A Wavepaths Conversation with Robert Rich

A Wavepaths Conversation with Robert Rich

Wavepaths founder Mendel talked in depth with musician and now collaborator Robert Rich about topics ranging from memories of music, the relationship between music and the absence of sound, relocating consciousness, the beauty of existence, and more.

What is your very first personal memory of music?

Well, there’s two early memories. One is that my grandfather was very fond of big band jazz, back in the 60s. My father was a jazz guitarist and an electronics engineer and he helped my grandfather build a hi-fi amplifier back in the mid-60s, out of tubes. My grandfather in Illinois had a reel- to-reel recorder and he would take old 78s (records) from the 1920s and 30s and record them onto the reel-to-reel so that he wouldn’t wear out the records. I remember visiting my grandparents in the summertime and hearing Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman and all this big band jazz. I didn’t care for it that much, but it has an emotional resonance for me. I remember my sister and my grandfather trying to get me to respond to this music by dancing or something like that, and I was probably two or three and I just didn’t want to – I remember telling them “I don’t like music!”. But I do remember hearing things like “Mississippi Mud” and “St. James Infirmary” and all of these classic songs from the 1920s, and they’re sort of stuck in my brain as a specific childhood memory. 

And the other one was hearing my father with his best friend getting together and jamming. They were very fond of a certain kind of 50s West Coast cool jazz, like Stan Getz and Barney Kessel. That was a very fun memory; they’d be up all night drinking beer, singing, and just having fun. For some reason, though, I never found myself pursuing music in that way; it was never something that was a social engagement for me. I think I was always a little oversensitive to my environment. In my grade school years, in third or fourth grade, I started getting into growing plants. I would keep the radio on a classical station and just play really quietly in the background for the plants while I was at school. So oddly enough, my first application of music was background, as an ambience for growing succulents in my bedroom.

When you reflect on your upbringing, how would you describe the role of music in your life and your personal growth?

It was so important to me when I was a teenager. It was such a question of identity for me. The bands or the groups or the incident with the musicians – that style of music that I responded to, was such a self-definition as it is. It was sort of an identification of a badge of personality, in my teen years. 

But as I became a serious musician, I would say ironically, the way I identify with music is less personal, and it becomes more of a question of analytics and a question of a more neutral, emotional response. I still can get very little by intense music and by the music I love, but the whole way that I respond to music has somewhat been infiltrated, I suppose, with a more analytical mindset. And I regret that to a certain extent, but I think that’s a natural phase that happens when people develop a professional relationship to their art form.

And at the same time, you described this tendency of music being really meaningful for your identity and your sense of self-worth.

 It’s more of a forming of an art instead of an experiencing of somebody else’s art. Rather than coming from out to in, it goes from in to out, which is sort of a natural process of starting to get more skilled at doing something. 

One thing that was very formative for me was discovering that I had a certain knack for self-hypnosis or for trance. This happened early, probably when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I found a record in the cutout bin of a drugstore and it was called “The Wind Harp: Song From The Hill”, and it had the most obnoxious, hippy cover of flower children in knit clothing, in front of this sculpture, and it looked so strange. It turned out to be absolutely esoteric avant garde drone music of an Aeolian harp recordist. His name was Harry Bee, and he was located on a hill up in Vermont, in the Northeast. It was just these clouds of sound absolutely atonal, shifting drone, with the sound of nature behind it – of birds and thunderstorms and rain and things. I had no idea what planet this had come from. It was completely out of context. Years later, I discovered that parts of it had been used in the soundtrack to “The Exorcist”, so it was actually something that had come into mainstream culture as part of a horror movie soundtrack. So I would put this on and just lay on my bed, close my eyes and become bodiless. My body would start distorting and I would discover that I could take my centre of consciousness, or my sense of self, and relocate it, move it around through my body into my fingertips or into my toes, and start inhabiting my body consciously in different ways. This is something that can be done with hypnosis, so it’s a sort of self-hypnosis. 

