Jon Hopkins interview by Peter Hollo

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Jon Hopkins photo by Steve Gullick
(Photo by Steve Gullick)

Every so often you discover an artist a few albums into their repertoire and it’s a revelation. So it was with Jon Hopkins, who Brian Eno is bringing to Sydney for the Luminous festival. His latest album, Insides, takes its cues from ambient electronica, but uses strings and piano, along with some very tasty beats and dubstep-influenced bass on some tracks.

Hopkins plays at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday the 6th and Sunday the 7th of June, 2009 — more info here.

I spoke to Jon Hopkins a few weeks ago.

Cyclic Defrost: I wanted to talk a little about your musical history to start with. You have a background in classical music?

Jon Hopkins: I did some training as a classical pianist. I’ve been playing around on keyboards and things since I was quite young, like 5 or 6, and then got into the more serious classical world when I went to the Royal College of Music and did just one day a week of classical piano training, and got really into it. That was like from 12-18, and for a bit I was considering going all the way with that, but it turned out not for me *laughs* the performance element was just a bit too formal and terrifying for me to want to do that all the time, really.

Cyclic Defrost: So, did you end up going and studying something other than music when you left school?

Jon: No. I was 17 and had just finished my final exams, and a friend of mine was doing an audition for Imogen Heap’s band, so I went for an audition as well, and got the job as her keyboard player, and did a whole year of touring with her, back in 1998 actually, a long time ago now, and I never really looked back after that, just went full-on into that world.

Cyclic Defrost: So, you work with King Creosote, is that as a keyboard player?

Jon: No, with him I was a producer, that’s great, I was just a fan of his, went to a lot of shows and introduced myself, and we got on really well, and started making records together. We’re actually doing a new one now, a joint-artist album, semi-instrumental thing.
Peter: So how did you get from being a player of music to being a producer; were you listening to a lot of electronic/chill-out stuff in the late “90s?

Jon: Not really! I can’t even remember what I was listening to. I was listening to some quite strange things — I was quite into the Eagles, for some reason in the late “90s, I can’t even remember why anymore. I would’ve been more into songwriting and that kind of music back then. I remember an album that really blew me away was a Neutral Milk Hotel records; I mean, they only made two albums I think; it was called In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; all the tracks were joined together, and it was this real epic, totally lo-fi and totally beautiful actually. So I was listening to things that were very far away from what I ended up writing, but also, in the electronic world, Orblivion by The Orb was pretty influential as well. And then I encountered some of the Warp Records guys and got really into Plaid and Aphex Twin and things like that.But I’ve never been that much into the downtempo/chill-out area, because I find it can often be unsatisfying, not be one thing or the other really. So I try and avoid too much of that. I mean, Boards of Canada is an exception, but doesn’t really fit that genre anyway. To have some mystery and darkness about these things is important, and not just to want to relax people really.

Cyclic Defrost: So you learnt the ropes of production just through doing it?

Jon: Yeah, that’s it. The first major project I did was my first album, and I was like 19 & 20 when I was doing that. It was a really steep learning curve, and it’s difficult for me to listen to it now — and probably for anyone too! But it’s got quite a naïve sound to it, which maybe could be interesting I guess. To me, I can hear my learning process through that, and perhaps moreso on the second records, which was a lot more complex to write and took a whole year to do. And really through that, just because I’d been listening to vocals, I started to want to work with singers, and just apply the same techniques and concepts, really, to producing with singers, as I did while producing my electronic stuff.

Cyclic Defrost: The new one is 5 years later now, so has it been a long process in creating this one?

Jon: I think I worked out that if you were to condense all the time I’d spend on the new one it’d be about 5 months. Which is a bit crazy because I know it seems to have taken 5 years to get it out, but actually I wrote one track in 2005, I wrote three in 2006, I wrote maybe one 2007, and then the rest in 2008, just because I was doing loads of other projects at the same time, and just didn’t have time to focus on the writing anymore. Which I think had a beneficial effect, because it just meant that you have this long period of being away from a song, and you come back with all these new skills, and you can immediately bring them up to date, and just keep revisiting until a point when it starts to form into something.

Cyclic Defrost: And are the string arrangements your own arrangements?

Jon: Yeah. That’s one my favourite things to do, I really love string arranging. But I don’t do it in a classical way because I can’t remember how to write scores properly — it’d be more a case of singing a line to someone and getting them to play it back, and then working out the next one on top, and so on.

Cyclic Defrost: I’ve always loved acoustic sounds in electronic production. I presume it’s your piano playing, though, on the album?

Jon: It is, a big part of the album for me; it’s almost, as far as I’m concerned it’s almost a piano record; almost all the songs have some piano. There’s only like two or three maybe that don’t. And all those ones were written sitting at the piano, and it’s the same piano I’ve had since I was like 6, so it’s a personal thing that tells stories for me, reminds me of my life, I guess.

Cyclic Defrost: Now obviously you’ll be in Sydney soon, performing this live. Have you been performing this material live already?

Jon: I have, I’ve done a huge amount of touring actually since June. I was opening for Coldplay for a lot of last year, and in Japan I opened for them this year as well. And it’s just been great; it’s an unusual way to do your first tour! But it’s been an amazing experience, and certainly taken care of the nerves a bit. If I can play 40 ridiculous arena shows then I should be able to deal with anything else really. Although strangely I still get nervous when I’ve got 2 or 300 people and it’s my own show.

Cyclic Defrost: It’s a little more personal when they’re not in a huge stadium —

Jon: and they’re not there to see a huge band. Yeah, I was in Sydney, I just passed through a few years ago, and had a beer outside the Opera House and it was great. It’s nice to be able to go back there and have a reason to go inside!

