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Nov 04 2011

Shpongle & Psychedelics: An Interview with Simon Posford

By David Jay Brown


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“There’s a particularly commercial band who sold a lot of records in the 80s and early 90s, and I made the terrible mistake of listening to their music while trying to have a psychedelic experience in my parent’s house when I was a teenager. I put on this CD while I was tripping, and truly heard it for the bland potbellied corporate, insipid, vapid nastiness that it was.”

To follow is an excerpt from an interview that I did with Simon Posford for Spring, 2012 MAPS Bulletin, which is a special theme issue devoted to psychedelics and the arts. Simon Posford (a.k.a. Hallucinogen) is a British musician and producer, specializing in psychedelic electronic music, spanning many genres from psychedelic trance (psytrance), to rock, to electronica. Posford’s first studio album, Twisted, was released in 1995 under the artist name “Hallucinogen.” Twisted is considered one of the most influential albums in the genre of psytrance and Posford’s connection with psychedelics was evident from the title of the very first track — “LSD,” which, to this day, remains the defining sound of a form of electronic music that originated during the late 1980s in Goa, India called “Goa trance.” In 1996, Posford and Australian musician Raja Ram created one of the most popular electronica music projects of all time — Shpongle.

Arguably, not since The Grateful Dead has a brand of popular music been so lovingly associated with psychedelics. Psychedelics have played a huge role in the creation, performance, and experience of Shpongle’s music, which is extremely popular among members of the psychedelic community. Posford is generally responsible for coordinating the synthesizers, studio work, and live instrumentation, while Raja contributes broad musical concepts and flute arrangements. Shpongle’s unique style combines Eastern ethnic instruments, flute riffs and vocals, with contemporary Western synthesizer-based electronic music, hyperdimensional alien space acoustics, and sound clips from television shows and spoken words.

Truly genre defying, Shpongle contains elements of Jazz, Classical, Dub and Glitch, among others. Shpongle performs live with different musicians, dancers and other performers, while Posford masterfully controls an electronic sound board, alchemically mixing and remixing the music, engineering, tweaking, and orchestrating the highly textured, multilayered music that emerges. Shpongle’s studio albums include: Are You Shpongled? (1998), Tales of the Inexpressible (2001), Nothing Lasts… But Nothing Is Lost (2005), and Ineffable Mysteries from Shpongleland (2009). Posford also frequently tours as Hallucinogen. To find out more about Posford’s work, see: www.facebook.com/shpongle, www.shpongle.com, and www.twistedmusic.com

I interviewed Simon on July 26, 2011. Since Simon’s music has served as the soundtrack for numerous personal psychedelic experiences, this was a special interview for me. It was great fun to–as Simon put it — “intellectualize the abstract” and “muse over the ineffable” together. There’s a delightful eloquence to the way that Simon expresses himself and a vibrant sense of creativity continually comes through his words. We spoke about how his psychedelic journeys have effected his creativity and his experience with music.

DAVID JAY BROWN: What inspired the name “Shpongle”?

SIMON POSFORD: The name “Shpongle” came from my partner Raj. One day he had taken some acid, and… (Laughter heard in the background.) My girlfriend is just laughing. (Explaining to girlfriend.) This is for a psychedelic site; it’s for MAPS. I guess all of these drug references are okay? My girlfriend is just laughing at me.

Girlfriend: Cause I’m on acid now!

SP: She’s on acid now, driving the car. (laughter) – not really, don’t worry. Anyway, Raj was tripping one day, and he said, “Oh Si, I’m feeling really shpongled.” This word was a mixture of a lot of other words that we were using at the time — like “spangled,” “stoned,” “monged,” and “mashed” — and all of these came out as one word: “shpongled.” So I said, that’s a great word. Maybe we should use that as a band name or track name as it captured the essence of the message we were trying to get across without a tired history of associations and expectations that existing words are weighed down by.

DJB: That’s appropriate, since your music blends so many different styles together. In general, with Shpongle, how would you describe your creative process?

