Meet the audio sculptor Jon Hopkins.

Words by: Polly Lavin
Posted: 20/9/10 14:13

Meet the audio sculptor Jon HopkinsFrom the exterior the studio in East London that is home to Brian Eno's musical collaborators Jon Hopkins, Leo Abrahams and other sound engineers is just an ordinary 20thcentury war-weathered building. Inside, an Aladdin's cave embellished with retro, kitsch and other humorous remnants of the past awaits. An entrance sign welcoming outsiders states "Gentlemen" in both English and Arabic and gazing adoringly outwards from shelves are signed photographs of Roger Moore and Jeremy Kilroy. Spanish sombrero's colourfully drape atop neutral tone walls and a number of vintage radios from the 1930's to 1960's act as reminder to a bygone era of analogue transmission. In a quiet corner, a hand-made photographic collage pays homage to a variety of music stars including Bowie, Blondie and Elvis Presley. It juxtaposes a framed gold album with etched plaque that states "Coldplay Viva La Vida - 9 million albums #1 selling digital album". I trip, almost, over a semi-living cat that lies on the floor stirring not for anything or anyone but who makes the place homely with presence. When Hopkins scrapes her up into movement she declines my offer of a kiss. With all the 'lad's pad' comfort surrounding, my eye imagines the studio being home to Peter Pan's cohorts whilst they are creating melodies and beats rather than a haven of audio engineering. The female also feels somewhat out of place when its mentioned the place only gets a cleaning when one of the engineers "occasional" girlfriends pass through.

Amidst the scattered kitsch is an overtly sized book entitled "Atlas of Creation" and one of those great God/Adam and Eve debates ensue on theories of belief and non-belief as he muses at me "I have a vague feeling that the existence of life in itself is kind of magical enough." Although open to my approach to visit his studio he is shy, extremely gentle and dignifiedly polite whilst being confident and vivaciously humour filled all at once.  I contemplate whether the fragility of life and deep thinking about human evolution are channelled into his music as the depth behind the artist appears slightly guarded nor for public consumption when he say's "I see that as different to being a musician its personal. I'm not particularly articulate at getting those deepest thoughts out into the open."

Immersion into the creative medium that Coldplay's musical collaborator would eventually forge a career in began at the tender age of 3, when parents purchased a xylophone like toy which resulted in the infant presenting an aptitude for music. "Apparently, I put all the notes in the order of the scale, albeit the wrong way around, then I wrote a simple piece on it." A piano arrived when he was "about 6 or 7" but, at 4 he recollects playing another piano at a friend's house and "pressing the keys and liking the way the sound evolved and died away". Central to development was piano tuition up to grade 8 at the Royal College of Music and winning a competition to perform a concert of Ravel pieces with an orchestra. This attracted the moniker "child protégé". His interest in classical music has subdued since he turned towards electronic music, but, he tells me "Ravel or Stravinsky are probably my favourite composers". Sometimes I could be in this studio fighting my way through pieces, I find it easier to come up with ideas but finishing the pieces off is very difficult...

For the last 13 years he has worked in the music industry and a rise to underground EDM notoriety has been filled with graft of both highs and lows of achievement. At 17 fresh from English A-level exams he joined Imogen Heap's band as a keyboard player, nonchalantly stating "It was a pretty good first job. I thought the whole thing would take off, we would just be her band and that would be my job." Unfortunately, after initially breaking through with I-Megaphone, a second album was rejected by the label and before long the bands retainer payment by the record label had stopped. Hopkins commenced work on "Opalescent" in a Wembley bedsit he was living in at the time, describing it as one of the low periods of his career "It was a depressing time because we had no money." Many would have walked away but, welled up animosity or bitterness doesn't display as he candidly admits "You have to go through those early years where you struggle." Modestly, he acknowledges early albums were experimentation and part of the forming of his production and artistic character "I was 18/19 writing these tracks with no experience of production and no real idea of what I was doing." The album eventually attracted press attention and several tracks were licensed to the TV programme "Sex and The City". A second album "Contact Note" followed which music journalists seemed to by-pass, pulling previous achievements back a notch and resulted in "7 or 8 years before things started going well" for him again. In his opinion the second album did not garner attention as it "was gentle with no edge to it" and that at the time he "was having a rubbish life, wanting more and writing tracks as a way of escaping."

