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Interview: Jon Hopkins

By Ryan Dembinsky (Ryan Demler)

As a promising 16 year-old pianist attending music school on Saturdays at London’s Royal College of Music, Jon Hopkins made a decision that would ultimately change his life. He entered a concerto competition playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with an orchestra. He loved the piece of music and he actually won the competition, so seemingly this would help propel his interests in classical piano. Instead, he found the experience horrifying and never played another completion.

Leading up to the performance, Hopkins explained, “I started thinking, ‘Do I really have to do this?’  It was a very large concert, so when it came to the actual day, the levels of nerves, I had just never experienced anything like it. It didn’t seem necessary to feel like that ever in your life. The performance went really well, but there was a point in it where I remember an incredibly fast section in the third movement. Mind you, at this point you don’t have music; you’ve learned it all weeks before. My fingers were so used to it playing it, but I remember just looking at them and thinking, ‘How are they doing that?’ The second you do that, they could stop at any second. I managed to stop thinking that just long enough to get through it.”

He continued, “Afterwards, I was just so spaced out. I thought, ‘That’s it; I don’t think I can do that again.’ I don’t think it’s healthy, and I also don’t think it’s natural. Classical music wasn’t written to be played in this austere environment. It was the popular music of its time. It was meant to be enjoyed. This rarefied elitist thing that it is now was never the intention. Also, I’d rather just play my own music rather than reinterpreting something that was written 100 years ago.”

The rest is history. Jon Hopkins has since moved on to focus entirely on electronic music. He’s collaborated with Brian Eno and Coldplay, scored multiple films and recorded a catalog of four LPs, four EPs and a long list of collaborative recordings. His latest album Immunity came out in March and represents his first true dance record. We caught up with Jon Hopkins for a chat over a drink in Williamsburg the day after his latest performance at Irving Plaza.

Hidden Track: I wanted to start off with a somewhat general question. I tend to think your music as somewhat minimal in a sense in that there is a sort of patience that you have in having one loop going and very gradually building with subtle changes. How did you gain the confidence to trust that would be entertaining enough?

Jon Hopkins: That’s a good question. Maybe it isn’t [the music], I don’t know [laughs]? There are a lot of albums that I love that have shown me that it’s possible. Firstly, I love the effect that has on the brain. I love the fact that brazenly repeating something for eight minutes, if it’s an interesting enough thing in the first place, is an amazing chance to let the brain get used to something and really live in it. Then when it changes, it can blow people’s minds – if you’re dancing especially. It can be an amazing experience. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do. I’m not saying I necessarily do it, but that’s definitely the aim.

HT: Dancing is obviously a big part of it. It seems like you are pretty savvy with different time signatures and things. How do you think about that type of thing in a dance context?

JH: Yeah, I love all that stuff. I did the weird time signature thing more in the past, but his album is essentially all 4/4. What I tried to do with this record is keep the kick drums on the the fours mostly, and push and pull around that. So some of the tracks have got really big swings to them. You can get a real electronic vibe, but also with a human feel around that central pulse as the overall propulsion of the track but meanwhile always trying to keep that human element that makes it feel “unmachine-like” and less forced.

I try to make things addictive to listen to which goes back to your first question, you won’t want to stop listening to it. If you make a rhythm that’s addictive enough, it will carry you through a long track.

HT: It was cool what you did with the video how you kind of had the skateboarder do that same thing, which is just cruising along in really long shots in a parallel fashion to the music.

JH: What was cool about that is that it’s not a complex piece of music to listen to. It’s quite complex to make, but it’s really a simple thing to hear it.

So, I just couldn’t figure out what it should be. A lot of treatments came in, and I was into a lot of them, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it should be. Then at the last minute, this treatment came in and (filmmaker) Aoife McArdle said, “You should just cut together a montage of people skateboarding,” and it even includes Back to the Future which is at the end. The song is about motion, left to right motion, so those long tracking shots and the skies of LA sunshine really clicked immediately.

HT: Is it fair to say the new album is a move back to true dance music?

JH: It’s not exactly a move back, because I’ve actually never fully done it before, bit it’s inspired by playing live for Insides, the last album, when I realized that I wanted to really learn what makes music work in a live environment. It’s really about that rhythmic pulse. So, I wanted to explore that more on this album. Each album has to have some step forward of in another direction, and for this record it was time to explore that dance side.

HT: Does the audience react noticeably different?

JH: Yes! They are much more excited [laughs]. The live set is in the early stages, but it’s going to get a lot better. It’s working at the moment, but I need to work on it to really get the most out of those songs?

HT: How has your rig changed for the live setting?

JH: It hasn’t really changed other than the changes that are internal within the programs. I’m still using the same setup and the KAOSS pads, but the sounds are different. It will sound different. The main thing live is that you feel confident and you feel happy up there, because the second you have to start concentrating too much on the screen or you start over-thinking about the fact that a loop is going to run out in a minute or you might drop the ball in some other way, the audience knows. They don’t know that they know, but they know. They know that the performer isn’t relaxed and that something isn’t right. That’s why I prefer to keep things simple, so I can remain happy up there.

HT: I read in some other interviews that people often assume you are one of these people who is really into the latest technology, but you highlight that you really emphasize using what you know not what’s the latest and greatest new thing.

JH: Exactly, I still use programs from 1999 on my PC, which is now essentially the PC I have virtually inside my Mac. I just listen for what I like to hear and try to use what I know. I think technology is actually a distraction, especially if you’re always learning now things. The latest things I’ve bought have actually been secondhand things from the 70s and 80s.

HT: What is the old software that you still use on the PC?

JH: Sound Forge on PC, a really old Cubase VST version, and lots of really old plugins you can’t get anymore. I also still use a Korg Trinity that I got in 1998, which is great because I know how to make any sound I want on it. That’s the thing that’s been on all my records that people would recognize as my sound.

HT: I wanted to to ask you about the opening track on the new album, We Disappear. How did you get those sounds?

JH: That was the hardest track to finish. The first track on a record should be the hardest to finish or the freshest, newest track. The whole track to me is an intro to the album. It would never be a single or something like that. It’s just about excitement and anticipation for what is going to come next. It’s all about energy. I wanted to make it sound like it crackling with energy and forward motion. The beats are all made organically in that one. I don’t think there is anything electronic at all there.

It’s basically hitting a table with a stick and things like that. I remember the original rhythm, I recorded it on my phone by tapping a pen on a table and that Dictaphone recording is actually still in the track. The synth sounds were made by turning the resonance on a filter up and getting a sine wave type sound and bouncing it across the keyboard. The bass is analog synth and there’s a hell of a lot of fiddling around in the rest of it.

HT: In terms of your fanbase, do you find any consistent type of person? It seems like an interesting dynamic.

JH: I don’t even really think of myself as having a fanbase [laughs], but I guess there are a few people out there. I really don’t know. It seems to be half and half men and women, which is great. Certain types of electronic music tend to get a lot of ‘bros’ and I really don’t want that . That’s the last thing I’d want [laughs]. The fans tend to be very serious about it, which is great. They tend to be committed to coming to the shows, which is so great.

HT: Finally, I know touring is the big thing for now, but what do you have lined up for the future?

JH: I’ve done two film scores over the past year, and those will be coming out soon. What I really want to do is put everything else to one side, and really develop this album and create a big audio visual part. I want to push this album as far I can push it.

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