I became very interested in the role of shamanic trance and music, and how music related to states of consciousness. At a point in the late 70s, we moved to my grandparents house, a beautiful old house that they had built in the 1920s, with a creek running through the property. My bedroom had windows that would open up with oak trees hovering right around the edges. I remember spring evenings when I would stay up late at night, just listening to the frogs out in the creek, and letting my mind move sideways out of my body and into the open tree canopy. Realising that sound was not located between the ears. One of the things that defines our sense of location, of our idea of self, is our position of the eyes and ears. So we put ourselves in our brain. And it’s very convenient that our brain happens to be one of the main things that processes ideas, but there’s nothing given about the idea that our sense of self is located between our ears and behind our eyes. I discovered that with consciousness and using sound, we can hear around corners, we can hear through the dark; we can’t see through the dark, we can’t see around corners. Hearing allowed me to relocate consciousness, out into space and away from this cabin between the ears. I found that to be very powerful. I became extremely interested in trying to create sound that could affect consciousness in some of the ways that I had discovered using sound. 

I started looking for other composers who were prior art to what was interesting to me. I found people like Pauline Oliveros, who was talking about these things in the 60s, a sound recordist named Bill Fontana, who was doing relocation of sounds, environments. Annea Lockwood, who did a piece in 1979-1981 called “Delta Run” with a recording of a sculptor friend of hers who was about to die. That had me in tears. It was so powerful, and it was using these same ideas of trance, of sound recording of the forest near the cabin where this friend lived. And the way it incorporated this sort of story as he talks to the listener about death.

All of those things came together to show me that we could create experiences that were much more than just a melody that gets stuck in your head, or entertainment, or a mating ritual. And that’s where the core of my music started to form, this idea of trance, a shamanic journey of relocation of consciousness and of using the environment as a cue to create a sense of place, or to relocate our sense of place.

Would you say that is also one of the things you would hope your art will have as an impact on the experience of the listener? A change in perception, a change in consciousness?

Absolutely, yeah. I’ve been using Pauline Oliveros’ phrase “deep listening” instead of ambient music to describe what I’m trying to do. Ambient music is convenient because it’s a much more digestible term than New Age. I didn’t have in my composition any of the sort of belief systems that New Age culture embraced. So, avoiding that phrase New Age, which was prominent when I was getting started in the early 80s, I was happy to embrace ambient as a name for what I do. Although I was always uncomfortable with the implication that it was meant to be background music, because my music was always intended to be psychoactive and more powerful when you engage. 

There’s an interview I remember hearing with Steve Reich, where he was asked about some of the critics of minimalist music who were coming from the point of view of academic music, that it should be difficult or intellectually engaging. He came back with this reply that just because something is easy to enjoy doesn’t mean that it lacks intellectual content. And he used an example: you could be in a coffee shop, and over here on the “muzak” is Bach’s “Art of the Fugue”, and it would be wonderful background music. Yet, as a student of classical music, you could spend your entire life studying the “Art of the Fugue” and never quite understanding all of the subtleties, and content of that piece of music, that a great piece of music can function both in the background, or as pleasant entertainment, and also contain a lot of rigour or substance. And I liked the way he phrased that very much because I’ve always tried to create a multi-level experience, where the albums can be pleasant, but they aren’t confrontational. I like my music to be invitational, to be something that asks a listener to enter into a safe space and to explore the world with me. Now, that safe space isn’t always pretty, it’s not always light or cheerful. And it usually has layers of shadow. But like a great film director, if you learn to trust them, that they’re not going to hit you over the head with violence, or some kind of cheap shock tactic, you can enter into their film work with trust, and go into a place much darker and more meaningful. I would much rather trust Ingmar Bergman to take me into a dark place than I would Quentin Tarantino. 

I was always uncomfortable with the implication that it was meant to be background music, because my music was always intended to be psychoactive and more powerful when you engage.

