeat collaborator with Eno and has produced and/or played on records by the disparate likes of David Lynch, King Creosote and Coldplay. He also scored Gareth Edwards’ poetic sci-fi movie ‘Monsters’ and bagged a Mercury Prize and a Grammy nomination for 2013’s ‘Immunity’ and 2018’s ‘Singularity’ respectively.

All Hopkins’ records reflect his diverse interests, but his trademark is a mix of thrillingly crunchy, colour-saturated synth rushes and delicate, at times austere, piano codas. ‘Singularity’ was striking in its vividness of detail and pin-sharp sonic clarity – features so directly related to his experiences with the drug DMT that the set’s flow constitutes a virtual trip.

Hopkins, who’s been practising transcendental meditation since 2015, is no stranger to psychedelics, and he talks about them in terms of accessing altered mind states and their creative potential in an almost scholarly way. Rather than being a translation into music of those inner journeys, his new record grew out of emotional states – including pandemic-related isolation and a relationship breakdown – and in-the-world experiences, notably joining an expedition in 2018 to the storied Tayos Caves in Ecuador’s Amazonian rainforest. And while ‘Music For Psychedelic Therapy’ isn’t an audio guide for brain state-altering practices, Hopkins did use ketamine in the writing process.

“Music comes alive in the most extraordinary way,” he explains. “So the way I’ve done it is lying down and listening. I’m certainly not actively thinking, ‘This works, this doesn’t work’, or taking notes. I’m totally surrendering myself to it and then when I’m back to baseline consciousness, there are all these new insights about what’s right and what isn’t, because consciousness stores the experience. There were certain sections in the early experiments that were completely wrong, which I hadn’t realised until then. I have an inherent faith that things that are valuable in that state of mind are also valuable in normal consciousness.”

Most of the writing was done between December 2020 and May of this year. Hopkins had already composed the three-part piece ‘Tayos Caves, Ecuador’ and ‘Sit Around The Fire’, a collaboration with East Forest (Trevor Oswalt), but the album’s opener and the second half, which includes the transcendentally beatific ‘Deep In The Glowing Heart’, were written in England last winter. It’s a time he remembers as “extremely difficult”.

“Everything was shut and it felt very long and dark,” he says. “But there was also no other engagement, so I was able to dive into writing in such a focused way. I had the incredible luxury of as much time as I needed, without any distraction at all. It was obviously quite isolating as well, and I started to really believe in the power of what I felt was coming through me rather than being written by me.

“Even though I’ve had small versions of it on previous records, there’s always been so much wrangling with the sound to make the beats work. The removal of all the rhythms just seemed to unlock so many other things. I’ve never felt so free in production. Like, the beats – if you think about the amount of space they take up in a track, if you get rid all those kick drums and transients, you have so much more freedom to explore what’s possible on a sound-design level.”

Photo: Steve Gullick

According to Hopkins, the ‘Tayos Caves, Ecuador’ suite – his musical translation of a four-day experience that included group meditation in total darkness and sleeping in a space shared with bats, scorpions and snakes – kick-started the creative process nearly two years after he got back from the trip. He views it as “almost like a self-contained ecosystem within the record”. Initially, he thought it might be released on its own or with 2020’s ‘Singing Bowl (Ascension)’, but when ‘Sit Around The Fire’ was finished, it sounded to Hopkins like the end of a record.

“That’s the point at which I realised I was writing an album,” he says.

The Ecuador trilogy features field recordings – including tropical rainfall and the cries of the birds that give the caves their name – made by neuroscientist Mendel Kaelen, and though they’re crucial to its sense of place, they’re not the record’s only environmental elements. Also included (on ‘Welcome’) are the sounds of untouched Devon woodland, recorded on a smallholding where a close friend of Hopkins lives off-grid.

“He’s contributed a lot to the album under the name 7RAYS,” the composer explains. “He was making sounds that changed its direction and brought in some of those more ineffable cosmic moments I feel really opened it out into the slightly more shamanic world it ended up being. There are a lot of field recordings on the album and I’m using them in a way I never have, which is to say they were the starting points rather than the ending points.”

‘Music For Psychedelic Therapy’ lands at a time when long-form and/or impressionistic music has a very receptive audience. Of course, Four Tet has been releasing seriously extended tracks for years, with Hopkins citing 2015’s ‘Morning/Evening’ as “magical” and a huge influence. More recently there’s been the success of albums as different as ‘Ghosteen’ by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds or ‘Promises’ by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The LSO. Naturally, Hopkins was delighted when ‘Promises’ came out.

