The Intersection of Psychedelic Drugs, Spirituality and Nature as a significant factor shaping stoner (rock) culture.
6 listopada, 2021

Siema, słuchajcie, rok temu napisałem se prackę o stonerze na studia. Oczywiście nie jest idealna, parę błędów rzeczowych itd., ale stwierdziłem, że, tak czy siak, warto się tym podzielić z Polską społecznością. Brak tłumaczenia, bo mi się nie chce. Jak ktoś ma wenę, żeby przełożyć na polski, to dajta znać.

Hubert ‘Cebula’ Lewandowski, dla BIMM Bristol, 2021

1. Introduction

This essay will focus on understanding how psychedelic drugs, spirituality and nature intersect together and have an effect on shaping stoner rock culture. First I will start with definitions of the terms used in this essay. The most important term to define is ‘stoner’, as it has many meanings, some of which could have negative connotations.

Defining stoner as a culture can be quite difficult due to a vast spectrum of meaning of the word depending on the context in which it is used. In the context of music, the first use of this term is believed to be on a compilation album done by Roadrunner Records in 1997. (Bravewords.com, 2004). However, some people in the desert rock scene seem like they don’t agree with its use and try avoiding it, often feeling offended by it (Pantosis, 2001). Broadly, it refers to down tuned guitar music, with heavy bass drive, melodic vocals and often raw production (Bravewords.com, 2004).

In Poland, the term ‘stoner’ is used as an umbrella term for every kind of music in the scene around Red Smoke Festival, Solustone Gathering and SekcjaStoneru.pl. This includes sub-genres like: psychedelic rock, neo-psychedelia, stoner rock, desert rock, stoner metal, doom metal, stoner doom metal, sludge metal, southern metal, krautrock, space rock, retro rock, occult rock, proto-doom and garage rock. Also, the term might refer to a way of life and one’s philosophy. Patryk Mitzig, long time activist in the Polish community and stoner rock musician, wrote about it on the biggest Polish Facebook group uniting stoner fans. To see his post and its translation see appendix 1. The term is widely used by people in the scene, thus everybody understands its meaning. In this essay the term ‘stoner’ will be used in the context of this definition.

Definition of first of the three intersecting factors, psychedelic substances or psychedelics, is as follows – a class of psychoactive substances that produce an altered state of consciousness marked by unusual changes in perception, mood, and cognitive processes (Nicholos, 2016). For the purpose of this paper however, I need to restrain the definition only to the most common psychedelic substances around stoner culture which are Marijuana, LSD, Psilocybin and Mescaline. Those are mainly the aftermath of the hippie movement and the most commonly used inside the community.

The second factor that needs defying  is spirituality. The definition is needed due to differences of understanding the factor depending on one’s cultural background. Recently there has been a rise in sociocultural research into the division of spirituality and religion. Spirituality is ones subjective feeling of some kind of higher power or consciousness, while religion is a collective set of dogmas and beliefs. However, stoner culture seems to be quite spiritual and anti-religion, there is a lot of gimmicks of stoner churches. People tend to play with the whole idea of religion, “worshipping” guitar pedals, riffs, substances or amps. Some reasons for this is the anti-Christian-establishment spirit of rock and metal, while the other are a fascination with old occult themed, b-class horror movies as well as occultism in itself (Oborn for The Quietus, 2017).

The third factor that I will be referring to, is nature. As a factor influencing the community, it usually takes the form of geographical places (such as desert), life forms (plants), or a general force of life. It is often connected with the spiritual feeling of a higher power or ancient mother-goddess.

A lot of information in this essay is based on my observations of the polish stoner rock scene, in which I have been actively involved since 2016. This essay will have a lot of citations from other people whom are important to our local scene. The definition of participant observer – a technique of field research, used in anthropology and sociology, by which an investigator (participant observer) studies the life of a group by sharing in its activities (Dictionary.com, 2021).