3 albums in his most recent release "Insides" which Indie kingpin label Domino Recordings have released is receiving forthright acclaim. 2 tracks were sourced by Coldplay for reworked use in their album Viva La Vida (Death and All his Friends) and live performances at Nowa Musyka in Poland in 2009 showcased cataclysmic moments of old school acid tinged with atmospherically infused drum and bass growling in weighted substance. Its intelligent dance music that takes the dust straight off gentler releases and acts as a stark reminder when UK artists such as FSOL, Orbital and Sphongle reigned over the genre.

You played in venues like Madison square opening for Coldplay and you played with Four Tet a lot across the US, how are you coping now playing smaller clubs?
I'm quite happy. My audience is much more relevant now then big stadiums. Depending on what I am doing and what the audience is I play places from 2000 to 100 people. The big stages sort of felt unrealistic as I did not deserve that audience they were there to see Coldplay. I'm kind of a different sound to that and whilst it was an incredible experience, life changing and very, very fun it didn't feel particularly realistic or true. It was a chance provided to me by a group of guys who I had worked with on their album and they wanted something different to open their live show with. There quite daring like that. They didn't want to have another band and singer. It was amazing to do the Coldplay support, but when I play a show now to maybe 400/500 people in the tent it's a million times more fun that a big stadium because people in the crowd shout out names of the songs they want to hear. It's great, that feels like a real show.

 Insides One or two of the producers who I have interviewed over the last year seemed to have some issues over royalties and being exploited by big DJs/Artists over the years did that happen with you?
Well, Coldplay looked after me. They gave me 50/50 co-writing fees on the tracks I did with them on the album. It's amazing, it was so generous. Things were a lot harder to survive before any of that happened for me. Now, I get so many requests to do things I'm in a brilliant position that I could do so much work if there were 4 of me.

There was a 5 year gap between your most recent albums? Why so?
If I was to condense the time Insides actually took about 4 and ½ months in total to write, but because I was doing so much other work at the time that 5 year gap appeared. The session playing stopped when I was 22 and I had to learn to be a producer and other stuff then come back to writing again as the first 2 albums didn't really provide me with a living.

Now, it's caught up and it's sold ok but in the meantime I started producing with King Creosote, co-writing with Brian Eno, jamming on tracks etc and then the Coldplay connection came through him.

You said once that album making is an all consuming process? How did the making of Insides consume you?
That's completely true. It is an all consuming process but it's not one I spent 5 years in a go at. It goes in phases you can have quite a low level involvement when you're putting the ideas down or your tweaking it but there is always a bit in the middle where it does consume all your energy. I will come to the studio and work solidly for a whole day and then find it difficult to sleep at night because I will still be thinking about it. It's an obsessive process. Luckily, it's not like that very often, otherwise it wouldn't be healthy.

What caused you to feel like that? Vessel is really a piano piece which has other sounds layered on top. I like the fact that it is a very electronic sound and a very acoustic sound placed together with little or no middle-ground...
Sometimes I could be in this studio fighting my way through pieces, I find it easier to come up with ideas but finishing the pieces off is very difficult. What is fun about millions of mouse clicks and edits and graphs when I don't actually like that bit. I like the results of it. It's very hard to keep your creative love for it all alive when in reality, writing music this way, a lot of the time its waveform. Yet, even though I don't like graphs and waveforms the results of making your own music with electronic software are amazing and making your own sound you can't do it without the computer. It's just a shame there isn't a more enjoyable interface to work with.

You said to me before you didn't like maths and yet music is grounded in maths would you agree or disagree?
I remember doing well at one maths exam and someone saying the people who are musical are mathematical, but, for me there is nothing scientific about the way I use computers. These programs are designed for musicians to use. Obviously, you can take it to the programming level if you have the kind of brain that works like that and delve into the code of it. It's not something I am into though. I use strange programs, quite older programs. I've 4 or 5 versions of a laptop because they always go down. All the sounds I've made so far I've made so far have been on Soundforge from 1999. I'm not interested in getting the newest software.