SP: Raj will turn up, sometimes with a load of samples or recordings. One time he went to Brazil and recorded some stuff there. Otherwise, he’ll record stuff off of TV shows, some spoken words, or bamboo forests creaking in the wind… something like that. So that might spawn an idea for a track. Raj is a very visual person, and he’s a fabulous painter, so he might come up with a visual image that, in time, I’ll translate into music. Over the years he’s come up with some inspiring imagery, such as a lake shimmering in the sky. Our most recent one was about CERN, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and about the idea of particles colliding at high velocities, neutrinos protons and neutrons smashing into each other, creating black holes explosions and new universes. Stuff like that.

So we’ll have a visual image. Then, when I can finally get him to shut up, Raj will sit on the sofa and do a thousand drawings into his notebook, while I’ll sit at the computer and get about translating our images into sound. I generally do the programming, playing and production because Raj can’t work the computer or any of the equipment, but he’s the inspiration and the muse, and will play flute or jabber strange vocals into the mic (being the cunning linguist he is). We start with just a blank canvas, an empty computer screen, and just add more and more sounds–until it’s time to go home, I’m either sick of having him in my house, or he’s sick of sitting on my sofa, listening to me torture him with various obnoxious instruments. Then we stop, and later we mix it. Then we give it the acid test. He’ll take some LSD and put the headphones on when I’m ready to mix. Then I’ll play it to him at high volume, and–judging by the state of his eyeballs and his face afterwards–I’ll know whether we’ve got a good one or not. (laughter)

DJB: I love it! This leads right into my next question. How have psychedelics influenced your experience with music, and how has it effected your creativity and your performance?

SP: I would say massively, and on a profound level. In fact, so fundamentally that I didn’t even really like the type of music that I now create before I took psychedelics. I liked bands and music with singers and stuff. I never got into Kraftwerk, or Depeche Mode or any of the well known electronic bands that my friends would listen to. Then, once I took psychedelics, I really went off that for awhile, and only wanted to hear the alien, otherworldly, futuristic sounds of electronic music, and it’s what inspired me to start making the music that I’m doing now. In a way, it’s foundational to what I’m doing because it pushed me down this path.

Also, it changed my appreciation of music in general. I think that listening to music in an altered state of consciousness can either magnify the music or it can really leave you cold. Hopefully, it will enrich the experience, and, hence we have what we call “psychedelic music,” which is designed to do so. I think that electronic music can certainly enhance a psychedelic experience.

I probably shouldn’t mention the artist, but there’s a particularly commercial band who sold a lot of records in the 80s and early 90s, and I made the terrible mistake of listening to their music while trying to have a psychedelic experience in my parent’s house when I was a teenager. I put on this CD while I was tripping, and truly heard it for the bland potbellied corporate, insipid, vapid nastiness that it was.

So our only concerns now are, what do we need to do to make this sort of kaleidoscopic music that really expands the brain, in the same way that, I think, psychedelics do?

DJB: I think that’s really important. One of the reasons that I love your music so much is because I feel really vulnerable when I’m tripping and it seems just so vital to have the properly supportive music. I was listening to some of your music recently, and was thinking that some of it reminded me a bit of Pink Floyd, one of my favorite bands in high school. They developed sophisticated acoustic techniques for beautifully heightening consciousness with their music. But much of it feels so sad to me, like I’m floating all alone in outer space, haunted by loss of cosmic proportions. You seem to have developed similarly layered acoustic techniques for heightening consciousness with your music, but much of it has an upbeat, joyful exuberance, which I totally love and appreciate immensely.

SP: What’s amazing about Pink Floyd is that they managed to capture it with lyrics as well, which I find quite hard to do — because lyrics often distract me from the exact feeling that you were describing. This is why I never got, for example, The Grateful Dead, or some of the jam bands over here that were touted as so psychedelic. The Grateful Dead weren’t as big here in England, but they certainly weren’t around me and my friends when I was growing up. So when I finally did have an experience with them, and then someone told me, “oh, that’s The Grateful Dead,” man, I was disappointed. To me it was just blues-folk music. I just didn’t get it… apparently it sounded best from the car park, which I could understand!

DJB: Trippy, blues-folk music… but yeah, it’s pretty old fashioned compared to electronic music. There’s such a rich tapestry of acoustic variation and so many dimensions to your music, that it really comes close to capturing the multidimensional state of consciousness that one is in during a psychedelic experience. I’m sure that’s why so many people love it.