2. The Intersection of the terms

The intersection of all the three factors is quite broad and dates back to the early times of mankind, while still being transparent today. The most common psychedelic substance are found in various life forms across different ecosystems. Those include psilocybin in mushrooms, mescaline in cacti, DMT in Acacias and Mimosas species, and THC in Cannabis. Those substances are ingested in certain cultures to, among other purposes, reach a higher level of consciousness, connect with spirits, gods or in various other religious rituals and sacraments. These purposes are transparent in the stoner rock culture as well, with artists taking inspiration from the altered states and the audience reaching those state during live performances.

The link between nature and spirituality can also be found looking back at the beliefs of ancient tribes starting from Slavic and Celtic, through Greeks and Romans up to the far eastern end of India. Most of the gods or spirits in the belief system of those people manifest their power in nature. Perun, Odin and Zeus were the gods of lighting, Mokosz and Persephone were the goddess of spring while Hades or Nyja were responsible for the dead. Hindu people believe that everything in nature including us, humans, are one. Some stoner artists reflect the connection to the ancient beliefs through their music, lyrics, artworks and use of native instruments (The Sword – Age of Winters, 2006).

John R. Baker talks about the use of such substances in religious sacraments in his paper from 2011 Psychedelic Sacrametns, while J. Mabit talks about western-amazonian tribes and their use of Ayahuasca for healing purposes on human mind during shamanic rituals (Talin et.al, 2017). What shows a connection between the research into ancient tribes and the community of stoner rock, is primarily the nomenclature. People in the community often refer to smoking marijuana or a live concert as a ‘ritual’. Both of them are usually done in a communal way, with people sharing the same live music experience or sharing a smokable roll-up filled with the herb. For many, those always come hand in hand and some people report not having experienced a sober gig in years. Often, after the show is over, people feel united and as if they have experienced something transcendental, just as in shamanic rituals (Red Smoke Festival, 2019).

Additionally, David Wade talks about the use of psychedelics in traditional societies to escape the everyday reality of and connect with higher levels of consciousness or gods in an overview Hallucinogenic Plants and Their Use in Traditional Societies. This is reflected in the lyrics of arguably the biggest milestone of stoner rock culture, a 63-minute track Dopesmoker by Sleep, in which the opening line states a credo about leaving life behind while following the music through a substance-alter mind to a different state.

To understand the intersection with nature, we have to look back at the environment and purpose of the intake of psychedelic substances by humans since the beginning of their time. Terrance McKenna argues that psychedelic mushrooms helped primates develop to Homo sapiens with his ‘stoned ape theory’. Pauls Staments says that according to the theory those substances are responsible for extensive neurogenesis in the brain through which they help us develop in different areas. He also says that the human race is ready for a next quantum leap in a collective consciousness with the help of mushrooms (Staments for Joe Rogan Experience, 2017). As a mycologist, Staments shares his experience with mushrooms from a scientific perspective which draws people to the topic and encourage them to try the experience on their own. His campaigns are now gaining more interest than before and can be correlated with the rise of neo-psychedelia around the world. The genre which is a rebirth of the psychedelic rock from the 60’s, mainly growing in Australia, where the topic of ecological disasters and psychoactive substances are vivid in the collective mind of the society.

This shows that all those three factors are deeply connected together, have an influence on one another, and human beings since their beginning. Hence, all those three things will have a mutual and intersecting effect on culture, people and technology inside stoner rock culture.

3. Psychedelic drugs, spirituality and nature on stoner culture and people inside the community

The intersection of all the three factors have a varied effect on the culture and people throughout the time. To start, we have to backtrack to the beginnings of psychedelic rock – 1960s. The roots of stoner were shaped by what came out of blues infused with LSD and marijuana in the mid-sixties by The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix or Jefferson Airplane. Hippie movement played a big part in liberalisation of drug use, access to information, sex and communal living around the world (Scott, 2017). Often in their communes, Hippies were practising eastern rituals like chanting and meditation infused with many psychedelic substances (Wesson, 2011). Those resulted in more open-minded and free approach towards human existence and reconnection with ancient practices, while freeing one from Judeo-Christian culture (Britannica, 2021). A big and important figure was Allan Watts, American writer, journalist and philosopher who was a great promoter of eastern-thought (Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism) on the west (Alan Watts Organization, 2021).

