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An Interview with James Kent

Jeremy Totes

The publisher of Trip Magazine talks candidly about psychedelics and life in the 'zine business.

So before we talk about the shutting down Trip, tell me how you got started publishing psychedelic magazines.

Wow, let's see. It was back in, must have been around 1993. It was a couple years after I had graduated with a degree in writing and had been working for a small travel magazine, flying around Asia, taking pictures and doing travel coverage, doing some editing and layout...

Sounds like a great job.

It was a blast. It would have been better if it actually paid the rent, but at least I got to travel and learn a little about the magazine business.

So how did that translate into psychedelic publishing?

I had discovered LSD and mushrooms in college and had done a fair bit of amateur exploration, but I was still completely mystified by what was going on and wanted to learn more. I was contacting a lot of people in the scene back then trying to figure out what kind of research was going on, and I ran into Ron Piper, the publisher of Psychedelic Illuminations, at a Seeds of Change conference in San Francisco where Terence was speaking. This was just days after I had first met Terence McKenna and conducted a four-hour interview with him. Terence was the first person in the scene I actually sought out to interview. Anyway, when I saw that Ron had put together a magazine I figured that if I offered my assistance I could get more access to those kinds of people, the people I was looking for. And since Ron needed the help I wound up producing the next four issues of PI and meeting a lot of people. The only problem was that the more I looked around for someone who could give me the answers I wanted, the more I realized that very few people knew what the hell they were talking about! (Laughs)

Really? Like who?

Oh you know, all the big names; Terence, Tim Leary, John Lilly, and just about everybody else I could think of to contact. I wanted to find someone who could just lay it out for me and say, "Okay, well here's what's going on in your brain when you're tripping. This is how it all works and this is why you see what you see." Everyone had a theory, but I wanted it spelled out in way that made sense to me and didn't go totally off into airy-fairy land. And no one could do it. Most people I talked to were admittedly groping around in the dark like everyone else, and the people who thought they knew what they were talking about had really just developed occult systems which kind of mapped out the territory, but didn't explain anything. And then there were the freaks, and I mean my God there were a lot of them. Weird shaman-wanna-be types and wide-eyed self-styled gurus enamored with their own mystical bullshit. And the mumbling burn-outs... It totally threw me. I was expecting to find a community of witty genius Huxley types out there. I thought, "My god? Is everyone in this scene totally clueless? Has no one figured this out yet?" (Laughs)

It couldn't have been that bad.

Maybe I jest a little, but to be fair this was ten, fifteen years ago. We were still coming out of the dark ages. Receptor affinities hadn't been mapped yet, brain science in general was just getting up to speed. Since that time I have met a lot of younger people who are actually doing the hard research in graduate school and getting the knowledge together. I mean, the best model I could find back then was the one proposed by Terence and Dennis McKenna in The Invisible Landscape, which kind of left me with more questions than it answered. It was something about the torsion from intercolated psychedelic molecules in the rungs of RNA creating a superconducting field that produced holographic emissions of genetic memory onto the pineal gland... something like that. Anyway it sounded far out, but it kind of had the ring of truth to it and I thought "Hey, these guys are onto something." In retrospect all of that seems a little far fetched, but that was back in the '70s and the brain in general was still kind of a mystery. And of course Dennis went on to co-found the Heffter Foundation and is still on the ball trying to sort out the wet stuff. Looking back it seems odd that Terence got all the attention with DMT elves and the Timewave and whatnot while Dennis has been quietly working away getting the actual research done. I mean, he's done more for the field in terms of figuring out how these things work than maybe anyone else I can think of. He and Dave Nichols are basically setting the tempo on scientific discovery and kicking it down for rest of us. It's astounding.

And of course there's Shulgin...

Oh no, don't get me wrong. There are many legitimate experts out there. Shulgin, Ott, all the guys who do the field and lab work to isolate and catalog the various plants and compounds...

Is there anyone else in the field you think is getting it right?

There are a lot of people in the scene who have done tremendous work. I mean, in terms of just defining what psychedelics are and how they fit into modern culture, Terence certainly contributed an enormous amount of analysis on this. I think Alex Grey has nailed the visual expression of what I consider to be the most profound aspects of the psychedelic experience. I mean, how much better can it get than that? One Grey painting is worth all the books I've ever read when trying to explain to non-users what the whole point of the experience is. And then there are people like Stan Grof and Charlie Grob who are totally trailblazing the models for therapy and clinical use in a modern society, and that task is... totally insane. I mean the balls on these guys; talk about walking on eggshells. Karl Jansen and Rick Strassman have done some good work sorting out Ketamine and DMT respectively, and of course people like Rick Doblin who organize and create the context for legitimate research in delicate times. It's a lot of people getting at it from all angles, getting into all the details. But I wanted the big picture, right, I wanted to know it all, so I basically had to weed through all the stuff these people were spitting out, get myself up to speed on psychopharmacology and other bits of neuroscience with my own research. That, and, you know, dropping, snorting and smoking whatever I could get my hands on. (laughs)

An essential part of any psychedelic research!