SP: You know the old cliché about gazing at your shoelace for ten hours when you take psychedelics? I always like to have a similar experience with music while I’m tripping, where I really get into each and every guitar note. Each note will be analyzed, effected, and tweaked out, with layer upon layer of instrumentation… tambourines turned into liquid drops of nectar, vocals converted to voices of the cosmos.

DJB: Right, and there’s such an incredible sense of time dilation. Everything seems to slow down, and there’s a lot more going on in each moment, so you can analyze every detail more easily. Normally, it all just flies by so much more quickly.

SP: Yeah, I guess that’s why it takes me so long to make an album. I like to spend a lot of time on each track. I think that you should be able to listen to a good track many times, and hear something new in it each time. It should be composed so that you hear something new in it if you listen to it on headphones, or on a good sound system or in the car, alone or with friends. It’s got to keep you interested and tickle the brain cells as long as possible.

DJB: How have psychedelics effected your audience, and your interaction with your audience?

SP: I don’t know if I can really speak for my audience, because the psychedelic experience is a very personal journey. But I would say that quite a large percentage of our audience appears to have certainly had that experience, and I think that it provides a way to relate. Our music creates a common thread and instant bond of alliance to other people who have had a psychedelic experience, in the same way that, say, traveling might. I think that I get on better with people if they’ve done psychedelics and traveled, because it opens your mind up in a way that is unequivocal. It makes one adept at relating and interacting in a playful, intangible, broadminded way that perhaps you don’t have with people that maybe haven’t had those experiences.

DJB: I think that’s there’s something very similar about traveling and tripping because they both help you to become more culturally transcendent. They allow one to dissolve and transcend the boundaries of culture. Most people don’t even know that culture creates limitations until they are free of them.

SP: Yeah, so it does mean that then there is a bond with the crowd, and my interaction with them. I only really make music that I want to hear myself. Because I want to hear that tricked out, tweaked out, psychedelic, trippy sound, I hope that many other people will want to hear that as well, and that my personal taste isn’t so weird that no one else will like it.

DJB: You’re definitely tapping into something that’s really hitting a chord with a lot of people.

SP: A lot more people might have done psychedelics than, perhaps, we might imagine. It’s also a lot less taboo just to talk about it now than it used to be.

DJB: Could you talk a little about some of your most significant personal experiences with psychedelics, what you learned from them, and how they affected you?

SP: You  mean like tripping tales… that kind of thing?

DJB: The experiences that have influenced you the most.

SP: I guess sometimes the greatest influence has not always come from the best trips. My friend says that there is no such thing as a bad trip. When you’re absolutely terrified, in a complete state of jelly, then it may be hard to agree with that. But I think that when I view my experiences with a regard for what I’ve brought back from them, I see that sometimes the bad trips have been the most productive and the most mind-expanding, in a way… because they taught me the most about myself.

Like that trip at my parent’s house, which I just mentioned, listening to the bad 80s music. It was super-weird, and, at some point, I realized how someone could even prefer death to this, but I just chose not to go that route. Then, after I came down, it really gave me a new joy for life and a fresh perspective on everything. I was able to think, “I’m so glad to be alive and not on acid!” for the next six months. I had heard music that sounded terrible, and curdled my blood, and I had imagined music that would elevate me to the stars and stir dormant neurons into life.

But then there’s also peak experiences on psychedelics, like with DMT, which for me, I think, is by far the most profound of all the psychedelics I’ve tried. With DMT it was just revelation after revelation, both personal and universal stuff. I had “time” explained to me.

DJB: Did you do it with harmaline, as ayahuasca, or on it’s own?

SP: No, I vaporized it in a pipe. Raj was with me, and a lot of my friends had done it. I was scared to do it. It had been around for a long time, and I knew that it was going to be a big experience. Having done other psychedelics, I was nervous to do it so I waited awhile. Then, suddenly, I thought, you know what? The time is right now! I was in my house with my dear friend. All was quiet. It was just before dawn, and — because it was summer — the birds would come out and start singing as i returned to reality.

