By: Camila Álvarez
Just before last year, the name Jon Hopkins sounded more like a private university in New England than like electronic music, something that would change with the release of Immunity, his fourth album.
Jonathan Julian Hopkins is a master of production. This was clear for his friend Leo Abrahams, Imogen Heap’s guitarist, who introduced him to Brian Eno when he was just 23 years old. It was clear for Eno himself, who invited him to play the keyboard in his album Another Day on Earth, and with whom he established a substantial personal and professional relationship, collaborating in projects like the production of Coldplay’s Viva la Vida, which would win a Grammy for best rock album in 2009. It was also clear to King Creosote, with whom Hopkins collaborated in the gorgeous Diamond Mine album (nominated for the 2011 Mercury Prize). It was clear to Massive Attack, Herbie Hancock, David Holmes, Chris Coco, and others with whom Hopkins has collaborated. It took longer for us, the newer fans, who should have recognized his geniality, authenticity, and vision after Insides, his third production released under Domino Records; an album that in 2009 already sounded like 2014.
For Hopkins, success wasn’t a coincidence.
His second album, Contact Note (2004), was totally ignored by the press. The British pianist has speculated that the silence was due to the lack of risk taken with the album, which corresponded to how self-absorbed he was, rendering him oblivious to what was going on in the musical world and how other artists were defying compositions sonically. The fact of the matter is that Hopkins experienced failure, and with it, the panic of financial instability. One day, while waiting for an interview in an L.A. office, wearing suit and tie, Hopkins realized that he preferred poverty over the misery he’d feel if he had to do something different than work on his music.
But light illuminated Hopkins’ path in the following years. He started collaborating with Creosote, was initiated in the production of scores for movies such as Monsters, and went on tour with Coldplay after co-producing their album with Eno. Eventually came Insides and its own tour, in which he’d step on dance floors and hear the new sounds that contributed significantly to the inspiration behind Immunity, his magnum opus, an album he’d give birth to fours year later.
Immunity is a narrative, an excursion in many ways. The first and most obvious is that of an exploration of feeling among friends, music, and drugs, which fluctuates from the first part’s exhilaration, at times grimy and aggressive, to the second part’s more peaceful and melancholic sounds, which begin with the delicate piano in “Abandon Window”. The second is a trip into the mind of Jon Hopkins, to moments and places in his teenage years when he explored different mental states, as much within the world of music and party as within the practice of meditation and hypnosis; moments that, forged in his memory, he is able to revisit and recreate almost subconsciously through his beats. The third is a pilgrimage into his creative process, the one that begins and ends with a single premise: the desire to follow its intuition. With the threshold set by the appetizer-like “We Disappear,” starting the album with the sound of a studio door closing, Hopkins welcomes us to the dichotomy that defines to a large extent not only his style, a form of play between organic sounds and textures that envelop and mutate each other unrecognizably (like he does by altering the tone of his voice in “Open Eye Signal,” his first seven-minute single), but also an aspect of his thought, his love-hate relationship with technology.
“Dichotomy also exists in my own head – spending most of my time in big cities, but craving nature, also spending most of my time working and traveling when I would actually like to be miles from anywhere, doing fuck all, and able to see the moon and stars. I feel a strange unease with modern life a lot of the time, about our disconnection from the planet and from what we really are. Focusing inwards and meditating and making music are my way of dealing with this I suppose.”
The piano Hopkins keeps in a corner of his studio in Hackney, London is the one he started practicing on when he was eight, the same one he used while training to be a classical pianist, and also the same one he used with pedals to record the melodies in Immunity. The secret ingredient in his sound is precisely this, his necessity to depart from a point of reference to reality and his tendency to manipulate this reality until it is abstracted. Even so, Hopkins feels a sort of aversion towards the superficiality and instant access tied to technology. He recorded all his sounds in ’99 version of a program called SoundForge in his old PC until he began needing more capacity recording soundtracks, which compelled him to buy a MacBook Pro and learn how to use Logic. Now his production process involves recording live sound samples on Logic and then opening them simultaneously in SoundForge, allowing him to edit them in a more detailed manner. The sounds, thanks to the system he created, are recorded in Logic automatically, which he’s learned to appreciate for the versatility of its plug-ins, such as Altiverb, which he uses for reverb, PuigTec EQs, which according to him adds richness to sounds, or theDecapitator, one that gives them a more corporeal quality.