So, just to clarify a little bit, why do you say that?

I think it’s because by nature, I tend to be very hypersensitive to stimulus. I feel sometimes like I’m a person who goes through life with no skin, like I’m just a bunch of raw nerves exposed to the world. And things are too loud. For example, I don’t like going to see Hollywood movies, because I find that I can’t trust most filmmakers. There’s a handful that I can trust. Andre Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fellini, I could trust. And because of my intrinsic tendency to be hypersensitive to stimulus, my own music often takes a very long time to evolve, and is unlikely to have big hit-your-face moments, or be aggressively confrontational. But if I invite people into my world, I can show them these places, these corners that they might not have noticed before. But for them to notice it often it involves toning down the level of stimulus to make things so that the expectation for the dynamic range is reduced. And so now, what might seem loud is actually much quieter than what might have been loud two hours ago.

You emphasise the contrast between Andre Tarkovsky's work and Hollywood films because the latter have a tendency to bombard people with stimuli rather than helping them to wake up to something more subtle.

Absolutely. Once you enter into the timeframe of a Tarkovsky film, where you’re ready for a 3.5 hour experience, you start paying attention to the chiaroscuro of every visual frame of his work. You notice the shadows, the texture, the subtle noises, the things that are very detailed. You would never notice those things in a Michael Bay film, where everything’s exploding and flying and it’s all synthesised computer graphics. I definitely land on the Tarkovsky side of the equation, where I’m trying to verify the stimulus, try to thin it out so that it becomes much more low-density. And encouraging people, therefore, to increase their threshold of sensitivity, so that they start noticing things that are much more fine grained detail. 

I read Tarkovsky’s “Sculpting in Time” ages ago and I underlined this beautiful quote by him that says: “We should long ago have become angels, had we been capable of paying attention to the experience of art, and allowing ourselves to be changed in accordance with the ideals it expresses”. It’s this idea that art has a transformative potential, but that it very much depends on the engagement, and the openness for the work of art on behalf of the listener. But asking people to open themselves up fully to work of art also really demands and requires a lot of trust.

That’s why I was mentioning that word “trust” earlier regarding Hollywood films, for example. You have a pact, you have a concord with your audience. You develop an audience that has come to trust you, and you don’t want to break that trust. You say, okay, if you’re willing to go along with me here, I will try not to disappoint you, but bear with me because it might not be easy going, you might get bored. And there is a subtext, a thesis underneath this. I think the one to express that most clearly was Pauline Oliveros in her works, in her writing and her talking.

She [Pauline Oliveros] invented the term deep listening, right? I think it was her who came up with it.

Yeah. Around 1980 when she and her friends found this cistern to record in, in Washington State Olympic Peninsula. And then they coined the “Deep Listening Band”. She was doing these sonic meditations back in the 1960s, and she was part of the San Francisco Tape Music Centre back in the early 60s, along with Terry Riley and Morton Subotnick. When you hear her talk about why she wants people to engage in careful active listening, it’s very clear that her intent is that once you’ve taught yourself the tools to engage in active listening, you can take those tools everywhere. Out into life. And the whole world becomes music, the whole world becomes more beautiful. And that’s absolutely part of my intent. I think when I was doing psychology research, that was the intent that we had with our lucid dreaming work – once you develop certain skills in understanding your dreaming consciousness, you could learn the difference between assuming that you’re self-aware versus actually being self-aware, and that you could take those habits of awareness into the daily world and be more self-aware, more awake in your waking time. Instead of being a sleepwalker, while awake. The assumption being that many of us actually sleepwalk through most of our lives. 

Once you’ve taught yourself the tools to engage in active listening, you can take those tools everywhere. Out into life. And the whole world becomes music, the whole world becomes more beautiful.

And how would you define this term, of being more awake, being more aware?

