Psychedelic Drugs, Art, Music, and Other Drugs: An Interview with Finn McKenna
I talked to Terence McKenna's son, Finn, about a wide range of topics including LSD, H.P. Lovecraft, London, visionary art, and "a revolutionary musical video game that will immerse players in a psychedelic experience."
Photo and art courtesy of Finn McKenna
Last week in this column, I interviewed Terence McKenna's daughter, Klea. This week, I've interviewed Terence's son, Finn, who was born in 1978. I talked to Finn on the phone for about an hour and a half-the longest I've talked to anyone on the phone in probably five years-and a few days later I emailed him some questions about his art, drugs, psychedelics, and childhood.
His answers covered a range of topics including Flann O'Brien, Robert Crumb, LSD, tobacco, hash spliffs, opiates, ketamine, mushrooms, MDMA, cocaine, toxic levamisole, DMT, ayahuasca, tryptamines, cannabis, graffiti and street art, Greg Egan, H.P. Lovecraft, H. R. Giger, London, the medium catching up to the message, visionary art, "a revolutionary musical video game that will immerse players in a psychedelic experience," and more. Finn's interests seemed to begin with psychedelics, but then expanded to include other things-kind of the opposite for most people with an interest in psychedelics, I think. As he said in our interview, "Psychedelic drugs, art, and music were my primary interests as a teenager before sex and other drugs took center stage."
VICE: An article published in 1993-when you were 15 years old-quoted your father as saying this about you, regarding drugs: "I tell the truth and educate him and let him make his own choices." What has been your experience with drugs?
Finn McKenna: Psychedelics began to influence me from the moment I was conceived. If one takes the incident at La Chorrera seriously, which might be absurd since no one claims to understand it, then perhaps the DNA of my Y chromosome has been intercalated by an alien intelligence.
When I could speak and ask questions I did so relentlessly and my parents always answered me honestly and openly. I can recall conversations about psychedelics as early as three. Later I was present while my parents led ayahuasca sessions and took mushrooms. I helped my father pound vine when I was old enough to wield the sledge hammer. The sight and smell of his ever-present hash and NorCal bud smoking rituals were the backdrop for all daily household happenings. The smell of burning hashish has always been my favorite scent. My life is utterly smudged by hash.
The idea of hallucinating or having visions fascinated me and I looked forward with anticipation and excitement to someday having my own experiences. I recall a conversation over dinner where I was told that hallucinations were like being in a living cartoon. Still to this day I hope to become a living cartoon character, not such a far-fetched idea if one accepts that reality is a hallucination. (I highly recommend reading The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien.) Virtually unimpeded access to the outlandish imagery and ideas of science fiction, rare books, underground comics, and strange art that were sitting on the shelves of the family library filled my imagination and fueled my interest in alterity.
It sounds like an intense childhood-one filled with even more "magic" than a normal childhood. Can you share an anecdote from it?
When I was eight we lived in Hawaii and my parents rented an office in Honaunau as a base of operations for their fledgling non-profit Botanical Dimensions, which is still actively run by my mom Kathleen Harrison, an accomplished ethnobotanist. One day a box of weird 70s underground comics mysteriously appeared on the steps of my parents' office, including an issue of Zap that contained a piece by R. Crumb called "R. Crumb Versus the Sisterhood" about him fighting with a gang of buxom feminists and crawling through a woman's vagina into her womb and then stimulating her to orgasm from the inside. I barely understood how female anatomy worked and this blew my young mind so completely that reading that comic for the first time was a psychedelic experience. I secretly kept it and a few other inflammatory issues hidden in the outhouse, which was up a rough trail near our home in the jungle of South Kona that sits over a very deep, dark pit of truly primal Lovecraftian terror called a pooka. It is there I read these unfathomably bizarre and profane works over and over without my parents' knowledge, well aware that I was in possession of magical texts so powerfully dark and weird that even my freaky hippie parents would have objected to them.
I had a prolonged personal crisis of conscience over this, and was fraught with guilt knowing that I was breaking all kinds of social rules, but simultaneously I was so fascinated that I could not stop going to the lua to reread these comics. So great was my stress that I actually whited out the profanity with careful precision emulating the lettering style perfectly so the ruse would be effective if my parents ever discovered my collection. Of course it never would have fooled anyone since the whiteout was clearly visible and in some cases like the Crumb story there was no way to make the sex less graphic. As my paranoia reached a crescendo I finally threw my precious comics down the pooka of the lua to be devoured by monsters and fecal bacteria. My crime was concealed and my mind returned to a disturbed but bearable state.
What are some of your favorite drugs?
I like many drugs, but aside from tobacco and hash spliffs, and before that mixed rips, I try to use them without over-using them. I have failed to do this in some cases but always bounced back without needing rehabilitation or extreme measures. Tobacco is the main exception. I love it, struggle with it, and have not been able to quit smoking it.
