On a warm, overcast spring day in New York City British techno guru Jon Hopkins is sitting in front of a café on West Broadway in Soho. He’s taking in the sights of the city, every so often raising his eyebrows in appreciation of the young ladies passing our bench.
“I always get that feeling when I come here of wanting to live here for a bit — to get it out of my system,” says Hopkins. “I need three months just to get it out of my system.”
Could his love of Gotham be a case of the grass is always greener? “I do think it’s better in New York,” he asserts. “I do actually think that.”
One of techno’s most heralded producers with a discography including work with electronic music deity Brian Eno, a potential move to the Big Apple would find him further exploring his other passion: food.
“One of my main interests is eating, and this is that place for that,” Hopkins attests. “And I love how everyone’s really interested in food and that standards have gone up because of that. We’re catching up in London — it’s getting a lot better — but still doesn’t compare.”
Jon Hopkins lives and eats in Hackney. He commutes Monday to Friday to his studio located ten minutes away which he’s had in 2006. He enjoys having 24/7 access to his machines and is mindful to never squander the musical freedom he’s obtained for himself. For him the physical separation between where he lives and works coveted and essential.
“I’ve been recording now for 13 years,” he explains. “After the first six years I had a studio on the floor above [where I lived] and it works when you’re young and you can working ’til four in the morning and just got to sleep and wake up whenever. But after a few years of that it just starts to take over and you’re just completely dominated by it. I’d find myself waking up in the ‘morning’ — it would be like 4 pm or something — and you’d go upstairs to listen back to what you’d done, and before you’d know it it’s evening and you’re still in your dressing gown. It’s not human, it’s not right, it’s gross.”
Now waking at the sensible hour of 8 (or sometimes 9 if he feels like it), Hopkins’ routine finds him working until 6 pm or so and going home — except when he’s mastering an album. “I love that last bit of an album,” he beams, “you can just throw the rest of your life out the window for a bit.”
“I love that last bit of an album, you can just throw the rest of your life out the window for a bit.”
It’s in his studio where Hopkins forged 2009’s Insides and his recent masterpiece Immunity. The space has coincidentally become an intersection of his two interests.
“I have an engineer [Cherif Hashizume] working for me in the studio who also happens to be a brilliant Japanese chef,” he says. “He does loads of editing and programming and cooks. It’s a really efficient working relationship.”
At this point I’m expecting Hopkins to vault into his musical expeditions with Hashizume or his equipment list but the conversation goes back to food. “He does Japanese fried chicken with miso and rice and pickles. Oh, so good. He also does Japanese curry which is so comforting. It’s so good that it’s ridiculous. His recipe involves things like [adding] a little bit of coffee in there and it just brings out the flavor. He’s got all of these tips that he’s developed over the years and does amazing gyoza as well. We take that stuff very seriously.”
Hopkins looks down at my recorder — a visual reminder we’ve met to talk about Immunity — and laughs.
“Back to the music!”
Jon Hopkins took about eight months to record Immunity. Recording albums demand his entire focus, and he says it’s challenging but extremely rewarding work. “For Insides I spent maybe six or seven months on it. I never spend more time than that. It is intense work I’d say, five days a week.”
Looking at Hopkins’ discography it’s evident that he produces esoteric music (as long as you look past his stint working with Eno and Coldplay). If you’re looking for buildups and breakdowns tailored for the dance floor, Hopkins isn’t your man. He makes proper techno that emanates from a terrifying beautiful and original place. The bedrock of his work lies in his ability to absorb the sights and sounds he encounters and distill it for his own purposes.
“This [album] was different,” he says about Immunity. “The first two albums are so distant to me now ten years later. Insides was very much something that had been built over a number of years and spread out over six months of work. So it felt like it was a summation of all the different genres I had absorbed in that time. Looking back on it the album doesn’t flow as you have a half-speed hip-hop track going into dubsteppy tracks. With [Immunity], I wanted to make something that really flowed. Whereas before I was trying to focus on the arrangements and how the melodic side came together, this time I wanted to really nail that rhythmic side. So it ended up being far more techno.”
Hopkins says the time preceding the Immunity was peppered with shows at “ravier events,” ones where he shared the bill with artists from a plethora of genres. He says these gigs had a major impact on the songs that became Immunity.
