The Rumpus Interview With Jon Hopkins

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I was first introduced to the work of Jon Hopkins after Diamond Mine, his beautiful 2010 collaboration with Kenny Anderson of King Creosote. Diamond Mine was recorded largely in the Kingdom of Fife in Scotland, where Kenny Anderson lives and works, and where I was living at the time. The songs on that album carry a certain textured quality that reminds me how special the light is that far north, and how the wind has shaped the landscape in a specific green and knotty way. Afterwards, I quickly became more interested in both artists.

Of course, before I caught on, Hopkins already carried a substantial audience. He started out as a member of Imogen Heap’s band, and went on to release a successful debut album in 1999 entitled Opalescent. After mixed reviews following his second album, Context, Hopkins took a break from his solo career for a little while. He DJed and worked extensively as a producer, notably with Brian Eno to produce Coldplay’s album Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. He collaborated with a host of artists, wrote film scores for Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, and created the score for Gareth Edwards’ science fiction film Monsters. He chipped away at things.

In 2013, Immunity marked the release of his fourth studio album and a new level of international success for Hopkins. It contains submerged melodies and layered beats to create an insistently rhythmic album. If you like to boogie, you have likely heard it this year when you were shaking it. In general, Hopkins tends to use a lot of organic sounds and homemade sound effects; trains hurtling, glasses clinking, the billowing of wind. To listen to Immunity is to be shuttled between the emergence of the vaguely familiar and what sounds synthetic, machine-like, and raw. You recognize a moment, maybe clapping, but then that sound is blanketed by some heavy, sloggy beat that throws you out of your listening comfort zone. Hopkins submerges sounds, layers them, and then allows them to resurface, and this heady playfulness is what draws me to his work.

When we talked, Hopkins expressed how exploring sounds buried within a track in multiple ways can create a sort of musical storytelling, or a narrative within a soundscape. This interest in playing with the same sound in new ways motivated his upcoming November EP release entitled Asleep Versions. Intended as a reinterpretation of the softer, slower moments of Immunity, this EP also represents Hopkins’ growing interest in longer and longer pieces. The tracks hold a certain simple delicacy that reminds me of clear, open space. After his previous album’s density of sound, Asleep Versions feels like a satisfying palate cleanser.

This interview took place over the phone in early October. Jon was at home in London, relaxing a little during an unusual moment in a year of non-stop touring. Afterwards, Jon had plans to eat a hot plate of curry. I sat on my bed, wore a new pair of knitted socks, and listened to Diamond Mine another time.

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The Rumpus: I was wondering where you are physically right now.

Jon Hopkins: Physically, I am in my house. I have had a really nice week just at home, which is almost—I don’t think it’s happened this year, which is really nice. I have been traveling a huge amount. I think I’ve done 142 shows or something for this record, and all over the world. It has been incredible. I was resigned to do that with this record, to support it as much as possible, to give it the best chance possible, and to really develop the live shows.

Rumpus: Congratulations!

Hopkins: Thank you. I feel really, really lucky. It has taken me ages to get to this point, so I feel that I appreciate it in a different way. I try not get carried away, and not taking these new things too seriously.

hopkinsRumpus: What do you mean by not getting carried away, exactly?

Hopkins: I guess what I mean is if you suddenly believe you’re the best thing in the world. Some younger musicians change their characters very quickly when people start saying they are good. I have a lot of experience, and I am quite grounded in that way. Of course, things have happened since I was 21, but I’m quite the same. It seems like a good time for me for things to be moving in this way.

Hopkins: When you perform as many shows as you have been performing recently, do you feel you can pick up the difference in tastes across a global audience? Where certain songs hit the mark more than others? Or is it difficult to tell because the audience is self-selecting and already catered to your tastes as they’re your fans?

Hopkins: The last year’s worth of shows, it is very much people who know the songs. It is a really lovely thing. Previously for me, you’d go to festivals and get a few people who would know what I am doing there. Like three people in the audience. Now people seem to know, and it’s a very nice experience. It feels a lot more communal. It feels a lot more like causing an enjoyable, shared trance-like experience in the crowd. And that’s all I want to do, really.

Rumpus: I know you have worked as a DJ as well, and that experience impacted the arc of Immunity. I was wondering how you would parse the differences you feel between performing as a DJ and the experience of recording tracks?

Hopkins: Well, it brings out a different side. With performing, you get this instant “shared” feeling with the audience, and that’s amazing. Discovering a track—well, coming across something is how it feels to me. It doesn’t feel like writing a track to me. It feels like discovering something. The high you get from that is unbeatable in any way, really. When I wrote the tracks, I got that. That feeling has been the best feeling in the whole of this experience.