We talked to him about his creative process and about his new EP, Asleep Versions…
CA: You’ve chosen very interesting tracks to remix from artists such as Four Tet, Moderat, David Lynch, Nosaj Thing, and Purity Ring. What’s the process behind the selection of the songs?
JH: In general, I’ve remixed people I have met and am a fan of. People whose music I feel some connection to. The tracks I worked on by each of those artists were tracks that I was passionate about.
The way you make music is very intuitive. You don’t know what the next beat is going to be like until you finish the one you are working on. Is this the same way you approach your remixes, or how does the creative process differ?
Yes, it is the same with everything I do. I find remixes enjoyable – they feel like a collaboration. Having someone else’s sounds and melodies to work with as a starting point is really inspiring for me. In general when starting one, I won’t know where it is going, until I have listened through to the separate sounds and something has triggered an idea somewhere in my head – so yeah, instinct is the thing.
Why releasing an EP with remixes from your last album?
That’s not what this EP is – these are new recordings I made in Iceland, based on pieces that were on the album. You could call them further explorations of those tracks, I guess. For example – the original version of open eye signal was built around 3 central elements – the drums, the synth part, and the choral sound. The ‘asleep version’ takes the choral sound – which was made by me layering my own voice up many times and pitching and processing the result – and uses that as the basis for a whole new piece, whilst ditching the synth and drum parts. The result is a different world from the original.
You’ve mentioned that part of the reasons why Contact Note—your 2nd album, was not recognized, was because it didn’t have an edge. And you said that this happened because you had not been really listening to a lot of music back then. Your vindication began with Insides, an album that was definitely ahead of its time. Who/what influenced you in the creation of Immunity?
Immunity was definitely inspired by the experience of touring insides. I played quite a few shows around the world for that record, and was often booked for club shows or alongside DJ’s. Because of this, I got exposed to loads of more danceable music, and I started to get sucked into that hypnotic rhythm. This influence definitely showed in immunity.
Sometimes you get obsessed with random sounds and then try to recreate them, such as windscreen wipers going in and out of tune with the music, or bathroom pipes making up chords. What sounds have caught your ear lately?
I’ve been staying on the 50th floor of a hotel in Tokyo this week – there was this really bizarre, amazingly dark droning wind noise that could be heard if you stood in the far corner of one of the corridors. I guess it was wind but it sounded so alien, atonal and beautiful.
There’s a sort of dichotomy in your music—beautiful melodies contrasting with harsh, sometimes dark, electronic textures, and I know that it doesn’t only have to do with your love for organic sounds and your interest in manipulating them until they’re unrecognizable, but also with your love/hate relationship with technology, and with the ups and downs of the altered states of mind that have inspired you. Can you talk to me about this?
You’ve pretty much summed it up there! I can add that that dichotomy also exists in my own head – spending most of my time in big cities, but craving nature, also spending most of my time working and travelling when I would actually like to be miles from anywhere, doing fuck all, and able to see the moon and stars. I feel a strange unease with modern life a lot of the time, about our disconnection from the planet and from what we really are. Focusing inwards and meditating and making music are my way of dealing with this I suppose.
What cool projects are you working on or planning to work on in the near future?
I am pleased to say I have nothing planned apart from to start writing the next album. I came to Tokyo with a blank canvas – I’ve hired some synths and a project studio for a week, and I’m going to just see what happens.
*This interview was originally published on Vice Colombia