At the beginning of the 1970s in England, Black Sabbath released their debut self-titled album which, primarily with the song Black Sabbath, gave birth to the genre of doom metal. The song can be interpreted as it is about meeting Satan, however, Geezer Butler, the lyricist and bassist of the bad, in the notes of their later album Reunion, Butler writes:

“I’d been raised a Catholic, so I totally believed in the Devil. There was a weekly magazine called Man, Myth and Magic that I started reading which was all about Satan and stuff. That and books by Aleister Crowley and Denis Wheatley, especially The Devil Rides Out … I’d moved into this flat I’d painted black with inverted crosses everywhere. Ozzy gave me this 16th Century book about magic that he’d stolen from somewhere. I put it in the airing cupboard because I wasn’t sure about it. Later that night I woke up and saw this black shadow at the end of the bed. It was a horrible presence that frightened the life out of me! I ran to the airing cupboard to throw the book out, but the book had disappeared. After that I gave up all that stuff. It scared me shitless.”

The band was famous for their cocaine consumption since their 3rd album, however before that, in a biography of the band by Mick Wall, they reported to smoke weed on a weekend basis with Hand of Doom and Electric Funeral off their second album Paranoid  possibly written under the influence, are now considered as classics of stoner rock (Mick Wall, 2014). Although at the beginning, English outlet played very much for the crowd of hippies and Butler was a hippie himself, the band started attracting a crowd that preferred a heavier sound and often more occult type of spiritual practices. Black Sabbath however, was never involved in those practices, furthermore all the members of the band are devoted Christians (Mick Wall, 2014).

Those occult type of spiritual practices found their place in the stoner rock culture as well. A band that was the first to be considered occult rock, a sub-genre which focused lyrically on dark magic, satanism and witchcraft, was an American band from the late sixties called Coven. They were known for performing dark rites and were the first ones to record a black mass in a form of audio (Bill Traut, 2016). This had a notable effect on the lyricism of 80s bands in the doom metal sub-genre, especially Candlemass or Electric Wizard (Oborn, 2018). However, the later bands of 00s stoner-doom sub-genre such as Dopelord or Monolord were not taking seriously the satanic themes themselves, treating them more like a gimmick or a joke.

The Sonoran Desert was one of the main factors affecting the forming of community and scene of desert rock due to its landscapes which helped evoke spiritual experiences. Late 80s into 90s was when the true origins of the genre took place. A scene where young musicians gathered on so-called “generator parties” in the middle of the desert, where they were able to express themselves freely in different musical and nonmusical forms. The parties were often infused with psychedelic substances. Brant Bjork, one of the fathers of the desert rock scene, says about the sound of Kyuss, which is said to be the blueprint of a desert rock band by the members of the community, that a lot of it had to do with the fact the band started smoking marijuana (Bjork for Such Hawks Such Hounds, 2008).  Night sky, rock formations and the open spaces in the desert are said to be the biggest inspiration for the desert artists. This is supported by the local artists in the documentary Lo Sound Desert. “There is just something about the desert. The big sky and open spaces. It may sound cheesy, but you soak it up. Filling the space became the sound of desert rock.”- says Bjork. The landscapes of the desert are still appearing on the album covers of desert artists to this day. This furthermore highlights the influence of the nature and surroundings on the formation of the culture. On top of that even some names of the songs have names of flowers or places in the desert. Artists are referring to this place as home and write songs about it. This shows a big emotional connection towards that natural place (Lo Sound Desert, 2011).

Musicians claim that making music is a highly spiritual experience. Mike Eighton from Earthless says in the interview for Such Hawks Such Hounds that jamming is “(…) definitly a spiritual thing, when you are able to hold one note for five minutes, you just explore what’s in your head and drift off”. Brant Bjork connects this spiritual thing with the desert saying “there is also something about the desert that is not physical, it is ethereal”. Josh Homme shares his outlook saying “Music was always like religion for Kyuss”, “We rehearsed every day, but it was more a chant or a mantra” he adds (Homme for Lo Sound Desert, 2011).

