Born from the depths of his subconscious, Immunity is the finest work of Jon Hopkins’s astonishing career
Nothing good ever came out of endlessly ploughing the same furrow, as Jon Hopkins can tell you.
He’s a man who understands contrasts. He revels in them. If your first encounter with his music happened to be searing new single Open Eye Signal, you might describe him as an electronic artist in the vein of Apparat, but then you’d have to explain his Mercury Prize nominated album of acoustic balladry with King Creosote. With Coldplay production credits under his belt, you could peg him simply as unassuming soundscaper to the stars, but that doesn’t really capture his film scores and soundtrack work. In fact, the guy rarely gets through an album without changing direction half a dozen times: mournful piano riffs, twinkling electronica and the unsettling pulse of metallic techno are all likely to make an appearance. And so, when Crack spoke to him in advance of latest solo album Immunity, we were only too happy to be schooled in the art of doing a thousand things at once; aka, being Jon Hopkins.
“This record definitely feels like a change of pace for me” begins Hopkins. “I spent a few months doing all these incredibly chilled out shows with Kenny (Anderson, King Creosote) where everyone was sitting down, I was playing piano and harmonium. I started feeling this energy inside me that needed an outlet. I thought it was probably time to get back into some beats and rhythms and focus on that more.”
From the opening track of Immunity – the crisp, clipping rhythms and pulsating bass that form We Disappear – it’s pretty obvious the beats are back. Immunity is essentially a techno album, albeit one punctuated with moments of quiet fragility. The same bass heavy, distorted rhythmical style that he perfected in parts of his previous solo album, 2009’s Insides, are still present, but have been augmented with a blissful and hypnotic groove that swirls through this new record.
“It’s important for me to keep the contrast in everything, and jump between activities as much as possible,” he says. “Even within a record I’ll have very heavy bits followed by very quiet bits. That’s something I’ve always loved in life – not all of the same. Lots of changes.” And when it comes to his solo material, Hopkins’ writing process is expectedly erratic. Insides, for example, was written over the course of four years, fitting around the rest of Hopkins’ varied projects as a producer a film scorer. “With Insides there was a lack of flow between the tracks” he states, “because tracks like Wire were written in 2005, while Insides itself was written at the beginning of 2009. There was a huge amount of time between them so they sound different.”
And despite enjoying the juxtaposition of such varied work, Hopkins admits that it’s not easy to jump between one thing and another. “There’s no switch in your brain” he says. “There’s always a week of me fucking about, sitting in the studio, unable to start again and despairing, and then one day it clicks. The amount of time it’s possible to waste like that! Film work is particularly hard because there’s a big time pressure on it. I’ve really struggled when shifting between that and other things, but with Immunity I really feel like I gave it the time it needed and allowed myself to say no to everything else to get on with it. It was the most satisfying experience I’ve had musically so far.”
If Hopkins is increasingly happy with his own output, the musical landscape around him leaves something to be desired. As he explains, it’s not so much that standards have got lower, but that it’s hard to sort the wheat from the chaff.
“There seems to be an exponential increase in the amount of stuff that gets released, with crazy amounts of hype for a lot of things and unjust ignorance towards others. I find when writing music the best approach is not to think about that, just to pretend that there’s no other music at all and then just to release into that vacuum, and hope that people are into it. The internet’s changed everything, in the way that the reactions are so instant. Everything’s so easily accessible, you don’t have to work for anything, you can just have everything. You can have all knowledge, you can have all films, you can have all music, and that takes a little bit of the magic out of it for the listener. But it is the world we live in, and y’know, people still fall in love with music.”
Hopkins also has a unique personal antidote to the hyperspeed of the digital age: self-hypnosis. “I started doing it about 12 years ago”, he explains. “I was struggling, pretty broke, it was a very stressful time and I was trying to look at techniques for bringing my tension levels down. I started learning what they call ‘autogenic training’, which is a self-hypnosis using visualisations to guide yourself into a different mind space and to relax the body. I started thinking about how that could be applied to music. It’s an amazing feeling, the sort of feeling where you don’t have any thoughts, where the voice of the practitioner will be echoing around from left to right, sometimes repeating, getting quieter and quieter. If you focus on that you get completely hypnotised. I was actively putting sounds like that into my songs to see if they would have that effect, hopefully without people noticing. I almost want it so that by the end of the music you could be asleep! You can listen to music when you’re asleep and it can infiltrate your dreams and it has these amazing powers at levels underneath the straightforward consciousness. I’ve been going for that on this record.”
Jon Hopkins isn’t – in case you haven’t noticed – your average studio geek. Too often when an artist (or, more likely, their record company) bangs on about going on a ‘journey’, it’s no more than a metaphorical flight of fancy. But Jon Hopkins walks the walk, taking the relationship between the inside of his head and the world around him seriously. “One of the reasons I include so many sounds from the real world in my recordings is because it’s an actual journey into the mind of the artist” he says. “I’ll be outside the studio door with a recorder picking up exactly what I’m hearing while I’m writing it, so the listener is where I was, in a way. It’s an attempt to move it away from one dimensional computer sounds into something you can feel is alive, or built out of some sort of physical structure.
“I try to be open for everything I see in the world to find its way into the music. I was on a journey back to London, in a car with a friend who was driving me back from a studio out in the countryside, and it was pissing down with rain. I started to doze off, the windscreen wipers were going once every five seconds and this track was playing – a track that didn’t make it to the record. Somehow the music I’d recorded synced up with the windscreen wiper. It became this incredible accidental rhythm that I got swept along by. I’ve tried to recreate that in so many different tracks in different ways – things like that – certain states that my mind slips into.”
Looking to the future, Hopkins doesn’t have much time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labours. As well as shows booked to promote Immunity throughout the rest of the year, he has two film scores that need “tidying up” (the first one being a Kevin Macdonald film called How I Live Now, due out in September). He’s also worked on a cover version of Goodbye Horses by Q Lazzarus (as per Silence of the Lambs fame) with Hayden Thorpe from Wild Beasts, due out in July. That’ll be a pretty eclectic bunch of achievements wrapped up in just one year. And strangely, Hopkins argues that it was the slow start to his solo career which motivated him to embrace other projects. “Had it gone well with my first two records, I would have just carried on with that and made a lot more solo records” he muses, “I think it’s been for the best that it’s been such a slow burning thing”.
If the response to lead single Open Eye Signal is anything to go by, though, Hopkins’ slow rise might just be about to accelerate. But that’d just be another contrast in the career of an artist defined by them.
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Words: Adam Corner + Helia Phoenix