“My live set evolved over the years into something a lot more dancey,” he explains. “I was also on lineups with more techno-oriented people so I started hearing and absorbing all of this stuff, playing at places like Berghain in Berlin. You start to take these things in from the guys from Border Community, particularly — this amazing lightness of touch and the rhythm’s slightly slung sound. I had to work out how it is done, not just to make a response to it but there would be no point denying its influence.”
Utilizing a firm kick drum, a four-to-the-floor pulse became the sonic framework of his new collection. By restricting himself to one format came a wealth of creative ideas. To maintain a human element he laid out rhythmic templates by drumming on his thighs or desk, bringing them into his machines when the beats were right. “It was like completely starting from scratch in some ways.”
The epic track “Open Eye Signal” arrived first and set the tone for Immunity. The song came after Hopkins bought an Korg MS-20, upgraded his studio, started using Logic and switched to making music on a PC. “I get inspired by sounds. Put a new synth in there and that will change the direction.”
Another monster called “Collider” [“Me fucking around with those knobs in real time and recording takes and takes…”] also upped his creative ante. “That song was me learning what makes a techno track work and then injecting more back into it and the emotional quality,” he explains. “All of my stuff before had been meticulously laid out and this time I could actually jam with a synth and that’s one of the reasons why the album sounds like it does.”
“I’ll always make albums even if there’s no one left in the world who wants to listen to them. I think an hour is the perfect length of time to have control over the brain, tell the story and take people on a journey. There will still people some people who listen to albums even if it’s just me.”
“One of my main obsessions in music is the contrasts between very aggressive sides like ‘Collider’ which is like ten minutes long and one note on the bass hitting every single beat — it hardly lets up at all — which was followed by the quietest piano piece I’d ever written. I want those two sides to sum up all of the things I’ve done in a new context. It’s all about the affect they have on each other… it’s a story that’s being told. I’ll always make albums even if there’s no one left in the world who wants to listen to them. I think an hour is the perfect length of time to have control over the brain, tell the story and take people on a journey. There will still people some people who listen to albums even if it’s just me.”
The pièce de résistance is “Sub Harmonics,” one of the softest, most beautiful comedown tracks you’ll ever hear. Delicately sprawled out over 12 minutes, the title relates to the four-note piano riff that serves as the song’s chilled foundation. It’s a happy, joyous piece inspired by Orbital’s “Halcyon.” Like a memorable night of music it’s a track you don’t want to end. It’s a song best enjoyed with your eyes shut while feet tapping.
“The aim was to take you out of where you are,” says Hopkins.
There’s always been an escapist element to electronic music so it was natural for Jon Hopkins to use blips and bleeps to create worlds he can disappear into. In these virtual spaces you’re in the moment and anything is possible. Hopkins says the sense of euphoria he feels when his productions are done (sports analogy: when he’s in the zone) is the ultimate feeling that makes him feel as if he can do anything. “Life is complex when you’re not making music,” he points out.
Our time is winding down so I have to ask Hopkins if there’s one thing he took away from working with Brian Eno. “There is actually, something that often surprises people,” he smiles.
“With [Eno] it’s about not spending too long on details. He told me to chuck down ideas as quickly as possible and throw everything at it. Don’t overthink an refine the sound later. He gets bored of stuff he’s working on after a few hours so he’ll put it down so quickly while the energy is there, capture the energy of the original idea and refining can come later. More than that the idea of embracing accidents in music, something I got from him totally and being open to the world around you and allowing things to come in. Loading up the wrong sounds on purpose and seeing how it plays back or layering in sounds from outside of the studio so you’re putting in the world around you.”
Hopkins tells a memorable session with the master. “I was recording a piano part in the studio and this lorry started reversing right outside the window and the reverse sound went off. It happened to hit a note which changed the key of what I was playing, a note I wasn’t going to play and it make it change from major to minor. It affected the way the entire piece of music went…that moment with that lorry impacted the whole song. I love being open to that and is something I got from him, listening out from around you and not being too engrossed in your own immediate vicinity.”
The rest of the year finds Hopkins on the road, bringing his music to the masses and no doubt finding time to toil with his machines and savor great meals. After working on various film soundtracks, he crafted the music for How I Live Now out in the fall and says he’s taking a respite from soundtracks so he can evolve his live show.
“Now is the time to focus,” he concludes. “Doing only soundtracks means being in the studio all the time and I love getting out and traveling.”
Wherever Jon Hopkins’ travels and adventures take him, rest assured that good music — and meals — are bound to follow.
Top image by Darren Ressler
Jon Hopkins’ Immunity is out now on Domino.