As the uncertainty around the 2020 election continues to be stressful for many people, music can help listeners process their emotions, especially when paired with altered states of consciousness.
DJ culture blossomed in the rave scenes of the late 80s and early 90s. But the music that emerged then is not psychedelic in the same way that jazz, Grateful Dead concerts, and other earlier sound experiences were inspired by – and often designed for – enhancing altered states. DJs find themselves in shifting scenes where different nights or venues are influenced by a poly-drug experience that reflects the present moment.
So what makes a DJ psychedelic-friendly in 2020? Michael Manahan, a Seattle-based musician and promoter who’s been DJing since 1989, co-founded the Cascadia Festival, the Hunt & Gather music label, and the renowned Rebar nightclub. Manahan says he rarely creates a set with substances in mind, but he does build a set specifically for each event.
“I know the time and where I’m going to be and I build a set around that,” says Manahan. “I assume that I’m dealing with a dance floor that is altered in some way shape or form by psychedelics.”
According to Manahan, the “dominant librations” in nightclub environments tend to be alcohol and cocaine. He says there tends to be “the cocaine clique” and the “the psychedelic clique” and while there’s a little bit of crossover, those who are in the cocaine scene usually don’t want much to do with those in the psychedelic scene and vis versa.
“If it’s at a warehouse, a festival, or a nightclub, they’re all completely different animals. I make assumptions based on the vibe,” says Manahan, who notes that warehouse parties attract more people using LSD or MDMA and festivals tend to be a mixed bag. “Just straight club house music works at the nightclubs, because it’s a cocaine or alcohol crowd. Techno seems to work really well in warehouses.”
Managing the Vibes
DJ and producer Dela Moontribe, cofounder of the Moontribe Collective, a group of DJs and musicians who’ve been throwing parties in the deserts of Southern California since the 90s, says that in her experience, a good dancefloor and the right amount of partying can help people resolve trauma. During a recent breakup, Moontribe says dancing helped her work through the experience. “You’ve gotta move the body to move the mind,” says Moontribe.
Moontribe says that carefully curated tracks can help create an inner space that allows participants to explore more of their shadow sides or unconscious parts of their personalities that may be more difficult to examine. “Darkness can catalyze catharsis,” says Moontribe who wonders if immersion into these sonic spaces becomes more challenging for people as they get older.
“It’s the person’s brain that matters,” says Moontribe. “You create your space on the inside and some people are claustrophobic even when outdoors. I prefer nature for psychedelic trips, but I also prefer light shows.”
While DJ’s create sonic spaces for people exploring psychedelics, the DJ’s own mental state can also impact participants and their journey. Some events even say on the flyer “no bad vibes.” The DJ is responsible for a good portion of that vibe and if they’re drunk or too altered on ketamine or another substance, that will impact the music.
“I’m really protective of the vibe,” says Manahan. “If folks are taking psychedelics in a semi-public setting, there are a lot of factors that could push them into an unpleasant experience. I want to make sure the journey is one of self-discovery.”
Every DJ has their own process of selecting tracks for their sets. Dela Moontribe envisions the dancefloor, projects herself, and visualizes the future so that she can anticipate what’s musically needed for that moment. After building a crate, or saving all the songs they may play in one place, Moontribe will labor over the sequence and transitions until the set feels just right. Moontribe says she takes the time to allow the composition to reveal itself.
Grease Witherspoon, an eclectic DJ from Southern California who primarily focuses on genre blending and nostalgia infused sets, reflects on the responsibility of the DJ and the value of familiarity in track selection.
“As a performer, someone who’s controlling a container for the auditory experience of the audience, there’s always an acknowledgement that someone could be on psychedelics,” says Witherspoon.
Witherspoon says he is sensitive to people in psychedelic states of consciousness and aims to create an “underlying story that’s going to be told and helps someone to push through something they are dealing with.”
Moontribe muses about how her audience thinks about her sets. She suggests that the process of putting together sets and selecting tracks, common across DJ communities, reflects the variety of forms seen in the natural world.
“Let’s go ride that ride. We’ve been on the ride before and we know we have fun on that ride,” says Moontribe. “Nature is full of diversity and does things in all sorts of ways.”
Beyond the Dancefloor: DJing in Therapeutic Settings
Joe Green, co-founder and president of the Psychedelic Science Funders Collaborative, agrees that music is an essential component of psychedelic experiences. According to Green, “the hot debate in psychedelic therapy right now is what the playlist should be.”
