Music is better with drugs (is better with music): Making music while under the influence
by Liam Hansen (they/them)
illustrations by Lucy Higgins (she/they)
This article contains references to drug use
*All names have been changed, except for Sam Denne because they were keen for their music to be plugged. Listen to Baecorps' Joy on Tick if you haven’t!
Musicians do a lot of drugs - or at least, they talk about it the most. A musician and a sales assistant may take the same amount each week, but only one of them has an audience to discuss it with (that is, unless you have a teenage sales clerk bragging about how they smoked ‘three whole weeds’ last week while you’re trying to buy an air fryer).
But it’s often difficult to separate the two, as so many genres, like stoner rock, acid rock, and psychedelia, are linked to substance-use, from everything down to their names. While not all purveyors of these styles are necessarily druggies, the origins are impossible to ignore. This is especially true if you're a square like myself, who had half their drug education take place through song lyrics I didn’t understand yet. Having a GeorgeFM Mum and hearing "I'm in love with the coco'' on repeat really does something to ya.
But does taking drugs actually have any impact on the sound, style, or quality of your music? Sure, there’s links between certain substances and subgenres, but I doubt a swig of rum will cause a group of regular dudes to start singing sea shanties at the top of their lungs... Okay, maybe it would, bad example. But it’s an aspect of music that often feels exaggerated for the sake of vibes and impact, creating atmospheres through lyrics that aim to replicate the feeling of being high, to varying results. Do these styles of music come directly from drug use? If psychedelic musicians went sober, would their style of music change? I wouldn’t know, because Harold the Giraffe’s anti-drug trauma continues to permeate my mind, and the music I make is very, very bad. I had a chat with a few local musicians (who are actually good at making music) to discover if all that’s holding me back from musical greatness is a hit of DMT. 99% of musicians would probably rather be asked for their Luxon, Seymour, and Peters Fuck-Marry-Kill ranking than explain where their ideas come from. Creative expression can be drawn from so many different areas of your life, relationships, and worldview that it's impossible to define through any medium beyond music. That, or you can have a few drinks and immediately assume you’ve become the god of sonic creativity. “It's easier to write a shit song and think it's good when you're wasted,” Sam Denne told Debate. The producer/songwriter behind Skody Banks and Baecorp has been through the ring of it, seeing the highs and lows of drug abuse at the peak of their angsty punk songwriting era. While they don't think the years spent making music on the piss were particularly healthy, it doesn't seem like they were necessarily unproductive.
“I played in a goon-themed (and oriented) ‘crust-punk’ band for a while and I think it was definitely some of the more rudimentary music I've ever put together. Written drunk, designed to be played drunk and amped up on gear to punters on any combination of cheap booze and bad drugs that I'd liken to Marie Antoinette's head - chopped and removed from their original structure,” they said.
Sam’s thoughts on their creativity are backed up by science. Dr Alice Flaherty, a Harvard researcher focusing on writer's block, writes “When your alcohol level first starts to rise, the first thing that it inhibits is some of the inhibitory systems.” So, alcohol in particular doesn't really help your creativity at all, but it sure makes you think it does. Flaherty later adds “It reminds me a little of William Stafford, who said that all you have to do to get rid of writer's block is just lower your standards.”
With other drugs, the results can be slightly more hit-or- miss. Dan, another young Tāmaki musician, has found using drugs has changed their approach to songwriting both for better and for worse. “Some drugs can be really good circuit breakers if I'm stuck in a particular creative rut. Psychedelics like LSD obviously are quite conducive to creativity, Ritalin/ADHD medication is also good? I think it’s the focus and warped euphoria - but weed is inconsistent and I find it lowers your own creative standards. It’s great for looping chords for an hour, not great for other stuff.”
The general consensus is that uppers - drugs that serve as a stimulant to raise energy levels, tend to raise one’s levels of experimentation in methods for songwriting. The one true variable can be seen in cannabis - Tom, another local drummer and musician, has found that weed allows him to find “Way more audial exploration and creative freedom. It unlocks new parts of my brain and allows me to easily leave my comfort zone.” Dan held a similar sentiment, noting a lowering of personal musical standards but also a rise in drone-based soundscapes. Sam very much does not agree. “Weed is for hippies. IMHO no one in the global north has written a good song stoned since the year 2000, except for Reuben Winter.” Listen to Milk - III, if you haven't. You’ll understand why Reuben was Sam's exception. RIP.
