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A Magazine for Sheffield

Synths, shrooms and the new sound

A new sound is being born right now in Sheffield. I followed a local trip-hop band around to understand what's going into its creation.

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Five grams is officially a heroic amount of shrooms.

Imagine a Yorkshireman and you're already picturing this man: let’s call him ‘Mr. Synth’. Buzzed head, bushy beard, broad shoulders. A look that’s hard and a voice that’s friendly: Yorkshire all over. Fifty years ago, he would have been working down the mines – now he's the vocalist in an up-and-coming Sheffield trip-hop band.

“What's it like?”

“Pretty fuckin’ weird. You know how normally we have reality all around us? Imagine that didn’t exist.”

I nod. “They used to grow near mi dad's 'ouse and I’d eat ‘em all time. Only, I didn't realise that when you pick them they grow back twice as strong. Then one day I got in a heated argument wi this tree – I remember some woman walked past and asked what I were doin’, and I said, 'Excuse me, do you mind? I’m talking to the tree.' Next thing I know I were back at mi dad's but without mi shirt on.”

Today I’m going to watch the band practice, and then we’re all going to take magic mushrooms. The studio’s sort of hidden – not on purpose, just in the way things get lost in a big city. Mr. Synth shows me the way: down an alley, past an abandoned office building, into a courtyard guarded by the ghosts of tossed-out chairs and an old AC unit. Finally, he takes me down into a basement.

“There’s a hole over there if you need a piss.”

“What if I need a shit?”

“Uh. Don’t.”

The room’s like somewhere they'd keep handy in case North Korea decides it's had enough. There’s rockwool up one wall and everything else is white brick and cement. Most bands that made it big practised in a room like this at some point. Bands move into a space like an invading army, make it theirs, turn it into a place where music gets made.

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The drummer – let’s call him ‘Drum Man’ – finally comes along with a case of Stella. Even though there’s only two of them, that’s all they need. Mr. Synth uses Ableton to create a backing track – it means he can work on music from his laptop at home, and the other two – Drum Man and the guitarist, who we’ll call ‘String Vibrations’ – can add in their own sound.

I’ve seen them do it a few times – each of them takes a part of the song and makes it theirs. Mr. Synth adjusts the synths like he’s operating the controls for the Enterprise. Drum Man uses all the space he has, filling up with this energy and then letting it out. String Vibrations sits there, completely still, eyes closed, only moving his fingers – his entire focus is the strings. Everyone communicates through the music, and no one person has total ownership over it. It’s a new way of doing things: a new sound.

I hear it happen when I’m there – the music taking on a life of its own. Mr. Synth throws in a quintuplet swing and it gives the music this drunken feel – Drum Man doesn’t say anything, but he understands and adjusts the beat, and there it is. There’s The Sound. I end up getting involved too, stamping on a Stella can while Mr. Synth samples it. This kind of creative energy draws everyone into it. It’s not a song yet, but it will be.

(Days later, when Mr. Synth comes to terms with his alcoholism, I venture the idea of working that into the track. That’s how these things go.)

After practice, String Vibrations meets us at his and Drum Man’s flat. String had been working that day – Drum Man could only come along because he had a day off. Both of these lads are working full time, but they channel the time and energy they have left into creating.

Synths and psychedelics go together like Tories and bribes, so of course Mr. Synth prepares the lemon tek (grind the mushrooms, soak in lemon juice, add to tea – I wrote a recipe for it the first time I took acid, but that’s a different story). I take the time to look around the flat. It’s a real place – it’s lived in and messy, like the studio. Like Sheffield. This city has its own energy, and I don’t know if these three could create the music they do without it.

We drink the tea, and thirty minutes later we’re all pissing ourselves laughing for some reason.

“What?” I ask.

“What do you mean what?” says Mr. Synth, and he’s completely right, of course. The totality of existence is fucking hilarious. We watch Fantasia on mute with music playing over it, and somehow, the two sync up perfectly. Walt Disney mouths along to Starfucker, and then the Sorcerer's Apprentice comes on and ‘Don’t Get Lost in Heaven’ plays along perfectly to the dream sequence. By the time ‘Praise You’ was playing over an animated crocodile and hippo doing ballet, it had become perfectly normal. Just the way things are. We’d all bought our tickets hours ago, and now we’d settled in.

“I never hear anyone mention this,” says Mr. Synth, “The actual feel of it. It's like moving through jelly, like you all merge together. It blurs the edges around things.”

He’s right again. Shrooms aren’t like LSD – they don’t really give you visuals in the same way. Everything’s in HD, there’s a shimmer if you look at something with a fine pattern and mandalas if you close your eyes, but mostly, it’s a feeling. Your body feels light and hollow, you can sense the energy in the air, and you can sort of tune in and out of people's frequencies. Good vibrations fill up the room, like a pressurised chamber, and you don't want to puncture it because then it'll all leak out. Acid makes you feel like you're on a spaceship, but shrooms make you feel like you're a mushroom, grounded and heavy.

The big danger is having a bad trip. It’s all about set and setting – your mindset and where you are. If you do it right, the Good Vibes Machine should be putting out so much positive energy that it overpowers the Bad Vibes Machine; but if you’re not careful, everything can spin out of balance.

That almost happened to us.

String Vibrations gets up to use the bathroom. He pops his head back through to say he feels sick, and then five seconds later, CRASH!

We all rush up to see what’s going on, and there he is – lying face-down in the hallway. Now we’re all panicking. None of us want to be the one to say “We need to go to a hospital”, but all of us will get done if we have to – if that’s what it takes to make sure he’s okay (this, incidentally, is the reason people who are responsible for wars and benefit cuts don’t take psychedelics). Then String Vibrations gets up – turns out he’d just overheated and went on a little vacation out of this dimension.

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“I felt sick,” he told me later. “Then I felt really sick, then I felt really, really sick. Then I passed out for years, and when I came back, Drum Man was on top of me shaking me awake.”

“What did you see?”

There was nothing and I was nothing, there was one and I was one. Just this DNA helix spinning, and nothing else. I had a great time.

If you don’t know what DMT is, it’s the stuff that your brain releases when it thinks you’re about to die. It can make five seconds feel like five years. The psilocybin must have dislodged it, and when String Vibrations passed out he briefly left planet Earth. Now there’ll always be a dent on the floor in the hallway where String Vibrations met God and totally fucked the clotheshorse.

Shrooms makes you think about everything in terms of energy and vibrations. On the bus ride home, basking in the warmth of the afterglow, I thought about this city. I’ve lived here for a couple of weeks now, but cities like Sheffield have a way of getting inside you. The greenery everywhere, the way you can’t walk ten minutes without the city opening up. This city’s filled with thousands of stories like this one: people doing the things they want to do, refusing to be kept down by the law or by the expectations of society – following a dream that never dies.

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