I think when we feel truly awake in a moment of heightened sensitivity, which I’m prone to – let’s call it like a psychedelic state without the external stimulus; purely endogenous psychedelic state of awareness – you find that there is so much content in the natural world, so much texture to existence, that it’s almost unbearably beautiful. It explodes. And there’s techniques of meditating, there’s techniques of enlarging one’s awareness that can make you so that it’s almost unbearable to exist. Because the world is so absolutely fine-grained in its detail. Everything is a fractal. Everything is echoing something larger than it, and there’s things that it’s made up of that echo it, that from the scale going down and the scale going up, everything is infinitely detailed and infinitely fine-grained. And as you start noticing those things, you realise that the beauty of existence is almost unbearable. To pass through life as functional animals, we need to round it off, we need to sand off our awareness and smooth it, to relieve ourselves of the texture of the fine grain of existence. And so we go through life muted. 

But then we become aware of how much detail there is to experience. You can appreciate every particle, every insect, every blade of grass, from a myriad of different angles from scientifically to see how it’s growing, to see the chlorophyll, to see the cell structure, to see how light is impinging and turning ATP into sugar molecules. Or you can look at how that blade of grass is feeding other animals, how it’s feeding the snails and the slugs and the cows and the rabbits. You can look at how it’s creating colour in the world, you can look at the spectrum of colour or texture. Every aspect of the universe can rotate around that one blade of grass. It echoes everything above and below it, just as we do in our existence. Our brief life here, 50 to 100 years, is something that has an infinite amount of detail. And we can choose to focus on certain aspects or certain other aspects at our will. If we’re feeling ill, we suddenly notice every ache and pain we have in our body. We suddenly notice how nice it was to be able to breathe freely yesterday because now my sinuses are clogged up. And then once you get through that illness, you feel healthy again, and you can’t believe that you went through your entire life not appreciating what it was like to be able to breathe. But what we do as animals is we forget the emotion that we had yesterday; when we’re happy, we forget the emotion of being sad, and vice versa. Because we live in the moment. Especially things like emotion, things like states of arousal. They are in the present,  they’re in the now, and so it’s a very difficult thing when you’re feeling depressed to ever remember that you’ve been happy in your life ever. Because it’s so engulfing, those emotions. 

I think therefore one of the things that art can do, and just like what dreams can do, is they can take us through exercises, they can journey us through the realm of emotions, to practice how fluid we are, and how quickly things change. There’s an old Sufi story which ends up with the Sufi teaching the emperor “this too shall pass”. The idea being that emotions are constantly in flux. So as we practice shifting our state of consciousness, we can dive down into a finer grain of consciousness, or coarser grain of consciousness. This, just like our level of attention with the art, can become a higher threshold or lower threshold. If you jump into the realm of a Tarkovsky movie, you’ve suddenly increased your threshold of sensitivity so that now, even the most subtle crunching of a leaf becomes a very loud noise. The breathing of a person, something with emotion, becomes something that tells a story. Likewise, with my music, when I’m taking people down a very quiet, long pause, hopefully, that moment when the next thing happens, it might be something that creates a sense of beautiful, ecstatic joy. Even though it might actually be a very rarefied and a very subtle thing. But if we can take people down a journey – we’re curating their experience through art. We’re curating a journey through time, especially with music, with theatre, with art that has a time-based mode. We can actually curate the experience and we can tell a story through these experiences. And I think that we can teach people, we can teach ourselves, how rich and how exquisite existence is.

One of the things that art can do, and just like what dreams can do, is they can take us through exercises, they can journey us through the realm of emotions, to practice how fluid we are, and how quickly things change.

There’s a good argument to make that the ways we experience the world and the ways we experience ourselves is the totality of all the experiences we had in the past. And because the past is so filled, to some degree, with pain and trauma, it becomes harder to be present to those details and to those textures. And this is where clearly works like yours are able to make the mind a little bit more malleable, a little bit more flexible, a little bit more aware about what’s here too, as well as what you’re used to. And I like this simulation metaphor very much for that reason, this idea of moving through something, moving away from something to something from one state to the other, though art.