Rumpus: Okay, so I know you might not think of your process within this sort of bracket, but does that mean you consider your process something more internal than external? When you “discover” something, as you mentioned, is that something within yourself? Or is it more like an externally influenced discovery?

Hopkins: It’s all internal in a way, but what I have come to realize is that everything that happens to you is part of a subconscious brain force that comes out of the music. I don’t sit there feeling like, Look, right now, I am quite melancholy or sad. Even if my music might feel that way to someone, I don’t sit around feeling like that. I don’t have a harrowing life story that caused my music to be a certain way. Like anyone’s life, things have happened but I don’t feel like it’s in my control. It just sort of happens, really.

Rumpus: There seems to be a consistent thread amongst criticism of your work related to how your music creates an environment, like some sort of a palpable atmosphere to exist within. This might just be reflective of how critics like to write about music, of course. People seem to always like to discuss what environment a sound creates. But is that part of your goal with a piece of music? It sounds like if you do generate that space, it is not with a specific an aim as one might expect.  Are you saying things unravel musically as you create them? Rather than something more directed, like a directed aim to create a specific environment?

Hopkins: I have found out that I have no real plans. I mean, yeah, I do have a plan. But I go off it immediately the second something guides me somewhere else. If it works for people, that is amazing, but I just write what I write. I do like the idea of this music being a place, or creating somewhere to exist, of directing you into a narrative. That idea is interesting and comes out in the music.

Rumpus: Are labels important to you in terms of what your music is called? Is the difference between your music considered as minimalist or ambient or electronic important to you? Do you care about these terms? Sorry, that was redundant.

Hopkins: In general, no. I think there is a lot of luck in this album. It happens to be made right at a time when people are into DJing these tracks, and also the right time for certain publications to pick up on it. It happened to be luck. The move towards this stuff happened while I was writing. I have absorbed a lot of techno from my other touring with the previous album. But I have always had certain interests. If you look beyond the techno, it is related to everything I have done before.

Rumpus: Do you have a routine or a process you go through when you are working? Do you work nine to five? Do you always drink milk, eat Haribo?

Hopkins: I am stereotypically English in this way. When I am writing, I kick off the day with really strong tea.

Rumpus: Tetley’s? What do you drink?

Hopkins: I like a brand called Clipper. It’s much nicer than Tetley’s, and it’s organic and everything. Basically, it still tastes like proper tea. I need it very strong. Yorkshire Gold is good as well.

Rumpus: Yeah, I really like Yorkshire Gold, too!

p_jon2Hopkins: I really need that high in the morning. When I am doing a techno or a high beat track, it’s essential. And I work during the daytime at the studio. I try to keep those sort of hours. Of course, towards the editing, I tend to be working later and later and it slips back. But I like to keep it daylight when I can because it is better for you in every way, really.

Rumpus: Do you have any sort of working attire you go to? Are you pajama-clad when you work in the morning and drink your tea?

Hopkins: Well, pajamas are quite difficult because the studio’s not at home. Nothing weird going on there.

Rumpus: I was sent the your upcoming EP Asleep Versions, which I really enjoyed—I was interested in the division of tracks. The press release states it was intended to be heard as a single 25-minute track, and that is how I listened to it. I was curious about this decision, because why not release it as a single versus an EP? I should say I don’t know much about what’s behind that sort of decision-making. Was this a choice related to sales? Is that a bad question to ask? Sorry.

Hopkins: Well, I never make a choice for a reason except musical. I would never do it for sales. I mean, I don’t think it’s going to be a huge seller. When you listen to it, it should be clear why it is the way it is—continuous between tracks. I love the format of longer pieces. You really get to drift off, so there’s no need to break it off.

Rumpus: I like longer pieces too. And when I listened to it, I wasn’t doing anything else. I was just listening, and closing my eyes. I was just thinking about how I personally don’t tend to do that regularly. Music plays many different roles in peoples lives, of course, but thanks to technology music is often used in the background. People listen while cooking broccoli or cleaning their room or whatever. Do you have an ideal listening experience in mind for this EP?

Hopkins: You should listen, really listen to it, at around four in the morning after the night out, or when your consciousness is not normal. Maybe when you’re drunk, listen to it then, or high, or whenever you aren’t feeling normal. It is a nocturnal thing, definitely. And you should be lying down.

Rumpus: It seems like you conceive this as an individual experience. Is that’s what you’re envisioning?

