British IDM-techno-ambient wizard is back with Singularity, his fifth solo album. The LP explores Jon Hopkins’ most epic and dystopian moments to date, for which he has acquired international praise from both the critic and the audience. It is with good reason that this new full length will remain at the top list of best albums in 2018 – a well-deserved achievement after an impressive career both solo and collaborating with the likes of Brian Eno, David Holmes, and King Creosote.
In fact, this album will possibly make the genre more intelligible– his latest record was nominated to several awards, including the Mercury Prize, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he won it this year. We caught up with him at his hotel before performing at Department Festival in Stockholm to speak about a little bit of everything: Kaoss pads, psychotropic substances and his creative process
Singularity is your fifth solo record. Have you worked in any new ways or done things differently to how you made your previous albums?
There was a lot more freedom in the making of this one, a lot more trusting in the subconscious and less worrying about the big picture. On a practical level, I used different instruments, a different software – Ableton instead of Logic, which changes the presets a lot because it allows a lot more improvisation, it allows you to follow the train of thoughts as you have them. In the end, it was a more enjoyable process as well. I think you can hear that in the album.
Among many other musical projects, you have written ambient and techno albums. I find a sort of symbiosis between both genres in this new full length. The drama and dystopian vibes are more prominent and the compositions are more epic than any of your previous records perhaps. Would you agree?
Yes, I would agree to this. I think that, overall, it’s a more hopeful sounding album than the last ones. It’s a bit less claustrophobic. Maybe it’s a little bit less negative. Yes, I love the freedom I felt to explore more epic moments. But for the next thing, I think I’ll have to move away from that and go smaller because I feel can’t make bigger sound than in Everything Connected; it’s the limit really (laughs).
I read in The New Yorker that you recovered from a dramatic period of your life combined with the excess of work and touring too much – healing in the desert and taking freezing baths. How accurate is that information?
It’s very accurate. Over the last ten years, particularly between 2013 and 2015, I was doing all the stuff for Mute and I started getting burned out: too much touring, not enough sleep, etc. – very common among musicians. So I took some time out. This album, in a way, reflects that journey from being a bit crushed to being reborn into something (hopefully) stronger.
According to you, Immunity, your previous recording, is a more MDMA-type CD, while Singularity is more free and psychedelic in that sense. In short, how do you translate that sonically speaking?
It’s not an easy thing to do. I consciously try to have psychedelic experiences, be it through meditation or encouraging substances. You just have these experiences and they will find a way out into the music, whether you like it or not. Your music is always influenced by what you live and feel.
You are classically trained. Does that affect the way you approach composition?
I don’t think it really personally affected that much. I think to some degree everything you do affects the music you write but, equally I can’t hear a classical influence particularly. There is a misconception slightly by my trained because, yes, I did technically train in classical music but it was only to play the piano, I wasn’t trained in composition specifically. With this kind of music in particular, figuring it out yourself it is really the best way.
Tell me about the material of the new album. Is everything new because you worked on it after Immunity, or do you like to recycle ideas from the past?
Neither, really. There are some tracks that already existed because I made them seven years ago, for example. But they are not recycled, they’d just never been heard. I sometimes work on tracks or ideas for some years, and then leave them alone for some more. For example, the title track for Immunity originally started in 2005, but I didn’t finish it until the album came out because there was no rush. The same happened with Everything Connected, which I started in 2010. I tried to make it work for Immunity but couldn’t figure out the drums properly. Now, some years later, the tempo changes and a lot of new ideas made it work.
I’m asking this because I read somewhere that you’ve had the idea for this album, even the title, for many years.
That’s true. The title came out in 2003 approximately. Even the idea of having a circulation: starting from a tiny point, growing from there, and eventually coming back to it but from the opposite direction (mood-wise). I came up both with the idea and the title a long time ago, but there was no music written for it until 2010.
Everything Connected and Luminous Beings are more than ten minutes long, and Echo Dissolve, for instance, is about three minutes. How do you balance this aspect in the album?
