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Jon Hopkins interview: ‘I love playing live; I can explore new versions there.’

Before he hits the NYC party crew’s 10th-anniversary bash, the U.K. producer tries to slow down your brain with his new EP

By Rohan Samarth |
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Jon Hopkins
Photograph: Steve Gullick

An adjective like “lush” does little justice to the densely designed nuance that Jon Hopkins works into every piece. Each track off last year’s lauded album Immunity takes on an expansive quality, revealing novel details with each additional listen. Though his solo career came into widespread acclaim only recently, listeners everywhere should already be familiar with the producer’s work: Tracks from his debut, Opalescent, found their way onto Sex and the City, and Hopkins has helped produce every Coldplay album since 2008. His latest EP, Asleep Versions, features somnolent reinterpretations of selections from Immunity. In advance of his appearance at the FIXED 10th Anniversary on Fri 21, Hopkins talks gear, process, and self-hypnosis.

How did you end up recording Asleep Versions in Iceland?
I went to the Iceland Airwaves festival about a year ago, and I just found the location very inspiring. I’d done five or six albums in a row in my little East London space, and I wanted to see what effect a different environment would have on my music. The Iceland studio was actually set up by Sigur Rós with a lot of very old instruments: a 100-year-old harmonium, some glockenspiels, a couple celestes.…

You incorporate a number of those kinds of live instruments. Is that a conscious bridging of the acoustic/digital divide?
Well, for me, I don’t even see a divide. I’m quite happy taking a sound from anywhere, and if it fits, it fits. And quite often, when you hear electronic sounds on the records, they’re actually manipulations of acoustic instrumentation. I like to use a lot of different things as starting points and then electronics to put them all together.

Is gear central to your process?
I don’t have a huge amount of gear, but on the software side, I have a number of plug-in chains that act as abstracted versions of real instruments. I really don’t use that much stuff. I think it’s good to know a few pieces of equipment very well, rather than learn new ones every time. I think it distracts from the writing process.

So you stay pared down?
Yeah, Immunity was done mostly on an upright piano, Korg MS-20, Korg Trinity, Logic and Sound Forge. Once you’re in Logic, you can do anything really, which is the great thing with digital musicmaking: almost too much freedom.

The songs on the new EP aren’t quite Immunity remixes, but they aren’t entirely original recordings, either. What was the concept behind the project?
Well, I like the idea of seeing every piece of music as fluid. I see the tracks as places almost, structures you can inhabit and explore. Take for example the new version of “Open Eye Signal.” There’s only one element in common with the original, which is this choral sound of processed, layered vocals. And there’s all this other material initially recorded for the song that didn’t make it onto the original. That’s why I love playing live; I can explore new versions there.

Has your classical piano training shaped the way you write music?
I did classical music when I was a teenager, but the experience of performing a classical concert felt too frighteningly pristine for me to continue with it. So I stepped away from the piano for a while until I rediscovered it while making Insides.

What about the music-theory training?
Oh, God, I have no memory of musical theory whatsoever. I was never interested at all in that. Before I went to music college, I played by ear, and that’s the way I think it should be. I’m not into the study of these things; I’d fall asleep at those lessons. It’s a very simple thing: whether something sounds good or not. It’s a case of feeling your way through it. Same with production, same with soundmaking.

Did the idea for Asleep Versions have any relation to your interest in self-hypnosis?
Yeah, in fact, with the massively increased level of touring with Immunity, I started needing to learn new techniques like that. One of the reasons Asleep Versions has its particular arc, drifting off in the last 10 minutes and requiring a lot of patience, is that hopefully the listener is in a different state of mind by that point. It’s all about trying to slow the brain, slow the thoughts down a bit. Hopefully, the listener can take that kind of escape into the music.

Jon Hopkins plays at FIXED 10th Anniversary Nov 21 at Output.

Listen to "Open Eye Signal (Asleep Version)"

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