Mendel Kaelen is a neuroscientist who has worked with Brian Eno to create an app for therapeutic music called Wavepaths. Kaelen’s team collaborated with musicians who recorded musical phrases that are later assembled into compositions using algorithms that create a personalized musical experience for therapy sessions.
According to Kaelen, Wavepaths supported the creation of music for more than 600 therapeutic ketamine sessions last month. Kaelen says he is frequently asked how to select music for a psychedelic therapy session. He points out that it would be a mistake to assume that all therapy sessions require music all of the time. He says therapists should ask themselves, “what kind of support does this person need? What kind of environment can be designed for this person?”
Music selection should depend on what’s happening with the person in therapy at that moment, says Kaelen. “Music can do both great good, or great harm when selected poorly,” says Kaelen who believes that music used in therapy sessions should be developed based on “the musical personality of the individual.”
Kaelen explains that he’s become more skeptical of the value of playlists in therapy sessions. He observes that music can facilitate experiences of all kinds from ecstasy to anger.
Kaelen asserts that most therapists are against the use of music that is familiar to the person involved in the therapy, primarily because they are concerned that it will be used as a defense mechanism. “The main exercise is to surrender yourself to a new experience,” says Kaelen.
Kaelen emphasizes the value of creating original music which he says provides a stimulus to re-access the experience afterwards. He suggests that this approach to music represents a significant therapeutic opportunity, although he acknowledges that “this is not black and white.” Kaelen acknowledges there may still be a place for personalized selections of familiar music.
While therapists who put together playlists are very different from dancefloor DJs, curating dance music encourages those creating the sets to take measure of experiences as they unfold. “That’s the good thing about being a [dancefloor] DJ,” says Kaelen. “You can tune into the crowd, you can tune into the person.”
The Mojave Sessions: A Gathering of DJs in the Deep Desert
A group of DJs and music producers recently gathered in the desert of Southern California to participate in the Mojave Sessions. The DJs present shared tracks and played with state-of-the-art sound systems. They also recorded their conversations and banter mixing that into the final production, sort of like a radio show.
The session included Witherspoon and fellow DJs Da Moth, and Chris Fellow, a music producer who was a regular participant in the legendary Winter Music Conference, and John Digweed co-founder of Bedrock Records who performed at the legendary Twilo nightclub in New York City.
The Mojave Sessions took place at the offgrid homestead of John Clements, a sound engineer with decades of experience designing immersive audio experiences and tools for processing and mixing in surrounding sound. Clements says his work with electroacoustic and experimental musicians led him to build a custom sound system with mastering-level accuracy. He notes that the system has “a very broad frequency range as a starting point for addressing the design demands of multichannel audio deployment.”
“I specified the performance characteristics that I desired in a soundsystem,” explains Clements. “Dispersion, phase response, acoustic coupling, frequency response, based on a desire to have ultra low group delay and a stack that could be used in a circular multi-point surround audio arrangement with minimal processing/phase distortion correction.” Clements adds that Anthony Bisset of Mobius Acoustics and Viet Nguyen designed the speaker boxes based on these specs.
When building the system, Clements notes that he “considered the extra sensitivity and awareness of phase/frequency relationships that altered states bring to the perceptual space, and the spatial width and depth that having a phase-accurate broad bandwidth audio rig can provide.”
The Evolving DJ
There is wide diversity in the styles and methods of both dancefloor DJs and those who curate music for therapy. Dela Moontribe notes that she enjoys silence in her yoga classes and finds there is also a “therapeutic value to silence and listening to the inner rhythms of your body.”
A person’s experience of music while in an altered state is highly personalized and dancefloor DJs can sometimes leverage their deep crates and decades of experience more effectively than therapists who are beginning to explore this space.
The audio technologies used by DJs will keep evolving, however, and therapists will have access to them as well. Algorithms used by Rekordbox, a cloud-connected DJ platform, can suggest which track a DJ should play next. We are seeing the beginning of a world where DJs and therapists selecting tracks for psychedelic therapies will be highly influenced by artificial intelligence and automated technologies that will help match music to consciousness.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the app used by Mendel Kaelen for therapeutic music. The app is Wavepaths not Waveforms.
Image: Chris Pezza