Though classically trained on the piano, Jon Hopkins, after graduating at 17, joined Imogen Heap’s backing band on keyboards and samples. A year later in 1999, Hopkins released his first solo endeavor, Opalescent. With its oozing synths, mesmerizing ambiance, chilled-out beats, and now signature piano sounds, Hopkins’ debut garnered critical raves. However, his second album, Contact Note, failed to generate anything beyond a small critical buzz, leading Hopkins to be somewhat disillusioned with his own career and retreat into production.
However, despite his perceived backslide, Contact Note actually marked a new beginning for Hopkins, as Brian Eno, after hearing the album, asked to meet him, and the two eventually becoming collaborators. It was through Eno that Hopkins got his highest-profile gig to date as one of the producers of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida (and to some extent its follow-up, Mylo Xyloto), which went on to win Best Rock Album at the 2009 Grammy Awards.
On the heels of working with Coldplay, Hopkins’ third release, Insides, saw him label hop over to Domino records. Continuing to mine strings and piano for most of his song construction, Hopkins also began adding dubstep elements and heady beats to his ambient blend of electronica.
Pursuing music as more of an explorer in search of transcendence, Hopkins is always on the lookout for something different. Whether it is his own music, working on film scores such as Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones with Eno, or collaborating with artists as diverse as Tunng, Herbie Hancock, and King Creosote, for which he was nominated for a Mercury Prize in 2011, Hopkins is ever vigilant against the banal. His latest record, Immunity, is certainly testament to that. With a hard focus on driving, insistent dance floor beats, Immunity sees Hopkins expanding his chilled textures and, for the first time, really exploring rhythm and melody.
Consequence of Sound caught up with the producer while he roamed what he described as the noisiest street in New York. We discussed the new album, his ever-evolving process, trusting one’s instincts, and how with Immunity he has finally been able to catch the sonic dragon he’s been chasing all these years.
Immunity has been described as “packed with the most aggressively dance floor-focused music [you’ve] ever made.” I wouldn’t call the music aggressive dance music, though. Is the aggressive more in how you pursued the music rather than the product itself?
It’s definitely the most rhythmic stuff I’ve ever made, and I’ve never really focused on rhythm so much as this time. I see certain elements of it as aggressive in the first half. One of the most important things about [Immunity] is the contrast between the first and the second half. One of the overriding things important to me about it is the arc of the record flow. There’s the aggression and then the intensity followed by the release of the second half. It’s mixed in that way.
You intentionally sequenced the album to peak with “Collider” in the middle, correct?
Yes. About two months before the finishing of the process, I actually had the order in place, until the last beats of the record, entirely done with the complete picture in mind. I was always intent on having the biggest track in the middle, which is “Collider”, having this 10-minute, fairly aggressive stamping rhythm, without even changing the bass note for one minute. It’s quite a heavy thing to listen to. And when it’s actually followed by the most quiet moment… it’s sort of the quietest piano piece I’ve ever made following the loudest techno thing I’ve ever done.
You’ve even said that you think “Collider” is probably the best song you’ve written to date. That’s a pretty bold statement.
[Laughs.] It’s funny, though; you often feel that when you finish a track. You usually have very strong feelings about it. I’m not saying it’s actually good; I’m just saying it’s my favorite. To me it sums up best what I’ve been trying to do in music over the years. It has the rhythmic intensity, but it also has a melodic side to it which is, I hope, opened out a lot. I really was interested in exploring that kind of contrasting, almost malicious space with really beautiful lines floating on top. And there’s something about the fact that it has such a simple techno riff as well. I find that satisfying, this one-note riff. It’s got quite obvious intentions, that track, and the subtleties are hidden underneath. Kind of like that contrast again.
It’s written that you’ve wanted to try and incorporate a sense of self-hypnosis in your music and only now with Immunity have you been able to do it. I have to say you succeeded; I was mesmerized.
That’s good. My central interest in music is to try and make something a bit mind-altering, change how you feel and something that you can completely forget the world to, escape into. And yeah, it has taken a while to work out what it is that does that, at least to me. I can only make it work for myself and hope that other people can follow. It was a case of exploring the idea of looping around certain things and then very gradually changing what you’re hearing each time it comes around.
And that’s just the same kind of rhythms that you use if you’ve been taught to hypnotize yourself by a hypnotherapist, or any common meditation can be about repetition of something. The brain waves gradually slow down, and you just enter that different state of mind. It can happen when you’re under the influence of things, or there are lots of other moments in life when your brain can do that. I just think that music is a very powerful way of achieving it. I’d like it to be something that, whether you’re completely sober or off your head on something, you should be able to disappear into and be able to disappear into that world.