I also enjoy opiates and various stimulants, but these have to be taken in moderation or issues of tolerance and dependence quickly arise. Ketamine can be great but only if taken in fully immersive doses on LSD with just the right music. Mushrooms also have been deeply influential on me and were my first mind-blowing psychedelic experience even before cannabis, but I have not taken them much as an adult, preferring LSD. I never liked MDMA and wrote it off long ago-I think it causes deep lasting E-tardation. I did cocaine in my 20s but not much in many years, because it makes me feel anxious in a way that is quite unpleasant and unless it's really great coke it's full of toxic levamisole. Other than a beer or two or a glass of wine now and then I no longer really drink alcohol for the same reason: it makes me feel bad. I can honestly say that I hate being drunk.
You mentioned you preferred LSD to mushrooms. Can you talk about LSD some more?
The drug that has influenced me the most and my favorite psychedelic by far is LSD. I love the power of self-assessment it brings. The blazing light of clarification it shines has shaped my perception more than any other drug. I take LSD to elevate my thought process when I want to think really hard about something or need inspiration, and it's great for scribbling or making music. I usually take it alone in isolation or with one or two close friends. LSD is deeply misunderstood, and the demonization of it is a great tragedy in the progression of human understanding of self and mind.
What do you think about DMT?
To use the word "like" with something as strange and overwhelming as DMT seems inappropriate but I deeply appreciate the content it delivers. Ayahuasca is another and arguably more effective way to experience that content. When it works it really works. Given the arduous process involved in taking ayahuasca, once again I can't really say that I enjoy it but I have had some absolutely spectacular visions on it. Some are beautiful beyond words but I have also seen deeply frightening things that are disturbing to recall. Yet, those things are still beautiful. Beauty is the unifying theme; regardless of whether the visions elate or disturb, when it is working and the DMT is firing off, the visions are truly breathtaking.
How would you compare DMT and ayahuasca?
Some would say that ayahuasca is more spiritual than smoking DMT but I don't think that the spiritual can be quantified and spirituality is a slippery concept at best. While there are skilled ayahuasceros out there who know the icaros and can guide the experience effectively, they have become harder and harder to come by. This is problematic because it is usually taken with a group of people who often don't really know each other or the brew itself and without the direction of a capable and experienced ayahuascero they tend to make a lot of noise, sometimes they freak out, and are often prone to being manipulated by whomever is leading the circle. After seeing enough of this I would rather take it with a few close friends who know the territory than risk having to endure a long, loud night of such nonsense. Inevitably I will probably endure it again though. I am more interested in the experience than in its cultural trappings. It is now the most sanctified and religiose drug experience on earth and tends to lend itself to preistcraft, bullshit cults, and squirreliness in general. This is no fault of the drug but of the rapidly expanding, global retail culture that surrounds it.
What do you think about using psychedelics "for fun" vs. using them for what people might call "spiritual" or "psychotherapeutic" reasons?
There is surely nothing wrong with casually taking drugs for fun or simply to explore one's mind without it being a part of some intellectual quest or projected spiritual framework of self-improvement. Yes, this applies even to ayahuasca. There is an over-emphasis on using psychedelics to do noble self-directed psychotherapy on oneself or access something spiritual which cannot be defined clearly. Often the line between recreation and introspection, or ludible and ceremonial use, is blurred and porous. Many trips contain both, and besides, fun is good for you and joy is medicine.
That said, I agree with Terence that the central, deepest expression of the psychedelic state is found through taking a high dose of tryptamines alone in the dark and simply watching and listening with an open mind. I'll admit that I wish I did this more often.
What's been your experience with cannabis?
I was a devout stoner for 20 years and only in the last few have gotten that addiction under control. People who say cannabis is not addictive are simply wrong and often in denial of their own use. But I did quit and now I don't use cannabis anymore at all. I have no interest in revisiting it anytime soon. Weed is a religion, and a set of perceptions that are a cul-de-sac in thinking which is invisible to those who use it all the time.
Your father-as I wrote about in "Cannabis: The Central Practice of Terence McKenna's Life"-smoked weed every day of his life except for a few-month period (and when he didn't have it due to travel or other reasons). What do you think would've happened if he'd gone, say, ten years as an adult without it?
I think that if Terence had ever truly come out of the smoke-cloud we would have seen an entirely different set of ideas arise from him and it would have been very interesting. Some state-bound ideas I attribute to the closed-loop of stonerthink: world peace or the sentiment "Can't we all just get along?" No, we can't.
