Dark Blue-Grey With Neon Pink Flashes: An Interview With Jon Hopkins
Transcendent electronic musician Jon Hopkins reflects on two decades of composition and collaboration and hints at what’s on the horizon.
With the 2013 release of Immunity, London-born Jon Hopkins cemented his place as one of today’s most thoughtful and scrupulous electronic composers, and deservedly so. His method harkens back, not so much to the techno and downtempo artists to whom much of his influence is due, but to the early electronic composers of the '60s. Hopkins is a true experimenter, more intent with crafting exciting sounds than fitting a certain DJ trope.
When Hopkins hears a sound he likes, he seeks to capture its essence without inhabiting any kind of musical tradition. Working within certain constraints, the use of a few trusty synths and of course Ableton Live, he navigates a playground of infinite possibility. To this end, he falls among the amorphous ranks of Caribou, Four Tet, and James Holden, artists who make (what is somewhat inadequately termed) IDM, or intelligent dance music -- though given Hopkins’ modest demeanor, he’d probably dismiss the label with a chuckle.
Hopkins began banging out tunes on the piano at age four and enrolled in the Royal College of Music at 12. By 17, Hopkins and classmate/friend Leo Abrahams found themselves members of Imogen Heap’s live band. A string of sundry career moves has led Hopkins to compose film scores as well as collaborate with characters like Scottish folk musician King Creosote and legendary musical mind Brian Eno.
If you spoke with Hopkins, you would see right through his gallant humility. He’s someone who has put in the many thousands of hours necessary to cultivate his craft, and his insatiable urge to grow as an artist has pushed his sound into some fantastic places. Hopkins’ compositions exhibit the paradoxical quality of streamlined complexity: layers upon layers of sound that fit together like interlocking puzzles.
As a practitioner of transcendental meditation and coy advocate for altered consciousness, Hopkins conceives his songs as “places rather than pieces of music”. His work undoubtedly bumps, but it captures the subtle shifts and evolutions essential to this sort of electronic music. In 2016, Hopkins celebrates the 15th anniversary of his debut album, Opalescent, with a swanky remaster and two-LP reissue. Listening to it, one is reminded much more of Massive Attack than of, say, Aphex Twin. Though a far cry from Hopkins’ Mercury Prize-nominated Immunity, it is no doubt the zygote of a vast and fertile body of work. At the moment, Hopkins is enjoying a change of scenery in sunny Los Angeles as he conceptualizes his next album—one he says will be more advanced and upbeat than his prior work -- before returning home to record.
In the meantime, you can hear the reissued Opalescent, due for release 26 August.
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This year marks the 15th year anniversary of your debut album, Opalescent. Listening to that record, it has an almost new agey, mood music vibe. Do you ever throw it on at dinner parties, and just not say anything?
Me? That would be weird if I was to do that. My own album at dinner parties… [Laughs]
Do you ever listen to your own music for pleasure?
Not very often, but sometimes, yeah. There are certain pieces I haven’t released that I’ve made more for my own listening. Meditative stuff. But Opalescent wasn’t written as background music. You can use it that way, but I wasn’t really aware of the sort of new age connotations of down-tempo stuff at the time. They were more like instrumental songs for me. Like, you could put a vocal on a lot of those, and it would make sense. They almost had the structure of songs more than dance music or down-tempo tracks.
Who were you listening to at the time?
There was probably a fair bit of Brian Eno. There was this German label called Recycle or Die, which was a sort of imprint of Eye Q Records, and there were some great artists like Ralf Hildenbeutel that were releasing some really good European ambient stuff around then.
How do you feel about Opalescent, looking back at it?
It’s always going to have a special place for me. It’s where it all began, and it was very personal, very heartfelt. There were tracks on it I will always be proud of. Now, I obviously don’t like everything on it, but you’re always critical of what you’ve done. Otherwise you wouldn’t move forward. I’ve tried to do every album in a different style, which is why I tend to leave a fair bit of time between each one. But yeah, it’s got a very specific sound all of its own, which is a valid step in my whole musical journey.
So your sound has come a long way in the last 15 years. What would you say hasn’t changed in your approach to music today?
