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An Interview with Bruce Pavitt

Robert Weinstein

The die-hard punk rocker and Sub-Pop founder chills out in the jungle with the aid of the vine

Bruce Pavitt became internationally known as the founder and co-owner of Seattle's famous Sub Pop record label. He is widely recognized as one of the original creators of grunge rock and was one of the driving forces behind the Seattle music explosion and the Alternative music scene. One of the gurus of the independent music industry, Bruce helped discover and promote bands like Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Nirvana, whose earliest material was released on the Sub Pop label. After growing disillusioned with the music industry, Pavitt decided to resign from Sub Pop in 1996. He is currently focusing on raising a family, with a second child due in June, and building an ecotopian estate in the San Juan Islands. He has been pursuing a growing interest in shamanism and psychedelics over the past twenty years and recently returned from South America where he was working with a well known ayahuasca shaman in the Peruvian Amazon. We were lucky enough to catch up with him on a recent visit to Seattle.

Robert: So Bruce, let's talk about Peru. You got back from your trip to Peru a couple of months ago, tell us a little bit about what that was like.

Bruce: This was my first time down in South America. The Peruvian Amazon is an extremely acculturated environment. Even though we were two hours out of Iquitos, there were still kids running around in Nike t-shirts. In Iquitos itself, which is right on the Amazon, I walked into an ice cream shop and they were playing some really up-to-the-minute R&B hip hop...

R: It really destroys your romantic vision of the Amazon I would think?

B: Yeah, it's not what I expected. Anyhow, I went down with a few friends to work with shaman Don Agustin in Yushintaita, his jungle encampment. I had been working with the ayahuasca brew for a year or so and felt that it was very psychologically beneficial, provided very deep therapy and a lot of deep insights, and I wanted to take the ayahuasca in the context of the Amazon, because as you know that's where it's from. And I'll tell you Don Agustin is a real healer, he's a real magician, he's an amazing person and I would recommend anybody who is interested in trying ayahuasca to try and go through Don Agustin. He was a character....

R: I'm interested to hear about the cleansing you were required to go through when you got there.

B: Agustin's point of view is that if your body is loaded with toxins, then those toxins are going to come out during the ayahuasca trip as demons. It makes sense when you think about it. So, we underwent about four or five days of internal and external cleansing. After the first day, we covered our bodies with a compound called huito, a fruit pulp that was mixed with clay which stained our skin blue. The huito helped draw toxins out of the skin and also killed any of the microscopic mites and external organisms living on the skin. In a lot of ways, it was really like a spa. People go to a spa to eliminate toxins from their body. We had also stayed on a very healthy diet, mostly vegetarian and high fiber. It wasn't the extreme shaman jungle diet of just yucca and rice... it was a little more diverse, had lots of fruit, a very cleansing diet. We also did some internal cleansing with tree sap called oje which is very harsh, very strong.

R: And that flushed parasites and other toxins out of your intestinal tract and prepared you for the ayahuasca?

B: Absolutely, exactly. We drank warm milk and then the oje. The parasites would come out and feast on the milk. Every half hour we had to drink a liter of warm water. We drank six liters of water after it and if you don't drink the water you can become very ill. So, it's dangerous stuff to work with. It was completely cleansing. After that session, Don Agustin actually pulled out a large microscope and examined stools for parasites which was a shock for some people because many were just loaded with parasites.

R: How many sessions did you do while you were down there?

B: We did four trips in two weeks.

R: I'm interested to know what Don Agustin's role was specifically and also what is the role of an ayahuasquero in an ayahuasca ceremony in general.

B: I don't really have a broad frame of reference, however, Don Agustin refers to himself primarily as a musical therapist. His role is to sing icaros and try and bring out the jungle spirits. He spent a lot of time playing a variety of instruments, he's a good musician, and doing a lot of singing. He also had a few apprentices who were helping him with the singing and so forth.

R: How did that affect your experiences and the experiences of the people around you?

B: I think it absolutely added a lot of flavor to the experience and really helped add to the value of the setting. I know some people propose doing psychedelics with extreme sensory deprivation. We were doing these sessions at night in the dark so we could see the visions better, but I think the music was very important in guiding the trip. The music was very comforting.