So the latest software doesn't actually make a difference then?
I don't think so, not to me, if the software is up to a certain sound quality they generally do mostly the same thing. What the newer software does is take out a lot of steps so things are quicker, but, I find that manually doing a lot of the editing is actually the time when my brain is moving onto the next idea. So, if I'm going through a very precise edit it doesn't feel like I am making calculations, it feels like a creative thing and it's guided by the ears.

A lot of electronic producers are making their sounds what's first for you recording your music and then using the computer to develop the music or computer first?
Most of the tracks off the last album were wrote with loads of piano. Vessel is really a piano piece which has other sounds layered on top. I like the fact that it is a very electronic sound and a very acoustic sound placed together with little or no middle-ground.

So, you made all the harmonies on the piano, how you did record this analogue piano the music into the computer?
I put two microphones in the top of the piano and then connect it to the pre-amp. Then the pre-amp goes into Soundforge then into Cubase VST. Once it's in there I add layers of electronic sounds. For me it's all about instinct and spontaneity. Trying to get all the music down whilst still actually feeling the thing I was trying to get out in the first place and not getting bogged down in detail. That's a start anyway...

Your main instrument is piano so who makes your drum sounds etc?
I can drum with my hand so I might record a rhythm. I think a lot of people do that and its a good way to start a rhythm. The track vessel the rhythm in that is basically me drumming with my hands and then I recorded that.

What were you expressing then in the music?
The feeling that I get. These were tracks that were wrote at a time when I had no experience of production, I was 18/19 and had no idea of what I was doing really. They were quite escapist. Opalescent was such a gentle album there was no edge to it, I was having a rubbish life at the time, being skint and wanted more for myself. I was playing keyboards at the time and writing tracks as a way of escaping. I was quite surprised when it came out and over the years that people related to those tracks. Some people have liked those tracks.

How do you actually convert an emotion into a piece of music?
Well, that's not done consciously it's done by instinct. It's very rarely connected to the mood I am in at the time. If I'm sad I won't necessarily write a sad piece, it's more like I'll come in and start working on something that is uplifting which might uplift me. The track insides though, that was the mood I was in. It's oppressive.  For me it's all about instinct and spontaneity. Trying to get all the music down whilst still actually feeling the thing I was trying to get out in the first place and not getting bogged down in detail. That's a start anyway.

Jon HopkinsJust in terms of the reaction to Insides compared to the other 2 albums, do you feel disappointed that it took the Coldplay link to give you that little bit more visibility?
It's not disappointing at all. I don't think there is much cross-over between electronic fans and Coldplay fans, there is a little bit but not much at all, so I don't think it's relevant really. People possibly bought light through the veins because it's on the Coldplay album as well but, Insides, the tracks on that and the live show, it's been more because of the underground coverage that album has had which is not particularly related to the Coldplay album at all.

I noticed your first and second albums are quite deep and I was trying to figure out all the album titles and their meaning? What were you trying to say with those titles?
Can I disappoint you on all of these? They are all stolen from other things. Opalescent and most are from a thesaurus. I had no idea what to call anything. Inner Peace was the name of a track by Ralf Hildenbeutel, a German ambient composer. I realised you can nick words as its fine. Halcyon is obviously an Orbital song, Elegiac the 1st track is from a thesaurus, Circle is quite circular sounding that was the 2nd album and the titles on that had more meaning. Those tracks had meaning to me but I wouldn't say you could put it into words. They are basic expressions of emotions. The names are irrelevant and mean nothing the music means a lot.

Tell me about the 2nd/3rd album names?
I'm quite into ornithology contact note is the little sounds that 2 birds make. It's a way that they can tell where the other is so that they can locate each other. Insides as an album title is much more complex and the titles on this album have got meanings. Insides is quite an angry piece of music, cathartic anger and an expression of what you go through when you are trying to wrench music out of yourself and how difficult that is but in a good way.

