Shpongle & Psychedelics:
An Interview with Simon Posford
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