Light Hallucinations With Ivan Smagghe
As journalistic assignments go, this one was unusual:
“So Mike – you know that hypnagogic light machine that made you trip out at Farr Festival that time?”
“Well we think it’d be good if we started rigging up DJs to it, and then you interview them afterwards.”
“Sounds like good craic – give me a few more goes on it and we have ourselves a deal.”
“Oh and by the way, you’ve got to collect the machine from Westbourne Park and take it across London to our offices in Liverpool Street.”
“And by the way again, you’ll be interviewing Ivan Smagghe who is also going to be our guest editor for the week, so he’ll be editing the article in whatever way he wants to afterwards.”
This was a guaranteed pain in the arse, but I knew firsthand the potential of this machine – the world quite simply needed to know more about it. And in Smagghe, we’d landed the optimum mentalist. He’d have taken enough acid in his time. He likes art and stuff. He’s bound to get it.
So from all this you can guess that the hypnagogic light machine (or the “Lucia No 3” to give it the exact title) has psychedelic elements to it. By closing your eyes and having white light projected through your eyelids, you see all manner of trippy visuals. Think DMT, think acid, think when you were a kid and your dad spun you around and made you dizzy.
But this is not something as linear as simply getting high – it’s an all together more polite experience than any of the above, and yet still has the potential to be unexplainably profound. At a superficial level there are always the visuals to hang on to, but the real prize lies in the quasi-meditative state it can put you in to and how the mind proceeds to view the world afterwards. And then there’s the music. Throughout the experience you’re plugged into headphones, zoning in and out of the sound depending on what the light is doing. Get the music right and the results can be incredible.
Believe it or not, the machine was actually developed in an attempt to replicate a near-death experience. The Lucia No 3 is the work of Dr. Engelbert Winkler (a clinical psychologist) and Dr. Dirk Proecki (a neurologist), who, in short, were looking to replicate the healing properties of the brain’s release of DMT when it senses death. (see below)
The holy grail here is to achieve the process of “spontaneous remission”, where the brain – suddenly awash with DMT secreted from the pineal gland – activates a powerful healing process in the body. While there’s no data out there that says we’ve suddenly found a cure for cancer, the little data that does exist relating to this machine is certainly encouraging. In a mere psychological sense, the benefits are pretty obvious to pretty much anyone who uses it. An extended period of what is effectively mediation, combined with the release of useful brain chemicals, must surely be a good thing.
But more to the point, what did Ivan make of it? We join proceedings after Ivan has just completed his 40-minute stint.
“Interesting….. errrm…errr…. interesting! Coil was a good choice. I was listening to the lyrics about the cage and I was like ‘Holy Shit – here we go!’”
The dark, psychotic lunacy of Coil was Ivan’s choice. He was quite clear about this. He wanted it to be twisted.
So other than “interesting”, what else would you say about the machine?
"It looks like Wil’s wardrobe!"
"I think if I was to do this with psychedelics it would be too much. It’s enough for me! This would drive me mental if I wasn’t listening to the right music. Coil has got no beat… it’s all about stories. Coil is very intense, very religious, very intense music. I had the feeling – maybe it was the song – but I had that feeling of being in a cage and trying to grasp something that is there but you can’t grab it. ”
It was interesting that you wanted familiar music… when I did it the first time I wanted unfamiliar music because I wanted to concentrate on the light. How did the light change the music?
"The music changed the light, I’d like to think. The good thing with Coil is that it’s got no beat. Doing that with beats would drive me mental. It would be like being in a giant rave… this was more like taking acid because of the music, because of the whole ‘where are you?’ thing."
When have you used light to manipulate a musical experience in the past?
"I haven’t used it in that way. For me there’s a whole aesthetic that’s linked to something I don’t come from, like psychedelic trance. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, but it’s not linked to what I would pick as a creative use of light. I’d be more attracted to something a lot softer and darker…. this kind of light is like a punch in the face."
What other stuff have you done with lighting in relation to your performances?
"I remember the first night we did, the first thing we did was break all the lights because we thought there were too many lights in the club! What you want is just one red neon and maybe just one strobe. Club means dark for me. The closest I’ve seen to really good light in a club is Robert Johnson. They’ve got neon but there’s no moving light. All of that means that you get lost in another way. "
As we’re on the theme of altered states in music, when you’ve produced and when you’ve DJ'd, what have your experiences been when you’ve been in an altered state?
"I don’t really make music in an altered state. Well I have but it’s a different thing… you start creating in that state but…. making music is quite tedious…"
"Whenever I’ve done it on drugs or whatever, you can do something that’s quite funny but it doesn’t get rid of the tedious work you have to do afterwards…. you’re making loops and you’re quite enjoying making them, that’s for sure, but there’s always the moment where you’ve got to go ‘right – they need to stop and I need to get on with work’. And sometimes you make a record that puts you in that state of mind."