Hopkins: Definitely. The album isn’t supposed to work publicly. This is very much a trip for the mind and you should listen to it on your own.

Rumpus: I am interested in how you suggest being in an altered state of consciousness, such as a little tipsy or out of it in another way, versus the idea that the music itself can bring you someplace new. You know, the idea that the music itself can bring you—

Hopkins: Well it can, hopefully! But just being realistic, if you’re a little bit along the way already, it can go further I think. Music does that to me whatever state I am in. I don’t think it will work if you’re cooking or going for a run or whatever. I just want to make the point that it is a nocturnal thing. From personal experience, if your mind is already halfway to that world, it is easier to get there.

Rumpus: Does this mean you wouldn’t want to perform it?

Hopkins: I don’t really do that type of show anyway. My audiences are more up for dance and things. Underground club scene. The rest of the singles we’ve had from the album have been heavy, you know, really upbeat stuff. This side is also important, if not more important, to me than that stuff. I wanted to explore that quieter part of the album. I can’t play it live. Everyone would fall asleep, absolutely down to the bottom of consciousness.

Rumpus: I mean, is that bad? Falling asleep?

Hopkins: Well, unless you’re lying down.

Rumpus: I mean, you could figure something out, I think. Like beds. A concert of beds?

JonHopkins_AlbumArtHopkins: It actually would be nice to have a show where everyone would just lie around. But I spent a few years trying to get away from relaxing music, and it has got to be a deeper thing than that.

Rumpus: And why were you moving away from creating relaxing music?

Hopkins: I wrote my first album when I was 19, 20, and it is extremely really chill-outy and I like it. Musically, it’s something I will always be proud of. It was put in with stuff I have no connection to, and I spent many years lumped in with all that stuff. I got a bit frustrated. Insides was a kind of breaking out of that. But that world doesn’t hold so much weight anymore. Now it’s safe to write downbeat music and not be called “chilled out” anymore.

Rumpus: Immunity and Asleep Versions feel very different, despite one leading out of the other. Do you think people that love and enjoyed Immunity would be attracted to both pieces of work?

Hopkins: I don’t really think about that, to be honest. But people who like the album will definitely like this. The tracks have a heavy organ sound, very sloppy, and I like it. It is a very sloggy world. This version, this Icelandic version as I think of it, which is where it was recorded, is lighter and full of air, the vocals on it. It is the same melody and I just thought that melody was worth exploring more, it was submerged in the other one. I love that melody, and it’s almost like a spin-off series of a show. You want to explore one character in it a bit more, and I kind of see it in that way.

Rumpus: You mentioned Iceland. I have never been there. But I am interested in the link between place and the outcome of the sounds you make. In a way, I could imagine—this EP reminds me of what I think of when I think of Iceland. But why did you go to Reykjavík and how do you see the connection between the sound created and the place?

Hopkins: The whole reason I went was to see what affect a different place would have on my writing and my recording. It totally changed, and you can hear that. It is great to have some space. The studio, well, it is a 20-minute ride outside of Reykjavík, which means it is in the middle of nowhere. It is a beautiful place, and really, really stunning. There are loads of amazing people are there. It is the studio where Sigur Ros record, and I just hired that out for a week. They have all these incredible instruments around, and it was very inspiring. My life in London is really quite central, and loud. This ended up being spacious, and my head was very clear, and the record sounds like that. It was great.

Rumpus: That sounds wonderful. Did you still get your hands on some Yorkshire Gold tea while you were there?

Hopkins: I take stuff with me, actually. I have in my tour bag various important things. One is a mini kettle. It makes two cups, and I even have got these little dairy milk sticks you can—I can make a full cup of tea anywhere in the world now.

Rumpus: When I was younger, a friend of mine’s father always brought a little espresso maker while backpacking.

Hopkins: These things are important to people. I was really pleased because my friend started bringing his french press around. Coffee in the morning. You know, it is these little things that make touring work for people. I need a proper cup of tea when I wake up, and I need it about ten minutes within getting up. It makes you approach the day in a certain way, and you look forward to it every morning, you know? It’s nice to get this little kettle out, and it’s like a little bit of home that you bring with you wherever you are. I am going to Tokyo, and there’s no way I could get English tea out there. There’s green tea, and I love that, but if there’s one thing from home I need. . . .

Rumpus: So just tea, no crumpets or something?

Hopkins: Yeah, no food for me. Generally the food is better when you leave this country, particularly if you go to Japan. So yeah, and I am happy to do without everything else.

Rumpus: I know what you mean. Okay, so, I am also a big fan of Kenny Anderson’s, and I even used to live in Scotland—so I know about Fence Records—and that is how I got to know your work, through Diamond Mine. You’ve spent substantial time in Fife, right?