Well, the intention has always been similar, which is to represent certain states of mind I’ve felt or that humanity feels generally. To try and create a transcendent state through music has always been the intention. The way I’ve tried to do that is different.
There have been a couple of synths in common through all the records, like Trinity, which I still use now. I don’t believe in getting a lot of new gear all the time, so I get very deeply into one instrument and use it for many years. Obviously the programs I’m using have changed. I stuck with Cubase for a long time, eventually moved on to Logic, and now on to Ableton, which I use for everything. It’s the best thing out there. It’s incredible.
But I’m doing the same kinds of things in these programs. They’re all the same, really. They just introduce enhanced levels of creativity along the way.
You were basically a kid when Opalescent came out. If you could hang out with the Jon Hopkins of then, what would you tell him?
[Laughing] I think I’d probably tell him that it’ll be fine. I don’t think I was particularly worried about it, but there’s a certain insecurity you have at that age. You don’t know who you are, and you don’t know if anyone will ever care about your music. You don’t even know, even if it goes well, how that will feel. You just don’t know anything at that point. Continuing along the path is the main thing I would say to that guy.
And unfortunately for most people, no one will care about their music.
I was lucky. I do feel like it was a particular period in time in which I was working my way through, and I think it may be harder today to get stuff heard. There weren’t so many new artists appearing all the time back then. It wasn’t as easy just to get hold of any old software and start writing as it is now, so there wasn’t such a flood of stuff.
So Sex and the City -- many of the songs from your first album ended up on that show. Are you a fan?
Yes. It just happened. It was great ’cause it meant I could afford to just do music for a bit, so I spent a whole year on my next album without having to do any other work, which was amazing.
Have you seen the clips your songs are in?
Yes. It was very exciting back then because it was one of the first TV shows I had music on, and it was a huge show at the time. It caused ripples of excitement among my female friends.
Did the video do the audio justice?
[Laughing] I haven’t seen it since 2000-whatever. I do remember one scene right near the end of the last episode when they used “Cold Out There” from Opalescent. They used a lot of it. It was almost a summing up of all the separate stories that were going on. So it was given some pride of place, which was quite surprising.
When you were 17, you and your friend and collaborator Leo Abrahams auditioned for Imogen Heap, and you both got the part. Could you explain your role with Imogen Heap? Did you compose as well as perform?
No, she always writes everything herself. She’d been signed to that record label since she was 16, and she was 18 when I’d met her, and she’d finished her album and needed a band to go on tour with. It was an amazing job. My role was keyboards. She played piano, but I played some sort of additional piano, and I did some of the sampling, so we had a huge Akai sampler on stage. I learned a lot, and it was amazing fun as well, as you’d expect, for a kid.
I read that things with her label got a little rocky. Is that what led you to leave the group?
I didn’t leave voluntarily. They just couldn’t pay us anymore, so we were disbanded. I think she stayed with them for a bit but didn’t release anything else with them. Back in those days, you could be in a band on a retainer, and that could be your job. That idea is very distant now.
Leo Abrahams got you hooked you up with Brian Eno, too.
Yeah, he’d been working with him already, and Brian asked if there were any other people he’d like to invite to come jam with them, and Leo suggested me. So I certainly owe Leo a lot of favors.
Were you freaking out?
Well, I had a warning. He said Brian was going to call, and when he actually did, it was pretty exciting. He was very chilled. It was a very relaxed situation throughout, in fact. This was 2003, so I was only 23 at this point. It was for this record Another Day on Earth, which came out in 2005, a long time before he signed to Warp.
What was your responsibility with Eno?
It was really just to be improvising with him and Leo, and then Brian would take what we did and turn it into an album, and that’s similar to what we did with Small Craft [on a Milk Sea]. So it was all very effortless and fun. I’d been improvising since I was like four, and with Leo since I was 13, so it was amazing to do it with someone like him.
What would you be doing in the studio? How did you guys come up with ideas?
Brian tends to begin things by, say, writing out a chord sequence on a whiteboard and then pointing to chords at random with a stick, and we would follow him. So he would sometimes generate music by directing us. Other times, he would start with a beat or a sound, and we would follow. Other times, he would ask us to come up with something, some sort of seed to begin the process.
In what ways would you say you’ve learned from Brian Eno?