Cyclic Defrost: So, what kind of setup do you have? Is it just you, and are you playing a real piano for these shows?

Jon: No, actually, for the Sydney shows I’ll be bringing a VJ with me, who’s doing all kinds of live visuals, and he kind of jams along with what I’m playing, using lots of different visual styles and clips and digital animations, and I do my stuff — I mean, that’s the thing. In the last few years, there’s a lot of new technology to allow you to really perform electronic music, and trigger things and use drum pads and KAOS pads and all these interesting things that you can really hit and play with. I’m yet to do a show with a classical piano; at the moment I’m triggering the notes, recording segments of audio and then playing it on keyboards on stage and that kind of thing. In Japan I had a violinist with me, Davide Rossi, who did the string arrangements on the Coldplay record — that’s how I met him. He came along and did lots of amazing live string looping; and yeah I have had lots of people with me, but most of the time it’s just me — which is cool, you don’t have to rehearse with people then!

Cyclic Defrost: So what will the visuals be for these performances?

Jon: Well, the central element is, I was introduced to the work of this animator called Vince Collins, who’s from San Francisco, and I think in the late “70s and early “80s he made these very crazy, trippy animations — all single-cell, hand-painted animations that are just so beautiful — and I had them edited and cut to the music , so I can trigger them in time. And it’s really amazing, like this very new electronic-y music with really crusty-looking weird old animations like this, I just like that combination. I didn’t want to go down the predictable route of having really electronic-looking animation. The music to me has a lot more of the real physical world in it than just the digital world really.

Cyclic Defrost: Well, speaking of the physical world, half of this album was written for a contemporary dance work of Wayne McGregor, and I’m kind of interested that that material is actually the most rhythmic and upbeat, which isn’t always the case with music written for dance. Was it just what you wanted to write?

Jon: I made a point of not every having seen any of Wayne’s choreography, so I didn’t really have any idea what they were like. I had a meeting with him and he said that I could do whatever I wanted, and that was brilliant really. I thought it’d be really interesting to see people dancing to dubstep type rhythms and see what a great choreographer would do if I put some real techno in too; which I did, there was a track at the end there which is not on the album actually, but it was just full-on techno — and it was amazing really. So it was really inspired by me just wanting to make it almost difficult for the dancers, and see what it was they would come up with. But also, there’s elements of the track on the album called “Drifting Up” which formed a part of the score as well, so there is a calmer section in the middle. But yeah, “Vessel” and “Insides” and “Small Memory” are all in there as part of that score; in quite a different way, they were reworked so they would stand as pieces alone.

Cyclic Defrost: Now, obviously there are some other big name connections as well. So I was wondering how the connection with Brian Eno, who’s responsible for bringing you out, how did that come about?

Jon: Quite surreal actually; I have this friend called Leo Abrahams, who’s a guitarist and a brilliant composer, and he was in a guitar shop, just trying out some different guitars and playing some amazing stuff as he does, and Brian happened to be in there as well, and was, without him knowing, listening; and he introduced himself afterwards and took Leo’s number. And about a year later he called him up out of the blue and invited him in for a jam. And they were playing for a good two years and he did loads of stuff with Leo, and then Leo played him some of my second record and he invited me in for a jam. And on the very first day we came up with some of the stuff for Another Day on Earth and then it just went from there. That was about 5 years ago now, and we’ve stayed in touch, and he’s got me involved in most of the most interesting things I’ve worked on really. So, pretty cool!

Cyclic Defrost: Including I suppose the Coldplay connection as well. That must have initially be a spin-out to be working with somebody like that…

Jon: Well, very big spin-out actually. I’d always been a fan of their songs, and really admire that kind of songwriting where it’s very concise and, you know, being able to write melodies that the whole world can remember is more difficult than anything else really. So I was very impressed with them, and I thought there was room for an element of my kind of sound-making within their structures.

Cyclic Defrost: And have you been a fan of David Holmes’ material? I find that his remix seemed to really suit the song really well, and I don’t know if it’s true but there seem to be harkenings back to the techno and ambient that he was doing in the earlier days.

Jon: Yeah; I didn’t actually know a huge amount of his stuff; I’ve known him more for his film scores, which I really loved, Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven — and in fact the same guy, Leo Abrahams had been working with him, and that’s how we originally met as well, and we had a real musical connection I think and I did a bit of writing on his record, so it was great to have him interested in doing a remix for me.

Cyclic Defrost: Finally, I was just also interested in Double Six; obviously Domino’s a really great label, but is Double Six a newish imprint of theirs?

Jon: It is, I’m signed to them as a writer as well, and it’s tied to their publishing label as well as their record label. They’ve had this new act The Joker’s Daughter signed to them, which is Danger Mouse with a singer, and it’s the same team working, and in America it’s just Domino who I’m with, so it’s really nice yeah.

Hopkins plays at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday the 6th and Sunday the 7th of June, 2009 — more info here.

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Radio broadcaster - Utility Fog on FBi. Cellist - FourPlay String Quartet. Web administrator, editor, reviewer, sporadic blogger, science fiction fan, bicycle rider...

  • Nice interview. Enjoyed reading about all Jon’s connections. Found him through his work with Eno.

  • Eva Swan

    Just discovered Jon through Domino’s site – I’m also a madly blossoming fan of Cass McCombs, but now interested in getting to know everyone on the diverse Domino label. Jon’s work is absolutely lovely (the pieces I’ve heard) and also enjoyed getting to know his background a bit – except I missed the part about him wanting a date when he comes to America…