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Simon Posford

Shpongle & Psychedelics:
An Interview with Simon Posford

By David Jay Brown

Simon Posford (a.k.a. Hallucinogen) is a British musician and producer, specializing in psychedelic electronic music, spanning many genres from psychedelic trance (psytrance), to rock, to electronica. 

Posford’s first studio album, Twisted, was released in 1995 under the artist name “Hallucinogen.” Twisted is considered one of the most influential albums in the genre of psytrance, and Posford’s connection with psychedelics was evident from the title of the very first track–“LSD,” which, to this day, remains the defining sound of a form of electronic music that originated during the late 1980s in Goa, India called “Goa trance.” 

In 1996 Posford and Australian musician Raja Ram created one of the most popular electronica music projects of all time–Shpongle. Arguably, not since The Grateful Dead has a brand of popular music been so lovingly associated with psychedelics as Shpongle has. Psychedelics have played a huge role in the creation, performance, and experience of Shpongle’s music, which is extremely popular among members of the psychedelic community.

Posford is generally responsible for coordinating the synthesizers, studio work, and live instrumentation, while Raja contributes broad musical concepts and flute arrangements. Shpongle’s unique style combines Eastern ethnic instruments, flute riffs and vocals, with contemporary Western synthesizer-based electronic music, hyperdimensional alien space acoustics, and sound clips from television shows and spoken words. Truly genre-defying, Shpongle contains elements of Jazz, Classical, Dub and Glitch, among others.

Shpongle performs live with different musicians, dancers and other performers, while Posford masterfully controls an electronic sound board, alchemically mixing and remixing the music, engineering, tweaking, and orchestrating the highly textured, multilayered music that emerges. Shpongle’s studio albums include: Are You Shpongled? (1998), Tales of the Inexpressible (2001), Nothing Lasts… But Nothing Is Lost (2005), and Ineffable Mysteries from Shpongleland (2009). Posford also frequently tours as Hallucinogen.

I interviewed Simon on July 26, 2011. Since Simon’s music has served as the soundtrack for numerous personal psychedelic experiences, this was a special interview for me. It was great fun to–as Simon put it–“intellectualize the abstract” and “muse over the ineffable” together. There’s a delightful eloquence to the way that Simon expresses himself, and a vibrant sense of creativity continually comes through his words. We spoke about how his psychedelic journeys have effected his creativity and his experience with music. 

David: What inspired your interest in music?

Simon: When I was just growing up there was always music around my house. My parents were very young. My mom was 19 and my dad was 21 when they had me, so there was always music on the stereo, and it obviously caught my ear. I have fond memories of the speakers booming late into the night, in spite of the fact they were playing the likes of Donna Summer, Queen, Elton John, and E.L.O. My grandfather was a composer in the Forties. He wrote for musicals featuring stars of that era such as Bing Crosby and Vera Lynn, but I never knew him, so I don’t know if there’s any genetic link, or even if there’s any validity to that idea. I would say that my interest was probably more just the result being constantly surrounded by music as I was growing up.

David: How did you become involved with creating Shpongle?

Simon: That was when I got together with Raja Ram in 1996. We went to the Glastonbury Festival, which is a huge festival in the U.K. In those days, they got up to around 300,000 people going, because they had a hard time keeping people outside the gates from sneaking in for free. Now it’s more regimented. They’ve got two double fences, and it’s really hard to get in without a ticket, so there’s only around 170,000 people going now. The festival takes place on a huge farm in the rolling hills of Avalon, and right at the top of site they have built a large stone circle, which normally hosts a variety of drummers, druids and lost souls trying to escape the general mayhem and seek some sort of refuge.

I remember clearly, Raj and I were sitting there, watching this Celtic harp player, and I think that we’d both taken some psychedelic substance. I’m not sure what it was, probably acid. We were listening to this beautiful music emanating from this faery goddess and her wooden harp – we were just fascinated by her. We became obsessed with her pulchritude and grace, falling in love with her, lured like Odysseus to the Sirens’ song. She was so exquisitely beautiful – we never even saw her face, we were sat behind her. But she sat so upright, and this music was divine. Raja and I had made only trance music together up to this point, but during that performance we thought it would be really nice to try to capture that particular moment. It wouldn’t have to be dancey, but just something that reproduced the energy of the stone circle, and tribal beauty of the bonfires, the smoke mingling with the mist rolling in through the valley and the honeyed tones of our Celtic muse.