Arguably the biggest milestone of stoner rock culture is a 63-minute piece Dopesmoker by American band Sleep. The track became the definition of the genre and even a way of life for some members of the community. The opening line, saying “Drop out of life with bong in hand, follow the smoke towards the riff filled land” was reported to be a creed at the time for  Al Cisneros, the bassist and lyricist of the band (Cisneros for Precious metal, 2009). If we dwell more into the lyrics, one can find a lot of references to the bible and marijuana. Al refers to smoking weed as a ritual and reports being depended on it, while Hakius (drums) says it was crucial for the sound and recording process of the album (Hakius for Precious metal, 2009). “The intent (of the song) was on conveying hypnosis the band actually went into while playing.” says Billy Anderson, the producer of sleep. This shows the ritual and spiritual aspect of the music. The band connects the rite with a heavy marijuana consumption which they encourage to on the insert of the issue of 2003 Dopesmoker vinyl. Anderson says, “Sleep is more of an experience than a show.” Which highlights the spiritual aspect of their live performances.

All those things combined are presenting spirituality, psychedelic drug usage and nature as huge and important factors in the formation of stoner rock culture.

4. Psychedelic drugs, spirituality and nature on technology used inside the stoner rock culture

4.1 Fuzz / distortion and Bass crushing heaviness
Patryk Mitzig once said “Stoner is just blues played on a fuzzed-out guitar”, which somewhat accurately describes the sound of the genre. The fuzz effect became a gateway into playing stoner rock. All the biggest names in the scene report to be using at least one fuzz pedal on the guitars, with some instances of even three of them (Matt Pike, 2018). Some report the sound of a guitar played through the fuzz effect reminds them of sand particles on a desert.

Leif from Candlemass said in the interview for E&D in 2008 “There’s just something with heavy epic music, loud distorted guitars and metal that creates wonderful magic in your heart, brain, soul”. The spiritual and emotional aspect of heavy metallic sounds is echoed by Wino off Saint Vitus and The Obsessed in the Such Hawks Such Hounds documentary, saying doom metal is all about the real, visceral, emotional pull, something that will make you cry.

Another part of the stoner sound is a huge, crushing bass. The experience of feeling music in your guts. Be it caused by the bass guitar or by the whole band. Most of the bands down-tune their guitars to drop C or D tuning. The trend was started by Black Sabbath, but was used even by the members of the scene who did not listen to the English outlet. “Tuning down allows you to hit people in the gut” says Wino. Mitzig during one of his stoner rock guitar lessons on Red Smoke Festival 2019 said that we tune to drop C, because it is easier to play when you are under the influence of marijuana.

Stoner culture is not the only one which is strongly effected by spirituality and psychedelic substances, another worth noting example is the soundsystem culture. Orlando Woods in his paper Sonic spaces, spiritual bodies: The affective experience of the roots reggae soundsystem  reports “transmitting low‐end bass frequencies through the dance floor itself, causing the music to be consciously felt through the feet and then transmitted through the body. Experiencing sound in such a way is profoundly impactful; it adds a new dimension to music and enables an appreciation of it in ways that cannot be accessed through listening alone.“ This connects to the ritual experience of Sleep concerts. Woods says “every body has a spirit, it just needs to be found or discovered. As I have shown, one way of discovering it is through the affective experience of the roots reggae soundsystem. A broader point is that spirituality, like dub music, is about stripping away thought and cognition, and embracing the essence of the self. Dub does this by removing the vocal and accentuating and distorting the riddim.” Taking his findings and translating it to stoner culture’s biggest milestone, Sleep’s Dopesmoker has repeated, drawn-out sections with just on riff. In those sections people can feel the music and are allowed meditation which can trigger a highly spiritual experience. It’s worth noting that Al’s bass tone is heavily influenced by the deep dub bass which some people from the scene claim to have a healing effect on their minds. After those instrumental section, there come vocals in which Al conveys a message, just as the dub artists do in their dub teachings (Soul Rebel, 2013).


4.2 Psychedelic effects & the vintage sound

The use of psychedelic substances gave birth to the need of expression what one experiences during the so-called trips. This expression in the sonic form was called psychedelic rock. A subgenre in the 60’s which aim was to portray the experience of psychedelic substances through music. It was available mainly thanks to such effects as reverbs, delays, fuzz and all sorts of modulation.