"It’s really funny because I’ve made music with people who have never taken ecstasy and I have to try to explain… and I think you can actually – they can get it if they’re proper musicians. After a while they get what goes where and what it means. They get it that certain chords will work…"
The repetition as well. You have to get them to believe that the repetition is interesting enough to sustain the musical idea without the need for the melodic variation you might see in something classical for example.
"Yes. And certain chords are banned! If you’re more of an old school E-taker, you’re going to like minor chords. There are certain progressions and it’s always one note, one chord."
It’s basically just the right hand of the piano isn’t it? Pretty much every lead line across dance music can be played with just one hand, probably in just one octave.
"Yep, it’s just one chord and a variation of the same chord, because people who used to make it couldn’t make music!"
It’s interesting if you look at mixdowns as well. You look at heavy metal or rock… it’s bright, it’s high treble, probably to make up for the fact that the people listening to it have their senses numbed by alcohol or perhaps amphetamines. With house/techno it’s a whole different approach because of the different substances.
"Yes, I agree."
Are you thinking consciously of stuff like that when you’re producing, i.e. ‘how will people on drugs perceive this’?
"Of course! Always! What would I be making music for otherwise? I guess certain people like certain music on drugs and other people might like different music. But it’s always there. There are different moments with the drugs, different types of drugs… there’s repetition but there can also be very musical things that are quite druggy. It’s in my blood! I’ve been taking ecstasy for 25 years! So it’s always there, but I’m not going to make it too obvious. I like to make it weird. Some stuff I do is more druggy than others, but it’s always there."
"I don’t really like cocaine music. That’s disco diggin’ idiots! I like cocaine but I don’t like cocaine music. QUOTE! I don’t want you to be on coke, I only want me to be on coke! I don’t want the audience on it."
Do you ever picture a particular venue or dance floor that a song is going to be delivered on when you’re making music?
"No, because that would be a bit megalomaniac wouldn’t it?"
Just to go back a bit, I’m still surprised that you said ‘the music changed the light’ rather than ‘the light changed the music’…
"But I’m a musician! To me it’s the music triggering the changes more than anything else."
I ask because I think music is a very changeable art form depending on what context it’s delivered. When I’ve been put under those lights, I’ve felt a deeper connection with certain music than in any other environment. To me, if any art form changes radically because of its environment, it’s music.
"You haven’t listened to Coil mate! Coil were insane, they were into dark psychedelics. We’re not talking about Little Fluffy Clouds here. The song is called The Cage… I’m in the cage! It’s the dark side of it. I’m much more interested in that."
So let’s compare music to the written word for example. At school, when you’re taught literature at a basic level, you’re given a gazillion different possible meanings for each sentence. Out of the box, at the point of creation, it’s supposed to have a meaning. And yet with music you’re taught how to read music but the meaning is rarely mentioned – it’s like you have to get the meaning for yourself…
"If you really study music then it doesn’t leave room for that much interpretation because it’s maths. Music is maths… it’s a grid. Notation is the closest thing to mathematical formulas you’ll ever find. Chords are maths, rhythm is maths. So it’s pretty fixed. Then the emotion that you feel is a different thing. The written word… I think it’s because it has meaning that you can interpret it in many ways."
Because the meaning of the written word is already documented?
"It says something so you react in a way… “oh it says that”. Music is a mixture of maths and something very physical. I’m always convinced that if you take a very famous poem and a very famous piece of classical music, you’d get a lot more different interpretations of the poem, but the piece of classical music will trigger the same things… ish… in most people."
"Text is not the same thing… with music you’re not imposing meaning, but with a poem you’re imposing meaning which says something, unless it’s really really abstract. Music… you listen to it, but you don’t have to. 90% of people listening to music are listening to it in a supermarket or something. There’s one way to read a poem. A piece of music… I’ll give you ten ways to listen to it… in a club, in the car, in headphones. I don’t think it’s about the creative process, it’s about how you receive it. But it’s a pointless question – it’s like comparing sport. It’s all sport. It’s like comparing football with swimming."
Ivan being Ivan, he’ll still take 10 minutes to answer a pointless question – there’s just no interrupting him. Might as well hit him with the electroclash question while we’re at it. He’ll be particularly unimpressed with that one…
Did the phrase “electroclash” help or hinder your career?
"Ah, so this is what we’re talking about now is it? Of course it helped! I’ve got no shame. I was there when it happened – me and a few other people started it so I’m not going to run away from it. I know some people don’t like it but then it’s going to come back and then they’re going to pretend."