Yeah, you want people to go through a range of experiences during art, and you want to come out of it different from when they came in. One of the things that creates depth or layering of experience in an artwork is that willingness to go into shadows. I think that the fundamental difference between something that’s merely pretty and something beautiful or deeply moving, is that for something to be beautiful, it needs to contain the thanatotic. It needs to contain the shadows, the death within it, as well as the urge to life. Reminding us of how short time is, is essential to get us to appreciate the moment we’re in now. Otherwise, there’s going to be an infinite number of these moments, why bother? Right? As soon as we realise, as soon as we remember, that time is short, then we value this moment more because this moment will pass, this moment right is always gone.

One of the things that creates depth or layering of experience in an artwork is that willingness to go into shadows.

And when we deal with our life experiences with the traumas of growing up, the traumas of surviving, which for some people have been much harsher than for other people, we also have to look at the role that the brain plays in pruning memories. An interesting fact is that in order to be conscious, in order to have new memories, we need to forget, and part of the skill of a healthy brain is to prioritise experience and to prune. If we remembered every leaf that we’ve ever seen in our life, every piece of gravel, every shadow, every thought, every conversation, we would be absolutely frozen. We would be stuck with an inability to think a new thought, an inability to move forward. And this is a little bit like what happens with some people with PTSD probably is that you have a memory that’s so ingrained that you cannot change the emotional intensity of it. 

And it’s because the memory is so personally significant. The more significant the memory is, the harder it is to get rid of it.

Yeah, and the way memory works, of course, is that we remember things by bringing them back up, rehearsing them and putting them away. So memories don’t just live back there without ever being pulled up again. And to remember something, we pull it up frequently, and we rehearse it, and often we’ll add new emotional baggage to it, and then put it back away with that new baggage attached. And this is how our brains work. That’s what REM sleep is, as well, that’s what dreaming is. 

I think art is to a certain extent, part of that process of rehearsing things that are perhaps more beneficial to us. Perhaps, we don’t need to be moralistic about art, I’m sure that there’s a lot of people who would prefer to watch a slasher movie or a horror film or something, which maybe you’d say are not beneficial to us. Perhaps though, there are benefits in catharsis in the sense of, of blowing it out, having such a loud stimulus, that it reduces the pain of the other stimuli. Perhaps the benefits of death metal or slasher movies, or even war, what’s happening is that we are decreasing our sensitivity to the rest of the world in order to medicate. The world is very loud. And so by placing an extremely loud stimulus in our world, we are doing a kind of opium. We’re reducing our sensitivity levels. 

In this way, we have an inverse relationship with intensity of stimulus and intended emotional engagement. And I’ll explain what I mean by that. It’s a complicated idea that I’ve been working with for a good 20 years now and it’s difficult to find easy metaphors to explain it. Perhaps the best one is this idea of opium is that a very loud, very engaging stimulus will boost up our threshold levels just like walking next to a freeway. Our sensitivity to the world is then knocked down, our thresholds have been raised up, and so we leave these experiences feeling like we’ve had an opium experience of reduced sensitivity. It’s a little bit like a cocoon: we go into the world cocooned from the loudness of the outside world, because we’ve engaged in an extremely aggressive stimulus that we enjoy. So, now, what I’m dealing with is the idea that it might be beneficial for us to do the opposite: to increase our sensitivity, to lower our thresholds. In doing so, what we find is that if we engage ourselves in a very rarefied art form, in an art form that is slow and quiet, we become more activated, not more relaxed.

And so when we talk about the way we engage with art, we can look at it in terms of intrinsic activation levels, that as we decrease sensory stimulus and we rarify it, we invite the person experiencing this art to activate their mind and to become more sensitive to the noise around them, more sensitive to the world around them. And their thresholds have gone way down, and now the world becomes a little bit more painful for a while. So it’s the opposite of an opium, it’s now something that’s perhaps a little bit more like a psychedelic in that it sensitises us to a very fine-grained experience, and the emotions, everything becomes louder. 