One of the most important effects for obtaining the psychedelic sound,  is the aforementioned fuzz. The pedal developed in the 1960s by Lee Hazelwood (Rae, 2007), in a first place it was meant to imitate the sound of a trumpet, however by overly compressing the sound and saturating it gained an interest of guitarists wanting to thicken their sound. Popularized by the creator of psychedelic rock, Jimi Hendrix with such songs as Purple Haze or Voodoo Child, since then the effect never left the pedal boards of guitarists around the scene.

Another effect that was rising at that time was using automation on the stereo panning in the mixes. Artists like Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd or The Grateful Dead started experimenting with the technique causing LSD-like disorientation in the minds of their audience. In rare cases, such as Pink Floyd’s outro of Interstellar Overdrive mix featured the whole track going fast from the right to the left, leaving the listeners nauseas (Theo Farnum, 2020), which is a common side effect of psychedelic substances.

The most psychedelic sounding effects were the modulation effects such as phaser, chorus or flanger, which created the most unnatural and odd sounds. Phaser created “whooshie” sounding instruments by stringing several all-pass filters together in series to create a series of non-harmonically related notch filters (Brown, 2018). It was used to reflect the dizziness and movement of the visual field while under the influence. Other modulation effects work similarly and were used for similar purposes (Farnum, 2020).


A perfect example of today’s usage of effects in the psychedelic rock is the 3rd album of polish psychedelic rock outlet, Weedpecker. If we listen closely to the mix on III, we start to hear much more movement than in most albums in the genre. Various instruments in the mix seem to be moving a tiny bit in the stereo field with the usage of very peculiar automation panning. Another area that feels to have movement is the depth, which could be done by a very cautious automation of reverbs and volumes of each track. On the guitars there could be heard a lot of wah, phaser and chorus. The mix is also quite layered with the synths in the very background. All those techniques and effects used in the mix make it sound more like a psychedelic experience with its waviness, layers and odd sounds.

5. The Influence of technology on songwriting and performance

Technological development, especially in guitar pedals were one of key factors influencing the songwriting of the artist around the stoner community. Stoner is known for its drawn-out compositions, with tracks rarely having less than 5 minutes often followed by very slow tempos. Sleep often has compositions in which the guitar holds one note for more 20 seconds. What made this available are certain guitar pedals such as fuzz, equalizers and compressors. Matt Pike using EQ, dials in his tone, so he gets rid of the unnecessary feedback, while leaving only the required frequencies (Pike, 2019). Compression and different fuzzes give the ability of extending the ringing of the note for over half a minute which results in the ability of writing longer, slower riffs and compositions.

Another key factor of Sleep’s live experience is being submerged in sound which is constantly changing its components. In order to create a wall of sound or a Sonic Titan, Pike uses five amplifiers with 8 cabinets just in order to push the volume to their audience. Every amp is set up differently, so they all work together, however the guitarist reports changing their set-up around every 3 shows. Additionally, throughout the whole gig he is constantly playing with his tone, twisting knobs on his guitars and amps. This creates the feeling that there are no two Sleep concerts that are the same and a constant move of sound. While working in the studio on their album Dopesmoker, the band’s producer Billy Anderson reports there was no idea of “overdoing”. Sometimes they were stacking more than six guitar tracks on one side, all with a different tone, in order to create a wall of guitars and a feeling of being crushed by them (Anderson, 2008).

Sampling, though mostly connected with hip-hop culture, made its way into stoner music as well. Often the bands sample old b-class horror movies or pornographic films. The trend was started by Electric Wizard on their groundbreaking Come my fanatics…, where they have used samples as intro to guide the listener into the mood of the songs (Oborn, 2017). Later on, the samples became a must-have for instrumental stoner-doom bands. The use of samples became a part of the songwriting process in long, drawn-out instrumental compositions. Their task was to keep the listener interested when there were no vocals, that could be hung on to.

However, samples were not only used by instrumental bands in order to grab the attention of the listener, but as well as message carriers. Bands who touch lyrically on themes such us spiritual awakening often use samples of eastern philosophers or propagators. The bands such as Yob or Weedpecker have used fragments of Alan Watts’ lectures in the intros to their songs, in order to later follow the themes with their own lyrics (Yob, 2014 and Weedpecker, 2018).