I want to ask you about the 800 sounds on light through the veins. How did you get that many sounds into 1 track and where did they come from?
Yeah that was difficult. That track began in another of these periods where your inspiration goes up and down when you're trying to write and not having an idea. You can't force it and I've learnt now if you're not having ideas it's more productive to leave the studio and come back at a later point. The time that track was wrote I remember in a fury just lashing out at this keyboard beside me saying "I'm going to hit 9 notes and this is going to be a 9 bar sequence which is going to around for 9 minutes and that's it". I don't think it worked out as 9 bars, think it became 18 ½ bars or something like that. Once I found that melody it all started happening really quickly. It was all first take things. I recorded the basic sound under it then started working with a rhythmic sound which sounds almost like an arpeggiated rhythm but it's not. I started recording little segments of real instruments, plucking violins, pianos. The drums are all live but they have been completely sequenced. If you imagine every single beat of the drums in that song is actually a different beat of the drummer playing. That's how I got up to 800 sounds. The track starts with nothing and builds and builds and builds with no fill, it effectively builds to a crescendo and rather than me turning up the drums it's actually the drummer starting to play louder and louder and louder. Everything that changed in that track changes by human, organic live change which was then sequenced rather than me using automation to turn it up. It's live then it was sequenced. If you drum a rhythm, however good a drummer you are, your timing is not going to be 100% perfect and the whole point of the album is human error. All the tracks like vessel have no quantization at all, it's out of time on purpose I much prefer that, light through the veins specifically is not about that it's about a very constant rhythm so I recorded all the human error and in that case and that case only I flattened it into that rhythm. Really that track sounds like it does is because of that sequencing process. If you listen to Vessel and try and put it into a grid on the screen you will find it won't sit on the grid. It's because I wanted everything to grow like a human organ or cells dividing, organic sounds and a piece that grew. If you drum a rhythm, however good a drummer you are, your timing is not going to be 100% perfect and the whole point of the album is human error. All the tracks like vessel have no quantization at all...

Going back to Coldplay, tell me something about them we don't know?
They are brilliant guys. Good friends and normal down to earth guys.

You said to me before that you don't like visual art so, what do you find inspiring?
It's not that I don't like art, I did A-level art and loved it, it's just I don't find galleries inspiring places. I find socialising, people, places, travelling, meeting new people, doing gigs inspiring, I really like people.

You like people? That's funny as I thought most artists were reclusive?
I think it's almost the opposite. If you play on stage there is an element of you that must want to be with people and express something to them. There are lots of different types of producers though. Tim Exile is very sociable but at the same time he is a very technically advanced producer more than pretty much anyone I have met. Kieran Hebdon, Four Tet is a very sociable guy and then obviously other producers are shy. I prefer because I spend my whole working time either with the shows or working very intensely on music, the release for me is to get out of my own head and to share with other people. This is why I love working with Sherif, he's kind of my assistant engineer and I give him a lot engineering jobs, he also produces the artists that come into the live studio downstairs.

Being a musician is not the healthiest job, how do you test your body?
I think being able to test your body is an important part of it. Over -indulgence. If I have a very, very hardcore week and then come to a dead end on a Thursday and just go and get drunk with a few friends come the next morning I'm full of ideas it somehow breaks the barrier down, it's not a very healthy way of breaking the barrier down but it really can work. It's like going and doing a show and having a session afterwards really can inspire me. It's not easy to control a creative brain you get into this really sort of tense space when you're trying to write music, over-focused and you need to let that go sometimes then your brain can be allowed to work and have ideas. So, it's quite a familiar sight to see me working well with a hangover.

October 01 - POST GARAGE - Graz, AUSTRIA
October 02 - PRATERSAUNA - Vienna, AUSTRIA
October 03 - ESPACE MENDÈS FRANCE - Poitiers, FRANCE
October 14 - METRO w/ Four Tet - Chicago, IL, USA
October 15 - HENRY FONDA THEATER w/ Four Tet - Los Angeles, CA, USA
October 20 - THE MOD CLUB w/ Four Tet - Toronto, ON, CANADA
October 21 - STUDIO JUST FOR LAUGHS w/ Four Tet - Montral, QC, CANADA
October 22 - WEBSTER HALL w/ Four Tet  - New York, NY, USA
October 24 - 930 CLUB w/ Four Tet - Washington, DC, USA
October 30 - MOOG FEST 2010 - Ashville, NC, USA | |


Mr. G
Steve Bug