David: What do you think makes Shpongle’s music unique?

Simon: That’s a tricky one for me to answer, because I’m obviously so involved in it. But I would say that what makes anyone’s music unique is that it comes from deep within the soul of the writers. The KLF wrote in their inspirational book, “The Manual”, that two artists could each make a track using only a single kick drum, the same sound, at the same tempo, yet undoubtedly one would STILL be better than the other. You could listen to both tracks and you would surely prefer one over the other. Maybe because no matter what you do, or whatever you write, the musician’s character and soul shines through, and some people you resonate with, and some people you don’t.

David: What inspired the name “Shpongle”?

Simon: The name “Shpongle” came from my partner Raj. One day he had taken some acid, and… (Laughter heard in the background.) My girlfriend is just laughing. (Explaining to girlfriend.) This is for a psychedelic site; it’s for MAPS. I guess all of these drug references are okay? My girlfriend is just laughing at me.

Girlfriend: Cause I’m on acid now!

Simon: She’s on acid now, driving the car. (laughter) – not really, don’t worry. Anyway, Raj was tripping one day, and he said, “Oh Si, I’m feeling really shpongled.” This word was a mixture of a lot of other words that we were using at the time–like “spangled,” “stoned,” “monged,” and “mashed”–and all of these came out as one word: “shpongled.” So I said, that’s a great word, maybe we should use that as a band name or track name–as it captured the essence of the message we were trying to get across, without a tired history of associations and expectations that existing words are weighed down by.

David: That’s so appropriate too, since your music blends so many different styles together. In general, with Shpongle, how would you describe your creative process?

Simon: Raj will turn up, sometimes with a load of samples or recordings. One time he went to Brazil and recorded some stuff there. Otherwise, he’ll record stuff off of TV shows, some spoken words, or bamboo forests creaking in the wind…something like that. So that might spawn an idea for a track. 

Raj is a very visual person, and he’s a fabulous painter, so he might come up with a visual image that, in time, I’ll translate into music. Over the years he’s come up with some inspiring imagery, such as a lake shimmering in the sky. Our most recent one was about CERN, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and about the idea of particles colliding at high velocities, neutrinos protons and neutrons smashing into each other, creating black holes explosions and new universes. Stuff like that.

So we’ll have a visual image. Then, when I can finally get him to shut up, Raj will sit on the sofa and do a thousand drawings into his notebook, while I’ll sit at the computer and get about translating our images into sound. I generally do the programming, playing and production because Raj can’t work the computer or any of the equipment, but he’s the inspiration and the muse, and will play flute or jabber strange vocals into the mic (being the cunning linguist he is). We start with just a blank canvas, an empty computer screen, and just add more and more sounds–until it’s time to go home, I’m either sick of having him in my house, or he’s sick of sitting on my sofa, listening to me torture him with various obnoxious instruments. Then we stop, and later we mix it. Then we give it the acid test. He’ll take some LSD and put the headphones on when I’m ready to mix. Then I’ll play it to him at high volume, and–judging by the state of his eyeballs and his face afterwards–I’ll know whether we’ve got a good one or not. (laughter)

David: I love it! This leads right into my next question, which is– how have

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Jaron Lanier

Reality Check

“[Virtual reality] defines our agenda with machines as being primarily cultural and sensual, as opposed to power-oreiented.”

with Jaron Lanier

 

When virtual reality became a cultural obsession and took the national spotlight, Jaron Lanier stood center stage. The diverse scope of possibilities created through full sensory immersion into computer-generated worlds caught the collective imagination, and Jaron became the hero of cyberspace. He began his journey into virtual reality after quitting high school, when he engineered his own education in computer science by spending time with mentors such as Mantilz Minsky at MIT. After a stint performing as a street musician in Santa Cruz, Jaron began programming electronic sound effects into video games. He quickly became a pioneer in computer programming, and soon he started the first VR company out of his home-VPL Research–which produced most of the world ‘s VR equipment for many years. He is the co-inventor of such fundamental VR components as the interface gloves and VR networking.