R: What was it specifically about the music?

B: Don Agustin's love and compassion came through in the music and I think that was really helpful in maintaining a positive setting for the experience. Some people I know have had negative experiences with psychedelics but they've never really taken into consideration set and setting. I had a friend who was blowing up M-80's in his dank art-garage bunker on mushrooms and had a bad experience. Well, how 'bout that .. if you approach these substances, the set and setting is absolutely crucial. It was important for me to be in the jungle encampment with no electricity, surrounded by nature, clean air, pure diet, beautiful music - these were all critical points as far as determining the flow of information that was coming in and the flow of the visions.

R: Can you describe what the first session was like for you?

B: Well, we were wearing white ceremonial garb. We walked about five minutes to an open air temple. It was very important, as far as Don Agustin was concerned, that we sit down. Previously, in my ayahuasca sessions, I had always laid down. One thing, it's so physically strong that it's kind of hard to sit up. But he had a ring of benches for everyone to sit on.

R: And he insisted that sitting up intensified the experience?

B: Absolutely. You had to sit up. So we all sat on benches in the temple and his apprentices cleansed the area with tobacco smoke. There were some chants, some verbal communication with the jungle spirits and we all lined up and did ...

R: Received communion.

B: Received communion as it were. After everybody drank a cup, he then offered anybody who was interested to take more, so I took that opportunity to double my dose. I wanted to make sure I was going to get to where I wanted to go. He was familiar with the strength of this particular brew, therefore, he felt comfortable in allowing participants to take more. After about half an hour, the candles are blown out and he starts the music and the ayahuasca starts to come on. I had a very powerful experience in that first journey. For a while I was journeying into a rich set of Amazonian images and the whole trip was very distinctly drawing from the environment. I was feeling a lot of love and compassion through the music.

R: So Don Agustin was actually communicating with everyone there through the music?

B: Through the music I felt a lot of love and warmth and acceptance. It was very beautiful. I saw a series of constantly dissolving illustrations, and they all had to do with the Amazon. I was seeing plants and people from the Amazon - shamanic looking elders. I was tapping into all this positive jungle energy and then for me all of a sudden it was like the channel changed and my consciousness was thrown into, I was visiting essentially a POW camp. The whole thing had a very CNN photo realistic feel to it, but not only was I seeing these images, I was completely and totally empathizing with the emotions and feelings of the prisoners.

That was frightening to be honest. I have never experienced anything like that. I saw maybe a hundred soldiers kneeling with their hands tied behind their back surrounded by barbed wire; the scene looked like it could have been from the Middle East. It was a desert scene. They were surrounded by soldiers in uniform who were taunting them and I could understand that what was being communicated was essentially, "Well gentlemen, you know you're going to die but before you die we are going to torture you and of course we are going to do everything we can to kill your wives and children as well." It was extreme psychological torture and I realized that one of the hardest things about being a prisoner in any situation is not only the physical abuse but the psychological torture and the delight that the captors take in tormenting.

For me, that was a very educational experience. Certainly, we can all turn on a TV and see images like this, but to actually tap into the emotions and feeling of the situation, I thought, was radical. It was the most intense experience I've ever had on a psychedelic trip. After that, I saw something that I see in a lot of my trips, which is endless streams of Western advertising and kind of the garbage of Western capitalism. That always leaves me really cold and I always see Western society in kind of a fresh light. This is something I've experienced quite a few times - the relentless propaganda and overwhelming advertising that you just cannot escape in our culture. I also tapped into some mermaid figures later on in the trip, which is interesting because the next day, someone came into the encampment and was trying to sell these wooden mermaids, these wood carvings, and I said, "My god, this is exactly what I saw in my trip last night."

R: Wow.