“Firstly, because it’s extraordinary, but also because it showed the music industry that people could handle long-form music. Mine doesn’t really sound like that, but in some ways it is coming from the same universe.”

He’s right, of course. But how did Hopkins get from his 2001 ‘Opalescent’ debut as a 21-year-old, with its rather bland, sync-friendly (‘Sex And The City’, no less) come-down style, through the giddy techno symphonies of his crossover album, ‘Immunity’, to the 21-minute-long, clean contemplative soak of ‘Singing Bowl (Ascension)’?

“To me, this is perhaps the conclusion of a long journey through rave culture and coming out the other side,” he says. “It’s like, ‘What did I take away from all those years of raving and making techno?’. And I feel like the thing I was most interested in was the transportive element. I can make beats and I’m happy with the percussive elements of my albums but I don’t consider it the thing I’m best at, by any means. There are a million producers making incredible beats and increasingly, as I get older, it feels like a really adrenalised thing. And I’m sensitised to it – I find it quite exhausting. To remove that was like looking into a whole new world, and it was so exciting to not even have a grid or tempo of any kind for any track, to just let things land.”

Considering his past desert treks, the controlled breathing practices and his enthusiasm for Wim Hof’s freezing-bath technique, along with the years of meditation and his Tayos Caves adventure, it’s tempting to cast Hopkins as a seeker who also happens to make electronica. But, as he points out, it’s more that he says yes to opportunities and invitations that come his way, then can’t help but filter those experiences through his music.

“I think as I’ve got older and made more music, I’ve been increasingly relying not so much on conscious thought but just on the knowledge that everything you do comes out in the music. You mentioned the Wim Hof method – I started learning it in response to burnout and creative drought and various other things I was going through around the time I was writing ‘Singularity’. In doing it, I discovered this extraordinary ability we all have to withstand cold and to control mood with breath. So all these things are going on and when you start writing, you’re not thinking about any of them. But when I retrospectively analyse what I’ve written, it’s like, yeah, that comes from this.”

However you choose to describe it – ambient, new age, devotional or long-form trance – ‘Music For Psychedelic Therapy’ belongs to a tradition including Harold Budd and Brian Eno’s rapturous 1984 album, ‘The Pearl’ (“a bit of a landmark for me,” Hopkins admits), the works of Laraaji and Ariel Kalma, and newer artists like Crown Of Eternity.

Away from that, there’s a vast sinkhole of anodyne muzak tied to the wellness industry and posing as spiritually resonant. Hopkins acknowledges as much and reckons his album is in some way “a reaction to the amount of dodgy stuff in that world and I think it’s about time we had some weighty music in that area”. Along with ‘The Pearl’, Eno’s ‘Thursday Afternoon’ was also a reference point, but even more so was someone with a far lower profile.

“There’s an artist I’m hugely inspired by called Elve,” Hopkins reveals. “He has a little-known album called ‘Emerald’, which I would urge anyone reading this to listen to. He’s just a guy who lives in Cornwall, who also recorded under the name Ishq for quite a long time. He’s very tuned into this different space you enter on psychedelics or in deep trance states and, as far as I’m aware, is the most adept at translating that into music.

“‘Emerald’ is much more abstract than what I’ve just released, but the similarities are the way that it feels like you are visiting a series of places, rather than listening to a series of pieces of music, and the transition between them is so gradual that you don’t notice it happening. His mastery of sound inspired me and also gave me the confidence to make exactly what I wanted to make.”

Making precisely the album he felt moved to, free from industry demands for a gateway banger or audience expectation, has clearly been hugely satisfying for Jon Hopkins. Still, he understands the marketplace need for descriptions and so is okay with “devotional” being applied to ‘Music For Psychedelic Therapy’.

“Although I’m not a religious person, I quite like the word devotional,” Hopkins decides. “I’m not an atheist, either. I’ve very much experienced first-hand, through different states, that there are many levels of reality we’re not in tune with or even have the language to talk about. There seems to be this extraordinary, infinite form and intelligence in the self-organising universe we live in and the record is devotional for that. Also, the classic, hippy concept of love itself being at the centre of everything – the more you believe in that, I think, then the more you’re going to make this stuff.”

‘Music For Psychedelic Therapy’ is out on Domino

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