The Bottomless Genius of Jon Hopkins

Critics love him, Coldplay does too. The Mercury Prize-nominated producer spills the beans on his next release, and why he can't stop tinkering with Immunity.

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Jul 30 2014, 6:30pm

On a grassy knoll behind a tent at the ill-fated Hudson Project, Jon Hopkins and I are sitting next to each other on two cheap assemblages of plastic and metal that are pretending to be chairs. He is looking at me through Bono-style, brown-tinted aviators, somehow achieving a 100% success rate at not sweating through his Paul Smith T-shirt. If I ignore the chatting cameramen in the corner, or the fact that there is nary a ham sandwich or cup of tea in the horizon, I can sort of pretend like I am having a private picnic with the acclaimed British producer, just the two of us, under the shade of a nearby tree. 

Actually—no, I can't. A dull thudding sound erupts from a stage nearby, breaking any illusion of pastoral tranquility. "Oh god, that's loud. It's like the sound of a headache," Hopkins says with a quiet laugh.

It's hard to believe that persistently throbbing basslines truly bother him, though; Hopkins has been tirelessly chugging through a tour in support of his breakthrough fourth album, Immunity, for more than fourteen months now, with recent stops at London's Field Day, Barcelona's Sónar, Glastonbury, and Cologne's Electronic Beats.

"I'm still getting used to having a lot of people at shows," he admits. "I used to play a lot of small shows. Now I can be more ambitious, bring more visuals, and make them a grander thing."

At the age of 34, Hopkins has found his career taking a pretty dramatic turn. Although there has never been any question of his serious and rather cerebral talent, for years he has flown just under the radar, never gaining a mass following to match his critical acclaim. There's a reason, after all, that Hopkins self-depracatingly describes himself on Twitter as an "Ivor Novello Award and double Mercury Prize losing artist." 

After studying classical piano at the Royal College of Music in London, Hopkins got his start as as a touring keyboardist for Imogen Heap, chasing that with his debut full-length Opalescent in 2001. The album garnered positive reviews—a few tracks even ended up licensed to Sex and the City, of all places—but his follow-up effort Contact Note failed to gain much traction. Thanks to an introduction through his friend Leo Abrahams, Hopkins started collaborating with Brian Eno in 2004, who pulled him into co-production work with Coldplay. Hopkins co-produced several tracks on the band's 2008 album, Viva La Vida, toured with them that year, and co-produced "Midnight," the second single from the band's newest, Ghost Stories.

Hopkins' third album, Insides, was released in 2008, racking up positive reviews for its Eno-esque, deeply emotional ambient electronica. Still, it wasn't until 2013's Immunity—the most club-oriented release that he had ever had—that Hopkins truly broke out as a fully-formed star in his own right. 

A product of nine months spent locked away in his studio in London, Immunity emerged as one of those rare masterpieces that manages to be both cerebral yet sensual, propulsive yet meditative, lushly layered yet elegantly simple, all at the same time. It was also envisioned as a kind of emotional odyssey. Beginning with the sounds of jangling keys as Hopkins unlocks the door to his studio, the album is split into two: the first half set to propulsive techno rhythms, the second winding down with deep, ambient swirls. Weaved into both sections is a hypnotic tapestry of analog synths, clinking piano keys and found sounds, including those of Olympic Ceremony fireworks, creaking watermills and pipes in a New York hotel room. 

It was Immunity that got Hopkins his second Mercury Prize nomination, and set him off on the neverending tour that will not wind down until the end of this year, when he will perform a career-spanning extravaganza at London's Royal Festival Hall. 

Hopkins in his studio in London

There have been some breathers in between the non-stop gigs. "I'm quite close to finishing a new EP of stuff that I went to Reykjavík to record in February," he says. "It's a further exploration of some of the tracks in Immunity. I feel like we've released so many singles and remixes on the banging, heavy side"—Pangaea, Objekt, Four Tet, Moderat and Nosaj Thing have all given his tracks their own spins—"I want to do an EP that explores the downtempo, cinematic stuff." 