Absolutely! I mean, you have to understand the effects first-hand. I admit to using psychedelics recreationally because they're fun as hell, but my experimentation was always done with a very removed third-person analysis of what was going on in my head. I very rarely lost that meta-analytical part me, even in the most hardcore psychedelic trips. I mean, all kinds of crazy shit could be going on -- portals to other dimensions opening up, reflective ooze bubbling up from the floor, whatever -- and no matter how panicked or overwhelmed I would get there was always this calm, logical place in the back of my mind, a very dry and cynical part of me that would be like, "Oh, now I'm being eaten alive by plasma wasps. How odd. That was unexpected..."

Plasma wasps?

Yeah, you know, or whatever. Being taken by the alien mothership, turning into a pool of liquid and seeping through the cracks in the floor, phasing out of reality and winding up in a frog's body. Stuff like that. I mean it's all very heady and riveting stuff when you're right in it, and yet a part of me would always hold back from embracing it all, would always be saying, "Now what's really going on here? How am I seeing and feeling all of this?" Though I do have to admit to losing myself a couple times, not being able to remember who I was or what I was doing or what anything was, just kind of being scattered to the wind with no concept of anything but vast timelessness. In those situations even the cynical part of me is gone, language is gone. The universe is just churning and exploding in all directions and there's no words for any of it. The magnitude of the moment overwhelms everything else. When it gets like that there's really nothing to do but hunker down and wait it out. I always knew I would come back eventually, a part of me could still say, "Just keep breathing, heart keep beating, the linear progression of time and space will resume momentarily..." (Laughs) But I never had one of those "Oh God, I'm going to be like this forever!" moments, though I've been with people who have.

What was your favorite part about publishing Trip?

Oh, there are a lot of things. I enjoyed being exposed to the material from the community, the amazing art and the well thought-out commentary. I think I loved working on the back covers the most. They were always the most challenging aspect to get right. Satire has to compresses the meat of an issue in a way that logical analysis can't, so I was always churning over in my mind ideas for what should go in that space. Finding a way to express something in a humorous and profound way that smacks of truth, and something we could pull off with no budget. Getting the economy of the message just right, nailing the presentation... It's tough.

I loved the Placebo ad. I want my Placebo!

Toally! I mean sometimes things are just inspired. I got that one while sitting in a smoke-out circle at a friend's house. Someone was talking about marketing four-twenty mints, mints that you could take after you've smoked, or mints that actually contain THC, the conversation was going all over the place. And I had just heard a news story about how placebos are almost as effective as SSRIs in treating depression, and then it hit me: Placebo mints, marketed as an over-the-counter cure all. It was brilliant! I was sure I would be a millionaire overnight... (laughing). Of course I was very high.

But you got the back cover.

Right. That night I mocked up the label, printed it out, glued it to a bottle of AlieveŽ, snapped a photo with the digital camera, and the rest just fell into place. A visual gag like that is priceless. It says so much without having to explain anything. I love those kinds of things.

So what were the real reasons to bring Trip to an end?

The real reasons?

You didn't really spend all the money on crack...

Not all the money, just the editorial budget (laughing). No, that's the inside joke because we never had an editorial budget. If we spent all the money we ever spent on editorial on crack it would be gone in, like, ten minutes (laughing).

There were actually a lot of reasons for shutting the magazine down. The short answer is that I got tired of the 'zine publishing business. I never really wanted to be a publisher, I inherited the project from Ron when PI folded. I was still in contact with a lot of the readers via e-mail, and back then starting up a new magazine seemed like a natural thing to do. And when I started TRP I envisioned running it for five issues and then seeing where it went. I wanted to keep it small and use it mainly as a means to get in contact with other people. At the time there was really no other place for psychedelic lay-enthusiasts to publish in an environment that was both academic and informal. These were the early days of the net, and the best stuff you got out the was on private boards and mailing lists. The Lycaeum, Erowid, these sites were just getting off the ground. The whole idea of a "Public Editorial Forum on Psychedelics" didn't quite exist back then, it was getting there, but mostly it was still the kind of free-for-all exchange you might find on alt-drugs or something.