He taught me to loosen up about recording, ’cause I tended to be overly precise with my methods and my timing within tracks, to keep everything accurate and clean. He doesn’t have much time for that kind of thing. He tends to want to play freely and not fiddle around with it too much when it’s done. He put more fun back into the process, really.
Did he ever whip out Oblique Strategies?
He didn’t, but a lot of the things he did were similar, like the idea of making someone stop playing for a bit at random, or introducing an element of accidents to the whole proceedings by changing sounds at random. Just appreciating the need for an element of spontaneity in the situation.
Very cool. Feel free to put in a good word about me, so he and I can collab.
You’ve done a number of collaborations outside of traditional electronic music, notably with King Creosote. What draws to you to such a diverse collection of musicians?
I think situations just appear in front of you, and if someone writes songs that you love, then there’s a desire to work with them. I mean, Kenny’s [Anderson] songs were so beautiful, and I’d been a fan of his for some years. I used to go up to Fife where he lived to see him play and hang out, and it just evolved into this amazing project. [Diamond Mine] remains maybe my favorite thing I’ve done. It’s certainly up there. It was a very joyful process and very relaxing to do.
Do you have plans to do another album with him?
No, we don’t. He’s doing his own thing; I’m doing my own thing. But we’re still very good friends. When I get back to England, I’m definitely going to go up to Scotland and hang out with him some time.
You’ve talked about transcendental meditation as a means of stimulating your creativity. Could you describe that process?
Yeah, it’s quite a big part of things really. I’ve been doing it for nearly two years now. Just having part of your day, twice a day, where you connect entirely to nothing but your truest, deepest self, underneath all the bollocks that goes around your head, is very liberating and very relaxing. It allows you access to deeper thought patterns and deeper ideas, just by clearing out some of the turmoil that goes on, living in this world. It’s a beautiful thing to experience.
When you step into compositional mode or recording mode, how do you bring it with you?
It’s quite subtle. You just notice that your ideas come easier. It’s not like you can identify very specifically what it’s doing. You just notice a sort of general flow. You also find out your relations with people are improved, and everything is more direct and honest. Everything you do reflects back in your music. It’s a sort of overall boost, really.
Could explain a bit about your creative routine? Do you make music every day whether you want to or not?
No, I’m a quite big believer in not being in the studio if I don’t feel like being in there. If I work on really upbeat stuff, which a lot of what I’m thinking of doing next is going to be, I tend to not be able to sleep very well. And the day after that, I can be quite exhausted. It can be quite damaging to be in the studio when you’re knackered, trying to fight some music out. It just doesn’t really work. So I tend to go in when I feel inspired to do something and just work.
I don’t do long days and certainly not in the early stages of an album. Towards the end, you just got a lot of programming and mixing to do, and you have to do longer days, but at this stage, when it’s just brainstorming ideas, I wouldn’t really be in there for longer than four or five hours, really. I try to be done by 6:00, so I can really get my brain out of it in time to get proper rest at night.
I’m nearly 37 now, and as I get older, it’s getting harder and harder to switch it off. It used to be that I could work until 2:00AM and go straight to sleep and get up whenever and carry on. That just doesn’t last as you get older. You have to introduce these more regular hours.
Do you ever find yourself struck with an idea when you’re somewhere you can’t get it out, so you sing into your phone or write it down?
Yeah, I sometimes write things down. Melodies don’t really come to me unless I’m actually at a keyboard. Sometimes ideas for sounds or ideas for ways of processing things might occur to me. The most annoying thing is when, say, you’re awake at 5:00AM for some reason and you start having ideas, you want to write them down, but equally, you don’t want to get your brain all excited. But these are not serious problems.
What are your feelings on sampling? It doesn’t seem like something you do much of in your own music.
I don’t think I’ve ever used one. But I don’t have any judgment on people that do. It’s just not the way I work or have ever worked or want to work. I like resampling my own stuff within a track. You can often get interesting layers and depths of processing that would never really happen otherwise.
I think sampling as a compositional approach tends to come from people who have encyclopedic record knowledge -- DJs, people who have collections going back years, and they know how to stitch things these things together. My background is not as a DJ or as a record collector. I wasn’t a big record shopper. I listen to a relatively narrow range of things, and I’ve always been into trying to create my own sounds.