I ask him how, after the dozens of remixes and hundreds of shows, he's still able to burrow into Immunity and excavate new ideas to play with. Just last month, he collaborated with Lulu James on a rework of "We Disappear," Immunity's first track, and has also teamed up with Purity Ring to reconfigure another track, "Breathe This Air." 

"There's still a lot of stuff in there to explore for me," Hopkins says. "Like 'Open Eye Signal' is made out of bass, drums, and a choral element—which is me singing, but really processed and multi-layered. That singing bit works as a piece of music in its own right, and that's one of the tracks in this EP. It's very drony, very ambient." 

"I like to explore things like they're stories," he continues. "If 'Open Eye Signal' was a film, this [new track] would be like a side story—a sub-plot." 

This is an essential part of Hopkins' process: thinking of music in cinematic or even spatial terms. "When I'm mixing or finalizing a track, I place sounds like they're dimensional objects," he explains. "So I have things that are a mile away, things that are closer. The treble is up here, the bass is down there. Sound is more than just left and right—it's a three dimensional space in my head."

Has he always visualized sound as space? "It's gotten sharper. Now, I feel like I can hear every detail on a track. Some tracks have lots of elements, and I know where they all are. I know where they're kept," he says. Given Hopkins' cinematic approach to sound, it makes sense that visual spectacle is an important part of his live set—but not in the gauche, face-melting way that LED and laser-enthusiasts like it. His AV shows have experimented with everything from microscopic chemical reactions, to a young boy's skateboarding odyssey taken from his "Open Eye Signal" music video, and the vibrantly psychedelic animations of Vince Collins. 

It also makes sense that he's composed scores for a number of films, including Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones and Gareth Edwards' sci-fi horror indie, Monsters. Film scoring, Hopkins says, is a whole different beast from writing his own music. "I spent six weeks on 'Open Eye Signal' because I was learning about techno and analog synthesizes for the first time. But film scores are not the forum to explore new sounds. That's why it's important to keep doing albums, because that's where I move on as a sound maker." 

Hopkins' ideas for his next full-length album, which he wants to do "more than anything else," revolve around the dancefloor-ready urgency that defined the first half of Immunity—perhaps exploring its propulsive rhythms even more so. In his insatiable quest for fresh sounds and new challenges, he's also decided to abandon the Yamaha piano he's had since childhood, which currently sits in his London studio. Nostalgia be damned, he says. "I'm going to almost entirely remove the piano element. The sounds I'm working with dictate how the album goes, and I've done so much piano music now that I feel like I need to back off from it." 

As for who he hopes to collaborate with on this next album, Hopkins ticks off Jónsi from Sigur Ros, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, and Thom Yorke. "He's one of my heroes," Hopkins says of the latter. "But I've got no form of contact with him. I keep saying this in interviews, and hoping that one day he'll read it. I've said it enough times now…" He trails off and chuckles.

Hopkins' tour manager approaches from a corner. It appears our pseudo-picnic together has come to an end. A young girl in pigtails pulls up in a buggy to drive him to the stage where he will soon deliver a head-down, eyes-shut, grueling techno set in the middle of a sudden thunderstorm. Hopkins jumps up, shakes my hand, and hops in the front seat, disappearing into the crowd as he heads to the next stage, the next show, the next stop on his never-ending quest for something else. 

Jon Hopkins Tour Dates

July 31 - Miami, FL @ Bardot

Aug 2 - Montreal, QC @ Osheaga

Aug 6 - Oslo, NO @ Øya Festival

Aug 9 - Skipton, UK @ Beacons Festival

Aug 29 - Pula, HR @ Dimensions Festival

Sept 5 - Sept 7 - Portmeirion, UK @ Festival Number 6 

Sept 19 - London, UK @ Royal Festival Hall

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Michelle Lhooq is a techno freak who lives on Twitter - @MichelleLhooq

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