By Luis M. Rguez
Slowly but surely, Jonathan Julian Hopkins has been building himself one of the most singular and atypical careers one could imagine in contemporary electronic (and more, much more) music. He started at the beginning of last decade, releasing electro-acoustic records halfway between ambient, contemplative post-rock and downtempo electronica. Since then, Jon Hopkins has shown a versatility and curiosity without limits that have taken him to work in very different fields.
His service record includes collaborations with Imogen Heap (he played keyboards in her band for quite some time) and Brian Eno (Hopkins was one of the three pillars of “Small Craft On A Milk Sea”), Coldplay (alongside Eno, Hopkins ended up arranging part of “Viva La Vida”, and there are new collaborations coming) and King Creosote (they have just released “Diamond Mine”, an acoustic effort with a distinct flavour of British pastoral folk and sea salt). He has worked with Four Tet (Kieran and Hopkins have exchanged remixes) and Gareth Edwards (his brilliant score for “Monster”) as well. All of which helped to build a body of work that stands on the intersection of precious, IDM-like electronica (indebted to the Warp school of artificial intelligence and nineties ambient techno), the classic cinematic tradition and the most landscapist post-rock. In a few days, Jon Hopkins will be playing live at the L.E.V. festival in Gijón, Spain. So we took him aside and interrogated him about the fundaments of his polyhedral and multi-faceted work.
I think most of the people who currently enjoy your solo music got to know you because of “Insides” (Double Six, 2009). But the fact is that before “Insides” you had already released two albums worth of material more orientated towards ambient and let’s say “chill-out” electronica. How would you describe those first works to somebody who has only recently become aware of your music?
The first one, “Opalescent”, is an album of instrumental songs, a kind of more ambient post-rock, I guess. The second one, “Contact Note”, was a natural development from that first album, still with traditional song structures but now including vocals and slightly more upbeat rhythms, and a few more cinematic influences.
I’d like to know what you were interested in back then regarding music (personal listening tastes), and music making and producing (technologies, techniques, particular sounds).
I was working at the time as a keyboard player for a pop producer, so naturally a lot of that pop aesthetic rubbed off on the songs I was writing. I wasn’t listening to anything electronic really. As for technologies, I just used the same PC I have always used. During the writing of the first record, I was learning everything as I went along. Influences came as much from film scores as singers I was working with at the time on the pop stuff.
I’d also like to know if you consider those two records to be somehow “products of the environment” (in the sense of being works more influenced or conditioned by all the chill out music going on in the late 90s and in the early 2000s) in comparison to your more recent work, which is a lot more personal, in my opinion. More broadly speaking, if you look backwards now, how do you feel about those records?
I have never listened to “chill out” records, it is the least interesting genre I can think of and has always been devoid of interest to me. Why would I want to relax people? Music should be exciting, moving, disturbing, beautiful. These records are not part of that genre, and they are not influenced by it, even though unfortunately they were marketed as such at the time. Tracks appeared on all those dreaded Ibiza compilations but I needed that income to survive. I am pleased with some of the songs on both the albums, but certainly not all of them... some have survived and some sound quite incredibly shit. I think it’s natural however to get tired of your own stuff. If you didn’t I think you wouldn’t progress. The naivety I hear in there sometimes sounds charming, and sometimes sounds ridiculous, depending on what mood I’m in.
In recent times the frequency of your recorded output has increased, but in the past the things were slower for Jon Hopkins. You took a lot of time (3-5 years) between your first three records. Were those timings a consequence of long creative processes or did things work out like that because of your involvement in some other projects at the same time? In this sense, it is obvious that you care about detail when it comes to your music, but do you consider yourself to be a “perfectionist”?
I spent about four months on the first album, then nearly a year on the second. There was just a delay before it was released for various reasons, and also because in order to survive I had to take session keyboard playing jobs. After the second one, I became a bit disillusioned, as it went totally unnoticed upon its release – which was difficult to deal with as it had taken so long and I at the time thought it was great. So I decided on a change of direction - I kind of stopped writing solo music and started to learn how to produce. I got involved with the Fence Collective, who had really inspired me, which led to me producing a King Creosote album. I also started working with Brian Eno, did a session for Massive Attack, worked on the Coldplay album - a few surreal things like that came along, which were very exciting. I gradually started writing again and “Insides” was the product of about five months of work, spread out between 2006 and 2008.
How long will we have to wait before we can enjoy a new solo album by Jon Hopkins?
I haven’t had time to do much writing this year - I hope to have something ready for January though, if I can clear some time this summer. I can’t wait to get going again but I have a lot of other projects on.
Tell us about your academic musical background. Are you one of those guys that grumbles about the time spent in the music school (institutions that can be repressive and “castrate” one’s creativity, according to some people) or do you find what you learnt to be highly valuable in your everyday life as a musician?