I’ve read that you like to make field recordings, and you like to listen for sounds in your own environment and incorporate those into your own music.
Yeah, I did that a lot on Diamond Mine and on Immunity. I don’t necessarily think it’s going to be a big part of the next record. I don’t know yet. But I love that idea. It really opens up the electronic world into something more tactile and relatable and real and human, you know?
How would you characterize the direction of music today, especially within the styles you work with?
I’m not sure I could, to be honest. I don’t really listen to that much. I do think generally, there’s as much good music made as ever. I think there’s probably too much being made overall, but you can’t really worry about that or digest it all. When I come across things that I love, it’s still just as exciting as it ever was.
Do you consider yourself part of any kind of scene or category of musicians?
Yeah, there are some people -- mostly people that I know or have worked with -- who share similar sonic traits. I don’t think there’s a particular name for that genre. There’s obviously a techno element to it, but there’s also an ambient element, a melodic element, a down-tempo element… not really a scene so much. I think I’ve been doing it too long to be particularly tied to one thing, and I’ve worked in lots of genres, so I don’t relate to the word “scene” that much.
Which specific artists are you referring to?
Nathan Fake, Four Tet, Gold Panda, Apparat, Pantha du Prince, people like that.
Would you say you identify with the musical traditions of techno music and down-tempo music?
Not particularly. Again, I think that may be more for people with an encyclopedic knowledge of those genres. If I fall in love with an idea and I want to explore something along those lines, it might just get lodged in my brain somewhere subconsciously. Then I’ll start explore something inspired by that beat I heard in some club. But I won’t know the rules behind any of it or exactly what I’m supposed to do. I just trust my ears and get on with it, really.
It seems you have an almost synesthetic relationship with music, in terms of its color and geometry?
I do experience that quite a lot. It’s not really synesthesia in that I don’t involuntarily hear colors, but music for me is a dimensional space of some sort. It’s quite hard to explain. It gets more extreme if my consciousness is altered in any way, like I’m existing in a world entirely of it.
It’s amazing, really. Given that I’m able to write music, it’s like I can compose worlds to live in, and that’s how I like to see these more recent albums, as places rather than pieces of music.
Very interesting. When you say “altered consciousness” do you mean meditation, or are you talking about drugs?
Either, really. Natural psychedelics more than anything else, meditation, any altered state.
Are you a proponent of experiencing music in different states?
Yeah. If you listen to my music, you can hear in it not just the influences of day-to-day living. There’s a sort of dreamlike element, which I’m interested in exploring and have been for many years.
You have a video you did for one track in which you photograph crystalline formations—
Yes. It wasn’t actually one track. It was an album sampler of every track on the album [Immunity], like eight different time-lapse photos of crystals forming under a microscope. It was really beautiful. I was lucky enough to have been introduced to a biochemist named Linden Gledhill who would examine these miniature worlds he created, and it became an amazing crossover between science and art. We matched up certain worlds he created with certain tracks.
I know what colors go with what tracks, so that was a good starting point. It grew organically from that.
What color is “Open Eye Signal”?
It’s a sort of dark blue-grey with occasional neon pink flashes. [Laughs]
Immunity was a milestone for you, in terms of sound but also in terms of success. And you were nominated for a Mercury Prize --
-- but didn’t win. Kind of embarrassing, really. How did your life change as a result of that record?
[Laughing] What it meant was I had the confidence and security to stop doing any other work. I really enjoyed the collaborations and film scores over the years, but it’s a little much trying to do that and also trying to further your own sound. For this record, I decided not to have any other projects going at all, not to work with anyone else, just to be really focused in on seeing how far I can push it for the next one. It’s been an amazing privilege to be in that position.
It sounds like your next album is a bit of a secret. What can you tell us about it without spoiling too much?
Well, it’s only a secret because I don’t know what it sounds like yet. [Laughing] I do think it will be more advanced than the last one. I’m going to try to push it quite far sonically, and I don’t know in what direction. I’m just going to let it form in the way the others have.
See also "Breathe This Air: An Interview With Jon Hopkins" by Sean McCarthy.