So I did it. We did a little meditation first and approached the experience very much as a vision quest. I was a little scared going in to the experience. As Terence McKenna said, “If you take a psychedelic, and you don’t think, oh my God, this time I’ve really taken too much, then you haven’t done enough!” Supposedly, the DMT that I did that day was from Terence McKenna’s personal stash. Although I’m sure that there’s a lot of DMT from “Terence McKenna’s stash,” the experience that I had with this particular material was certainly the strongest that I’ve had out of all my DMT experiences.

With one toke, I was already possibly higher than I’d ever been before, and was hurtling through the universe hanging on by a mere thread. Then I took another toke, even though I’m already feeling like I can’t take any more — I mean, I couldn’t even see properly, by this point! I held it in for a really long time, and when I exhaled, I hear this voice echoing through the ether, saying, “Have another one, Simon.” So, as I feel the pipe hit my lips, I inhaled really deeply on it again.

By this point, I’m beyond my body, so it’s really easy to take in that mothbally, acrid, chemical taste. I could just suck it to the depths of my lungs and my soul and really hold it for a long time. Then, I got to the third toke that McKenna talks about, and just laid back on the sofa in silent darkness.

First of all, I had that initial rush, which is fiercely intense. Then I sort of plunged into this portal, about where my 3rd eye was, and yet out in deep space, where I was met by these entities. I can only describe these beings  as “entities” — they were without bodies or physical features, more like a collection of intelligent energy continually shapeshifting that communicated with me through a variety of mediums, not all of them language, sometimes color, sound, or a form of telepathy that I cannot describe with mere words. One of the things they said to me was, “Oh, we’re so glad to see you! You made it! You’re here.”

Then they started examining me in a very frivolous, excited, joyful, and playful kind of way. When I say “examining me” I don’t mean physically or medically, which would be horrible. Rather, it was like all of the information in my brain was accessible to them. The hard drive was open, so to speak, and they were rebooting me. They were feeding me information, nourishing me, and then they asked, “What do you want to see?” For some reason, I thought “time.” I don’t know why I thought “time,” but they replied in a slightly ominous way, “okay, we’re going to show you time!” Although I can’t conceive of it in my head now, or transcribe it with such a limited form of language (maybe that’s what music is for?), but in that moment, I totally understood time.

They showed me the universe without time, which was the clincher that made me think, okay, I get it. If I’m able to step outside the universe, I see the cogwheel of time and how it fits into the larger cosmic machinery. My memory of it is that it’s a method, or a required construct, to keep us in this dimension — while we are here, with our bodies, on planet Earth — in order to witness the universe that we see every day. Or possibly nature’s way of preventing everything from happening at once. Haha!

With that, they also reminded me that I’m really so lucky to have a body for this transitory period of, what?… eighty years if you’re lucky. And really, you should be making the most of it. You should just be experiencing everything in life, all of it — love, joy, pain, anger, sorrow, bliss, enlightenment — everything that you experience. That’s really why we’re here, because at some point you’ll return to the Source, and we won’t have these bodies to be able to savor these experiences from the Garden of Earthly Delights. It was just revelation after revelation. It was very much like a near-death experience, or an out-of-body experience.

People speculate that a chemical very similar to DMT is released in the brain when we die, and it felt a bit like that. In a way, it felt like I was dying. I was communicating with what might be souls or something. There are definitely energies out there that communicate, and see stuff that I have achieved in my life, and will, perhaps, reprimand me for the bad things that I’ve done. It tied in with the Christian idea of Heaven and Hell, where you’re there for eternity. When you die, your heartbeat stops, your body is still and you have no reference to any time whatsoever and yet this chemical might be coursing around your dying brain. At least during my DMT journey I had my breath, and my heart was beating, although I wasn’t really aware of how long I was out there.

If your brain is active after you die for between five and fifteen minutes as some medical professionals suggest, then you’re effectively there for eternity, experiencing what could very easily be your own personal private Heaven or Hell in this psychedelic state. So it raised the question to me: is consciousness chemical in nature? Really, the whole experience raised far more questions than it answered — although it provided me with a lot of personal revelations about my life, including behaviors I could perhaps improve — even down to the song that I was working on.

I could see the music we had been working on leaving my head as a flowing liquid mercurial stream of holographic colored symbols, and these “machine elves,” as Terence McKenna calls them, appeared to be getting off on it. They were dancing, laughing and enjoying it. There was a little flute riff in there, that we could all see, it was red and blue and melting like one of Dali’s clocks. These creatures suddenly turned serious and told me, “You have to go back and find this particular flute riff. It is the divine riff, and this is the one that you have to use.”

