The emotional underground heartbeat of Jon Hopkins
Jon Hopkins matches the polish of his electronic production with the emotion of a fine songwriter – and he might just have forged the next missing link in music
Jon Hopkins performing in London in 2011: ‘For live shows . . . It’s quite physical – it certainly isn’t just me sitting quietly behind a laptop. And it’s very loud, very dancey.’ Photograph: Hayley Madden/Redferns
Many people may not have heard of him, but Jon Hopkins could well be the missing link between humanity and electronic dance music (EDM). It might seem like a glib outline, but Hopkins’s expression of the human spirit throughout his ambient, chillwave and (keep still thy throbbing heart) neo-romantic techno music evokes deeply profound reactions.
“There have been a few occasions when people have directly mirrored my own thoughts on particular pieces of my music,” says the highly affable Hopkins, a London-based musician and producer. “And there have been others where they’ve gone the exact opposite. One guy wrote to me about a track on my new album called Abandon Window – he told me how he felt it was like watching a sunset after the end of a satisfying day at work. I had to restrain myself from writing back that it’s actually about death.”
Of course, you’ve probably heard of the people that Hopkins has collaborated with (these include Brian Eno, Coldplay and David Holmes) and you’ve possibly seen the movies he’s helped score the music for (including 2009’s The Lovely Bones and 2010’s Monsters). For the large part, however, his melodic, easily accessible solo works remain, in his own words, “underground” – even with the addition of his latest album, Immunity.
“Ironically, my tastes aren’t that experimental, and I wouldn’t describe my music on the surface as being overtly experimental, either. There is concealed experimentalism in it, though – I like music that is listenable, and not challenging for the sake of being challenging. I love truly forward-thinking music, and I’m not even sure I’d describe my work as that, even. I suppose I meant underground in terms of not being very well known.”
Is that because some of his solo work extends beyond the usual length of a pop song? “Probably,” he nods. “I love exploring the hypnotic elements of music, and because of that there are very long tracks on Immunity. And you might as well not worry about radio play for the longer tracks – some radio stations and presenters will play the longer tracks, but most won’t.
“It isn’t a conscious thing, but looking back on the making of the album it seems quite obvious that I didn’t want to cater for short attention spans. In fact, I actually wanted to challenge them.”
The 33-year-old Hopkins started writing music at a very early age. Describing his younger, precocious self as “slightly arrogant”, he remarks that he could play piano from the age of four, and then received structured tutoring from the age of eight.
At 12, he began studying piano at the Junior department of London’s Royal College of Music. He considered becoming a professional pianist but baulked at what he viewed as its considerable formality.
“I really just wanted to improvise – and I loved Ravel and Stravinsky,” he recalls wistfully.
He says too many people incorrectly liken aspects of his quieter solo work to Erik Satie, but his main inspiration is a rather more contemporary American pianist, Harold Budd. “He’s the pianist I listen to the most – the album he did in 1984 with Brian Eno, The Pearl, is for me the be-all and end-all of piano music. Just heavenly . . . That, and Thomas Newman’s score for The Shawshank Redemption – very, very influential.”
We return, it seems, to the human element of what is often viewed (wrongly) as clinical music. Is there any one aspect of his electronic work that can legitimately define him?
“There’s definitely an emotional quality,” Hopkins says. “And a sense of melancholy as well as euphoria. Beyond that, I don’t know. My own personality is fairly optimistic and generally very happy, but like everyone else I’ve been through difficult stuff, particularly in my teenage years, where I experienced enough melancholia to feed any number of electronic records. For me, it’s all about the contrasts of the music I write, as well as the juxtaposition of the extremes of dark and light.”
For all his time spent hunched over recording consoles, Hopkins is at his happiest performing live. He’ll be indulging himself (and us, no doubt) this week and next at two events at opposite ends of the country. What can we expect?
“It’s not at all subtle. In fact, it’s quite loud. For live shows, I bring along touch screen devices that I can control the sound with – Kaoss pads. It’s quite a physical show – it certainly isn’t just me sitting quietly behind a laptop. And it’s very loud, very dancey.”
“Where am I playing?” he asks. “It’s not seated audiences, is it? It’s definitely nocturnal music, so it better be at night. And did I mention that it’s loud?”
Immunity is out on Domino Records. Jon Hopkins performs at Body & Soul, Ballinlough, Co Westmeath on Sunday, and at Celtronic Festival, Derry on June 29th