B: ... And he said, yeah this is the spirit of the Amazon. That was amazing to me because it's not something I was consciously thinking about at all going into the trip. I think, culturally speaking, people in South America really look at psychedelics and entheogens as a way to tap into the spirit world, whereas I think in Western culture, typically with LSD therapy, it has been seen as a way to tap into the subconscious and I personally feel that both models are equally valid and that is a lot of what this trip really verified for me. I also tapped into, on subsequent trips, a lot of classic jungle imagery, cats and snakes and so forth. I've probably done ayahuasca ten times in the States and I've never ever tapped into those classic ayahuasca images. It's always been very Western oriented images. They look like computer graphics, plastic toys - all the motifs and images and symbols come from industrial society, whereas down there in the jungle with that particular setting, I was tapped into nature, potentially what would be referred to as nature spirits and jungle spirits. The whole experience really had a very different flavor, and that's why I went down. Because I think essentially when you go into a psychedelic state, you amplify your sensitivity and your intuition and you draw information, images, not only from your subconscious, but from your immediate environment and it is different everywhere you do it.

R: Do you think this is an example of morphogenetic field theory?

B: Yeah, that becomes pretty obvious.

R: I think it's interesting because I know you told me before you went that you were really interested in confronting some of your relationships in your family and you were trying to focus on that but that wasn't coming up and it's interesting because it's so hard to drive the experience, you just gotta flow with it.

B: It's true. However, Don Agustin's advice was, "Look, you have to have intent when you go in... What are you asking the ayahuasca, what are you focusing on?" So up until going to Don Agustin, my attitude was completely "let it flow", but, based on his advice, I did try and meditate on certain issues and those issues finally did come through. On my first trip, I was trying to focus on family relationships and they did not come through and when I talked to Don Agustin the next day, he said, "Well, your experience at the POW camp, this is something I've experienced, many things like this, and you're essentially tapping into your compassion for humanity. Now that you've kind of tapped into the feelings for humanity at large, it's going to be easier for you to tap into your insights, feelings with regard to your family." And he was right.

R: It sounds like an opening up of the heart.

B: Yeah, I think it was heart opening. That's a very good way to put it. What he said was true because during the following experience I was able to gain insights into my family that I couldn't on that first trip.

R: What were the experiences of some of the other people you were with?

B: There was a very wide range of responses. To give you an idea of the extremes here, there was one gentleman there who never saw any images at all. He would tap into moods, feelings, maybe see colors, maybe at a stretch see patterns. So, all of our minds process information differently, and also people tend to get along with some compounds better than others.

R: But it really seems like some people are predisposed, or hard wired to certain substances and gain access to more information, like some people get the all access pass and some people just get the balcony seats.

B: Yes, I had one friend who went down who was able to astral project and travel. The following day, when we discussed our images this guy would go on for half an hour. During one of the ceremonies, his consciousness morphed into a parrot and he flew through the jungle and viewed some baby panthers and their mother. He said he felt deep empathy for the panthers and their declining habitat. So yes, there were a variety of responses to the ayahuasca.

R: Do you have any idea why some people can do that kind of thing and others can not?

B: Well, I think some people are innately more intuitive, and again, more predisposed to some of these materials. In this particular gentleman's case, Don Agustin very quickly saw his shamanic potential and encouraged him to come back as a serious student... A lot of my friend's images had to do with indigenous cultures, especially North American Indian culture, and he does have some Indian blood in him as well.

R: Did the trips intensify during your stay there? How did the trips differ? How did it play out from the first trip to the fourth trip?

B: My strongest trip was the first night. Every ceremony we did a different brew and every brew had a different signature. That's the thing when you're working with the plants, the chemistry is never going to be exact, and each mixture is going to have a slightly different flavor. Perhaps one will have a little more ayahuasca vine in it, a little less chacruna leaf. Maybe one will have a little bit of tobacco in it, or some datura. And so every brew had a different feel. For example, my last trip was hardly visual at all. Instead, it affected me on an intense physical level where I was feeling deeper and deeper waves of physical pleasure and physical release. I felt muscles deep inside my body that I didn't even know existed before. That particular brew probably had a lot more vine and a lot less of the DMT leaf, but that was just as profound in its own way as the first trip where I accessed the POW scene.

R: You told me earlier that there was one guy who had a really horrendous, really terrifying trip during the first session.