The varying level of creativity brought about in the songwriting and recording process through drug use is incredibly random when it comes to gigs. If you’ve so much as stepped foot into the Tāmaki underground, you’ve probably seen a handful of bands borderline fall apart on stage in their menagerie of wastedness. Sam told me about when they used to play in a more technical band. “I can think back to being on stage, stressing like 'I really, really hope I can play this next part', looking down at the lights of my pedal board from a million miles away, like city lights from an aeroplane window.” Dan agreed, preferring to play relatively sober: “The most might be a drink at the show, or some weed at some point of the day, or something like Ritalin. I find it too stressful to manage being actually intoxicated before going on stage, so I avoid that for the most part.”
Tom’s experiences also vary between drugs - he talked about how LSD has led to him spending an hour tuning a guitar and being unable to get it to sound right, and how caffeine leads to him playing songs so fast that thirty minute sets are split in half. But he also touched on the impacts drugs can have on his mentality while playing. The antidepressant sertraline can lead to a performance he’s been told is still good, but which he dissociates through. “There’s no joy in it for me and I barely even remember the actual performance. I also tend to blank on my parts more often, and am forced to improvise to get back on track.” His experiences are sometimes similar while on weed. “There are two options: 1, a terrible performance because I’m so anxious and in my own head; 2, an amazing flowing performance because I’m really feeling the music and rhythm.”
Tom has also found while taking Rubifen, a slow release Ritalin he uses to manage ADHD, he finds he can follow the dopamine and fully immerse himself in performances. But a similar positive experience can be found whilst drunk - which is a bit confusing and surprising to him. “Of course there’s a limit for a lot of people where they get too drunk and can’t play well, but I’ve never hit that limit and that scares me. I could be so drunk I can barely stand and am one sip away from vomiting, and then get on stage and play a better gig than I’ve ever played before,” he says.
Reflecting on their goon-themed punk band, Sam noted how their performances and composure faltered over time (despite never really being great in the first place). “One friend of mine said that 'we were killing ourselves in public and it is no longer fun to watch'.” His band's dependence on alcohol led to a moment in which, while recording music at a uni, a lecturer told them they couldn’t drink the stolen booze they had in the studio. “We produced paper bags and slotted our bottles into them. He just gave us this resigned look and carried on instructing the class.”
Tom also noted various moments where both prescription and recreational drug usage had an impact on his musical output, as well as his relationship with bandmates. Both sertraline and tramadol affected his motivation to show up for practices and made him incredibly apathetic about music, whereas Rubifen helped him get into the zone while recording. “It improved my relationships with band members due to being able to consistently bring my all, AND due to being far more practical and neurotypical- presenting. Great for recording because you can consistently give the same high quality performance and you’re full of ideas for improving the recording/production of the rest of the parts/song.” The more recreational usage of weed and alcohol had similar impacts on Tom’s relationships with other bandmates - both could generally improve productivity in recording sessions considering the lowering of excessively high standards, and lead to improving relationships with other bandmates - at times. But both could also lead to excessive usage, where bandmates could end up excessively wasted or high all the time to the point of doing problematic things on stage.
At the end of the day, the impacts drugs have on musical skill, productivity and enjoyment vary greatly between substances. Tom found the prescription use of Rubifen incredibly beneficial - but someone could take the very same drug and see their music fall apart. It’s important to know what you’re taking and your own limits when mixing performance and drugs - and it may be safer to avoid them unless you know for sure they’ll have a positive impact. Sam was open about the change in output that came with going sober, seeing their prioritisation of mental and physical health lead to less quantity, but more quality. “I'm writing songs which are much more expressive, adventurous and that I personally enjoy,” they tell me. “Music has again taken a therapeutic role in my life, full of exploration and connection with others. I kinda attribute this to the emotional growth that has come with ditching booze and drugs. I don't create as much as I used to, but I'm glad I still do.” The mention of their experiences isn’t to dissuade anyone from experimenting with drugs, or seeing how different substances affect their sound. But it’s worth checking your gear, doing your research via sites like thelevel.org.nz, and not being an annoying wanker about how many or little drugs you take.