So you started The Resonance Project to provide that kind of forum?

Yes, and to further my own curiosity, to see who else was out there and what kinds of whacked shit they were getting themselves into. Because at that time the underground research scene was kind of invisible. The whole rave scene was coming on strong, but there was also this larger community of old-school lurkers from every imaginable walk of life who really had no public outlet. I was basically looking for MDs and academics and professionals, but there's a whole subculture of artists, techies, drug geeks, shamen, old-hippies, pagans, transhumans, trans-whatevers... People who were interested not only in psychedelics but in seeing general commentary on life from a psychedelic perspective, from people who've been turned on. That's what I wanted to get at, to get people to write about what life is like through psychedelic eyes, once you've been down that ontological rabbit-hole...

There's no going back?

Right. Or so you would think. Denial is a powerful thing. The rational mind can undo anything with a few lines a of code. But that's the whole point. There is a sense that once you have that breakthrough psychedelic experience things are changed forever, you see the world with new eyes. That's the kind of thing I wanted to take a closer look at, to analyze if that's actually true or just one of those bogus psychedelic truisms. And if it is true, then what is it about the psychedelic experience that creates those feelings, and what kinds of things do you notice afterwards that you otherwise wouldn't have?

Do you think Trip did a good job addressing those issues?

Well, sort of. I never did really get to the kind of material I was trying to find. We got a lot of great stuff nonetheless, but we also got a lot of wonky and metaphysical stuff that wasn't very good, bad poetry, poorly written trip reports. We did a lot of interviews because we couldn't pay people with real educations to write for us, and over the years I think we got a good snapshot of the people in the community who are making things happen. I think the humor and the more self-reflective pieces worked well. But really the magazine kind of took on a life of it's own. My own research continued pretty much independently of what was going with the magazine because I had moved onto more academic stuff.

Like what?

Oh, you know, genetics, neural mechanics, pharmacology, receptor interaction, the nitty-gritty detail stuff. Again, psychedelics touch just about every topic in human life, and I dug my way through it all and wound up back at cellular biology and neuroscience to finally get a handle on it all. The magazine continued to be this journal of culture and art and interesting people, but to be honest it is a pretty limited crowd. There was always a struggle to come up with fresh material that wasn't re-hash of the same old thing. Most of the time we took the path of least resistance; we waited for good submissions to come in, and when we had enough material to fill a magazine we'd put it together and send it out the door.

It seems that when you made the switch from TRP to Trip there was a change in tone, like you had more of an eye on the mainstream and were seeking out more big-name artists and musicians to interview. DJ Spooky, Negativland, Richard Linklater...

Well, that was mostly Scotto's influence, and he found a lot of big names who were willing to appear in a psychedelic magazine, which was just unbelievable to me. I hooked up with Scotto around issue four and by the end of issue five he was fully engaged in managing the editorial process. I was about ready to call it quits at that point, but Scotto basically took the reigns for a while and drove the next few issues. My wife and I were having our first child, my head wasn't really in the magazine. I'd work on the cover and back cover, do some layout, maybe do an editorial, but there were other things going on in my life that were more interesting. Reproducing really spun my head around, it gave me an inverted perspective on reality. The big things didn't seem so important anymore. Having a child turns the dial up on one's own sense of mortality and how precious and fragile life is. A child has no sense of the big things. Before language life is non-stop fascination, joy, and anguish over the little things. Having children really keeps your head in the moment. I guess I needed some of that.

So you and Scotto managed to do five more issues of Trip. Why call it quits now?

Well, for a long time I felt I'd been topping out on the subject matter, topping out on what I could achieve with the magazine. The format was too constraining. I was looking for a fresh direction or something new, but when you have paid subscribers and distributors expecting the next issue it's hard to make a ninety-degree turn midstream. And now that I have a second child my spare time is whittled down to nothing, so things just started to slip. I basically didn't have the capacity to run it anymore. There were too many threads to manage on a day-to-day basis.

Have you considered selling it, or letting someone else take it over?

Oh sure, there have been a couple interested parties, but nothing ever materialized. It takes a person with a lot of passion and free time and a very broad range of skills to run a small magazine. You need to market it to subscribers, find advertisers, manage the money, manage the subscriber database, manage newsstand distribution, keep contact with all the writers and artists, edit the copy, update the website, do all the shipping and mailing, and of course the biggest hurdle is getting the finished product all laid up perfectly and ready to go to press in a timely manner, which we never could seem to do. And after you pay the printer and the post office and the shipping and miscellaneous bills there is hardly anything left to pass around to the people who do the actual work. We basically had start over from scratch on every issue.

