Jon Hopkins has, in my opinion, written one of the finest records of the year so far with ‘Immunity’, a relentlessly intelligent tour de force of pummelling techno and luscious electronica. You might know his solo work already – 2009’s ‘Insides’ was well-respected – or ‘Diamond Mine’, the Mercury-nominated album he made with King Creosote. You might’ve heard his soundtrack to the film Monsters or heard his work with Brian Eno or Coldplay on ‘Viva la Vida’. It seems that ‘Immunity’, though, has broken through to a wider audience. I’ve rarely seen a crowd so completely enraptured by a live artist as the one at Village Underground this week. With each pulse, phase and break, we were swept up in communion. I spoke to Hopkins from his studio in Bow, East London about making the album, working with Coldplay and Brian Eno and music affecting states of consciousness.
NME: A common way of looking at ‘Immunity’ is to compare the first, heavier half to a night out and the second to the coming down, living room chill out afterwards. How does that square with you?
Jon Hopkins: Well, it’s in part true. The arc of the album is inspired a bit by that journey of emotions, but the songs aren’t about going out, I just love the kind of really epic story you end up with on a ridiculous night. It’s really important for me to have a record which has a strong narrative feel to it. But the tracks themselves are far more abstract ideas.
When you talk about the emotions do you mean connecting with other people or specific moments that you were influenced by?
It can be other people, it can be those random meetings where you just talk for hours and then never see them again. But also the bonding experiences with music where you can completely lose yourself and there’s nothing else for that moment – that can be a profound, hypnotic experience. If you can get to that even for just a bit, it’s just amazing. If you stay in it for hours then it’s great.
‘Abandon Window’ is quite an abrupt change of pace – why did you decide to change it so dramatically?
I’m always obsessed with the idea of contrast and if you listen to that following ten minutes of really heavy techno before it (‘Collider’) the effect they have on each other is profound. The piano will sound much softer and beautiful having heard ten minutes of bass before it and vice-versa. It’s a few minutes in which you can have a breather and reflect back on the first four tracks – on the hope that people are listening to it in order. ‘Abandon Window’ is a track that was actually written about the tsunami and earthquake in Japan (2011). It was through a special compilation that donated money (‘For Nihon’) to that, then I rerecorded it for this record. It’s quite morbid subject, it’s about escaping from life. If you’re crushed under buildings, the point at which you give up and just float away is the inspiration for that track really, trying to image that feeling when your soul escapes.
Do you prefer writing the heavier or more ambient tracks?
I’ve always found it quite easy to do the quieter stuff and if I sit there and write for a day I find it relaxing. But I get really excited by the upbeat stuff, I had to work far harder on that to make tracks that, in my opinion, deserve to be on the record.
Much has been made of your classical training. How has it affected your output?
The classical training was only Saturdays at the Royal College Of Music when I was a teenager. I think I was inspired by the composers we listened to – Ravel, Stravinsky and Satie – but I hear the influence on my music more in film composers like Harold Budd and Thomas Newman (Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty) than classical. That classical world felt a little elitist and I kind of turned my back on it and finished at 17.
On ‘The Pearl’, the second album that Harold Budd did with Brian Eno there’s this amazing technique where Harold Budd’s playing the piano and Brian Eno is manipulating the sound. I asked Brian how it was done and I was flabbergasted to discover that it wasn’t actually a synth at all, but it was just treatment of the piano.
It sent me off on this whole track of borrowing the idea of not using synths but just treating the piano. So, so many of the pads and drones and atmosphere on ‘Immunity’ – even on the techno tracks – actually piano with huge amounts of processing.
The track ‘Open Eye Signal’, when you hear that choir sound come in, that’s actually me singing but sped up and with huge reverb and overlayered harmonies.
Are there any other techniques, instruments or technology that you experimented with, such as field recordings?
I recorded the sound outside the studio on the last night of recording and put that in, just the noise really a car going past. Sometimes you can just record anything and slow it down hugely and you’ll find all these hidden notes and frequencies that match up really nicely.
What about the fireworks?
I live really near the Olympic Park and I’d just come back from the studio to write and heard these fireworks that sounded like they were miles away. I went up to the roof terrace and recorded them. They’re very distant and I didn’t want them to sound like fireworks because the inspiration on that track (‘Abandon Window’) is quite dark and sad. I didn’t want them to sound celebratory, or mortal, but like a distant prattle that’s already taken place and you’re hearing the echoes of it. It comes across as rumbles or cannon balls, something ghostly. It has a weird nostalgic effect, when you hear the whistle-y ones particularly. You hear fireworks growing up throughout your life, so even if they’re really distorted there can be still be some quality of sound that gets to you.