I was only in music school one day a week: Saturdays, from the ages of 13 to 17, at the same time as normal school. It wasn’t intensive - I spent most of my time there getting stoned with my friends in the park. I loved the piano lessons but had no interest in the rest of it - I still consider studying music theory to be a total waste of time, and think the best way to learn anything is just to get on and do it. I was not an attentive student, or even a regularly present one. And hence not hugely popular with teachers.
As a classically trained musician, how do you feel in an environment (I’m thinking now about the ambient and electronic world) dominated by so-called “non musicians”? More in particular, I’d like to know whether these different backgrounds or perspectives inform your relationship and work with Brian Eno?
I don’t see people who work in music as “musicians” versus “non-musicians”. Anyone who makes music is a musician... I’m no more a musician than Brian Eno - I wasn’t trained in how to write music, how to structure compositions or how to record. I learnt these things by trial and error in the same way that I imagine he did. I trained to learn the piano because I was fascinated by the sound of it, from the first time I heard one.
I see a lot of Eno and Obscure Records in your music. You’ve listed Brian Eno as key influence in your music, do you see yourself as a heir to that legacy he started?
I love his stuff but I don’t do the kind of thing that he does, or work in the same way. I have definitely absorbed certain techniques of his - specifically the idea of using treated versions of instruments to make new instruments, something I am a bit obsessed with and do all the time - but I don’t think about it beyond that.
How did you come to collaborate with him and what can you tell us about the making of “Small Craft On A Milk Sea”? Was there a premise or did everything come out of free jamming?
I was introduced to him by Leo in about 2003. We jammed a lot back then and some of that stuff went on “Another Day On Earth”. Then in 2009 the three of us got together again to jam out loads of stuff for this record. It was all totally free form.
Here’s a delicate one... Even if both Leo Abrahams and you are represented in the credits as co-authors, the album was marketed, specially at the very beginning, as a sort of Brian Eno’s solo album. Listening to the record and watching the videos Warp posted later with fragments of your jams, it seems to me that your musical input the project was, at least, comparable to Eno’s contribution. So the question is: how do you feel about that record being perceived and reviewed as a “new Eno album with some external contributions” rather than a three piece unit making a collaborative album?
I wasn’t bothered! It is his name that caused the record to sell, and him who started the project. Leo and I were lucky to be involved. It only took about two weeks of my time to make that record - two weeks of jamming, which was brilliant fun - then Brian did all the editing.
Do you have plans to collaborate again in the future?
Yes it’s an ongoing thing, though there’s no specific record being worked on right now.
As far as I know, you’re a person open to collaborations and also one-off projects in the fields of dance, choreography and film. You have also worked as a tour musician and arranger for other people records. I’d like to know if you find that these parallel projects and activities have a beneficial effect on your own music, or whether sometimes it’s a question of subsistence to accept that jobs.
Yeah I love to get involved in side-projects - I find working with other people a lot more relaxing and less intense than working on my own. But in the end I think nothing beats the rush of making a solo record that you’re really proud of.
Let’s talk about your electronic side. The influence of early Warp material is clear in some of the tracks on “Insides”. But in some of your less rhythmically twisted electronic tracks I feel a connection with another kind of music, the psychedelic ambient techno of The Orb and the like, that I tend to identify with a kind of post-rave ecstatic feeling of joy. You know, being somewhere far from the city, contemplating the dawn with a radiant smile in face, surrounded by the green of a field in the good company of dream music and people who share that same joy... Am I seeing ghosts or there is such connection?
No you are not seeing ghosts... actually the journey from electronic sound to pastoral is in some ways what “Insides” is about. It’s also a kind of “concept album” about a night I once experienced at a festival a few years ago. I played live, and my set went well, I think people enjoyed it. After that, I got kind of severely messed up with some really good friends, I don’t ever remember being more high actually. We went rampaging round the festival, dancing like fucking lunatics to amazing music all night and generally having ridiculous times. When we finally started to come down and the sun was starting to come up, we found this piano on the top of a beautiful green hill, just left there for anyone to play. I started playing it and people from the surrounding fields who were still up came round to listen. After a while I noticed the most beautiful girl I had ever seen looking over and smiling. I stopped playing and spent the rest of the day with her. We agreed to meet at a certain time and place in the main festival area the next day, but I fell asleep and was late. We never exchanged numbers and so we never found each other. The album is an attempt to tell that story, from the insane euphoria to the sadness. And the last track, “Autumn Hill”, is something I improvised on that hill that morning, then recorded when I got home.
How did the jump from studying piano at London’s Royal College of Music to dealing with electronic production came about? When did you discover electronic music? Can you recall a moment that could be considered a kind of “epiphany”, something that pushed you to try out the “soul of the machines”?
There wasn’t really a jump, it was something that was going on parallel to my piano stuff all the way along. I was hooked on electronic music from the first time I heard any on the radio as a kid : New Order and Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, early house music, stuff like that. I got a half-broken second hand Portastudio for Christmas when I was about 10 and started layering up sounds on it, trying to teach myself how it worked and how to record. I saved up and by the time I was about 13, I had an Amiga 500, on which I got into basic sampling.
