The Psychedelic Tale of Terence McKenna's Forgotten Music About DMT
In collaboration with the synth explorers Zuvuya, the "Timothy Leary of the 90s" made two albums nearly as hallucinatory as the psychedelic substance that drove his work.
Illustration by Nicole Teitel/Photo by Jon Hanna
Terence McKenna, the late ethnobotanist and author, was a true polymath. In addition to his research on metaphysics and hallucinogenic shamanism—which earned him the dubious honor as the “Timothy Leary of the ‘90s”—he was a lecturer, briefly a hashish smuggler, and even once a professional butterfly hunter. These are the common stories that follow him around, the colorful anecdotes that easily stick to a man heavily involved in philosophy and psychedelia. But fewer people are aware that McKenna was also involved in the early rave scene, both in the U.S. and abroad, often spouting his unique psychedelic philosophy before tripping crowds while trance music rumbled and cascading fractals were projected onscreen.
The best example of this is probably Alien Dreamtime, a live recording of a 1993 multimedia event performed by Spacetime Continuum at the Transmission Theater in San Francisco. There’s also “Re: Evolution,” a 1992 acid techno-drenched single by The Shamen, featuring McKenna’s predictions that “history is ending,” what he called the “Archaic Revival.” This was long before everyone from psytrance producers like Shpongle to Wizack Twizack began sampling McKenna’s discourses in their meandering epics. Even Sheryl Crow once mentioned the techno-shaman’s credo that “The cosmos sits on the tip of a pin.”
But of all these recording efforts—before it became cliché—a practically unknown band called Zuvuya seems to have captured Terence McKenna best. Aside from a few singles, the ambient trio from the United Kingdom only produced two full-length albums, Dream Matrix Telemetry and Shamania, both of which were recorded with McKenna around 1993.
Zuvuya—the name is lifted from a Mayan term for “The Big Memory Circuit”—was Paul Chousmer, Phil Pickering, and Mick West. They were all veterans of the underground psychedelic music scene through the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when ex-mortician and promoter Christian Paris would host a “psychedelic fun house” at a club called Alice In Wonderland or drive people out to the middle of nowhere for Magical Mystery Trips, such as raves in the Chislehurst Caves. There were even free parties at Stonehenge before Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent in cops to break up the annual festival in 1985, in what became known as the Battle of the Beanfield.
“The E Generation had quite an interest in shamanism and Buddhism, which followed on from the pagan ethos around Stonehenge,” Chousmer says in an interview with Noisey. “I think many in the E Generation were looking for meaning in the drug-taking beyond mere hedonism, so when they heard Terence, in his attractive Californian drawl, coherently describe his experiences and theories, it really struck a chord, and many started to see him as a guru.”
Chousmer met Pickering in 1983 in a band called Ring of Roses, that was signed to RCA for £100,000. But the lead singer, James Vane, blew it all without releasing anything.
“Apart from the betrayal, and being cheated out of money, I reckon I was lucky to get away from that talentless shitshow,” Chousmer says. “Who’s ever heard of Ring of Roses? They didn’t make a single record. Nothing! A real case of style over content.”
Chousmer just wanted to make music, he says, so he hooked up with Pickering in Cornwall to form a psychedelic prog rock outfit called Webcore, joined by local poet Mick West. Before dissolving in 1987, Webcore played in clubs and squat parties around London, often with Chousmer’s other project Another Green World, an ambient band that later evolved into Zuvuya around 1991.
Zuvuya held onto that “deeply pagan philosophical undercurrent,” as they described themselves. Richard Allen of the psychedelically minded boutique label Delirium Records was encouraging to many of the bands on the scene at the time, Chousmer says. It was he, according to Chousmer, who suggested the collaboration between Zuvuya and McKenna and set it up. McKenna was staying with his friend, researcher Rupert Sheldrake, on Hampstead Heath, and the band was invited there for an “interview,” which was eventually spread out across two records.
Zuvuya’s second album, Shamania, is more dance-driven, littered with throat-tingling didgeridoos while Dream Matrix Telemetry, true to its initials, mirrors an experience with N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT.
DMT is a potent, naturally-occurring psychedelic, and one of the main active ingredients in the entheogenic brew ayahuasca. When smoked, the effects of DMT are short-lived—around 15 minutes—but even a brief trip can produce profound mystical experiences in some people. Dr. Rick Strassman famously called it the “Spirit Molecule,” and many users, including McKenna, profess encounters with otherworldly beings, which he labeled “machine elves.”
“What’s going on, on the other side, is these machine elf gnome creatures speak in a language which you see,” McKenna says amongst tribal breakbeats on “The Whisper in Trees” off Shamania.
But Dream Matrix does a better job of emulating an actual DMT experience, even if the album, which is one 53-minute track, is about three times as long as a typical trip. It begins slow, with dreamlike fluttering, McKenna’s voice popping in and out, explaining what a DMT experience entails in echoing, drifting cadence. The whirling grows stronger, filled with laughing children, rushing waterfalls, before warping to a buzzing temple setting resonating with garbled chanting and alien trilling.
As someone who has sampled “the businessman’s LSD,” as some call it, the album transports me back to that endless, throbbing hallway of Aztec skulls and wallpapers of all-seeing eyes. The last few minutes of the album are a kind of interdimensional comedown, the world coming back into focus with a humming inner glow.
“It is like a hyper-cosmic carnival that actually camps in your mind. The boy in the bottle, the goat-faced girl,” McKenna says. “I somehow shattered the membrane between myself and ordinary space.”
The machine elves, which McKenna describes as “jeweled, self-dribbling basketballs,” make a sonic appearance as gibbering alien-like sounds. Just listening, it can feel as if they’ve manifested in front of you.
“I think the ‘machine elves’ sounds came through chaining up several effects in a Yamaha SPX90,” Chousmer says. “This was very early in the studio revolution of computer production—long before plugins came along. I don’t remember the recording setup, but I was using a Korg M1, also a Roland Jupiter 6, plus a Roland SH09.”
Getting McKenna on tape, however, was a little easier.
“I rigged up a mic to a portable DAT recorder, put it in front of Terence, and then he just talked, and talked! He didn’t need much stimulus. Just liked riffing away on his favorite themes,” Chousmer recalls. “I was quite in awe of actually meeting Terence, but he was very laidback…I remember his teenage son [Finn] was there also.”
The late Fraser Clarke, founder and editor of Encyclopaedia Psychedelica, was instrumental in bringing Terence McKenna over to the U.K. and Zuvuya played at some of his readings in small bookstores.
“They were strange audiences. They mostly seem to worship him, all sitting on the floor, you know,” Chousmer says. “And he was just riffing, the way he does, and we were just playing very laidback stuff behind. You know, just a couple of synths really.”
But Zuvuya didn’t last much longer after that. The band didn’t play many shows or tour much and now has scarce web presence, dominated by two other groups—one from New Zealand, the other from Colorado—that share the same name. I tried to contact Pickering and West, but couldn’t find them.
“It just fizzled out really,” Chousmer says. “My eldest was born and I started teaching at a local college, and really, that just became my focus.”
Eventually, Pickering “buggered off” to Colombia, as Chousmer puts it, and they never spoke again. West was rumored to have gotten into harder drugs, which Chousmer didn’t want near his new family, although he says, “I didn't really see it myself, I just heard about it and just didn't want it around me so…”
Perhaps this is fitting for a band so indebted to the psychedelic experience. Dreamlike, brief, and then gone—just like a spark against a certain waxy, orange substance in a glass bulb that teleports you to an oddly familiar place you’ve never visited before.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey US.