B: Yes, on the very first night. It was interesting because I had one friend who tapped into this absolutely ecstatic transcendental state where he was overflowing with love and joy and tapping into the compassion of Don Agustin and the compassion of the Amazon, a completely and totally heart opening experience. However, there was another gentleman there who did have a difficult time and prior to coming in to the trip, he had discussed the fact that his brother had tried to kill him as a youth and he was obviously a very angry person. This is where set comes in as well as setting, the mindset when you come into these situations. If you're dealing with a lot of trauma and have a lot of bad memories or are carrying a lot of bad baggage, it's going to come out. This is really important. On his first experience this guy was apparently seeing violent images. He was groaning, he was on his knees. Don Agustin had to purify him with tobacco. After the session, the guy said, "I don't think I can do that again." But Don Agustin said, "No, it's a cathartic experience... you're releasing a lot of this baggage you've been carrying around and you really have to go through this. I guarantee you that by the fourth trip, you will be a much different person." And by the fourth trip, this guy was literally up and dancing in the temple and had reached a real state of ecstasy and joy because he had, on some level, worked through a lot of that material. If you've really got a lot of issues you have to deal with, I think psychedelics can be profoundly helpful, but absolutely should be done with a professional. It can take you either way, but so much of it has to do with your mindset and your setting. You can't get away from that, set and setting are crucial.

R: What did Don Agustin have to say about seeing visions of other shamans or other classic shamanic motifs?

B: There are certain cues that are very important. The one that springs to mind most strongly... is that he would talk about a jeweled temple and that if you can gain access into this temple, there is tremendous knowledge. He refers to it as the University and he says he has learned about all sorts of subjects just tapping into the information of this university. Then, a few people had mentioned that they had been at the precipice of this temple or described the temple and so forth and he said that if this image comes to you, then by all means try and enter the temple. This is all part of the process of learning how to become a shaman - how to really guide these trips, access information. It's funny the kind of references he makes, the kind of metaphors he comes up with. For example, he says, "We've had television here in the Amazon for thousands of years. Ayahuasca is our television." It's fully immersive technology. In a lot of ways, it's light years beyond what we have in Western society, even though we think we're so technologically advanced. The quality of the images that I was seeing under this state far surpassed any movie experience I've ever had, any concert experience or television experience as well. It's very high-tech. He also talks about the cosmic telephone, in that, yes we don't need telephones, because if you are skilled in the shamanic arts you can communicate with people telepathically.

R: Let's go back to where you said that it was better than any movie you'd ever seen, any concert you've ever been to. I think that's really an important point because a lot of people don't realize how intensely beautiful these experiences can be...I think Terence McKenna said there's more art inside your head than there is in every museum in the world.

B: Well, there is. Yeah, that's true.

R: People are so fixated with external stimuli, it's like they don't realize what potential there is in the internal experience.

B: Right, there is a tremendous body of information you can access whether it's coming through the subconscious, the collective unconscious, morphogenetic fields... it's all kind of a blur. I'm not sure where all this information comes from, but I'll tell you a lot of the information that comes through is incredibly abstract. My background is in the arts and what draws me to the arts is an interest in novelty - novel information. Once you get into these higher states, these deeper psychedelic states, I guarantee you'll be accessing things that you've never seen before. Things can switch between photo-realism and two seconds later, the visions can be incredibly illustrative and abstract. You're essentially swimming through a huge body of information, and the real shamans are the ones that can access information very specifically. In the same way one can go to a computer and type out a web page and find information on something, a shaman can go into an ayahuasca state and tap into specific knowledge as well.

R: This is leading to some interesting places. So, how do you think traditional shamanism can end up benefiting Western culture? How can we integrate this into our culture? Obviously, we need help, we need insight, and we need to reconnect to ourselves and the planet.

B: Yeah, we do need help.

R: I mean, what can you tell people who are interested in psychedelics but who may have some doubts also? How can they use psychedelics to benefit their lives, to tap into that knowledge, to benefit society, not to get high?

B: First of all, I'd like to preface any comments by saying that the war on drugs in this country is morally wrong. Supposedly in our society we have freedom of religion. I was never a very spiritual person until I started tapping into the deeper states offered by entheogens. Then it became obvious to me that there are many many dimensions out there and that the ecstatic transcendental states that are at the core of any religion are accessible.

