Looking at the shape of Jon Hopkins’ career, it looks like a long, slow build, with countless little detours plotted by whim or impulse.
Trained as a pianist at the Royal College of Music, he turned his back on the classical world in favour of becoming a keyboardist for Imogen Heap and emerged as a solo producer in 2001 with Opalescent. Since, there have been movie scores (2010’s Monsters, 2013’s How I Live Now), Ivor Novello and Mercury nominations, and collaborations with King Creosote, Tunng and Brian Eno – through whom Hopkins found his way into the inner circle of Coldplay, playing on and aiding in the production of albums including 2008’s Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends.
On the basis of such a CV you might assume Hopkins is a born collaborator. But he confesses he sees it slightly differently. This is the sort of work you do when you want to work in music and, at best, your own records are a modest commercial success. “My solo albums have always been very niche,” he smiles. “All my career I’ve not been able to turn other things down.”
Immunity changed all that. Released in the June of 2013, its organic, symphonic techno was a slow-burning success both in Europe and the US, and suddenly Hopkins was in demand. Approaching two years of touring ensued, culminating in a sold-out show at Brixton Academy back in April, complete with a full-on laser show and dancers with LED hula hoops.
A little over a month later from that show, FACT caught up with Hopkins at Cafe Music, a studio in Bow, east London, from where he’s worked since 2006. It’s a music studio in the 70s mold, full of vintage equipment and hippyish accoutrements. In the lounge, bass guitars and old synths lean against most available surfaces, and a picture of David Lynch hangs on one wall.
Ostensibly we’re here to discuss Hopkins’ contribution to the Late Night Tales series – a thoughtful, downbeat piece some distance from Immunity’s heady uplifting, weaving together music from from Nils Frahm, A Winged Victory For The Sullen and the poet Rick Holland. But our conversation covered everything from transcendental meditation to Shakespeare to where his music might go next.
How did the Brixton show go?
It was amazing. I was so glad that one went well out of all of them. 165 shows for this record, and that was the pinnacle. Nothing went wrong. It was euphoric. The first raves I went to were in that building.
Yeah, it would have been Chemical Brothers – [laughs] and Eat Static possibly, Ozric Tentacles or something like that.
After 165 shows, do you find out new things about the record?
Yeah, there are sections I ended up making for the live show that I wish I’d thought of before the writing of the album. You can’t really tour the material much before you’ve released the album, because no one knows it, and you want people to connect. But there’s got to be a balance where you start exploring more, writing new bits – from seeing reactions, or falling in love with bits anew.
I’m interested in your live set-up, three Kaoss Pads…
It’s four now.
Does anyone else do that really?
I don’t know.
But it’s pretty much the main tools you use onstage. How did you develop that?
It was actually a very last minute need to find something to do in 2008 – when I got some support gigs for Coldplay, in fact. I was like, this is ridiculous – it’s literally impossible anyone here will know or particularly like what I’m doing. But I needed something to do onstage and I’d seen Brian Eno using these Kaoss pads. It sounded great. So I tried putting audio through them, in a slightly panicked way – ok that’ll do! And then we did 40 shows together, and onstage I kept discovering things I could do with them. I got really deep into them – started looping, getting into different effects. And they kept bringing new models out, so I just kept increasing.
So what exactly do you do?
Well, Ableton is pumping out different channels – drums in one, bass in one, the riff in one. And you can just completely dismantle the sound, loop bits… I don’t synch them at all, so if I hit loop at the wrong point it can go totally out of time. It’s a more fun way to do it live. Rather than everything safety-clocked.
Watching you play, it reminded me of how you trained as a pianist. The finger dexterity, it’s kind of the same.
Right. Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard people say that. I think that’s another reason why I warmed to them. There are two things they allow. One is a real freedom to discover crazy new sounds, born from the sounds you already play. And the other is that they’re quite visual – hitting them as hard as you like, you can completely twat them and they won’t break. My piano teacher at Music College got me to play more flamboyant… really impressed on me that if people can see what you do, there’s a bit of visual flair, it really conveys the emotion of your performance a lot better. That’s been absorbed I think… I mean, I don’t think of it, but if you’re noticing that, that’s definitely what’s happening.
