Andy Letcher looks like a pastiche of English folklore and history. Waxy-faced and cheery-eyed, Letcher sports broad-brimmed hats, clothes that look like they’ve been in mothballs for the better part of two centuries, and a long, twirled moustache above a pointy goatee. Such is his folk resonance that he was asked to pose as Guy Fawkes for the indie-occult graphic novel John Barleycorn Must Die. True to form as an English folk musician and neo-pagan, he spends a fair chunk of his life tromping across the moors of Devon, pondering the Anglo-Saxon deity Wotan, and playing his English border bagpipes. Unlike most in the neo-pagan world, however, he also spends a good deal of time thinking about psilocybin mushrooms, trance states, and how to expand the minds of others through folk music—perhaps without them even realizing it.
“In traditional European cultures that play the pipes, they’re a trance instrument, playing very simple, barbaric, repetitive tunes until everyone is in a frenzy and falling to the floor and frothing at the mouth,” says Letcher. Pulling on that tradition and attracted by the droning tambour of the pipes, he’s formed a bagpipe trio called Wod, an Anglo-Saxon word that means mad, furious, or possessed by a god. Rather than the short little rags and reels of modern Celtic music, though, Wod is a neo-pagan jam band, picking one tune and extemporizing around it for half an hour or more until, as he puts it, “that moment when the music is playing you and the dance is dancing the dancers. At that moment, it’s amazing.”
“I think this is the experience that people have found through rave culture, where the music is sublime. And the music is so good that you’re taken by it,” muses Letcher on the function of an hour-long three-pipe drone. “And I’m trying to do that in an organic way, through acoustic music, acoustic instruments, without amplification.”
Letcher is not talking out of his ass when he waxes poetic about the ties between rave culture, psychedelia, and his bagpipes. He actually wrote the book on magic mushrooms (or at least the first one based on more than layers of unconfirmed, questionable, and oft-repeated tales). It’s called, simply enough, Shroom. In the book and his other academic works, Letcher, who holds two PhDs in ecology and religious studies and just left a job as an instructor at Oxford Brookes University, explores the validity and value of psychedelic experiences and the human and natural history of psychedelic substances. In brief, he’s found no clear evidence for the intentional use of shrooms before the 1970s, nor any way of proving or sharing psychedelic experiences. But he has embraced the value of those experiences.
In that embrace, Letcher breaks sharply from your standard neo-pagan and folk musician trolling the English countryside. Many of them belong to one of the fractured groups of British Druids, Wicca, neo-Shamans, etc. that teach sets of spiritual technologies, practices, and paths to reach naturally altered states of mind—“naturally” being the key word. It can be threatening to such traditions, Letcher believes, for someone to pop by with a baggie of mushrooms and say, “Just take these and you’ll know.” Then there are the issues of illegality, the fear that they’ll make someone go insane or fall ill, and the lack of a social or spiritual framework (like that surrounding ayahuasca consumption in the Andes Mountains) to contextualize one’s difficult psychological experiences. All that makes Letcher’s position at the nexus of British psychedelia, folk music, and neo-paganism strange and lonely to begin with. And his willingness to speak out against the practices of his would-be peers—invoking goddesses and Earth mothers to explain what a dance or chant should mean—doesn’t win him many new friends.
Once upon a time, Letcher was like many other neo-pagan folk musicians: a practicing druid who believed the mythos that his faith and music were authentic recoveries from an idyllic pagan era. He got involved in direct democracy protests and wrote songs about the green man of the woods—pagan songs for pagan people—about identifying as something outside the mainstream, tied to the past. But in the mid-1990s, he encountered Ronald Hutton, a professor of pre-Christian British religion and neo-paganism, at a druid camp in Wiltshire. Over the course of 40 minutes, Hutton demolished all the mythos Letcher believed in and pushed him back into academia. In grappling with his shattered beliefs in a new university environment, Letcher decided to hold onto the mythology, magic, and music of his druid folk protestor days as images, tools, and vessels, set to a different purpose and speaking to a much wider audience than just fellow neo-pagans.
Now, on the days of certain festivals when he feels there’s the room and desire for something a little out of the ordinary, Letcher and his pipers descend into public spaces to, hopefully, whip people’s minds into a temporarily frenzied and altered state. Even if they don’t know that’s what’s going on. Letcher and company set up alongside other public performances and displays, don their costumes, and play, never announcing themselves as pagan, folk, or anything else.
“To the pagan people in the audience, it’s a pagan ritual,” says Letcher. “It’s very obvious that that’s what we’re doing. To the middle class burghers [regular folk] who come and jiggle about, it’s just something pleasant.”
By leaving the performances open-ended and non-didactic, Letcher hopes to draw people into his droning, repetitive songs until he feels something click. At that moment, he believes and hopes, “the music is playing us and the crowd will be dancing—a whole line of people doing a serpent dance through the crowd. And I think everyone feels it, even if not consciously.” Letcher sees this as a kind of magic in which he can transport people out of their minds through music and into a different reality. He thinks the audience may not be aware of what’s happening, but that they want it, even if they don’t know that’s the experience they’re craving—non-consensual enlightenment, if you will.
This isn’t just a process of trying to trip people into a parallel reality via bagpipes for the sake of trying to trip people into a parallel reality via bagpipes. For all his embrace of ambiguity, Letcher and his cohorts have a fairly mundane and clear goal. They’re all worried about climate change and the imbalance in the way humans relate to the non-human world. “My hope,” Letcher says, “is that through using paganism, music—even the judicious use of psychedelics where it’s appropriate—we can find a less one-sided relationship with the other-than-human world.” In other words, by altering individuals’ perceptions momentarily, he hopes they will see the world as enchanted, thereby inspiring them to treat their environment differently.
Although he’d be happy enough if others simply felt that the world were enchanted, Letcher believes the world is actually magical. Although, he admits, “I might be wrong. It might all be typhoons and parasites. But I don’t think so.”