Jaron coined the phrase “virtual reality” and founded the VR industry. He appears regularly on national television shows, such as “Nightline ” and “60 Minutes. ” His work with computer languages and VR was twice chosen for the cover of Scientific American, and it also appeared on the cover of the Wall Street Journal, in a piece entitled “Electronic LSD. ” But music is his first love. Since the late seventies, he has been an active composer and performer in the world of new classical music. He writes chamber and orchestral music, and is a pianist and a specialist in unusual musical instruments. Jaron has the largest collection of exotic instruments from around the world that I’ve ever encountered, and the most remarkable thing is that he can play them all. He has performed with artists as diverse as Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman, Terry Riley, Barbara Higbie, and Stanley Jordan.

Jaron has a powerful presence. His large eyes, which alternate between dreamy reflectiveness and focused intensity, peer out from behind long, brown dreadlocks. He appears gentle and relaxed, although he gets very animated when he starts talking about something that excites him. His nervous system is unusually balanced with a blend of artistic sensitivity, sharp scientific mindfulness, and great imagination. Referring to the unique neurochemistry. that must contribute to Jaron’s genius, Timothy Leary once said that he would like a cerebral spinal fluid transfusion from Jaron S brain. Jaron currently divides his time between New York and California. He has an album out on PolyGram, Instruments of Change, and two books in press, one from Harcourt/Brace and the other from MIT Press. Amid a sea of exotic musical instruments and a tangle of electronic equipment, we interviewed Jaron at his Sausalito home on February 3, 1993.

DJB

 

David: Jaron, what was it that originally inspired you to develop Virtual Reality technology?

Jaron: Not that question! Oh no! (laughter) There are three different things that got me involved with Virtual Reality – or really, four. One of them had to do with the philosophy of mathematics, another had to do with direct action politics and the frustrations thereof. The third had to do with musical instrument design, especially a really fantastic thing called a theremin and the fourth had to with the psychology of early childhood, specifically my own. Do you want to hear about all four of them? (laughter)

David: Well, how about how they all came together?

Jaron: Well, that’s the most mysterious of all because, of course, life is experienced mostly in anticipation and retrospect and only at rare moments in the present. So, I anticipated wondrous things without really believing them and then suddenly found they’d happened, but I can hardly even remember when they did. But somehow this whole Virtual Reality thing has been taken seriously by the world and has become a field in it’s own right.

David: I first became acquainted with your computer work many years ago when it was featured on the cover of an issue of Scientific American. What was that about?

Jaron: That was probably the first of two different Scientific American covers. It relates to one of those four tracks, which is the philosophy of mathematics. I studied math in graduate school. If you’ve ever been around a math school, you notice a very strange phenomenon which is that people who have already learned some new math thing refer to that thing as trivial, while the people who are learning it for the first time refer to it as abominably difficult. Same people, same items – just different moments in time.

So the question is; What’s going on? Is this just a sort of a hubris, or is there something particularly unusual about the process of learning math and understanding it? I was suspicious that the way that math was communicated and the way it was understood were completely different, that math had to be understood somewhat visually or perhaps in something of a process way – playing with images and shapes inside one’s imagination.

Math was taught and expressed in notation systems and I thought, maybe the notation system is the problem. But then as soon as you think that, you have to ask yourself, what of mathematics is left once you take away the notation system? And that’s a very hard question because the traditional view of most mathematics almost equates it with at least some kind of notation system.

David: But isn’t the dynamic pattern left, which the notation system is expressing?

Jaron: It depends on the type of math. Some types of math are largely a by-product of notation, like algebra – at least, that’s my interpretation. There are some kinds of math which are a little ambiguous. If you’re talking about the mathematics of dynamic flows and that sort of thing, indeed the flows exist without the math, but a lot of abstract math might not exist effectively without some kind of notation. It’s just not clear – it’s a hard problem.

So, I became interested in the idea of having computer pictures of mathematical structures, pictorial interpretations that would be modified in real time to express the movement of mathematical ideas. I was fortunate to get hired as part of an NSF project – I was just a kid in my teens – and I worked with a group of people doing a college level curriculum in mathematics using pictures which these days would not be too radical or exciting, but which in those days was pretty unusual.

