In another world, Jon Hopkins might be known as the guy whose music soundtracked episodes of Sex and the City. The British electronic music producer studied piano at the Royal College of Music in London and in the late '90s he got a gig touring as a member of Imogen Heap’s band. Upon the release of Hopkins’s first album, 1999’s Opalescent, several tracks were licensed to the hit HBO show. But when his 2004 follow-up Contact Note failed to garner much notice, he abandoned his solo career.
That this week sees the release of Hopkins’s fourth full-length, Immunity, suggests that Hopkins re-considered that decision. Which is great news, as Immunity is one of the more astonishing and assured electronic albums of the year: Abstract yet visceral and gorgeous throughout. And sure enough, shortly after deciding to focus on production instead of music-making, he wound up in a jam session with his fellow Heap veteran Leo Abrahams and another musician-producer, Brian Eno. Hopkins wound up playing on Eno’s Another Day on Earth and soon found himself not only onboard as a member of Eno’s new trio but helping the legendary musical icon as he worked in the studio on a new project, producing Coldplay’s Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. All of which led him back to following his own muse. We caught up with Hopkins in the midst of a tour to ask about Eno, visual stimuli and opening for Coldplay that one time at Madison Square Garden.
A lot of people might be familiar with you through your association with Brian Eno and while I'm sure you've learned alot working with him, I'm wondering what you might have taught Eno.
I wish I could say yes to that, that I taught him something, but honestly I haven't noticed it! Certainly in situations in which we've been jamming or recording together, he will pick up on ideas that I have started (and Coldplay’s “Violet Hill” stemmed from one of Hopkins’s improvisations in the studio), but on Eno’s recorded output I can't identify my influence.
You’ve also worked with King Creosote closely over the years; what was his influence on Immunity?
I had originally set out to make an album that was essentially instrumental -- using abrupt cut-up vocals here and there but never flowing in the way a traditional vocal does; the intent was using the vocals like percussion. But then when I came close to finishing the title track “Immunity,” I just knew that it had to have a Creosote vocal on it. Something about how wooden the tune sounded, the warmth in the piano, the homeliness of it all in contrast to the darker heavier tracks on the record -- I needed to try it. The idea of bringing in one traditional vocal, near the end of the last song on the record -- I loved how surprising that would be. So he came to my studio and I just looped the track round and round while recording his improvisations. What you hear on the track all comes from that one long take, and I think it's one of his most beautiful performances.
What was it like to open up for Coldplay on their 2008 World Tour?
The experience was amazing if a bit ridiculous really. I clearly hadn't earned the right to play in front of such large crowds, but it was amazing of them to put their confidence in me in that way, just because they liked my work on their album and they wanted something different other than a standard band to open for them.
As I was climbing the steps to go on stage at the Madison Square Garden show, I actually tripped. It was one of those moments that went in slow motion; I couldn't believe it was happening. I dealt with it as I always do when tripping, by pretending it was intentional and kind of running a few steps to reinforce this. Which meant it looked like I was running on-stage in sheer exuberance and confidence. I found it so hilarious that I was actually laughing as I played, which probably made it look like I was either enjoying myself very much, or having a breakdown, or some combination of both.
Did playing before such huge crowds inform your approach to Immunity? I feel the scale on the new album is greater than on your previous album, Insides.
I never felt particularly connected to the crowds on the Coldplay tours, as they weren't mine. I think I have always been a sucker for the epic sound, but I just don't think I had the ability to realize this circa Insides. I also invested in a new studio before starting work on Immunity, so it's possible any extra richness in sound comes from that.
I get the sense from listening and from the titles that this is a more visual album, with nods to qualities of light, not to mention a song called "Open Eye Signal." Was that the case?
For me, my music is genuinely abstract -- it’s about trying to convey emotional states my mind has been in more than any specific visual ideas. I do see it as a kind of dimensional structure in my brain when working on it, and certainly every track has a strong sense of color, but beyond that the visual element is hard to describe. That’s why I find it really important to work with amazing visual artists for videos and sleeves - for example Aoife McArdle's “Open Eye Signal” video is just the perfect visualization of the track.
Immunity is out now on Domino Records.