ELECTRONICA AS NARRATIVE: JON HOPKINS ON THE VERY HUMAN PROCESS OF PRODUCTION
Not to be confused with the top-rated university, Jon Hopkins reigns from a decidedly more contrary world — music. The UK electronica artist crafts tracks that manage to achieve a rare combination of emotive expression and technical precision. There’s a perfection in the atmospheric pulse of Hopkins‘ tracks, a meticulousness to every sonic movement. His ability to weave resonant narratives through electronic music has caught the ears of everyone from Imogen Heap, with whom Hopkins jumpstarted his career as a guitarist, to ambient legend, Brian Eno. With collaborations and remixes with respected electronic innovators like Four Tet and Nosaj Thing under his belt, Hopkins more recently found resounding success with his June 2013-released LP, Immunity, garnering his second Mercury Prize nomination.
We caught up with the rising musician ahead of his upcoming show (Saturday, November 30 at the Echoplex) and talk movie scores, technology, and the very human process of music production.
LA CANVAS: You’ve spoken in interviews a lot about the tension between technology and human emotion – why do you gravitate toward electronic music in particular to express emotion?
Jon Hopkins: It’s hard to answer that really, I mean my primary motive is just following my instincts – it was just as soon as I heard it when I was a kid, I connected to it. It was just more exciting to me to hear sounds that I had never heard before. it occurred to me even then that it was like an open platform – it would evolve like people do. It’s impossible to imagine the type of sounds that will be possible to make in time – and I love that idea, much more than trying to find new ways of playing the piano – which is the other side of what I was doing. But as the years went on, what I wanted to do as a kid has come true. So now I can imagine the sound and make it.
LAC: Speaking of making any sound you want – you mentioned listening to raindrops coming down a pipe and really wanting to capture that sound – what’s been the most difficult sound or image that you have tried to capture?
JH: I don’t actually try to capture the [exact] thing, it’s more like inspiration for things. So the raindrop thing was actually water running through pipes in a hotel room – it happened to be resonating in a way that was inexplicable. It was like causing this chord to happen and it was a completely random thing. It seemed like a random passage. It wasn’t like I was trying to replicate the sound but more the feeling of it. I don’t go around with a recorder.
The sounds that are on the record that are real world sounds, are ones that I captured from around the studio where I am. To me they seemed really logical to include. It’s like incorporating the world and my own reality into it. So I don’t go to lengths to capture things around me unless I am actually writing.
LAC: You’ve worked on a couple movie scores…
JH: Yes, I’ve done four actually.
LAC: If you could pick a movie score – not necessarily the ones that you’ve worked on – but just in general, if you could pick one to represent your life, which would it be?
JH: Hm, the reality of my life – it would be Twin Peaks. It has a pretty exceptional score. Theres something incredibly dark and deep and beautiful about that score that really resonates with me more than any other score has. It is just so well arranged. We imagine some art closer to our hearts than others – and that’s definitely the one for me.
LAC: When we listen to your music we get the sense that it is deeply personal. Does the process for your music ever exhaust you emotionally, or do you find that it energizes you?
JH: It’s a total mix of those two things actually. When you said ‘does it ever exhaust you?’ I found myself nodding. It’s like I put nine months of work into that album. It really takes a toll – it really takes over your life. It makes it in some ways difficult – when you’ve had an amazingly intense day, and you’re making a breakthrough on a track, it makes it difficult to come home and relate normally to a girlfriend or anyone I see – you’re in a different world. The best thing to do is take a few days off to become a normal human being again. But then after I take a long time off – after a week or so with no music at all, it feels like I am lacking something, lacking energy. Somewhere in there, there is a balance. I just haven’t found it yet.
LAC: Are there any challenges translating your productions into live shows?
JH: Actually it’s a difficult part of the album cycle. You have in your head that there is this huge fanfare and you go to mastering and you commit to it and then you have to deconstruct it all again for the live album. It is painful- you have to get right back into it and figure out how to do it live. Then it becomes fine when you actually start doing the shows, you think you’ve prepared properly. You take the tracks even further than they go on the record … there’s more you can do in the live arena. You can make them longer, heavier, more extreme in some ways and you can even feed off the crowd. It’s a great opportunity to explore the ideas you didn’t have the first time around. Again, it’s difficult, but amazing.
LAC: We’ve heard you speak about being against trends, and how they lead to a sound that can be identified as old. But, has there ever been a new trend that has caught your ear and had you a little bit tempted?
JH: Oh yeah, I mean I talk a lot of bullocks in interviews (laughs). It’s not quite as clear cut as that. But there are some elements of my sound that I can pinpoint, ‘Oh that was inspired by this’ everything was a trend at one time. So it is difficult – you really do feel differently about what you do everyday so sometimes you will say things like that…
There is a particular type of compression that’s very common, sidechain compression – I can’t really describe the sound – its like a way of making a bass drum or whatever part you like displaced with the part behind it and it makes everything sound fat and amazing. It is definitely a trend of the moment. I try to do it subtly so that it isn’t like super obvious. There are some examples where it is being used too extremely years ago when it was at its peak.
I just prefer to cherry pick the things I love the most and not worry about what trend they’re from, I guess thats a better way of putting it.
I do like the idea of combining sounds of all different times, whether it is right now or ages ago.
LAC: Do you have any guilty pleasure listening?
JH: I prefer to call it ‘proud pleasure listening.’ I am quite an admirer of ABBA and the production in ABBA – and not everyone is into that. My dad was always playing it. And Fleetwood Mac as well. Im quite proud to announce that I like these things cause there’s a reason why these things are so enduring, it’s cause they are amazing. They have a common level of skill and writing and production.
LAC: Lastly, what’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in the next few years?
JH: I don’t really know at this point. The album has opened up all kinds of new opportunities. You know if you asked me this a few months ago I might’ve said I was going to do another collaboration – but now I want to set up my own studio. I really want to start my own place that is custom built. Eventually I want to do my own solo album – take it to another level with that. So that may well be a two year project. But yeah, you don’t know who is going to call and have something exciting for me. You never know if you are going to get a call from a director and be linked to a 4 month project.
I’m touring ’til August, and everything else is happening after that.
Catch Jon Hopkins playing at the Echoplex this Saturday, November 30 alongside fellow European electronic musicians, Clark and Nathan Fake. Purchase tickets here.
Photo: Oddbjørn Steffensen