I was watching your Boiler Room session back the other night. One of the highest rated comments – and he sounded a bit surprised – was ‘I thought a Jon Hopkins set would be a lot of people sitting around and talking about their lives…’
[Splutters, amused] Really? That wouldn’t be a set of music, that’s a group counseling session. But that’s hilarious.
Still, it’s interesting that you’re not afraid to pare stuff back in a club scenario. Strip away all the beats, right back to this really unadorned piano stuff. Is it quite nerve-wracking to pull things right back? When you’ve presumably got a dance floor of people wanting to dance?
For me, one ambition I’ve always had is to be able to play within one set really simple acoustic stuff and really heavy electronic stuff. At the Royal Festival Hall show, I really put that to the test. I thought, this could go either way. You’ve got the ravey fans who want to jump up and down throughout, and maybe some of my older fans out there who might want to sit down and listen. But in fact it felt like people sat down in the loud bits and jumped up and down in the loud bits. What I wanted was to take the audience from really calm to real outbursts of energy… I don’t want to fit into this thing of having a constant tempo, a bass drum going at all times. You know, I don’t come from that background. All my sets change tempo all the time. I want that extreme – up and down.
“My piano teacher at Music College got me to play more flamboyant… if there’s a bit of visual flair, it really conveys the emotion of your performance a lot better.”
I think you said, you’re not a natural clubber.
I didn’t do it in my youth, no.
But you said you’d go to see Chemical Brothers, stuff like that.
Yeah – I wouldn’t go to clubs to see DJs, but I was profoundly into that sort of experience. Chemical Brothers was like the first time I went to a really late night thing. I took speed for the first and last time, I think, and I loved it – but I never really thought ‘oh I’d love to do that someday’.
Do you think your audience are similar – kind of outsiders in a club scenario?
It’s got to be a mixture. From what my friends in the crowd say, there are definitely club-going guys and girls. But there are also just music fans. I always think my stuff is more in common with post rock instrumental songs, it’s just has the backbone of a danceable rhythm. But to fill Brixton, there has to be a crossover…
It’s a big room.
Yeah. It’s incredible. I’m so honoured there are that many people. I can only imagine it’s crossed over from the club scene into this other genre. I don’t know. I mean, something like [2011 King Creosote collaboration] Diamond Mine was so quiet, and the audience must have been 20 years older than the people I get now. But for a lot of people, Immunity was the first of my music they’d heard.
Earlier this year you made a mix for the Late Night Tales series. How was the experience?
Well, I specifically wanted to do it for years. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to license every track from it, but they managed to get every single one. So that is exactly the album I wanted to make. I didn’t really approach it from a DJ point of view, because I’m not a DJ. And they’re all in different tempos. So I tried to weave them together like they were one piece of music – adding extra notes, background noise, atmosphere, edits. It’s like that Asleep Versions EP I did – late night listening, the meditative side. The very end of the night, beginning of next day bit of the weekend. I love the series. Four Tet, Cinematic Orchestra, Bonobo – it’s an interesting view into people’s minds. And it’s a nice bridge between the first album and however long it takes to do whatever comes next. Nice to have something in between.
You’re working on a score to a theatre production of Hamlet at the Barbican.
Yeah, yeah. [guiltily] I haven’t read it yet. I know that at some point I’m going to have to read it. I haven’t been in education since 1998. I’m a bit wary about being able to digest large portions of Shakespeare.
It’s OK, I don’t have loads of questions about Hamlet.
[laughs] But I really love the director [Lyndsey Turner] – all her reference points are things I love. She talks about David Lynch films, Breaking Bad, The Shawshank Redeption. Things we all love and understand. Benedict Cumberbatch is going to be Hamlet, and he’s great. What I always find is, projects that are a bit unusual start off really hard, because they feel impenetrable, but end up being amazing. The fact you’re forced into a new mold – that can be more rewarding than doing endless albums.
Do you know how you’re going to approach it?
