INTERVIEW

Jon Hopkins on Brian Eno, Coldplay and falling asleep to his records.

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… experiencing music as a musician
“One thing about playing loads of gigs is that unfortunately it takes the fun out of going to them – it feels like work. I guess I’m just not as young as I used to be – I’m 33 – and the joys of spending three days at a festival is just not as appealing anymore. I get a huge amount of joy from writing music and performing it, but I don’t want to spend all my free time listening to it. That’s why I’ve never been a DJ, because I don’t want to go out of my way to look for other people’s music.

“That said, in certain situations I’m capable of being totally transported – particularly when hungover or on a train journey, when you have a clear bit of time and you can’t do anything else. You just put the headphones on and enjoy the scenery. That’s a great thing to do. But to be honest, at home – my girlfriend’s a musician as well – we don’t tend to sit there listening to music. We watch films or, hey, maybe even have a chat, or a game of chess! The trouble is that, even when I’m not in the studio, whether I want it to or not, my brain will still be going over the same thing I’ve been listening to all day. Brian Eno’s ambient records work as a sort of neutral mindspace to help stop that constant working: it gives my subconscious enough to chew over in the background without it getting in the way of my normal functioning.”

…Brian Eno
“It was 2003, and I was only 23, when I started working with him. It was scary walking into his studio, but then he shook my hand and went back to reading the paper, and I quickly realised there was no need to be worried. Once we got into the actual music bit, too, I was even less worried because he’s all about improvisation, and I’ve been doing that all my life and it’s what I love doing. He’s the opposite of that intimidating character that some people have him painted as; he’s got the filthiest sense of humour you’ll ever come across, swears his head off and gets up to ridiculous stuff. He’s about my dad’s age, and he’s got a pretty enviable life: he travels the world, writes music, does art installations, does whatever he wants. I wouldn’t say he’s a close personal friend but I’ve experienced enough time with him to realise he has a good time and he’s a pretty liberated man – it’d be nice to think that I could have that much time at that age.”

…the writing process
“I went to music college and was taught theory, but I discarded all of that when it came to writing because I always wanted to play by ear – for me it was about following instincts. I have perfect pitch – and I don’t understand the purpose of it, from an evolutionary point of view – which means if I have an idea I can just play it. Then the sounds-making side is just self-taught anyway, and after 14 years of doing that I’ve generally got the gist. So those two things sort of combine and allow me to realise things very instinctively.”

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… electronic music with flaws
“My biggest aim with music is to keep it sounding human. I believe very strongly that technology, when used to enhance things that are naturally there, is amazing, and I love that combination of digital and analogue. But when you go purely digital, it’s just so binary sounding – over the years the sound quality capabilities have increased in the equipment but the emotional quality of the music hasn’t improved with it – in fact it’s lessened.

“I’m really drawn to imperfections. For example on [‘Immunity’ album track] ‘Collider’ – the beast of the album, the centre-piece track – there’s a kick-drum on every beat, but the third kick drum is really late, and that third beat is really disorientating, in a good way – like when something’s off and you don’t quite know why or how. I love that.
“The beats too are all humanly generated – most of them are me just hitting the studio desk or playing shakers, and then processed. Like, the beats on the track ‘Immunity’ is the pedals of my piano, which has this lovely creaking sound. My piano tuner guy is always offering to fix it, but I have to stop him.”

…starting afresh
“I didn’t want to start making the new record from zero with the same studio that I had on my last album. I had to get new stuff, so I bought this old analogue synth, which was new territory for me. That was the biggest change, studio-wise. I really liked a lot of what people like James Holden and Luke Abbot were doing with their vintage equipment – the tempo and human-sounding grooves, none of the one-dimensional cold flatness that you get if you use virtual instruments. So it was a case of really trying to learn from scratch how stuff like that works, try to make things that sound physical, and then obviously putting my own stamp on it – it has opened a new world.”

…albums
“I don’t care if no-one in the world is left listening to full albums – I’m always going to do them because I just think it’s a great format, and the perfect length of time to get your full story across. I always love writing tracks bearing in mind specifically what’s gone before and what’s coming after. With each album, about two months before mastering, I decide the order and then after that point everything’s done with that order in mind, altering the dynamics of the tracks and what have you so that everything flows a little better.”

