Jon Hopkins' Expanding Universe

Photo: Steve Gullick / Courtesy of Domino Records

With Singularity, electronic composer Jon Hopkins uncovers a joyful sense of connection at the center of all things. "The idea of singularity is the idea that every atom in the universe exists in the same place, this infinitely small point," he says.

Jon Hopkins




First off, let's get this straight: Jon Hopkins is not especially worried about the robots taking over.

In fact, he says that the futurist concept known as "singularity," i.e. the day when artificial intelligence becomes self-aware and capable of programming itself, is not at all what he meant by the album title. (Though he admits that the title track does have an apocalyptic feel to it.)

"The title to me is more sort of the universal idea of the opposite of separation," he says. "Really, [the] singularity is togetherness, possibly like pre-Big Bang. It's the idea of every atom in the universe being in the same place, this infinitely small point. It's just a nice thought in a very separated world."

Singularity is Hopkins fifth full-length solo album, coming after collaborations with Imogen Heap, Coldplay, the Scottish folk artist King Creosote, and the ambient pioneer Brian Eno. It also follows Hopkins intense engagement with psychedelic therapy, a guided use of mind-altering substances -- in his case psilocybin mushrooms -- to achieve self-knowledge and healing.

The album is, as a result, a journey that composer and listener take together. "Singularity goes through a process of purification and signification. If you listen to it, you can hear quite a chaotic and disruptive beginning and by the end, you're in such an opposite zone. The final track is simple piano, acoustic instruments, and nothing else. I think it transitions through those states in hopefully quite an organic way."

Continuity and Contrast

Hopkins asks that listeners experience Singularity straight through in a single sitting if they can, not so much because it's a continuous narrative, but because it contains so many contrasts.

"I love that tension between machine sounds and organic sounds," he says, and also the contrast between abrasive sounds and soft sounds." He points towards the end of the opening track, "Singularity" where intricate rhythms and lattice-work keyboard figures give way to pure grinding distortion, which in turn melts away gently arpeggiated piano chords. "I love the way those two worlds of sound, if you place them next to each other, they can kind of light each other up," says Hopkins. "That's why it's so important to me that the record is a single listen thing. If people have time. Because they'll get these contrasts."

The tension between mind, body, and spirit also gets a workout in Singularity, as the thumping dance beats of the album's first half give way to serenity and meditation in its resolution. "I think there's a spiritual element to dancing in general. There's a reason why in every culture, dancing seems to be in our DNA," says Hopkins.

"There's never been a time when there hasn't been ritualistic dancing, and I think clubbing is our modern incarnation of that. And the repeating bass drum that you hear on the new tracks, and so techno influence, provides that, but that doesn't mean you can't simultaneously be hypnotic and spiritual in a different way. You could look at the whole thing as a form of meditation really, at first energetic and then more cerebral."

Finding the Sounds

Hopkins started this album, like all his albums, without preconceptions or an advanced plan. "In the early stages, you really don't know what you're doing. Starting an album like this is bewildering and difficult," he admits. "But really you're looking for a sound."

At this beginning stage, Hopkins sits down, by himself, and experiments with sounds. "You're looking for something that inspires melody. I'll sit there, and I'll be playing with something and I may hit on a sound that inspires me. If I hit one, that's it, then I put a second sound on top of the first sound and then it begins that way. Later, when the structures are complete, that's when it becomes way more fun. Then you can start pushing the sonics a little bit more. It becomes really exciting."

Singularity took about two years in total, though Hopkins says the work wasn't continuous. Towards the end, he brought in Cherif Hashizume to help him mix tracks.

"The tracks became incredibly complicated on a technical level. There would be up to a 100 plus tracks, which is really quite difficult to manage" he says. Hashizume helped him simplify and combine those tracks into 20 or so, then took them away to work on them. "When they came back to my studio, all these things had been unlocked because he'd fixed the sounds. He'd just made everything sound amazing, and that inspired me to take it to the next stage."

For past albums, Hopkins had worked alone from the first note to the final mix, and he says that bringing Hashizume in made it much less isolated. "For Immunity, I felt like I was limping through the finish line. With this one I exactly kind of felt like I was jogging comfortably," he says.

The Science of Psychedelia

Singularity is heavily influenced by Hopkins' explorations of psychedelic meditation, an area of fascination for him over the last several years. "As I read more and more about the power of certain naturally occurring molecules, I became fascinated in trying to experience them in a natural setting, a ceremonial setting, with the right integration," says Hopkins. It wasn't about music, particularly, he says. "It's more like these were things I was interested in to try and expand and improve my experience of being alive."

Hopkins followed the work of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (or MAPS), an organization advocating for scientific study of psychedelic substances. Research has been slow and expensive since substances like LSD, MMDA and psilocybin mushrooms are all Schedule 1 drugs, illegal for most uses and heavily restricted even for scientific study. Yet even so preliminary trials have shown dramatic impact on illnesses including PTSD, depression, and addiction.

"It's funny. psilocybin mushrooms are not toxic to the body, and alcohol is toxic and yet alcohol is legally okay by everyone," says Hopkins. "They're demonized with the maximum legal penalty, so I think people are just starting to create some sort of sensible reassessment of these things."

"The first thing that needs to happen is the rescheduling so that they can be studied easier. Currently, it costs an insane amount of money just to get any amount of psilocybin at all, just because of the legal hurdles, to do research," he says. "This is going to be science based so we need to open that up and let science lead the way."

Hopkins says that psychedelics unlocked insights that he couldn't access before, including a revelation, as one of his track titles suggest, that everything is connected. "Having that revelation of connectivity, it's just so healthy," he says. "It makes you realize more about how you affect other people, how environmental actions affect everyone, and there is no isolated action. Everything has a ripple effect."

And, if you listen to Singularity, you can get a glimpse of that connected experience yourself, he says. "I'm transmitting information that I got through that mushroom to my listeners, and they are experiencing something that came from that mushroom themselves, whether they take it in or not, I think it's quite a beautiful idea, a lovely spreading of content."





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.