That project had mixed results, but I became very interested in the process of programming. I started to think, well, maybe you can look at computers and computer programming as a simplified mirror of the problem of mathematics and mathematical notation, but where the situation is much less ambiguous. There are some similarities. In computers, you have a notation (a programming language), that tells the computer what to do, and then there’s what the computer actually does. Unlike math, there’s no trouble defining the reality of what the computer actually does, as a separate matter from the notation.

So you can ask yourself, is there some better way to understand what the computer is doing than using the usual programming notation? And if you could come up with something that was an interactive visual representation of what the computer’s doing, would that give you any inspiration (getting back to the original question) towards being able to express math ideas in a better way?

David: Was that an original thought? It sounds like a really unique way of looking at it.

Jaron: No, although I didn’t know of his work at the time, the first person to think about visual programming languages, as far as I know, was a particularly brilliant guy namedIvan Sutherland who also invented the head-mounted display and computer graphics in general and who is a very important seminal figure in twentieth-century culture and science. The idea of a visual version of math, on the other hand, has fascinated many people, like G. Spencer Brown.

So I became immersed in the world of programming language design and I was very fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time and be somewhat taken under the wing of some of the people who’d invented the standard programming languages in use. I started developing a big “virtual” programming language and it was an off-shoot of that work, which was oriented towards children, which was on the cover of Scientific American in 1984.

The early team included some wonderful and brilliant minds, like Chuck Blanchard, Young Harvill, Tom Zimmerman, and Steve Bryson. The biggest problem we had, in that early work, was that the screen was too small a window – a frustratingly tiny

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Jerry Garcia

Tales of the Living Dead

“There is a human drive to celebrate, and we provide ritual celebration in a society that doesn’t have much of it.”

with Jerry Garcia

 

When you’ve had a street named after you, then you can congratulate yourself on a certain notoriety. But when you’ve had an ice cream named after you–well, that is the kind of recognition which dreams are made ~ After thirty years of playing with one of the most successful bands in rock and roll history, Jerry Garcia finds himself at the age of fifty-one, at the zenith of his popularity. The Grateful Dead the sixties-gone-nineties rock band hers recorded over a hundred albums and plays more live shows than almost anyone anywhere. And their concerts are always sold out.

With its own magazine, Internet status, and booming merchandising industry, the group is a musical phenomenon of mythical proportions. But Jerry Garcia shrugs his shoulders with genuine innocence in the face of it all. Is it the band that has spawned the semi-nomadic tribe whose members roam the country like medieval minstrels, living on veggie burgers, psychedelics, love, and of course, the promise of a ticket to the next show ? Or is it that the aspirations and values of the sixties just refuse to die, and the Grateful Dead is simply a conduit for their continued expression ?

Jerry Garcia began playing with the Warlocks in 1965, and in the same year the Grateful Dead was formed. He developed his improvisational style at the infamous “acid tests, ” where the Grateful Dead was often the house hand. The Jerry Garcia Band, formed in /975, is as popular as the Dead. It has a more blues-oriented, gritty sound, but maintains Jerry’s distinctive psychedelic edge.

Garcia is almost supernatural status got an extra boost when he journeyed into the jaws of Death and back, after falling into a diabetic coma. He has reached a point in his career where, if he were half-asleep and out of tune, the audience would still hang on every note with a reverent sigh. Who is this man who has catalyzed peak experiences in young and old for three decades. He describes himself as a “good ‘ol’ celebrity,” although at shows you’re likely to see at least one starry-eyed youth coddling a sign declaring that “Jerry is God. ” Many fans are convinced he is not from this planet.

The interview took place at the Grateful Dead’s homey headquarters in San Rafael, California With his full, white beard and wise-owl eyes, Jerry Garcia looks ready to pass out the clay tablets, yet when he smiles, the Old Testament prophet is transformed into a self-parodying garden gnome, who has walked the yellow-brick road of success simply by doing what he loves.

RMN

Jerry: I’ll take off my glasses. They don’t convey much humanity.

David: Jerry, how did you start playing music?

Jerry: My father was a professional musician, my mother was an amateur. I grew up in a musical household and took piano lessons as far back as I can remember. There was never a time in my life that music wasn’t a part of.

The first time I decided that music was something I wanted to do, apart from just being surrounded by it, was when I was about fifteen. I developed this deep craving to play the electric guitar. I fell in love with rock `n roll, I wanted to make that sound so badly. So I got a pawn shop electric guitar and a little amplifier and I started without the benefit of anybody else around me who played the guitar or any books.