Lyndsay is really inspiring. She’s got lots of images, ideas – specific ideas about some tracks I’ve already written, and adapting them for certain routines. So that will guide it. It’s not a musical, it’s not going to be that much stuff. Just a few set pieces, most of it unpinning scene changes. She’s actually worked on the script for a whole year, and had got into listening to my music while doing so – mostly my film scores, but also Immunity. At first I didn’t think I’d have time to do it. But I met her and [laughs] she insisted. But I thought she was amazing. It was clear this would be a really good thing to do.
So what are you working on next?
Just an album, really. I’ve always worked with other bands, done remixes, scored films… but now I’ve done an album people have really connected to, and I’ve got the freedom to focus on solo stuff. There are a few festival shows, but this year is clear for writing.
That’s funny – I guess you’re someone thought of as loving collaboration. But it was circumstance?
Well it’s funny, I never set out to collaborate. But particularly with King Creosote, it was clear something we could really be proud of came out of it. And I loved working with Hayden from Wild Beasts, Bat For Lashes too. Some of it came from film projects. I don’t wish I hadn’t done any of it, a lot of it has been amazing. And it does mean when I finish the next record, I’ll hopefully have options. I don’t want to make countless albums. I think I’d like to go back into films.
Do you learn anything from working with – or touring – with a band like Coldplay? On that scale, that level of popularity?
I don’t think there’s any overlap. It was an amazing experience, and we all became good friends. I always admired… even though the final output isn’t experimental, there’s always a lot in there. Especially on the Viva album, which is the one I did most on. I did hardly any on the last one, but I did quite a lot on Viva. That’s the one Eno came in on, and he brought me in. They’re got very experimental tastes, although those ideas aren’t always at the forefront of songs. And it was really interesting to see it come together every night. But it didn’t really translate into something that I would do. It wasn’t inspiring in that way.
They’ve got a huge modular synth, I saw.
Really? Oh, they have an inhouse producer who I think is really into that world. But I haven’t been to their studio for quite a long time. It’s more catching up as people than working together. Chris says he feels like [laughs] he milked me dry.
Do you speak to Eno often?
No. He’s fairly enigmatic. He’ll disappear for maybe two years, then suddenly get back in touch. I haven’t spoken to him for two years. But then that’s happened before.
Are you looking forward to the new Twin Peaks?
I was, but then David Lynch left.
But he came back.
He did? That’s good news. They must have stumped up the full budget. That’s great news. A good tactic of his, to leave. I just think that… he has total integrity. I don’t know him, but I think he would have been like, I can’t do it like this… good luck! Which is a good way of getting things to happen.
“Transcendental meditation takes you right down into a really pure form of consciousness … You feel like you’ve had a two-hour power nap.”
He, like you, is a practitioner of transcendental meditation. Did you get that from him?
Well, I was lucky enough to meet him in his house. And I did a remix for him. And I met a few other people who do meditation. Tim Burgess does it, too. And there’s a certain curiosity and relaxedness about the way they interact with people that I find really appealing. I’ve heard how it takes a lot of complexity out of things. A lot of needless worry.
Were you a worrier?
No, but I feel like you can always do more to pursue contentment. I’ve been doing different forms of meditation since 2001. I was doing Kundalini yoga, which has a huge meditation component. And I’ve also done self-hypnosis a lot. But I started doing TM at the beginning of this year, and it was so much better than all those things – well, perhaps not Kundalini, but that takes an hour and a half a day, which you don’t always have. But TM you can do on a plane, you can do it anywhere. All it’s really about is learning a certain type of attention – how to not focus on what you’re doing, and repeat a mantra. Once you can do that, it’s like going down in an elevator. It takes you right down into a really pure form of consciousness, which is so good for you. You feel like you’ve had a two-hour power nap. It literally makes everything easier. It makes the colours you see more vivid. It’s the weirdest thing – it’s like there’s this extra layer of intensity to things. It’s almost being a kid again. That’s the first flush of it, you kind of get beyond that. But the cumulative effects, over months and months are really noticeable. I’ve been doing it for five, six months now, 20 minutes twice a day, and it keeps getting better. I wish I’d done it when I was 21, because things were a lot harder then. But it’s still a stressful world to live in, especially in a city.
