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Interview: Jon Hopkins

With the release of a new album, London’s Jon Hopkins gets the recognition he deserves.

Photograph: Steve Gullick
Jon Hopkins

He’s been releasing subtly beautiful and emotive music since 1999’s Opalescent—but until recently, Jon Hopkins has probably been known more for his collaborations with the likes of Brian Eno, Coldplay and King Creosote, his award-nominated film scores and for contributing songs from Opalescent to episodes of Sex and the City. But with the June release of Immunity on the Domino label, Hopkins is getting his full due as a solo artist. The album’s a rich, layered work, mysterious, enthralling and brimming with sumptuous melodies shimmering atop sometimes sinister rhythms. Hopkins will be playing songsfrom that album, as well as his earlier work, when he plays the Warm Up shindig on Saturday, August 31, and later that night at Williamsburg’s intimate Cameo.

You’re probably getting a bit tired of hearing this, but congratulations on the great reaction to the new album.
I’m not tired of that at all; it’s still nice to hear. [Laughs] It took so long to write. And it seems like a lot of current music disappears so quickly that it’s considered old in just a few weeks, so I’m glad people are still discovering it.

The kind of music you make isn’t really throwaway material, so I don’t think you have to worry about that.
I’ve always been interested in that as an idea: What kind of music keeps its relevance? That’s why I purposely try and avoid any particularly current trends in electronic music. I do actively stay away from the most popular rhythms of the moment. In six weeks’ time, those will sound out-of-date.

You mean you’re not the kind of person that goes on Beatport to check out what the latest permutation of bass music is?
I don’t think I’ve ever actually been on Beatport! [Laughs] I’m not big on keeping up with things. I’m not a DJ, so I don’t really have to—and I think deejaying is a different job, anyway. After a day in the studio, you don’t want to sit down and start discovering what these talented youngsters are doing!

When you began work on Immunity, did you have an overarching theme in mind?
I do tend to do that with all the albums that I’ve made, and with this one in particular. The actual themes are pretty much abstract and are hard to explain; they’re states of mind and feelings that I’ve had. The tracks are simply me trying to express that. But you do want the album to feel like a story from beginning to end, so a lot of effort goes into the track order. About four months into the writing process—which was roughly halfway into it—I already figured the order, and how they would blend and relate to each other. It’s all about contrast.

Can you give an example?
Well, the fourth track, “Collider,” is a ten-minute-long, very aggressive and loud track, and it’s followed by “Abandon Window,” which is the quietest one on the album. It’s a simple idea, loud and quiet—but the effect they have on each other makes them both more powerful. It’s almost as if you’ve earned the right to have that peaceful moment after having sat through ten minutes of bass and vibration. All the darkness that’s in “Collider” gets released. That’s an extreme example, but there are subtler versions of that all through the album, even within the tracks. You can have two sounds playing at the same time, and one of them can be aggressive and one can be peaceful, and matching things like that up can be quite affecting.

How do you figure out when the balance is correct?
In general, I work by instinct; I really believe in going with that first thought. But you need to know what goes with what you’ve just done. If I’ve made something really serene…well, if everything is like that, it’s like having too much icing on your cake. You need something else under it, some kind of grounding. It’s like if you’re making a film, you can’t have only happy moments, or else they become meaningless. You need a balance. You need to show people what darkness and aggression are as well.
You do seem to be juggling several moods on the album. There’s a bit of a melancholic and yearning edge to the songs, but at the same time there’s a hopeful feel as well.
Well, I can really see those things after I’m done with them and have some perspective. But yeah, the last track [title cut “Immunity”] is hopeful, for instance. But it’s kind of sad too. [Laughs]

“Immunity” is also notable because it’s the only song on the album with vocals.
That’s actually the only track as a solo artist where I’ve ever featured a singer. That’s the one song on the record where I had some idea what it was going to be before I started working on the album. I had the original piano loop in 2005, and I kept coming back to it and doing little bits on it. At some point I was in a session with King Creosote, and I got him to improvise over it a bit. He came up with this beautiful line, and that became the key to finishing the track; everything formed around that. It actually became kind of surprising to listen to; it’s odd to hear someone singing in one of my songs!

You managed to mix the vocal as though it’s just another instrument; it doesn’t really cut through as a typical lead vocal might.
The vocal isn’t in the center. It’s off to the right, and he’s quite distant, and the voice is processed a lot. You don’t know what he’s saying. It’s almost like you’re hearing someone sing along for their own pleasure.

You worked with Eno pretty closely for a number of years. Has that had any impact on your production philosophy or technique?
I met him in 2003, when I was just finishing off my second album. Working with him had a kind of impact that you might not guess. Before I met him, I was really ultraprecise about things. I wanted everything to be extremely clean—not quite clinical, but very shiny and accurate. I didn’t even realize this at the time. But having worked with him a lot in the interim, by the time I was working on Insides four years later, I realized the value of just getting things down as quickly as possible. You can refine them later, but you need to capture the energy of the original idea. You can’t allow your creative sessions to be dominated by miniscule editing processes. There has to be a little bit of that in electronic music if you want something with intricacy and depth, but you can easily lose that burst of energy that’s built into the idea in an organic way.

So he kind of loosened you up a bit, as far as working in the studio goes?
Yeah, but he also made me very aware of the power of accidents. Like, you can load up a song, and the MIDI will play it from the wrong bank of sounds, and you’ll potentially get something that’s amazing. It can be a moment of magic.

Has that actually happened to you?
Well, I don’t really use MIDI that much. But I do record audio around me a lot, and just layer it up and see what effect it has, without any aforethought. It’s basically a matter of giving up control, and admitting that accidents can be used as an instrument in a way.

I think you hear that when you compare your older work with the more recent material, especially the new album.
Equally, there are things that remain. There’s still the interest in melody and atmosphere. But something like beats, in particular.… There’s so much room for weird stuff, soundwise. You can do things like boosting the elements of beats that are technically not supposed to be there. There’s a whole range of things happening that you can’t even hear unless you boost them, but they can give you all these amazing textures.

You’re in the middle of a fairly extensive tour right now, right?
I’ve done a couple of months already, but there’s a lot more to go. Most of my year is actually devoted to touring, I think. It’s been going great so far. The first show I did with the new set was MUTEK in Montreal.

That’s a pretty good place to start!
Yeah, it is, isn’t it? [Laughs] I play for them a lot; they’ve been big supporters for a long time. And I’ve been around Europe a lot already.

Since Immunity’s come out, does it feel like more people are familiar with you?
God, yeah—by a very large factor. There’s a core group of people who has been interested for a while, but there’s a whole new level now. It’s very satisfying. I wanted to get this album done and really focus on promoting it; I don’t feel like I’ve ever really done that before. It’s great that it seems to be working.

You are playing two different gigs here in NYC: a big, outdoor show in the daytime at Warm Up, and an intimate late-night set at Cameo. Do you tailor your sets for different kinds of shows?
I’ve got it set up so I can kind of follow the mood of the show. The sound system can also make a big difference, and I’ll adapt to that as well.

With the success of the album, does it feel good that people don’t refer to you as the guy who contributed songs to Sex and the City?
Is that how they refer to me in New York? I’m more used to being called the guy who worked with Coldplay! I can’t say that I was a huge fan of Sex and the City—but it enabled me to spend a year on my second album. To have that kind of freedom when you’re 23 is amazing.

Follow Bruce Tantum on Twitter: @BruceTantum