What I’m dealing with is the idea that it might be beneficial for us to do the opposite: to increase our sensitivity, to lower our thresholds. In doing so, what we find is that if we engage ourselves in a very rarefied art form, in an art form that is slow and quiet, we become more activated, not more relaxed.

This is a beautiful bridge, Robert. I think personally, although I'm such a huge admirer of arts and music in various forms, some of my most profound and personally meaningful experiences have happened in silence, or almost in silence. Sometimes there might be softer music, or some sounds in the distance, but silence has this creative richness in itself.

The same is absolutely true for me. Yeah.

How do you view the relationship between the absence of sound and music? The void, so to speak, the sense of nothingness?

I often don’t listen to music in the background, which is funny for a person who’s notorious for doing ambient music as “background music”, but I don’t think of my music as background, and I don’t use music in the background. I like to engage with music, I listen to music consciously. In fact, my day-to-day life is usually in the studio working on music, or if I’m not, in silence. If I want to listen to somebody else’s music, I’ll put it on and I’ll listen, or I’ll read a book or something, but it’s not in the background. I’m engaging with it. So most of my best experiences with sound are in nature. I find that especially as our civilisation moves more and more towards an urban existence, this is something that we are depriving ourselves of, and that experience within a natural space in a non-human landscape is essential for our mental well-being. For me, if we didn’t have open space preserves, and if there weren’t a creek trail a block from our house here, I would be going crazy here in the middle of Silicon Valley. 

I think that having some enfolding of nature into the urban environment is a prerequisite for people’s sanity, that there needs to be a constant interface between nature and the human-built landscape; the constructed, urban,”humanscape” needs a constant interface with nature, and with the unknown, or with mystery, something that is not of our making. Because without that, we really lose our sense of what it’s like to be an animal. We lose our sense of what it’s like to live off of the earth, to eat, and to feed ourselves – it all comes from nature, from plants, from animals. It comes from things that we kill, in order to live. If we don’t understand that, we become completely disjointed from our existence, and the nature of our embodiment. 

Before we actually started recording, you discussed how you were interested in setting up spaces for listening around London that would help people to be in their bodies. I’ve been using the term “embodiment” now for a while to try to find a way to describe the opposite of “virtual”. I think that as we develop an increasingly virtual experience, it’s more isolated. It’s more solitary. But we have been developing the technologies to do this for the last 20 years or more – what we’re doing right now, video phoning, 6000 miles away, or more. This increased virtualisation is something that I feel a personal need to counteract with an increased embodiment. 

I’m bringing these topics up for a very specific reason and that is that we are developing technologies which can prevent people from ever having to experience silence in their lives. People can go to bed with their phone, they can do their global internet-based computer games all the way until they fall asleep. Then they could wake up with their phones still next to them and they can pick up their gaming right where they left off. They can be completely connected to a virtual community, never having met any of these people, never having smelled them, never having eaten with them, never having experienced embodiment with them. We can live in a space which is entirely free of silence. We can engage in a constant stream of music 24 hours a day, with total novelty. We can have our streaming application like Spotify on random feed, so that we hear only novel music constantly, and we never have to face ourselves alone. Yet we are more alone than ever, because we’re living in a completely solitary, solipsistic world of man-made stimuli. Feeding us a fictitious information feed of constant noise which prevents us from ever having to experience silence, from ever having to experience our own empty space – the dark night of the soul as it were. Our own death, our own fears. Also our own beauty, our own experience of the things around us growing and living and dying. 