Also the idea that "everyone should just smoke herb and the world would be so much better" is absurd. Cannabis causes a kind of relativistic detachment about what other people think and do that is summarized by the vague statement "whatever." I reject this and think that what everyone on this little planet thinks and does matters on some level, and affects everyone else. Now more than ever.
Psychedelics and your art-or your interests in visual art-have some relation. Can you talk a little about that?
Psychedelic drugs, art, and music were my primary interests as a teenager before sex and other drugs took center stage. Before I embraced being a stoner and built a tolerance, I felt as though every time I smoked weed I was tapping into the place that my first experiences with tryptamines had showed me: a breathtaking and often terrifying world of indescribable beauty inhabited by beings and machines of all sizes from tiny to titanic that stretches like a web over my own comparatively mundane, yet miraculous world of force and friction-a concept I discovered in the work of the writer Greg Egan, one of my primary literary heroes whose book Diaspora is so mind-blowing that it led Terence to suggest that he must be "a time-traveler from the future."
What other connections do you see between your art and drugs?
My mind and art at the age of drug discovery suddenly got much darker and weirder. I was heavily inspired by the visible language of graffiti that adorned San Francisco. Tagging along with Terence and the charming gangs of squirrels and nutty drug freaks that surrounded him as his career took off, I first encountered megalithic London and the swarming hive of Manhattan, as epic concrete graffiti sketchbooks to be absorbed and emulated as I scribbled page after page of twisted little faces, ridiculous beings, and ambiguous word-art which all became my permanently dominant themes.
Long bursts of drug-fueled scribbling produced wacky characters with impossibly deformed anatomy that insulated me from the culture I was becoming aware of and fascinated with but increasingly alienated from. People often ask if these beings are what I see when I trip. No, they are what happens when I put pen to paper. What I see when I trip is barely describable and utterly undrawable. My illustrations are only a crude micro-reflection of what I feel needs to be penetrated by art but now that we finally live in a sci-fi future, the tools to produce art that delivers a reflection of the indescribable are better than ever. The medium is starting to catch up with the message although I don't even pretend to know what the message is.
Are you a fan of art that people specifically say is inspired by psychedelics, often called "psychedelic art" or sometimes "visionary art"?
Unfortunately, psychedelic-influenced art has grown decidedly less psychedelic with the re-invention of "visionary art," a title as inappropriate and inflated as much of the art that has co-opted this term is embarrassingly self-serious to the point of being painful to look at.
I acknowledge that some of the art under the visionary art heading is absolutely great and there is nothing wrong with art that basks only in the light just like there is nothing wrong with showing only darkness. However, an honest attempt at representing the psychedelic state brings some of both. The "sacred-geo" white light and rainbows, god-within imagery, and rhetoric that dominates much of the current artistic expression of psychedelics is like a Disney version of DMT plastered with new age epithets written by Hallmark. In its lopsided over-emphasis on "positivity," it betrays the egoless and multi-faceted complexity of the experience. The scene is severely lacking in the irony, biting humor, and cosmic ridiculousness that Terence articulated and which I embrace and try to represent.
Where have you found art that depicts the psychedelic state in a manner that feels true, or more true, to your experience?
There are many good reflections of the psychedelic state being as beautiful as it is terrifying and as sacred as it is often profane, hilarious, irreverent, and ironic. These can be found in graffiti and street art, underground comics, alternative comics, graphic novels, animated cartoons, and the pop surrealism and lowbrow art represented by Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose magazines, as well as the dark and often erotic art of Heavy Metal magazine, which Terence collected since its inception and which deeply inspired us both.
Writers like Philip K. Dick, Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling, Greg Egan, Jeff Noon, and H. P. Lovecraft and the very dark artwork of H.R. Giger and the art of R.S. Connett, are crucial examples of truly honest efforts to bring forth the ineffable weirdness that is undeniably a part of the psychedelic mind space that visionary art often leaves out or attempts to sweep under the rug. If you are going to represent the psychedelic experience you should be as honest as possible about it.
Some people use the term "entheogen" to describe what we've been calling "psychedelics." A brief history of this is on Wikipedia. Any thoughts on that?
I find the implied religiosity in the word "entheogen" misleading and inferior to the word "psychedelic". Trying to infuse the psychedelic experience with fuzzy half-baked pseudo-religious ideology is utterly missing the point. We must resist the urge to sanctify and seal up what is at best only a vague and pale understanding of the mystery.
What are you working on now?
The current project that I am obsessed with and that my small team is excruciatingly incubating is a revolutionary musical video game that will immerse players in a psychedelic experience. We intend it to be seriously next-level shit. Since I am currently courting investors for this vast undertaking, nothing more can be said about it at this time.
Next week, in the concluding post to this column, I'll share some interesting things about Terence McKenna that I wasn't able to fit into the other posts, as well as a chronological guide to McKenna's literary influences.
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Finn McKenna can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org