Re-listening to “Insides” a couple of days ago, it struck me that the different feelings your music invokes depend on the timbres and tools you use. It seems to me that the more calm and reflective moments always appears to be conjured through acoustic sounds (piano, strings et al), while the electronics seems to be a way to deal with more tense, aggressive, and even neurotic feelings. Do you agree with this dichotomy?
Yeah that’s pretty much how I would describe it too. I like the contrast between the two elements.
In the context of your more electronic facet, have you ever thought of trying more danceable things, or even starting a more dancefloor-oriented side project (like Caribou made recently with Daphni, for instance)?
The next record is going to be much dancier, yes. After that I’m thinking of doing something with no beats at all. But by that time it will probably be 2050 and I’ll be an old man so that will be ok.
Both the more piano-based parts of “Insides”, your recent soundtrack for “Monsters” and your joint record with King Creosote talk about a strong acoustic sensibility that in some cases (I’m thinking in songs like “The Wider Sun”, or most of the “Diamond Mine” album) borders the folk arena. Two questions: firstly, did British folk sounds and imagery have a role in your “emotional education”? And secondly, have you ever considered the possibility of making a pure acoustic album, maybe a solo piano album?
Yes, I’m a big fan of acoustic music. John Martyn, Nick Drake, Nick Jones and James Yorkston are all artists I have listened to since I was a teenager. I don’t feel any inclination to make a pure acoustic album though - it’s the way acoustic combines with electronic sound that I find interesting. I also think making a solo piano album would bore the total Jesus out of me.
Tell us about the record with Creosote. According to the press note the record is the result of a long and relaxed collaborative process, recorded over a number of years without the pressure of deadlines, whenever you and KC could get together. Should we consider “Diamond Mine” as a one-off album or could there be a second part sometime in the future?
It’s probably a one-off, but who knows. I will always love Kenny’s music and if the right songs appear, we might do another one. It was a very calm experience, making that record.
And what about your involvement in “Monsters”? How did the project come about? Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe it was your first score for a film you did on your own, right? I guess it’s pretty different working on a film score compared to a regular album... right? How did you approach the project? And was it easy or comfortable for you, writing the music for a film with a science fiction edge?
I was invited to a screening of it by Vertigo when they were looking for composers. I fell in love with it immediately and essentially told them that I was going to do it whether they liked it or not. I met Gareth Edwards and we got on really well - I couldn’t believe he’d achieved so much with so little. It was my first solo score yes. I had no idea how to organize such a big project so was really learning as I went. I did the whole thing in about four very intense weeks, and with the tiniest budget you can imagine. I don’t see it as a sci-fi film - to me it’s a mood film, a love story, an apocalyptic road trip, or something.
At the end of April you’ll be playing at L.E.V. Festival in Gijón, Spain. What can we expect from your show? What kind of set up are you bringing, and what kind of material are you planning to showcase?
My live show is pretty energetic. I know that because I am always dripping in sweat by the end and my hands hurt. The material I’m playing at the moment is mostly based on tracks from “Insides”, but there are a fair few new bits that have kind of evolved along the way. One track I’ve really enjoyed playing recently is a live version of my Wild Beasts remix.
Besides L.E.V., what’s next on the schedule?
I’m finishing off a couple of remixes, working more with Coldplay, talking about a new film project, and trying to write the next album. I have some more shows coming up too - this Thursday in Tourcoing, France, with Gold Panda and Fujiya & Miyagi, a London show for the Diamond Mine album launch in May, and a DJ set with Global Communication and Rob Da Bank at the British Library in June. I’ll also be doing a few festivals with King Creosote and a few more on my own.
Our two last questions are these: What are 5 essential records in the musical education of Jon Hopkins?
Neutral Milk Hotel: “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” Smog: “A River Ain’t Too Much To Love” King Creosote: “Psalmclerk” Atlas Sound: “Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel” Benge: “Twenty Systems”
And can you tell us about 5 essential moments or experiences in the emotional education of Jon Hopkins?
All five are unprintable, unfortunately. Jon Hopkins has established himself as one of the best snipers on the present electronic scene. Collaborator of Brian Eno, nostalgic of the nineties, classically schooled pianist, soundtrack composer, remixer and dance music cubist, the man himself tells us his secrets before his performance at the L.E.V. festival in Gijón, Spain.
Review: “ Monsters”
"I think it’s natural however to get tired of your own stuff. If you didn’t I think you wouldn’t progress. "
"I still consider studying music theory to be a total waste of time, and think the best way to learn anything is just to get on and do it. "
"But in the end I think nothing beats the rush of making a solo record that you’re really proud of. "
"I don’t feel any inclination to make a pure acoustic album though - it’s the way acoustic combines with electronic sound that I find interesting. "
Jon Hopkins will be performing at L.E.V. on April 30.