So this aspect of embodiment to me is essentially wound up in aspects of silence. Now, what’s funny is okay, so I make music. Why do I talk about silence so much? Why do I have to make sound to fill in that silence? Well, it’s a very good question. It’s kind of ironic, and sometimes it becomes a real problem: sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I really go for periods of time not making music because I have that problem. My album “Nest” for example, I think this one is very special for some people because it is very meditative, it’s very calm. It’s also very melancholic, almost, I think it’s quite an interesting mood. I needed to make that album after spending a month in Australia doing concerts at psytrance music festivals. When I was at very loud festivals, my ears were ringing, I had a little bit of new tinnitus. Having been a musician for years now, I have a little bit of tinnitus that kicks in over age and in 2012, having come back from a month of concerts in Australia and two of these psytrance raves, the high amplitude had left me with new tinnitus and all I wanted was silence. While I was in Australia, I took some nature recordings that I made of night sounds and frogs and things like that, some very loud insects that were very high frequency. I then laid them into a timeline that was an hour long, and I started making this album that was my attempt to create a sound that would be more silent than silence, because the tinnitus was filling my head during silence. When you hear the album in a compressed audio like mp3, it just sounds like white noise. But there is this detail in that white noise, and it’s actually really high frequency insect sounds. I needed to make this album to fill my sonic space with silence. So there’s a strange counterbalancing act here of making sound which creates silence around it, there’s some built-in contradiction.

What role have psychedelics had in shaping your perception of the world, yourself, your art and your creation of your art?

I was a very straight arrow kid growing up. I had never taken any drugs up until I was in college. I grew up in a household where drinking was a problem. My father had troubles with alcoholism, and so we were a dry household. So of course, when I got to college, I was very curious about all of these things. I had a very good friend who had come from England and had had both wonderful and horrible experiences with LSD and mushrooms. In fact, I was four or five years younger than him and our first friendship was like his younger brother, showing him that the world wasn’t as scary as he experienced it on LSD. He had some very bad experiences with LSD, and had seen the void and was afraid of it. 

My experiences with altered states of consciousness were entirely meditational. I had seen the void and it was my friend. My first album was called “Sunyata” because that was the void. For me, finding that space of absolute emptiness within the underlying aspect of consciousness where the universe was, was my safe place. That was the cocoon I could go to. So I ended up being like a younger brother to my very best friend, helping him come down from a year of LSD essentially, being a voice of mysticism, I suppose, showing him that the void wasn’t scary at all. I don’t think he could ever quite get to that place. 

The first hallucinogen I ever tried was mushrooms. And when I first had psilocybin my sense was a complete sense of recognition. I know I hadn’t recognised that sense of queasiness, or the tickling teeth or all of the different sensory aspects which were new to me. But that sense of merging with nature. My way of exploring hallucinogens was always by going up into the hills and sitting and meditating. And if it were with a friend, we would do it together or we would listen to music and just very calm settings, never like out partying and things like that. What I found is that psilocybin brought me right back to the place that I discovered as a child when I would go walking in the hills. There was a very transformative experience that I had when I was about 15 years old. I asked my parents if I could take a sleeping bag, and go into the foothills next to Stanford University and go on a fast for two days and be alone and sleep.

When I first had psilocybin my sense was a complete sense of recognition.

A real fast, without any food.

I had a loaf of bread and a jar of water. And that was gonna get me for 36 hours or so, two nights and a full day of hiking.

There's a term for this, right? That a lot of traditions use as well - the retreat in nature while fasting.

Yeah, a vision quest, as you call it. So, I wanted to do this, and I’m amazed my parents let me do this. They must have been terrified that I was gonna get kidnapped or something. I was just a teenager. But the Stanford foothills were a very tame, sedate little pocket of foothills of about 10-20 square kilometres, perhaps, of open space that Stanford University owns, and it was walking-distance from our house, so I mean, it wasn’t a dangerous place. I had intense experiences meditating on vision quests like this. That particular time I woke up from a dream where I basically had an experience of the negation of God, you know, where I was climbing a ladder through emptiness, with a kind of a wordless question in my mind, of “Is there..? Are you there, God?”. I woke up from this lucid dream with a resounding negation, that in my dream the universe rang this massive bell that basically negated my question. It basically said “no”. I woke up with this intense feeling of the non-existence of all of our projections into the universe, that what the universe is was exactly what it is, not what we project.

