Drifting Up: Jon Hopkins interviewed
Master producer Jon Hopkins talks pot, instant snacks, and why David Lynch's coffee isn't all it's cracked up to be
Jon Hopkins is twiddling thumbs in the shabby waiting room of a popular London temp agency. He’s dressed to the nines in a new shirt and tie and freshly ironed cottons, which is odd, because everybody else looks like they’re auditioning to join the ascendant Arctic Monkeys. Hopkins is exceptionally agitated. He fidgets in his seat, alternately eyeing the door and his shoelaces with tick-tock consistency. It’s 2005, and London’s most dedicated producer has hit lowest ebb.
In the next three years he’ll partner Warner-signed maverick King Creosote, step tentatively into film soundtracking, and co-produce 2008’s fifth bestselling album, but right now, Hopkins’ life isn’t technicolor so much as bled-out monochrome. It’s a tricky time for the producer: royalties from his 2001 debut, still trickling in thanks to a Sex and the City sync, are stuck buttressing its fruitless follow-up, Contact Note. Work is slow and pays poorly when it comes, the comfort of cheesy session musicianship is far behind (and, he suspects, beneath) him, and the 25-year-old is almost, almost tempted to pack his hefty kit bag and join the quotidian swarm. That’s why he’s here, hunched up and overdressed in the Office Angels waiting area, counting the Artex swirls.
By the time Hopkins released last year’s Immunity, his globally acclaimed, Mercury-nominated fourth album, his star was already lodged in the outer realms of pop history. Well established as Brian Eno’s protégé, he’d cemented a working relationship with Coldplay that continues to this day. But in times of “incredible poverty,” that waiting room wasn’t just a midweek stopoff; it represented escape, sanctuary and, ultimately, a well-lit path into a life of stability, routine and financial satisfaction.
“Giving up music was never really a choice,” Hopkins reflects, catching rays on the roof of his Hackney home, “but that was the closest I came. I’d even taught myself to touch-type from a CD-ROM.” He pauses as an ambulance blazes in and out of earshot. “I just couldn’t do it. I walked out before the interview started. I said, I'd rather be poor. I spent years eating Pot Noodles every day. I dunno... Office Angels just felt like the wrong place to be in every possible way.”
Needless to say, his resistance paid off fast. These days Hopkins packs 3000-capacity venues, soundtracks films for the likes of Peter Jackson and, if schedules match, chills with David Lynch (more on that later); and between grotty club shows, mystery projects and summer festivals including next month’s Parklife, the permanently hurried DJ is on track for another hectic year. “I can't do anything else,” he claims, on adapting to constant propulsion. “I didn't go to university, and I don't have any other passions that could make me a viable living.” Not for the first time, Hopkins’ rocky relationship with the education system proved a gift to music fans everywhere.
“There have been very specific states of mind that I've tried again and again to recreate” – Jon Hopkins
To the teenager, secondary school always felt like a seven-hour waiting room before the real work of home-computer sound experiments, and despite his burgeoning interest in Ravel and Stravinsky, Hopkins still despised the “rarefied and elitist” vibe at his weekend piano recitals. As he left compulsory education, so ended his classical aspirations – which wasn’t for want of opportunity. “I had an offer to interview at Cambridge,” he mumbles by way of explanation, faintly allergic to the subject, “but I didn't go. I looked at what was on the course for music and it was learning how to write a fugue. A fugue is a 400-year-old form! That course might as well have been unchanged since the 17th century.”
Hopkins loves to downplay his youthful turbulence, but, dare we say, isn’t the casual act of blowing off Cambridge to brew up Pot Noodles and pioneering techno a career move that could scarcely fail to rank among the coolest ever? “I guess no one had ever just not turned up for an interview before,” he concedes, grinning. “I was quite proud of that.”
Of course, that self-confidence was hardly unfounded. Even before the thrilling vindication of Immunity (and, to some extent, 2009’s Insides), it’s testament to his reputation that when Coldplay, in a creative funk after the formulaic X&Y, hired Brian Eno for its follow-up, Hopkins was the first man on speed dial. The band eventually used elements of Hopkins’ Light Through the Veins to open Viva La Vida, and seeing a song recorded in his bedroom trigger the eruption of a sold-out Wembley arena still ranks among his proudest moments. What followed, though, was dream-fulfilment of a more personal sort.
It took the form of an audience with David Lynch, whose track I Know was remixed by Hopkins in a pairing Rob da Bank curated. “When I met [Lynch] the first time, when I was in LA, he gave me an invite to come say hello,” Hopkins recalls. “So when I did the remix, I had the amazing opportunity to sit in his house drinking a coffee. It was as good as you could hope!”
His famous coffee?
"No, the coffeemaker actually was broken, so he was very apologetic about the coffee. But the experience to chat, while it was only about 45 minutes, was incredible. I can't imagine what it'd be like to make an album with him, but I'm happy with that amazing experience as it is.” Although neither knew it, he was soon to discover that the pair had something else in common.
Hopkins first explored mind alteration while clambering through clouds as a misty-eyed teen. He reflects fondly on the period, joking about his “cliché, anti-establishment” epiphanies but insisting that the stoner-logical process – “coming up with things, just being unable to act on them” – was valuable. That diagnosis increasingly bore out: as the viability of continued marijuana consumption dwindled, something about the goofed-down daze stuck.
Rather than blazing on and risking burnout, unsociable adolescent synth nerd Hopkins began to pursue something similarly narcotic, namely the intoxicating hybrid of post-rock and techno that’s become his signature sound. Starting with early experiments on a Roland D-20 (purchased with winner’s cash from a competitive piano recital), the tentatively floating style hits a zenith 15 years later on Immunity track Open Eye Signal, a cross-current confluence where trembling synths ebb and glide in a sullen frenzy, seeming to transport the listener at several speeds simultaneously.
This all pays lip service to his pursuit of meditative states. Inspired by the transcendent noodles of Mogwai, Sigur Rós and Talk Talk, Hopkins trafficked the resplendent textures of post-rock in a propulsive techno undercarriage. Of the juxtaposition, he insists that “techno is really just a rhythm; it's the canvas that you paint on, not the thing itself. And then the overall result is supposed to be purely heartfelt or emotional, some abstract communication. I don't know what.”
“There have been very specific states of mind that I've tried again and again to recreate,” he continues, pondering his musical raison d’être. “One really minor incident that affected a huge amount of my music happened in the car on this rainy, grim, dark English day, years ago, maybe 2000. I was the passenger, and the guy driving put on some Frou Frou demos. And my mind slipped into this bizarre hypnotic state caused by the windscreen wipers, which were going slightly out of time with the music, but sort of in time too. And the music ended in such a magical chord sequence that this one incredibly trivial thing actually triggered a lot of what I've tried to do since. I want other people to experience that as well.”
At 21, Hopkins took a hypnotherapy course that he credits with many personal achievements since. As his workload of remixes, soundtracks and, in the gaps, new solo material escalates, he still sets aside half an hour daily for meditation. “Self-hypnosis and getting stoned are really the same kind of thing,” he muses, slowly drifting out the conversation. “They keep your thoughts simple, preferably of nothing at all. Then you can live entirely in the moment. David Lynch uses Transcendental Meditation in the same way, to be very in touch with that inner self without letting the nonsense thoughts of daily life get in the way. I like to let music come like that.”