There’s also lots of me hitting things to make the drums rather than using samples. The percussion part on the track ‘Immunity’ is the sound that my piano pedals make when you press them – one of the pedals makes this really amazing creaking noise. I’ve had this piano for about eight or nine years and every time the piano tuner comes round every few months, he says, “do you want me to fix that creak?” and I say “no, I love it” because it’s been with me so long. I like incorporating things that have got meaning into the fabric of the record.
I also got a couple of vintage synths, I got a Korg MS-20, which is either late 70s or early 80s and that’s the central sound on ‘Open Eye Signal’. That’s the track I wrote first that really sent me and the record down the path it went.
How long did it take you to write the record?
I think about eight months. I build each track layer by layer and I don’t do any extra mixing or get anyone else involved – apart from the last two minutes of ‘Open Eye Signal’. I worked with a guy called Rick Simpson on that who helped me mix it and get that extra punch because I wanted it to sound really refreshing a weird, almost like a little extra track at the end.
What was the recording experience like?
It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had writing anything and friends who saw me in the middle of it said that I looked like I was in love – I was just euphoric. The only problem is that it’s just impossible to sleep. And the reality is that you’re on your own a lot and I’m a sociable person. What’s brilliant is that once you do finish you can just go round the world playing which makes it all worthwhile really.
Was there a moment in the process when something clicked and you thought, ‘I’m onto a good thing here’?
When ‘Open Eye Signal’ came together. It’s got quite an instant sound to it – more than any of the others, and sums up what I was trying to do with the record. I definitely got a lot of euphoria doing that one, but also the track ‘Collider’. I really didn’t sleep at all when I was writing that one. I was booked to play at Bloc Festival and I’d made a vow to myself to get that track finished and ready to play on that day so I worked my arse off for the whole of the ten days leading up to it. Then it got cancelled, it was such a disaster. In the end me and all my friends ended up having the same kind of party but at my studio and we just listened to that track a few times when we were in the right mood and it really worked.
And what do you think about being called the next Eno?
Well I’m not really (laughs). He kind of does so many things outside of music and I’m just too obsessed with music. I don’t really want to go into the world of production and I don’t really want to produce other people particularly. He’s far more of a polymath genius and I’m more of a music nerd.
What was it like working with Coldplay?
Amazing. I was invited to meet them by Brian and he brought me in one day to jam with them because he felt it might excite their studio practice having new players around. We all got on really well and spent four months working on the ‘Viva’ album. They’re brilliant guys and they’ve got a very, very open taste in music. I’d come in one day and Chris will be talking about this amazing new Hudson Mohawke record and he’s a massive Battles fan. When the album came out in 2007 he was going to see them all the time. It’s not a well known thing but they’ve got very experimental music taste.
I’ve read that you’re into meditation and autogenic training. Do you write tracks with the purpose of having a a psychic effect on listeners?
If something effects my life profoundly I try and find a way to incorporate into the music, I think I’ve been trying for years to do it in different ways but I really focus on it more on it in this record.
Autogenic training can focus your thoughts ‘til there aren’t any and meditation can do that, an insane night out can do that, a drug experience can do that or sex can do that. It’s a sort of goal of the human mind to manage to switch itself off completely and I think music can do that as well. So, for me it was really just a case of trying to incorporate the hypnotic techniques that I’d gathered along the way into the music. There’s one autogenic recording which had a voice floating around really slowly from left to right at 60bpm, so I incorporated that idea into ‘Sun Harmonics’. Whether you know it or not your brain sort of latches onto them and it’s dragged down into this level of consciousness beneath the one you’re already in.
It happens in ‘Open Eye Signal’ too, the idea of repeating something, it’s kind of all over the record to be honest. Just the idea of repeating things again and again and gradually changing them each time, building them each time. The perfect outcome of someone listening to this record is that after they’d finished it they feel slightly different than how they did before, and to make something mind altering in some way.
I think you need the abrasive first half, if you were to just listen to the quiet tracks I don’t think it would do it. I think you need to shake someone out of the state that they’re in quite an aggressive way, then soothe it.
Is this your best work?
It’s my favourite, it’s hard to say whether it’s the best. I’m proud of ‘Diamond Mine’ as well, but I think this has maybe more range to it and explores all the things I love.
Jon Hopkins is playing the The xx’s Night + Day (June 22) and KOKO in September