Hopkins: I’ve been many, many times. Yes, recorded lots of Diamond Mine up there.

Rumpus: So was he in Iceland?

Hopkins: No, Kenny didn’t come. That vocal from Asleep Versions is on the album version, too. It’s just submerged. Actually, the reason for that track, that version, to exist is to show that vocal. The vocal was not meant to be center stage on the other version. I heard the vocal on its own with the organ, and I wanted to make this version with the vocal starred. I love the idea of people getting familiar with something submerged, hardly audible, and then one day you show them what it was. It is like the development of a story. I love doing these things.

Rumpus: It’s so beautiful. I think it will make people happy. I was really excited when I saw him in that first track. Can I ask you about this process for you, doing interviews?

Hopkins: Ha, what?

Rumpus: Well, when you field questions, do you feel that you develop some sort of a fixed idea of what your music is about or you find yourself slotting things into a narrative? I am just wondering how your own ideas change when you are being queried often, and how maybe certain questions develop fixed responses?

Hopkins: Well, I used to be unsure about talking about it. Then, I realized over the years it’s a very simple thing. There isn’t much to say about it. The most important thing, at the heart of it, is that it forms on instinct. I used to come up with all kinds of stories, but that’s just the reality of it. I find that interesting in itself that the brain just sort of gets on with it. I will have got to a dead end with it, and I don’t really know what’s going on with it, and then I will go back in, and I will think of something in the night without even being awake, and I will suddenly know how to finish it. That strikes me as interesting, that the body is working on it when I’m not even there. It’s fascinating how the brain works. I like to put a lot of faith in that over anything else.

Rumpus: Do you talk about this with fellow musicians?

Hopkins: There comes a point when I finish a track and I will bring it to people to comment, but generally I like playing, and not being told so much what should be changed. I like discovering that for myself. Sometimes people will say, “I don’t entirely agree,” and I will say, “Shit, that’s true, that is actually better this way.” But in the early stages, I don’t really share things much.

Rumpus: When you are working on something on your own do you create, step away from it, and then look at it again? Is there a rushed urgency for you to finish something?

Hopkins: It’s a mixture, really. It can go either way. It depends on what I am working on. If it’s an album, no, I never rush, I let it all fall. The lead track of the album took seven weeks, probably. Really nurturing it and letting it come to life. I mean, I was learning how to write in that genre at the time. If you have the luxury of working without a real time commitment, that for me is the best way to get something good.

Rumpus: Is that going to be possible for you in the coming year? I mean, do you have a packed schedule for the upcoming year?

Hopkins: I do have some touring, but the reason I did one big jump—I was doing film scores before as well, and that’s exhausting. This time I have got the confidence, I think, to say no to things, and really focus just to see what I can do. It will take six months of solid work, and then maybe I can say I’ve got something. The label is brilliant. Domino never tells you to do this thing or not. All they do is tell if you want a summer release, this is when you need to get it in, and if you want a January release, get it in by this date. It’s great being with a label like that.

JonHopkins_bySteveGullickRumpus: Sounds good. Do you have much contact with other bands in the label?

Hopkins: I originally signed with them because I am a Four Tet fan, and I am a really big Animal Collective fan. Many of their acts, I have loved over the years.

Rumpus: Their list of clients is crazy.

Hopkins: Yeah, it’s a great family to be part of.

Rumpus: I imagine you will have a nice holiday party. Maybe with Yorkshire Tea. Or not. What are you up to this evening?

Hopkins: I am just going to cook something, and then eat it. That is basically all that’s on the list this evening. You know, it’s just really nice to be doing normal stuff right now.

Rumpus: Well, I just made this sort of—bacon-spaghetti-egg disaster.

Hopkins: It was a disaster? What is that? Is that like a carbonara gone wrong?

Rumpus: I am not quite sure what it is, but it looks entirely disgusting. I shouldn’t have told you about it. I am actually calling you from Italy at the moment, and whenever I make pasta I get really tense, and try to invent something, and generally fail.

Hopkins: I am going to make a Chicken Madras right now, I think.

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Our conversation then devolved into a longer discussion on curry, and included restaurant recommendations. The Rumpus doesn’t publish articles on cooking, so this has been excluded from the interview.

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Artist photos credit Steve Gullick.

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Nina Moog is a writer and director of photography based in Germany. She holds an MA from the University of St. Andrews and an MSc from the University of Oxford, where her thesis focused on photographic representations of prisons. More from this author →