Just give every track what it needs; it doesn’t really matter. There’s no need to stick to four minutes as a standard length. A track of spiritual music will often be half an hour. I give each track what it demands, really.
I heard you like treating real sounds as a start off for your compositions. Do you use tools like the Max/MSP program?
No, I don’t use anything as complicated as that (smiles). I find those kinds of open sources and programming languages pretty none of my business – I don’t have that kind of brain. I just use Ableton and lots of plugins. I spend a long time going quite deep into that aspect, but nothing as complex as that.
What synth or gadget cannot be taken out of your suitcase when touring?
I don’t really bring synths; they are really old so I can’t tour with them safely. I do bring with me an Arteria midi controller keyboard and a really good Live Lite controller, which is like a blank canvas from Ableton, and three Kaoss pads. I’ve been using those Kaoss for years; it’s a performance thing, still no substitute, because it’s all audio. You can actually hit, drum, etc. It’s just amazing. I love it.
Do you work on multiple musical projects at a time, or do you focus on just one record? How was it with this one?
That’s interesting because with this one, for the first time ever, I could really focus. With the previous ones, I had to do other things at the same time. When you’re a self-employed musician, you can’t really say no to work. But Immunity was more successful than other records and I did more shows, which meant I was in a financial position that allowed me to say no to things. So, this time, I didn’t do anything else. It was an amazing challenge to go really deep into the music.
I believe this was a benefit in order to make a better record, right?
Much better. But it’s not like I compromised in the previous ones, it’s just that I felt like shit by the end of the process. When I finished Immunity I felt exhausted. But with this record, even if I’d worked just as hard and for a longer period of time, I felt good because I was able to concentrate on what matters most to me.
How long did it take to get this new album done?
It was about two years in terms of time lapse. I didn’t spend two years on it but like fifteen or sixteen moths – something like that.
What did you learn from working with Brian Eno?
I learned a lot about feeling freer in music, about disrupting my own process. You start noticing that you do the same thing quite often, that you repeat yourself, and he’s really good precisely because he stops you from doing that. When improvising with him, he’ll stop you from using the sound you gravitate towards by writing down some chords on the whiteboard and pointing them randomly. It brings an external influence that makes you stop doing the same thing over and over again; I apply that to what I do.
You also worked with David Holmes. How was it?
His music is very soulful and beautiful. We co-wrote some things for Holy Pictures and it was great; it’s been a while since I last saw him but he’s been very supportive throughout the years. I am very fond of him.
You have an impressive career, both solo and collaborating with other artists. At this stage, do you need to keep working both ways?
Like I said, the recording of Singularity was all about focusing. I’m open to doing some collaborative writing, maybe. Production and film score is not something I’m looking to do right now though. It would be nice to make some tracks for other people because both this album and Immunity were very focused albums, like big works. I can’t imagine going straight into another one. I’d like to do some collaborative singles.
Singularity is your third record with Domino. To what extent did signing to an indie label affect your career?
They are a great label. They are so supportive. They never rushed me on this one and helped me with all the visual art I needed to support the record. They really care, and that’s the best thing.
Immunity was nominated for the Mercury Prize award. A couple of weeks ago, Pitchfork named Singularity as “Best New Music”. How do you think an important prize can change the career of a musician?
I don’t know. A good Pitchfork review is a really helpful thing, of course. I like Pitchfork because they write really well, they have really good journalists and get to the heart of my albums. The Mercury Prize is an amazing chance to expose your music to lots of people. Normally, it helps with sales and you need that to support yourself to do more music. I don’t personally care about fame or a claim, it’s not the point of this, but you need it to keep going. If you get a terrible review and no one will listen to it, you can’t keep doing it. It’s a practical thing for me, really.
Your previous full length is called Immunity, and this one Singularity. Is there any sort of common thread the way you like to name albums?
Yes, maybe it is part of a trilogy (laughs). A bit early to talk about that but it’s not a coincidence.