Did you make money from newsstand sales?

Well, it's interesting. We sold very well on the newsstands but that was our biggest net loss. Over the years we actually began trimming the number of copies we were putting on stands because we weren't really getting paid for those issues.

You weren't?

Some distributors were very good about getting returns to us on time, but the majority of them just refused to pay without a very drawn out process of bugging them and calling them and threatening to sue. The money trickled back from newsstand sales but it was never enough to cover the expense of putting it out there, so basically the subscribers were paying our distributors to put the magazine on the stands, which isn't the way it should be. This is a recurring story in independent business, the distribution chain is inefficient and unorganized and eats profits. So when I looked at our business model -- which is selling psychedelic articles and concepts to a small target audience -- the whole process of putting those concepts on paper and shipping them out to thousands of people became so complex, expensive, and time consuming that I had no time for any of the fun stuff, which is of course developing content. And that drove me really crazy. I started my own magazine to have a place to publish material, but I was so busy running it I didn't have time to write anything! (laughs). I wanted to take some time off to get back to the material. I was ready to stop thinking about business and move on to more creative things.

Like what?

Well, there's a large backlog of personal content I've been working on for the past few years; essays, fiction, screenplays, personal notes, research notes. I've been trying to finish up a book on all the psychedelic research I've done, but my time is so limited. I may get back to it now that Trip is off my radar, it would be nice to have it done so I can set the whole issue aside. I've kind of burned out on psychedelics.

Rally? What precipitated that? Was it any one thing?

No, more like a mixture of things all at once, but basically over the years I've pretty much saturated my curiosity about psychedelics; what they are, how they work, how to use them... I mean, my interest in psychedelics was always primarily academic. I can't say that there was any one "Aha!" moment where I had finally figured everything out, it was more like a general feeling that gradually came over me as I dug further and further into the research. It was a feeling like, "You know... I know all this already. I've solved this riddle. Let's move on."

You solved the riddle?

Dude! I wrote the riddle!

Now way!


Well what is it?

Which one? The riddle or the answer?


Well, the riddle is multi-part and goes something like this: How do psychedelics produce such profound effects? What are the mechanisms at play, why are the spiritual and emotional ramifications so intense, and most importantly, how do they function as therapeutic agents? And the answer is: It's very complex, but not impossible to explain. It involves every part of the brain working in novel ways to produce exotic paranormal phenomena, and each psychedelic compound has one or more effects which are either variations or combinations of only a handful of possible effects. It would probably take me an hour or two to go through it all, but the science is all there. If you want to know all the geeky details down the molecular level you'll just have to wait for the book.

How long will that be?

It's hard to say. I mean, you can't just dash off an effort this large. There needs to be references, indexes, bibliographies, illustrations... I'll want to have it reviewed by at least a couple people before putting out the advanced galleys. If I get it right it could be the definitive textbook of our time, or at least a decent stab at scientifically reducing the mystery into it's component parts. Getting the tone right is also essential. It needs to be light and accessible for the lay reader, yet have the ring of authority and enough science to give it credibility in academic circles. There's a very hard line to walk there, especially since I have no degree or academic affiliation to back me up. I'm just some curious monkey with a computer and a fistful of drugs. (laughing) We'll see. I hope it doesn't take longer than another year. It would be nice to have that sense of completion so I can get on to whatever's next in my life.

Is there any way I can get an abbreviated version of your theory, like a sneak preview or something?

There's an e-mail discussion I had with Clifford Pickover about the nature of DMT elves not too long ago, which was probably the first time I sat down and tried to spell it out in a single go. It covers a the basic territory and presents some of the fundamental concepts, but it is very general and just scratches the surface. I'll post an edited copy online for people if they're curious.

Sounds good. So what else are you working on?

There are so many things... I've got a novel and a couple of animated projects that I'm trying to produce. I'll be focusing on getting those off the ground in the next year as well. Plus I'm trying to solicit more fresh content for the website, which has exponentially more readers than the magazine did and costs a fraction of a point to produce, which was like, "duh" when I actually sat down and thought about it. But still, it's hard to let go of something as cool as a magazine.

I can imagine. Do you think you'll ever do another one?

Another magazine? I don't know. It's a tough business. I may do more psychedelic books or comics or compilations if I think the material is there. But who knows? Life has a funny way of repeating itself. We my find ourselves back here again before you know it.

Tags : psychedelic
Rating : Teen - Drugs
Posted on: 2004-05-07 00:00:00