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Classically Trained Electro Master: An Interview with Jon Hopkins

Electronics master Jon Hopkins takes time out from his packed schedule to chat about his many projects at this year's Moogfest.

Jon Hopkins had just landed in North Carolina when he obliged a few interviews at Moogfest back in October. With a set time much later after midnight, it was clear that this is a very busy musician. As a child prodigy on piano, he was studying piano at London’s prestigious Royal College of Music by the time he was 12. He is now best known for production work on Coldplay’s Viva La Vida but Hopkins has three CDs of his own – his last one was on PopMatters' top ten list for Best Electronic Albums of 2009. Having just completed a movie soundtrack and assisting with Brian Eno’s latest project, there clearly was a lot to talk about in the lobby of the Hayward Park Hotel.

Who are you interested in seeing at Moogfest?

I am looking forward to seeing Nosaj Thing very much, Caribou very much, Jonsi I think I want to see but it might be on at the same time as Caribou. And I may have missed Lorn? I’d wanted to see Lorn. Well, those are some things that I’m looking forward to.

Your CD Insides was listed on PopMatters as one of the top 10 electronic albums of 2009, yet it’s full of pure piano moments. Does the synth track or the melody appear in your writing process first?

I saw a lot of that album almost as a piano album even though it’s heavily electronic through most of it. It was a piano that I’ve had since I was six or seven years old and I’ve always had it where I’ve lived, but for once I had a separate studio to my house now so for the first time the piano was in the same room as the rest of my studio. So I was able just to literally turn around and play on it. What happened was I would just find myself writing more and more pieces on it and kind of hit on this idea of just leaving completely untreated piano but with very heavily electronic backdrops. It just kind of evolved from being around it a lot I guess.

You’re a classically trained pianist since a child, but are you from a musical family?

No, not at all. I mean they’re all music lovers and when I started expressing an interest in it as a kid it was definitely encouraged. They played me a lot of music so I grew up around it. My family are all passionate about it but none of them have actually learned an instrument.

When did you discover electronic music?

The first thing I remember hearing was just the dance music that was in the charts when I was growing up. I don’t remember many of the names of specific tracks -- they were just kind of early acid house things. I had no way of seeking out anything underground because I was seven and eight years old. But I just remember the music was whatever would be on the chart compilations at the time, like acid stuff and sort of early house tunes. Then I was a big fan of New Order, Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys, things like that. I liked anything which had electronic backing to it. I remember having a 7-inch Depeche Mode single when I was ten and really loving that. It kind of started with that. I was always fascinated particularly with synths: how they looked and stuff that when you’re a kid you’re like this is the most incredible thing in the world just to play. I remember when I got my first home keyboard just a little toy thing and that was it really for me.

But it was electronic, so at what age was that?

I think I was probably around seven or eight. It was just a toy thing. It had ten sounds on it maybe, most of them sounding the same. And then I saved up and managed to get my first low-level pro synth when I was 15 or something. I just saved up for ages and got a Roland of some sort.

You’ve listed Brian Eno as both a key influence, a friend a collaborator -- tell us about this latest project with him.

This new album is his first on Warp. It’s an album of improvisations between me, him and Leo Abrahams who’s a guitarist friend of ours, and the guy that originally introduced me to Brian actually. And it’s an interesting listen. To me, I just hear the three of us playing but you know it’s not so simple for people who don’t know the process behind it. I really only heard the tracks the one time that we played them and then I’ve listened a couple of times since then.

Was it pure improv or was there anything composed ahead of time?

No it was just the three of us playing in a room, improvising. We were recording six hours of material every day for about three weeks. It was a lot. Then we just went through those recordings and came up with little segments. They’re not long pieces on there, they’re actually quite short but there’s I think fifteen tracks and then five bonus ones in various release formats. And that’s how it exists really.

It seems some pictures are built for music and some music is built for film. Your tracks seem destined to go with an image on screen. Is that something you’re interested in exploring?

I’ve done a couple of scores now and I do like doing it. What I like to do more than that is when a piece I’ve written is used for something. I like that cause you don’t have to do anything. But also it’s cool to make something which if you listen to it, you might get your own film playing in your own head. I’ve had letters from people who’ve seen different things while listening to different tracks or people get a certain story from a certain thing and someone else might get something completely different. I like that open-ended interpretation.

You certainly don’t give a lot away with each title. Is that intentional?

I’m just terrible at titles and it is intentional as well. Some of them mean something to me but on the first album, which is nearly ten years ago now, the titles are from a thesaurus mostly. I’d just look up things and randomly stumble across words. I’ve learnt over the years to always be thinking of titles and ideas that I try to put across with just a couple of words. It’s the difficult part when you’re writing things that are basically abstract,

Is that something you keep in your head or do you actually log them in a journal?

I have a notebook pretty much on me all the time or if I don’t I’ll just store it in my phone or something. It’s not very often but because I’m aware of the need to do that I’m always collecting titles. I’ve probably got enough now for the next album -- I just need to write the music that goes with them.

So what’s next on the schedule?

I have this soundtrack album that’s just coming out now for this film called Monsters, which is a feature film. It’s the first one I’ve scored on my own. It’s a British made film that’s an indie Sci Fi film that’s low budget but very cool. There’s a soundtrack album that’s on itunes now just as a digital release at the moment with Domino. That’s pretty much the newest thing and I did a remix thing for this guy No Such Thing who’s playing at Moogfest. I did a remix for this band Wild Beasts as well who have been doing well in the UK. Then I need to get on with another album really, start writing that. I really want to, I’d love to! The problem is other things keep coming along. It’s great though, a lucky position to be in to keep have so many projects. But I do just want to write now; instead I probably won’t be able to for another couple of months because I’ve got quite a lot of other work. My plan is to spend in theory four months in a block working on it and to try and just turn down everything else in that time. Not do any shows and just do it. Whether or not that happens, we’ll have to wait and see because things have a habit of appearing.

Well if you’re offered things like working with Brian Eno or Moogfest it would be hard to turn down…

Yeah I would never! Well, I was thinking I probably would keep doing shows actually because you can try out new songs and it gets you out of your tiny world that you’re in when you’re writing. It’s inspiring to get out and see places. Traveling is great. I love that bit of my job.

Are you producing everything in your own studio that you have put together or do you like using outside studios?

I do it all in mine and there’s not really that much there. It’s just you know piano, one synth, couple of bits of outboard stuff and a computer. That’s all it is really. But it’s a nice little place about ten minutes from my house so I try and keep normal sensible working hours. Are they playing some sort of saxophone synth version of the Beatles?

Isn’t this the craziest thing? It is so horrendous.

Sax cover of “Hey Jude” isn’t it? Jesus.

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