R: Have you been able to use those states to gain insight into your life?

B: Yes, entheogenic tools have allowed me to access information from my subconscious and have also given me novel ways to look at the world and its many dimensions. They've also allowed me to tap into deep, spiritual feelings of empathy. I believe society can only benefit from more exploration.

R: So, how did the sessions end up? What was the conclusion of the work that you did with Don Agustin? How did that translate into your life when you got back to the States? I know you said you felt like a big weight was lifted, and that you had been able to come to terms with some stuff.

B: Yeah, I felt that there was a lot of deep seated tension that had been squeezed out of me. I felt that the ceremonies provided deep therapy and that I was able to on many levels get in touch with the variety of feelings and anxieties that I had and put them in perspective. I felt that it also helped to massage a lot of deep underlying physical tensions that I had. I want to point out that one of the things that really distinguishes ayahuasca from some of the other psychedelics is that not only does it allow you to tap into visions, it really affects you on a physical level too. It can really relax and physically squeeze out tensions that you might have and so in that sense it's extremely therapeutic for both the mind and the body. So, yeah, I felt like a lot of the anxieties had been squeezed out of me and that I had newer insights into my relationship with my family, a deeper empathy for humanity at large. It definitely allowed me to connect with nature on a deeper level, allowed me to appreciate the culture of the Amazon on a much deeper level than if I had just been hanging out in Iquitos listening to hip hop and watching people walking around in Nike t-shirts. It was a very positive experience, and I feel that it is something that I want to do again.

R: How did you get interested in this stuff to begin with? How did you get interested in shamanism and ayahuasca and psychedelics?

B: Well, I got interested in psychedelics primarily for the same reason that I became an intense music fan and an intense lover of art and film and so forth. I've always had an instinctive desire to connect with the transcendent. And that's something I experienced a lot in music, especially going to early punk rock shows, where the music and the energy between the performer and the crowd would reach such a level that for a split second I would forget everything. That is a transcendental moment and that is something I experienced over and over again watching bands like Nirvana and Mudhoney. And there were times when I was experimenting with Ecstasy or mushrooms when I felt that I could amplify those feelings of transcendence. One thing led to another and I started getting more deeply involved in doing higher doses of mushrooms, especially, and that led to an interest in ayahuasca. Again, I'm driven by a pursuit of novelty, of information, but also of transcendence and ecstasy which is something that I think we all get in our lives whether its through the beauty of personal relationships or art or nature. But obviously entheogens can help amplify our perceptions.

R: A lot of people don't know how to find that.

B: Yeah, and if used in a mature, disciplined way, I think entheogens can be extremely beneficial.

R: What do you mean by mature and disciplined?

B: I think that you need to know how to use this stuff. If you are going to be in a social situation or using these kind of materials at music shows, I don't think you should be using high doses of them. However, at least for myself, I find that the higher doses can be very interesting, but they should be done in relative isolation, in nature. I believe you should ritualize it. Ideally, do it in the dark where the visions can be amplified. The set and setting are everything. I've made some mistakes where I've tripped with people I had not met before in an unfamiliar setting and things were not positive.

R: You weren't able to learn from the experience?

B: I was able to learn from the experience. In one particular situation, I had a harsh, borderline psychotic experience, but I feel that most of that was really due to the set and setting and situation. I think ideally you want to be comfortable. You want to be physically comfortable. You don't want to be too cold, you don't want to be too hot. You don't want to put stress on your body, you don't want to put stress on you psyche. You should be with close friends. You should be in a comfortable, natural environment where there is good ventilation, preferably outdoors, and you should be in a good state of mind. If you're not there then I don't think one should push it and that's where the discipline comes in. If you think, well, I'm going to do this tonight but the elements really aren't there, you need to have the discipline to say, "I'm not going to do it tonight because it's not an appropriate set up." I think if you don't follow that advice, you're asking for trouble because these are very powerful tools.

R: So, let me go in another direction here. For people who haven't been fortunate enough to use ayahuasca, can you talk a little bit about what's the different signature of ayahuasca as compared to something like psilocybin?