So when I came down, I went through one of Raj’s takes to find it. When we make music, Raj will just play and I’ll record him for around twenty minutes. Then I’ll edit it, and find the juiciest chunks to put into the track. So I was searching very specifically for this particular bit that the entity explained to me on DMT, that I should use, and sure enough, there it was. But he fluffed it a little bit in the playing, so I tried to get him to replay the melody. Raj is a very improvisational player. He can never play the same thing twice, so to get him to be specific, and really try and play this riff, was very hard. But he got pretty close, as close as we could get. The tune was “Behind Closed Eyelids” and the flute riff that appears in that track was an imitation of the riff we had been instructed to use by the alien creatures we encountered on DMT.

It affected me so deeply, on so many levels- — from what I was working on right then, down to my core beliefs and all of the paradigms of the universe that I’ve encountered, from Buddhism, Christianity, religion, science, and the various different interpretations that people make in trying to explain the world. It provided a model of the universe that could fit comfortably — or relatively comfortably — in my small human brain.

DJB: That’s extraordinary that you were able to bring so much back from such a powerful experience.

SP: It has taken a long time to assimilate it. I still think about it everyday. Initially when I came down I thought I would never speak again. What’s the point? Words… they are so inadequate, lifeless and stultifying. I spent a day in silence, before admitting that I have to try and express myself and share these experiences.

Even this single moment made the whole experience worthwhile: I received the message to “Just Be.” Amongst all these crazy hyper-dimensional visuals, universes being created and exploding around me, suddenly a phrase I’d maybe picked up somewhere about an aspect of Enlightenment is to “just be.”… And suddenly I “just was!” I literally had no thoughts. There was no “me.” There was obviously no ego remaining, but really there was no thought, no body, no universe… no thing. It was like thirty years of yoga and meditation practiced every day to try and get to that point, and suddenly there I was.

All of the visuals up to that point had been very intense and this was just white light. It was just “just be,” and it was just white light, with no “me,”… nothing. I realize I’m gabbling now, but I can’t even really put it into words. I would imagine that that’s the closest that I’ve ever come to some kind enlightened bliss state, which people have described. Then, suddenly, I had the thought, “Oh this is it! I’m just being!”. But by then, of course, you’ve lost it… because you’ve got a thought, and you’re already analyzing your own experience.

DJB: Did this experience influence your thoughts about what happens to consciousness after death and your perspective on the concept of God?

SP: It raised more questions than it answered. I mean, I’m still thinking about what happened during that experience now. I’m still wondering, as I said, is consciousness chemical in nature? Is God chemical in essence? Here I am, a load of chemicals, and I believe in science. I take another chemical, and then suddenly, I’m in this other universe which is so real, so convincing, so familiar in a way, and yet also so alien. But certainly as authentic as the universe I witness everyday without chemical assistance. That experience still confuses me, in that, I’m not sure if I particularly believe in God. But it’s hard to say that when you’ve met some kind of — what appeared to be… God. Or maybe more like a goddess, as it was a more feminine energy.

DJB: What type of relationship do you see between psychedelics, music, and shamanism?

SP:  If you had a Venn diagram of the three, there’d be this huge overlap, because shamanism obviously uses music and psychedelics. It’s heavily based in ritual, and music and psychedelic plants are often a part of that ritual. There’s obviously music without shamanism and psychedelics, but I would say maybe avoid some of that music. (laughter) Psychedelics make music sound great, and they work really well with music. But then, there is a whole spiritual side to shamanism. I think that psychedelics probably help you to connect in some way to the shamanistic spiritual side of the sound and music. To articulate how they all interact is probably a little bit difficult; that’s probably more up your alley than mine. I’d have to think about that a little bit more. There’s clearly an overlap between all of them.

In pictures of shamans around the world — from Siberian, Native American, Russian to South American — they are usually depicted holding a drum, so there appears to some kind of connection of a beat to the spirit world. When a Shaman wants to communicate in the voice of the spirit world, he/she will often use music or glossolalia (speaking in tongues.. .wow i’ve always wanted to get that word into a sentence!) instead of language. Taking psychedelics clearly is a gateway to the spirit world, but to weave all these elements into a cohesive Unified Theory should probably be the subject of a book. I’m not qualified or knowledgeable enough. I’m just excited to be able to use the word glossolalia, a word i learned from the English TV show QI !  I guess TV isn’t all bad, despite how it seems whenever I switch it on in the USA.