Yes, so not always a “you”. In fact, the majority of things out there are not “you”.

That’s right. The majority is exactly what it is, not what we project it to be. And that it was the sense that my perception was simply myself naming things, myself putting walls around things, putting categories on things, and that everything was a verb.

You triggered a memory of myself when I lived in the Amazon jungle 15 years ago, and I was drinking Ayahuasca with a shaman, and at some point at night, when the ceremony was over, I was outside and I was deep in a jungle with all the rich sounds of the Amazon rainforest. There was this really powerful tree, I had a really powerful sense about it. I said “tree”, in Dutch, “boom, boom, boom”, and I kept repeating it, and then I realised what a stupid thing it is to try to capture that in like one word. And suddenly I perceived the tree for what it was, and it was really beautiful and profound.

So this dream was probably a good five years before I had ever tried psychedelics. When I woke up from that dream, a two-pronged stag deer slowly was walking down this little gap in the hills where I was camping and stood about 10 metres away from me. It paused right in the same little ravine where my sleeping bag was, and it just stared at me for what seemed like a very long time, but probably around 30 seconds, and then quietly continued walking. And I realised, it wasn’t naming me. It was just looking. It had no names. Only we put names on everything. We have this language-based system of pointers, everything points to something else that points to a symbol. So, that experience with the stag right after that exploding dream, left me with this idea that the world doesn’t really care if we’re here or not, the universe just sprouts consciousness constantly as a thing that it does. It’s just bubbling up from every particle, from every interaction we have. We just happen to be in a position to name things, and to create symbolic structures, which gives us a certain way of looking at things – not the only way and not even the best way, but just a way. 

So, when I first had hallucinogens, I simply remembered that experience and went “Oh, okay, I know what this is like”. This is simply experiencing things fully, with a very low threshold of sensitivity, very high sensitivity. Everything is louder. And so all of the things that I’ve experienced in my life become more in high relief, the texture of existence gets higher relief, it becomes finer grain and higher relief. That sense of sensitivity stayed with me after those experiences. I had mushrooms probably 5 or 10 times in my life and LSD perhaps 5 times. LSD had a different experience for me. It wore me down, I found it to be very exhausting. The following day, I think my brain was so depleted of serotonin, that it quickly taught me that I didn’t need to do that over and over again.

That period informed my music very much because it helped me to communicate what I experience on a frequent basis without hallucinogens, to people who might not understand what those things are. In fact, oddly enough, this sounds counterintuitive, but having experienced hallucinogens gave me a higher sensitivity to what people experience who have never had hallucinogens. Maybe it made me more sensitive to how strange and intense I might seem to people because as a teenager, I was very intense. Very, very strange.

What do you mean with "I was very intense"?

I just engaged things on a full-on, full frontal way. But it made me more sensitive to my social persona, to how I appear to people. For a counterintuitive reason, perhaps, to a small extent, having tried hallucinogens made me more sensitive to the idea that some of the things I was drawn to, might seem to people trippy or hallucinogenic. I wanted to show that in fact, no, these things were universal experiences and had nothing to do with hallucinogens at all. And they were universal experiences. So I became almost more sensitive to changing the language of experience away from psychedelics towards everyday language, and toning down some of my intensity, so that it might not appear the intensity of a person who had taken drugs before. Because, in fact, my engagement with life is pretty intense without any of those experiences. Those experiences merely taught me that they are universal, that the way of engaging with life at that level of sensitivity can be taught through hallucinogens. But also, it was something that I experienced long before them. The difference for me was that hallucinogens were loud, and my endogenous experiences were quiet. And I mean spiritually loud, like screaming instead of whispering.

A Wavepaths conversation between Mendel Kaelen and Robert Rich.



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