Another influence on the songwriting were the modulation and spacial effects. The introduction of modulation pedals gave the artist more tools in terms of arranging and songwriting. Australian King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard is a seven-piece psychedelic rock band with three guitarists. In order to make their music more interesting and not playing the same part on every guitar, the band had to come up with a creative use of effects. One of the examples of it could be found in their song Satan Speeds Up, where all three guitarists are using a wah pedal in three different, yet constant rhythms (Farnum, 2020). Additionally, the effects made even the simplest guitar parts sound interesting, thus changing the mindset of artists with less experience and knowledge (Patryk Mitzig, 2019).

6. Conclusion

The stoner rock community is very broad in terms of musical genres, influences and stylistics. However, the intersection of spirituality, nature and psychedelic substances seem to be a significant factor in forming it, across all its subgenres, geographical places and times. The influence is evident in the artists’ songwriting, lyricism and artworks. Some artists try to reflect their psychedelic, and often at the same time, spiritual experiences through their music and lyrics, while others take more inspiration in their surrounding natural environment. However, it is very hard to put the line between the factors and their influence as all three of them visibly influence on one another.

The passive members of the community, the fans of the music, seem to be influenced by those factors as much as the artists. Through the use of psychedelic substances, they can reach to the higher levels of consciousness that the artist do when creating music and thus relate to it easier. The audience of live music seem to have ritual-like, spiritual experiences during the shows, which shows the influence even further.

The factors had an impact as well on the choice of audio effects used in the stoner rock, whether live or in the studio. Musicians used pedals or hardware which helped them achieve the experience they wanted to convey through their music. Whether it was mimicking the psychedelic feelings of what they have experienced under the influence of substances or guiding the listener through it, experiencing a natural environment or the feeling of being crush by sonic waves and thus being here and now, which leads to a spiritual state of being.

The development of technology made it easier for aspiring artists to create interesting music without much of musical knowledge. Due to heavy use of effects, psychedelic music seemed more interesting, even when the simplest parts were being played. Additionally, the usage of movie samples helped instrumental bands with some listeners being turned away by the lack of vocals. 

7. References

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Brown, G., 2018. Understanding Chorus, Flangers, and Phasers in Audio Production. [online] iZotope. Available at: <https://www.izotope.com/en/learn/understanding-chorus-flangers-and-phasers-in-audio-production.html> [Accessed 9 May 2021].

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8. Appendix

1. Prawdziwy stoner (True stoner)  – Patryk Mitzig (2015)
“Prawdziwy Stoner to coś więcej niż pustynia, fuzz i pizganie tłustych lolków. To podejście do życia, ostateczna miłość do soczystych riffów i bezustanne upadlanie ciężarem czasu. To ten moment, gdy wstajesz o świcie a słońce kurwi Ci w oczy a na głośnikach leci Muddy Waters. To uczucie bycia jednością z całym światem i niedualistyczna świadomość, która jest ślepa na iluzoryczną granicę między stonerem i nie-stonerem. Gdy przestrzeń jest jedynie możliwością zdarzeń, gdy Ja, Ty i Rzeczywistość – to tylko puste nazwy; gdy kłócisz się z matką, bo ona gardzi Kyuss-em, ale masz ją gdzieś – oto Stoner.”

“Real Stoner is something more than the desert, fuzz and smoking fat joints. It’s an approach towards life, final love towards juicy riffs, and never-ending humiliation by the weight of time. It is this moment when you wake up with the sunrise, the sun rays are blinding you and your speakers are playing Muddy Waters. It’s the feeling of being one with the universe and non-dualistic consciousness which is blind for the illusory border between stoner and non-stoner. When space is only the possibility of events, when Me, You or Reality – are just empty words; when you argue with your mother because she despises Kyuss, but you don’t give a fuck – that’s Stoner.” (Author’s translation)

O autorze

Cebula

Cebula

Redaktor naczelny

Perkusja i wokal w The Howling Eye i współzałożyciel Sekcji stoneru. Znajduję ogromną przyjemność w prostych rzeczach jak dobre jedzenie, poranne słońce, miękki kocyk, czy stonerowe riffki.

Stoner to wolność, stoner to jazz.