B: Chemically, there's a strong relationship between mushrooms and ayahuasca. I would really encourage people to follow the mushrooms because they're natural, they're fairly accessible and I think they're very spiritual. The ayahuasca is harder to come by, both the classic recipe and even the analogues. The ayahuasca is physically a lot stronger. You're going to most likely be vomiting or shitting on this material. It's harder to get up and walk around, if you chose to. But, for myself, visually, the ayahuasca and the mushrooms have a different signature. The ayahuasca contains DMT and a lot of the visuals are, when you step outside of the occasional photo realistic images that you may get, quite bright and geometric; whereas with the mushrooms, to me, a lot of the images are much more fluid and organic, with the colors usually being darker. Both substances have an earthy feel to them. I think anybody who feels an alliance with mushrooms would enjoy pursuing the ayahuasca and vice versa for that matter.

R: I want to talk with you about the current state of music. What are your thoughts on the scene today?

B: I'm attracted to any music that has some spirit to it. And, I think for a long time, I found that in punk rock, seeing rock and roll in small clubs. Music should be able to transport you, and unfortunately, I haven't been hearing a lot of music lately, especially rock or alternative rock, that has really been moving me. I was a huge fan of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I thought his music was extremely transcendent. I had an opportunity to see him several times in the past ten years. I would say Nirvana and Nusrat were the two artists who could really transport me into a very transcendent space. Unfortunately, both Nusrat and Kurt Cobain are dead at this point.

R: It looks like psychedelics are the only recourse for transcendence these days.

B: But there is always good music if you look for it..

R: Yeah, what are you listening to?

B: I will recommend one disc in particular that I think is very unusual and I haven't seen it written about in too many magazines. It's a record called "Miracle" by Bim Sherman. It's out on the Mantra label and it's a very interesting take on reggae. It uses all acoustic instruments. Bim Sherman's been living in England for a while and he employs a lot of Indian musicians, so it's a very interesting cultural synthesis that I think feels very spirited, very soulful, very unique. Over the past few years, that's definitely been one of my favorite records. I also love Sheila Chandra's "ABoneCroneDrone"...I did some ayahuasca the other night for my 39th birthday and kept that playing in the background.... I'm a big fan of Massive Attack and Tricky. I like Portishead. King Tubby reissues get played around here a lot. There hasn't been a lot of American music that's really moved me lately, although I would recommend the latest Modest Mouse disc, as well as Dragonfly.

R: Here's another question about psychedelics. Do you think psychedelics are becoming sort of a religion to any extent? Obviously not an organized religion but...

B: Obviously... in fact it is an organized religion down in South America with the Santo Daime and the U.D.V. churches, the ayahuasca churches whose branches are extending into America, Japan, Europe and so forth. That is a very interesting development that I think anybody reading your magazine, if they're not familiar with, certainly should be.

R: Where is the psychedelic thing going? What's the next ten years in psychedelics? It seems more and more people are turning to psychedelics for spirituality, for inspiration.

B: Spirituality or just curiosity, there's a number of different reasons. I do think, especially with more people understanding that DMT in particular is available throughout our natural environment, that there's a lot of homegrown shamanism happening. In a way, the scene reminds me of the way the indie rock movement was developing in the '80s - with a loose federation of independent thinkers who were organizing the culture and giving it momentum. The independent press is really flourishing with people like Ott and Shulgin pressing up their own books and so forth. I do think as a cultural force that psychedelics are definitely going to have an increased impact over the next few years as people reexamine psychedelics without the cultural baggage of The Grateful Dead and Timothy Leary. I think that really turned a lot of people off because there was so much dead weight there. I do think that, as clearly expressed in a lot of the club and rave scene, there is an increased interest in the overlapping of spirituality, psychedelics, and music. I think there really is a general cultural momentum in that direction and I think it's very positive.

If you are interested in studying ayahuasca ceremonies with Don Agustin in Peru, please contact Jaya Bear at Puma Shamanic Journeys. 505-758-1491.

Tags : psychedelic
Rating : Teen - Drugs
Posted on: 2001-04-23 00:00:00