My step-father put it in an open tuning of some kind and I taught myself how to play by ear. I did that for about a year until I ran into a kid at school who knew three chords on the guitar and also the correct way to tune it. That’s when I started to play around at it, then I picked things up. I never took lessons or anything.

David: Who particularly inspired you?

Jerry: Actually no particular musician inspired me, apart from maybe Chuck Berry. But all of the music from the fifties inspired me. I didn’t really start to get serious about music until I was eighteen and I heard my first bluegrass music. I heard Earl Scruggs play five-string banjo and I thought, that’s something I have to be able to do. I fell in love with the sound and I started earnestly trying to do exactly what I was hearing. That became the basis for everything else – that was my model.

Rebecca: Jumping ahead a few years. During the sixties you played a lot of acid-tests when you could fit all your equipment into a single truck. How do you compare those early days to now? Do you enjoy it as much?

Jerry: Well, in some ways it’s better and in some ways it’s not. The thing that was fun about those days was that nothing was expected of us. We didn’t have to play. (laughter)We weren’t required to perform. People came to acid-tests for the acid-test, not for us.

So there were times when we would play two or three tunes or even a couple of notes and just stop. We’d say, to hell with it, we don’t feel like playing! It was great to have that kind of freedom because before that we were playing five sets a night, fifty minutes on, ten minutes off every hour. We were doing that six nights a week and then usually we’d have another afternoon gig and another night-time gig on Sunday. So we were playing a lot!

So all of a sudden you’re at the acid-test and hey, you didn’t even have to play. Also we weren’t required to play anything even acceptable. We could play whatever we wanted. So it was a chance to be completely free-form on every level. As far as a way to break out from an intensely formal kind of experience it was just what we needed, because we were looking to break out.

Rebecca: And you’re still able to maintain that free-form style to a certain extent even though you’re now more restricted by scheduling and order?

Jerry: Well, also we’re required to be competent, but the sense of accomplishment has improved a lot. Now when we play, the worst playing we do isn’t too bad. So the lowest level has come way up, and statistically the odds have improved in our favor.

Rebecca: What do you think it is about the Grateful Dead that has allowed you such lasting popularity which has spanned generations?

Jerry: I wish I knew. (laughter)

Rebecca: Do you think you can define it?

Jerry: I don’t know whether I want to particularly. Part of it’s magic is that we’ve always avoided defining any part of it, and the effect seems to be that in not defining it, it becomes everything. I prefer that over anything that I might think of.

David: When you say everything, do you mean something different for everyone?

Jerry: Well, that’s one way of saying it, yeah. But the other way of looking at it, from a purely musical point of view, is that it becomes a full-range experience. There’s nothing that we won’t try. It means everything is available to us. It also works from an audience point of view too. We’re whatever the audience wants us to be, we’re whatever they think we are.

Rebecca: Do you think there is a timeless quality about your music that appeals to people?

Jerry: I’d like to believe there’s something like that, but I have no idea, really. There is a human drive to celebrate and we provide ritual celebration in a society that doesn’t have much of it. It really should be part of religion. It happens to work for us because people have learned to trust the environment that it occurs in.

Rebecca: Do you feel at all disillusioned at the rate of social evolution? In the sixties, many people thought that massive social change was just around the corner?

Jerry: I never was that optimistic. I never thought that things were going to get magically better. I thought that we were experiencing a lucky vacation from the rest of consensual reality to try stuff out. We were privileged in a sense. I didn’t have anything invested in the idea that the world was going to change. Our world certainly changed. (laughter)Our part of it did what it was supposed to do, and it’s continuing to do it, continuing to evolve. It’s a process. I believe that if you open the door to the process, it tells you how to do it and it works. It’s a life strategy that I think anyone can employ.

David: How do you feel about the fact that many people have interpreted your music as the inspiration for a whole lifestyle – the Deadhead culture?

Jerry: Well, a little silly! (laughter) You always feel about your own work that it’s never quite what it should be. There’s always a dissonance between what you wish was happening and what is actually happening. That’s the nature of creativity, that there’s a certain level of disappointment in there.

So, on one level it’s amusing that

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