Breathe This Air: An Interview With Jon Hopkins

Jon Hopkins' Mercury Music Prize winning Immunity was an electronic masterpiece that was unlike anything people had heard before.
Jon Hopkins

Electronic music had a very good year in 2013. Just as 1977 was a landmark year for punk and 1993 was an iconic year for hip-hop, 2013 will go down as an important year for the electronic genre. After all, the most famous entry last year was Daft Punk‘s commercial powerhouse Random Access Memories, but the genre also saw a great dance record with Darkside‘s Psychic, a gargantuan epic with the Knife‘s Shaking the Habitual, the return of Boards of Canada, and a genuine foreboding, claustrophobic masterwork with the Haxan Cloak‘s Excavation.

Among these releases, Jon Hopkins stood out with the dense, moving, and extremely accessible Immunity. The album was nominated for the Mercury Prize for best album in the UK and Ireland in 2013. It was Hopkins’ second time being nominated for the Mercury Prize, and his forward-thinking electronica is helping redefine the genre in fascinating, unexpected ways.

Hopkins gained acclaim for his previous album, Insides, but until Immunity, he was best known for his collaboration work with Brian Eno, and as a producer. Hopkins served as co-producer for Coldplay’s Grammy-winning album Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (which was produced by Eno). Now, with a recent extended & expanded re-release of Immunity having just come out, he is very much discovering that he has an intelligent, appreciative fandom all his own, one that is aimed to grow exponentially.

PopMatters spoke to Hopkins from his home in East London. He had just returned from Sydney and was preparing to do a New Years Eve show in Rome.

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What’s been your reaction to all of the acclaim you’ve received this year?

It’s been a very memorable experience. I’ve put a good nine months of work into the record. It’s obviously a summation of ideas I’ve had for music making for my whole career, which is 12 to 13 years. To have everyone be really open to it and to get a lot of new listeners as well is as much as I could have possibly hoped for and more.

2013 was the second time you have been nominated for a Mercury Prize. How was it like getting your second Mercury Prize nomination?

I felt quite lucky. The first time was a quite terrifying experience. I had no idea what to expect, but I had the luxury of being with someone else [Hopkins received the nomination along with King Creosote for the album Diamond Mine in 2011]. It was a little bit diluted. When it came around this time, it was just me, and I think had I not had that previous experience, it would have been pretty terrifying. You don’t make this kind of music expecting to have to do TV press and stuff like that. I don’t mind doing it, but it’s a fairly underground type of music. You do it for the love of the music more than being a star or anything. I actually enjoyed it a lot in the end.

What changed most for you in 2013?

Having an album that had a broader reach than previous ones I had has been very noticeable when I actually come to play. Firstly, there are much bigger shows, but also there’s really euphoric experiences to the songs that I’ve not experienced before. Most of the year has been taken with shows, which has been quite a major change for me.

Solo-wise, what did you want to do with Immunity that you didn’t think you did on previous albums?

When I’m writing, I’m really only working on instincts. I only know what’s going to happen next when I’m done with the current bit. With Insides, I think the reason it was more disjointed was it was (recorded) over a period of several years around all these other projects I was doing. The main difference of Immunity and maybe the reason why it worked better as a whole was it was done in one sitting if you like. Throughout 2012, it was really all I was doing. That definitely helped it along.

Was it all recorded in your studio?

There were some pianos recorded in Sydney and a few other sounds I picked up around the way. But all the main work was done in my studio, which is about ten minutes away from my house, which is quite good. Quite convenient.

Immunity feels like a genuine album. Theme-wise, you’ve said in interviews that the album unfolds over a single night. The first half is euphoric and chaotic. And the second half is a reflective comedown. Was there a theme when you were first conceiving this album?

The process of writing was far more instinctive than that. I didn’t really think ahead. I kind of saw it happening approaching the end. Maybe three months into the process, I already had a vague idea of what the order would be. After it was finished I was able to look back on it and see if was following that particular arc. I always thought it was an amazing kind of direction for an album to have, to have that contrast and to present not exactly aggressive, but certainly energetic first half with a certain darkness to it. It always seemed to me, having experienced nights like that, there’s an emotional quality that doesn’t get addressed in the music you hear when you experiencing them (nights). The second half (of the album) is sort of the slowing down, the comedown to the night. There’s a real beauty to that experience. It just really formed quite naturally around that idea.

What was the most challenging track for you on Immunity?