Does it find its way into your music? Can you meditate while you play?
For me inspiration it only happens when I’m in the presence of instruments I’m playing. So I might have an overarching concept idea if I’m meditating. But if I do that it might come out sounding sterile. I only really get into that zone when I’m in that zone playing something. Sound triggers something in me. Meditation is a preparation for something. I do it when I get up, when I get home. It’s cumulative. But creativity only comes from hearing the sound when I’m writing.
Is that because you’re done a lot of improvisation?
Well, it’s probably why I’ve done a lot of improvisation. It’s more likely that way round. I started piano lessons about eight, but in all the years before that, I used to play, teaching myself. I just wanted to play – I didn’t want to be taught scales. But eventually you need to learn – the proper finger technique, strengthening the fingers, which you need to realize more complex improvisational ideas.
So what’s next? A left turn? Or are you further exploring the ideas on Immunity?
I know where it’s going. But I haven’t really got into deep end of it yet. It’s hard to explain. It’s also very likely to change. I have an overarching concept. But it’s more electronic – I don’t’ want it to be that much about external sounds, acoustic instruments. There was quite a lot of piano on Immunity, so I’m avoiding that. I did a couple of albums with lots of field recordings on, but I’m not really doing that either. I’m trying to limit myself away from some things I instinctively do. [laughs] But that might be bollocks by the time I’m finished.
Everything you do is super processed.
I think I read a lot of the last record was made with your voice?
Well, a lot of Asleep Versions – the really long version of ‘Open Eye Signal’ there is entirely my voice, with the exception of some piano. But you wouldn’t know that. [laughs] I’ve got a horrible voice, so it needs a lot of plug-ins.
Do you have an idea of what equipment you’ll be using?
Well I planned to use Ableton to do the writing, and get some Mac plug ins written by people who know how to do that. I’ll commission people – I don’t know who, but there must be people willing to do that. It sounds like a great investment to me. On a smaller scale I got Tim Exile do make me a Reaktor plug in, just in exchange for a couple of pints. It took him about 10 minutes to do and I used it loads on Immunity, so I thought I’d expand that idea.
Tim Exile is an interesting guy – how did you know him?
He’s an old friend – we were on the same live agents, and just became friends. He’s mostly in the programming world, building stuff for Native Instruments. He’s doing that and had some great success with this product called The Finger, you can be singing and playing something live and depending what thing you’re playing on it compresses in a different way.
I saw him do a very bold live show a few years ago, but I can’t really remember the fine details.
[laughs] Did he have a joystick penis?
That’s it. He had a joystick penis.
He had to stop doing it, because I think he realized it was beginning to take over his whole persona. We both met Flying Lotus at the same time, about six years ago and he was like ‘You’re the dude with the joystick penis!’ And he was like, [ruefully] ‘I’m not doing that any more’. But he’s a complete genius. He does these great improv shows. Sometimes they work incredibly well, sometimes they’re more impenetrable. But always amazing.
You spoke a bit earlier about city living. Do your surroundings colour the music you make, or is it more abstracted?
It’s hard to say, because I’ve done nearly everything here [in London]. I did the Asleep Versions in Iceland, and that does sound different to me. It sounds way more spacious. So I guess it would. At some point I’ll stop entirely doing upbeat stuff, just move in that direction. I feel like that might be likely, as I get older. But I feel like I’ve got quite a lot more to do in that upbeat world.
So when will the next record be finished?
I love to think I can finish by February, but it depends on whether I can get to grips with this new software. I had an idea to write it in software, then go and find some amazing synth collection and play it with real synths, rather than just buying one and getting into it. That’s what I did with a [Korg] MS20 in Immunity. That synth really dominates the album and that’s great, but I’d rather have a broader range of things. I want the writing to happen quickly. But I’m not going to rush it. I think it would be highly stupid to put out a rubbish album next. For the first time since I started writing, there are definitely people out there who are going to be interested in it. I’ve not really had that before. It’s an entirely positive thing. But it means I’ve got to work really hard on it.
All photography by Dan Medhurst
Jon Hopkins’ Late Night Tales mix is out now