DJB: How do you envision your future music evolving?

SP: I don’t know. I guess my taste changes throughout the years, along with the influences that I have, so it’s hard to say. All I can say about my music is that I will only ever do something that I want to hear at that time — and that’s all I really think an artist can do. If you’re trying to do something to please other people or to appease the myriad cast of characters that one inevitably has sitting on one’s shoulder while you’re making a tune — judging you, as I’m sure any artist has — then I think that you’ll run into problems. When you’re doing it, you have to ignore them, and basically just do what you like and what you want to hear and hope there’s a resonance with your audience. As I mentioned before, I just have to hope that my taste isn’t so obscure and off the wall that no one else will like it, and that there will be a few hundred souls that will relate to it and enjoy it.

DJB: And isn’t that just so beautiful when that happens?

SP: Yup.

DJB: Is there anything that we haven’t spoken about that you would like to add?

SP: Yes, I’d like to think a little bit more about psychedelics and art, generally. What might be interesting to examine, which we haven’t really discussed is how the psychedelic arts also seems slightly bound to the culture from which they originate as well — even though there is a common theme. If you look at Aboriginal art and that Hoichol art that they do with the beads…

DJB: do those brightly colored yarn paintings of their peyote visions.

SP: Yes, exactly. They also make these very colorful masks with tiny beads and sculptures. But there’s an overlap. Both share themes common to psychedelic artwork such as fractal style patterns and spirals or concentric circles. I’m pretty sure the Mexicans took peyote, but I don’t know about the Aborigines. Did they take psychedelics? Certainly it seems like the ancient Egyptians did, or those who made the mushroom drawings in the Tassilic caves. Also it would be interesting to look into the hallucinogenic effects that laudanum and absinthe had on those poets we so revere today. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize psychedelics have probably had a huge impact on art and artists. When will it start to affect our governments and politicians? That’s what I’d like to know!

DJB: Me too! There’s definitely something universal and archetypal about many of the recurring psychedelic motifs in art and music around the world. Not long after I had my first psychedelic experience as a teenager, I realized that, when looking at a piece of artwork or hearing a piece of music, I could tell, with a high degree of accuracy, whether or not that artist had ever had a psychedelic experience or not. People who have experienced psychedelics seem to pick up on signals that may be completely invisible to others.

SP: Yeah, it really is like lifting a veil to another world. I think that once that veil has been lifted ,you can never really put it back. Maybe that’s what scares people who haven’t tried psychedelics… what if it changes me?

DJB: And it will! (laughter)

SP: But, I think, generally for the better.

DJB: I do too. Is there anything else you that you wanted to say about psychedelics and art in general?

SP: On a slightly sad footnote, it’s such a shame that Bill Hicks isn’t alive?  To be able to speak to him about it would be amazing. You’re familiar with Bill Hicks, right?

DJB: Bill Hicks is my very favorite comedian of all time. Absolutely brilliant and totally hilarious.

SP: He pops into my head when I was saying that I think perhaps more people have taken psychedelics than you realize. That famous last film show that he did at the Dominion Theater in London was the big venue, and he’s up there as a standup comic, talking about psychedelics and the experiences of taking acid. As a comic, you’re going to want to be able to relate to your audience. And I think his confidence in doing that just shows that there are plenty of people out there who have had the experience that unites us. I’m glad that MAPS among others are reminding us it’s ok to experiment with our minds. In fact, for the spiritual evolution of mankind and art it might even be a requirement. So to finish up I would just like to quote Bill, “It’s just a Ride. We can change that ride anytime we choose… a simple choice between Fear and Love.”

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  • By Cowicide, November 6, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    Thanks for this great interview.

  • By Bimbambæmbømbombindangdingdong, May 7, 2012 @ 4:20 am

    Nice! Bill Hicks <3

  • By nima, May 23, 2013 @ 4:47 am

    im fucking love this man his work is magical (persian fans)

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