What makes you think that it’s coming back… simply the passage of time?
"Yes, the passage of time. And it’s in the logic, because what we’ve been fucking fed for the last two or three years was similar to what triggered the rebellion of electroclash, so it’s only normal that if we’re back to what it was before… in fact it’s already here… if you listen to Red Axes, that’s electroclash. The real question is; why is electroclash the bad word? Deep house is okay, techno’s okay but electroclash… no no no. It’s because it went too far. But it all goes too far. Look at Joe Smooth – Promised Land… fucking disgusting catholic house! Horrible. They always play it as a last tune… I mean fuck off! I hate revivals of things that were shit in the first place. Ugh!"
As you’re editing the site, let’s talk about editorial control in this day and age…
"We’ll talk about that. We’ll talk about my boots and my whip. I will be Das Editor!"
"Chop chop! Come on! On my desk!"
It’s quite obvious that there’s less money in journalism these days, so editorial control has been eroded and sometimes quality goes down, but on the other hand, there’s more opportunity to just go for it and publish whatever you want. How do you rate the creative output of journalism now as against the old days when it was stronger commercially?
"I don’t read it. I’m not interested."
Did you ever?
"Not really. I used to work in it a lot, but I don’t need anyone to tell me “this drum & bass is the best new thing blah blah blah."
But what about all of the interviews you do? Like the RA Exchange you did recently… do you like the fact that nowadays there can be an hour of Ivan Smagghe, pretty much unedited?
"I don’t really care. I only did it because they asked me."
"You should see how quickly I can write answers for email interviews, because I already know what the questions are going to be. When I get an idea like “I like coke, I don’t like coke music”, you can see that in about 20 interviews, and because I’ve been doing this for 20 years, I’ve got all of these particular routines. Unless the journalist is really good and tries to move you to the side, but I’ve already offered so many sides like “oh, I’ve heard you’re not only into music, but you’re into books and movies” and I’m like “yeah, duh!”. So I’ve created my own little thing which for me is really easy… interviews are so easy."
What do you wish music journos would ask you?
"Dunno. Errm… do you want a drink? Do you want a bump? I’ll tell you the new trend that I don’t like which is basically, they ask you to do all the work – it’s the non-interview – like: “can you give us a playlist of 10 movies and include the youtube links?"
“Can you come and edit the site please?” (El Wardrobe chimes in from the corner of the room)
"No that’s different. That’s fun! But when they ask you to do everything, like: “so we need 10 of your movie influences with the youtube links” and I’m like “are you fucking kidding?”. So they want me to sort the moments in the movies, and the movies, and then they want me to write five or six lines about each thing. You know, that’s the new journalism: “write five or six lines about your favourite stuff”. So the journalist doesn’t do anything…"
Just copy and paste journalism (El Wardrobe again)
"Usually I put a mistake or some really rude stuff just to see if he actually reads it, and usually they don’t. Or I answer the wrong question… “what’s your favourite fruit? Yeah – I love that movie”. They don’t notice it. That’s what they do – they get the thing, they put it out."
"Another problem is, I always get ideas after the interview’s done."
Well you can just add them to this one.
"Yes! We can do different-coloured pens. Give me three different-coloured pens. One for cliches, one for bad grammar, one for “just no”. We’ll go with cliches in blue, red is like “just no”, and then I’ll add stuff. And you can scan it. I’ve got to sort out bad grammar. You know me… grammar nazi."
You’ll struggle to find bad grammar in my articles bonny lad.
"That’s a bold claim. Be careful. I am Das Editor. Okay, maybe not “bad grammar”, more like, “I understand what you’re saying but can you formulate it a bit better please?”
So you’ll probably be doing a lot of editing of yourself then.
"It is the job of the editor to go… “this is too long!!!”
(repeated slamming on desk ensues)
"Redundant! Redundant! Too long!"
(another slam on desk)
And on it went. They tell me that the hypnagogic light machine has been used effectively to treat people with ADHD… well Ivan Smagghe is living proof that this is utter nonsense. During the interview he probably covered a mile’s worth of distance wheeling his chair across the room and back again, unable to sit still, interrupting his own answers with the sound of squeaky wheels.
Or was this actually not ADHD? Was this, in fact, simply Ivan’s standard reaction to second-rate questioning?
Let's see what the pen says…
IVAN SMAGGHE EDIT BELOW….
For more info on Lucia no. 03 contact HERE or visit HERE. We will be beginning a series of sessions with the machine at Ransom Note HQ in the coming months. Watch this space for details on how to experience it.