…shifting time
“I’m really obsessed with the idea of time-shifting, and not really knowing where time has gone. I like the idea of having looping sections that add one or two extra bars each time it loops, so it lets you down very gradually, and before you know it the sun has come up. That’s what [‘Immunity’ album track] ‘Sun Harmonics’ is trying to do, but I had to wait until the ghost of Ibiza Chill Album Volume 94 had really departed before I gave it a go. I wanted to make a track like ‘Halcyon’ and ‘On & On’ by Orbital – it’s 12 minutes long, it’s very very druggy sounding stuff.”

…falling asleep to his records
“I really want people to fall asleep listening to ‘Immunity’ – that’s what’s supposed to happen! Before we went to master it, I just came in to the studio, put the album on and lay down with a blanket to test it out. The first four tracks you can’t turn off – you’re twitching and so awake – but then you’re destroyed after ‘Collider’ and have to be reawakened by that piano bit. Then ‘Sun Harmonics’ is supposed to be truly hypnotising and sending you under, almost in preparation for you to listen to the last track in your sleep. With any luck, by the end of the last track, you’re miles away and so slowed.”

…melancholy being medicinal
“‘Immunity’ is a rather melancholic album, isn’t it? Believe it or not, I set out to make the closest thing I could to a party record, and it still ended up a bit more brooding and pensive. I guess that’s just what happens – that’s what I do, and that’s what I love. It’s not my state of mind though, I’m generally a very optimistic person, and I absolutely love what I’m doing with my life – it’s a fun thing.

“Perhaps I medicate any melancholy I have in my life via the studio, which allows me to be happy elsewhere. It’s hard to say. Like anyone, I’ve been through my fair share of shit, and when you’re well you feel better able to revisit those times in music without realising you’re doing it. But I don’t find melancholy music depressing at all – I find something soaring and euphoric about it. I mean, I love ‘In Rainbows’ – it’s one of my favourite albums of all time – it’s just transcendently beautiful. I saw Radiohead in Sydney in November, and I’d never seen them before. It was profoundly beautiful.”

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…track titles
“Boards of Canada’s track titles are amazing – names like ‘Over The Horizon Radar’ are so poetic. It’s an area where I feel I’ve always let myself down and I really wanted to try harder this time. The thing is, I’m not a words person, so I invited a friend – a poet called Rick Holland – to come round, get drunk, listen to the tracks loads and just chat, and between us we came up with the titles. He’d note something I’d said, and I’d have no idea I’d said it, and he’d be like, ‘you said this earlier’ and I’d be like, ‘oh fuck that’s quite good!’. We adapted stuff from poems of his that I love too. I’ve liked about half of my previous titles before, but with this one, I love all eight titles, because they feel like they are the tracks.”

…perfectionism
“Finishing ‘Immunity’ was a joy, because it came together exactly how I wanted. I’m very aware that no one else will think it’s perfect, but I’m relaxed about that because I know that if it makes me feel great then that’s all I can do. I’m sure it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea at all, but you can’t worry about that – you just have to make what you love.”

…Coldplay
“They are lovely guys, normal and down to earth. Their records are made like little micro-industries though: they have different rooms in their studio with people doing different things, so I would have a room where I would take files and mess around. Eno would come in and change something for a bit, and inject lots of new ideas, and then it all gets separated out again into overdubs and that kind of thing. But what I really love doing is adding the processed versions back on top of what they’ve done – so you take a guitar part and pitch it up an octave and put it through a crazy chain of effects so that it’s just a little bit more than a guitar part when you give it back.”

…collaborating
“Collaboration just doesn’t really appeal to me. The times I’ve done it, it’s happened very organically – Coldplay was through Brian, and with King Creosote it was very much about making something new. But I’d rather be a performer on my own: I like that you don’t have to rehearse with other people, that you can change a set at the last minute and not have to let anyone know.

“Then again, I do love the improvisation side of things with Brian. We did this amazing thing with Karl Hyde and The Necks recently – three totally live, one-hour sets of music – and that was one of the most mind-blowing experiences I’ve ever had. But generally it’s nice when it’s just me because I get to do what I want.

“The solo work is the biggest high and the biggest rush, but it kills you really. You don’t sleep for weeks and it’s knackering. When you’re working on a record, you’re beyond obsessing over it – by the time I was finishing ‘Immunity’, there was really nothing else going on. But I wouldn’t have it any other way – it’s the only way you can get it to how you want it.”

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