You’ve talked about how making your own music with software can be amazing and how much of it couldn’t be done without a computer. That said, this album sees you creating a lot of beats from physical, real-world sounds and non-instruments like salt and pepper shakers. Does Immunity see you employing that method more so than in the past?
I’ve done things a bit like it before. I mean, I tended to have done a lot of that thing of just exploring the studio and hitting different objects around the room, seeing what kind of sound they make. But this time the creative thing was I used the rhythms to play drums as well as just the sounds to try and get a real human feel to the beat. The kick drum would be dead on every four, and the bit in between would be completely off the grid, but there would be no computer-programmed rhythm; it would all be something drummed by a human. Which I think allows it to flow a lot more hopefully and to try and get that natural feel. So, yeah, I think I definitely have been exploring that approach more this time.
You recently said that while working on Immunity, you turned down a lot of production offers, adding “that’s something I’m not interested in pursuing.” So, you aren’t interested in being somebody else’s producer?
No, not really. Not at the moment. There are certain bands, obviously, I’d love to work with, but really only a handful. I don’t feel that I’ve explored enough of what I do on my own yet to want to go back and do that. I’ve produced a couple of albums before, and it is great fun, but there is nothing that can really rival that fun of making your own music. I just find it a very euphoric experience as a whole. It’s just that the options now are greater, and it’s a more extreme experience. Production can feel like a job, and writing your own music never feels like that. When it’s going badly, it still has excitement to it.
You’ve said that working solo gives you more of a chance to force yourself out of your comfort zone, rather than when you work with other people.
Every time I make a new album, that’s when I move on sonically. If you’re working with someone else, or you’re producing or you’re collaborating, there’s something there already that you’re feeding off, and you work around it; but when it’s all you, it’s a blank canvas. That’s when you allow yourself the time and freedom to really push into new areas. As far as I wanted to explore this club-rhythm aspect, I had never done that, so I didn’t really know how to make it work. So, I had to spend a few weeks when I was writing the first single (“Open Eye Signal” was the first track I wrote on the record), which dictated the flow of it to me. I
I really had to learn what it is that makes a techno rhythm that is fun to listen to. It turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. I spent probably five or six weeks on that track. It’s almost like starting from scratch in some ways. The first time I used an analog synth was on that track, so I had to work out how to get the best out of that. I really ditched a lot of the old techniques for this record. I think I wrote a lot of Insides on the piano, but for this one, there are piano moments on there, but most specifically the tracks on the album were all written more with these new instruments or analog synths. I did change it up quite a lot.
You once said, “…at some point, you feel the [track] is ready, and it doesn’t need any more tweaks — it would be overworked.” What methods do you employ to keep you from overthinking or overworking a track?
I only ever really work on instinct, I think. It’s just they come to a point when I listen to it and nothing pops into my head about what needs to be done. If it works, I just know it. I have to trust that judgment. I have to just go with that because that’s kind of all there is.
You say often that instinct guides a lot of what you do. When working with someone else, how do you convince them to trust your instinct?
I’ve been lucky, really. The people I’ve worked with tend to be open to me doing what I feel. Like the record with King Creosote [Diamond Mine, 2011], he was very happy to let me go off and build my backing tracks without his vocals. He never offered once to change anything; he was just kind of happy. And the situation with Brian Eno, for example as well, when he invites someone in, he wants them to do what they would naturally do. That’s why he asked them there. I’m not very good at being told what to do, and I’m not particularly any good at adapting what I do into other situations. I just kind of do what I do and hope people like it.
When asked about the “Coldplay Effect”, you said it had an opposite effect on you, pushing you towards darker, angrier material. How and why do you think that was?
Well, I think whatever I do I always want to do the opposite thing next. So, if working on songs such as songs with beautiful, well-written melodies, like they do, it makes me want to explore the opposite thing after. Then after that I wanted to work with King Creosote, which again was a very quiet record. I didn’t really have any rhythm, so following that, doing Immunity made a lot of sense, going right down the rhythmic lyric end. I really like to just keep it varied; that’s the best way to stay excited about music. That’s why I do film scores as well, in order to vary the type of work from week to week.
In 2010, coupled with your overworked comment, you said, “I don’t like over-programmed electronic music,” adding that you thought its time had passed and that a solid groove was the way. What is it you think of as over-programmed electronic music?
I guess that was probably an IDM sort of thing, where it becomes more about the amount of micro-edits you do and the amount of new plug-ins you’re using or all the crazy circuit bent technology you’re using. I found myself losing interest in that kind of sound having explored it a little bit on Insides. I’m finding that a solid groove thing is actually harder anyway; to make a rhythm that’s interesting to listen to for eight minutes and make it the sort of rhythm that makes your whole body move. That sort of thing is harder than the most complex programming.