“Sun Harmonics” was in some ways my favorite, and in some ways was the one I did more for my own pleasure than anything else because it’s quite indulgent. I found it a very escapist experience writing it. I kind of really disappeared into it. But the hardest song was actually the opening track (“We Disappear”). I knew it had to open the album, but it was the last one to click into place. I couldn’t get it right. The breakthrough came when I realized it didn’t have to be an eight-minute epic. It didn’t have to have a huge bass drop in the middle. I wrote this really quiet ending, and that’s when it clicked into place. And that’s when I started feeling the album was forming. I did wrestle with that one a lot.

“Collider” seems to be the definitive separator between the two halves on Immunity.

When I was writing that, it was around halfway through the album writing process. I knew it was going to be the centerpiece, just because it was so intense. I wouldn’t want it to be near the end, or near the beginning. It had a very obvious place. I really wanted to push it with that. By presenting a ten-minute track, which has got essentially one bass note hammering all the way through, you had to justify its presence with the things around it. It was really the only place for it.

It definitely guided what would follow as well. The idea of going straight into “Abandoned Window,” which was quite logical for me after that. It’s what your brain wants to hear having being subjected to such a violent track.

Did you find any events or experiences in your life over the past few years seep into the recording of Immunity?

Looking back on it, it was more a representation of states of mind I’ve had and previous thoughts in my life. The formative childhood and teenage experiences, escapist states of mind I found myself in various ways — you’re driven to try and recreate experiences you had in the formative parts of your life, and that’s what that album is a bit for me. The word “immunity” is just about the feeling that music has always given me.

The cover is striking. How did you choose that cover?

We originally had the idea of trying to spell the word “immunity” with items … or grow some life forms and spell that word. There’s a guy who specializes in that very creative type of typography (Craig Ward). He put us in touch with a biochemist called Linden Gledhill whose speciality is growing crystals and photographing them. His job is testing drugs and antibodies … to help find cures for things, but in his spare time he photographs these incredible microscopic worlds. As soon as I saw what he was creating just by photographing food dyes though different lenses, it was incredible. It just fit with the album.

Can you describe your studio in East London. It was a former pub, correct?

I think it used to be a cafe or something. It’s next to a former pub. On the outside, it’s a fairly dilapidated looking building. On the inside, it’s fairly cozy. It’s been a studio for 30 years … in various forms. A lot of history, a lot of personal touches from the owner (Mark Sutherland). I’ve been there for maybe six years or something and have made that room my own. It’s a pretty unique place.

How have you made that room you own?

It’s evolved with me a bit. I had a fairly different setup when I arrived in 2006. I’ve since evolved a lot with the help of the owner. He really helped me as a kind of audio consultant. It just sounds amazing in there. It’s very conducive to just getting along with a big project.

Has putting this album in a live environment been a challenge?

It is difficult. You finish the album, and you master it, and you want to feel a sense of closure. I think I had three days off, then I had to go back and reopen the whole album and bounce out all the parts for the live show and work out how to restitch it all together live. That’s difficult, because you’d like to leave it alone at that point. Then it becomes a wonderful thing once you start actually doing the shows. You can take everything to the next level once you’ve just gone through all of the tedious preparation part. You can really take the songs up a level, and in some cases make them better live than they were on record.

Is there any song on Immunity that you think translates better live?

Sometimes I think elements of “Open Eye Signal” are better live. I do this really crazy stuff at the end, but I don’t know if it’d translate well into recording. It would probably sound a bit too extreme.

2013 seemed to be a big year for electronic releases with Daft Punk, Boards of Canada, The Haxan Cloak, and Darkside. Were there any releases that resonated with you in 2013?

It’s been a difficult year for me for listening, just because I’ve been doing so much work. Actually discovering new music, you’re not in the right headspace for it, really. I did love the James Holden album. It was very experimental … you could see a really devoted artistic vision in there. And that was very much against the grain from everything else. I loved the lead single (“Reach for the Dead”) from the Boards of Canada record. That was incredible. There was a track by Lone called “Airglow Fires.” I’ve not managed to hit on just one album in particular. It’s been a bit from a few different places.

Any new projects you’re working on now, or are you still trying to catch your breath from 2013?

Right now, I just got home from touring. I’m not going to move, apart from New Years Eve, and then until late January when we start playing again. I do imagine I’m going to start writing maybe new music or maybe doing some more remixes. I finished a remix on Moderat recently, which I think comes out early next year (2014).


See also “Dark Blue-Grey With Neon Pink Flashes: An Interview With Jon Hopkins” by A. Noah Harrison