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October 26, 2016Feature

I called up Jon Hopkins for a chat about his music. In between the sound of me violently coughing down the phoneline (man flu), Jon talked candidly and politely about DJing to club crowds, his sound evolving alongside the methods of production he uses, and the gear he's been using to evolve his still developing new album.

Hi Jon, how are things?

Pretty good, I’m deep in the writing of this fifth album. It’s quite  a good time of year to be hibernating away, that’s pretty much my life for the next few months.

Great, looking forward to hearing that. So for people who are looking forward to your DJ set at Winter Party this weekend, will it differ much to your live sets? Will it be a curated mix or a more sporadic set?

A bit of a mixture really, I haven’t done many DJ sets in my life. It’s something I do just rarely but I find very enjoyable. Only in the last year or so did I learn how to truly do it to a degree that I’m happy and that I can feel creative. So the results so far have been really enjoyable for me, it’s been a mixture of half-finished new tracks of mine and then quite technoey stuff. It may be a bit more of a party thing than my live set, the tempo’s a bit more consistent and probably a bit more crowd pleasing. I’ve been looking forward to this a lot because I think people will be really up for it.

Logic can feel very restrictive at times.

Yeah, it’s like working in a very small courtyard, whereas Ableton is like this big massive playing field. It’s almost as if you can’t see the boundaries. If anything, it’s almost too much choice because almost anything you can imagine is possible. I’ve been using it to perform for years, but I’ve only learnt to create music with it in the past year and a half. You can go infinitely deep with it, it’s like a new instrument really.

Ableton really pushes a dancey, loopy side of things. It’s very easy to start making loops out of sounds, or changing a sound into something totally different from the original.

That’s the thing. And very rarely do you get stuck, so that’s what I found with Logic. When I did records like Diamond Mine with King Creosote there’s nothing that worked better than Logic, but to write my kind of music Ableton is definitely the best program. Sometimes you hit a brick wall in the middle of a big track, but that never really happens with this because there’s always something that you can fiddle with, and that will trigger another idea, and before you know it you’ve resampled what you’ve just done, like the tail of a reverb accidentally you’ll just hear it and straight away resample it and then you’ve got a whole new sound to play with. It’s sort of exponentially interesting, and hopefully that’s coming out in the tracks. They’re sounding pretty different.

You mentioned reverb there. My same friend was wondering how it is you use reverb in your tracks without sound becoming muddled? As well as this he was wondering how you consider the spacing of sounds within tracks.

It’s one thing that I’m most interested in really. I use reverb almost as an instrument. I use a lot of different ones, often in chains, particularly with Ableton you can send chains anywhere and create really complex routing. You can have a delay before the reverb and have that sent off to another further delayed track and then that becomes a whole instrument from just one note, and all kind of things happen.

As for the placement of sounds, I use a lot of stereo imaging to get things not too wide and placed correctly in terms of placing it. EQing is the answer to muddiness, you can always cut out unpleasant muddy stuff. Then with everything going live all the time you can jam some very interesting patterns into reverbs and make whole new instruments out of them.

Speaking of sound placement, would you ever consider working in something other than a binaural environment, maybe with multiple speakers set up, perhaps in more of a gallery atmosphere?

Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. One day I’d like to make a surround version of this record I’m doing now. And the other day I had an idea for an alternative kind of gig I might do one day, though not for this record, more of a meditative record. I’d want to have a room with 24 speakers all around it pointing downwards, and a load of people lying in the middle of it. I want to try out lots of that kind of thing in the future definitely.

It sounds very interesting. It’s strange that for home listening we haven’t really moved past a stereo setup of a left and right speaker, apart from say in home cinema systems with surround sound.

It’s not everywhere, but I would say that technically we only have two ears, and they both of our ears are mono, so with a good pair of headphones there is no more room for sound to enter the brain. I still kind of love stereo, but I definitely want to move beyond it when possible.

I heard about this thing, I don’t know where this was but a friend of mine at a festival heard a recording of an entire choir singing Thomas Tallis’ 40 part motet, Spem in Alium and had a speaker for each voice. So there were 40 speakers around in a circle and you could walk around the piece and hear each part individually, that’s pretty incredible. And with that you can arrange the speakers however you want.

It would be interesting to hear how different arrangements of the speakers could lead to different sounds emerging from the piece. It reminds me a little bit of how stages are set up at festivals and how sound from one stage will bleed into another, and when you stand in a particular spot you’ll hear this strange mix of two songs together.

I was at a festival playing with King Creosote and we had the quietest possible band and we could hear Shakira from the main stage which was so much louder than us, so we had to just jam in time with them and make something up just to be heard!

Maybe you can get Shakira to feature on a new track or remix from the new album, return the favour. Anyway, how important is it to you when writing new material in how it will translate to a live performance?

That’s changed a lot over the past years. My first few albums I didn’t play live at all, my third album Insides was the first time I’d played live but I hadn’t considered that when I was writing it, then by the time I started doing Immunity I’d probably done about 70 shows for Insides. And I’d often get placed alongside club DJs and that had a big influence on the sound of Immunity and made it so much more danceable. Then I did 160+ shows for Immunity, so for this album I’m completely aware of what works and what doesn’t. I’m trying to push it in that direction while keeping it really creative and varied. I’m kind of aware of it now, so it’s a good drive to really get the rhythms right, the bit that comes easiest to me is the melody, but the rhythm is what takes time.

So would most of the tracks on this new album be made for the club, or just feel at home in a club environment?

It’s too early to say really as I’m still in the depths of writing it now, but it’s certainly upbeat stuff, it’s danceable definitely.

Good stuff! So your music has always had a very visual quality, which is why I think music videos like ‘Open Eye Signal’ and ‘Breathe This Air’ worked so well. So looking at it from an opposite viewpoint, when you’re soundtracking someone else’s work are their any steps you take to find a sound that matches up with a visual, instead of the other way around?

My approach with everything in music is to start by improvising, so when I work on films I often start off at the piano and improvise while watching it, and then follow instincts and build the sound around that. You might take the piano out entirely, but that’s how I’ve always done it.

So treating the studio as a church and working until something revelatory comes along?

Yeah, just trusting instincts really.

I get quite involved when getting videos made for my stuff, the director takes the vision I have and then goes off and films it, but I have been very lucky for the two videos you mentioned, and ‘Collider’ as well. I’ve got a tough act to follow for this album.

Do you have any plans to soundtrack any more film or television in the future?

I sort of consider myself retired from that. In the last few years I’ve been approached about a lot of things I would have jumped at a while ago, and I’m really honoured to be asked to do this stuff, but I just had to take a conscious decision to not go in that direction and to really focus on my own sound. When I progress most sonically is when I’m doing my own records. If you look at each one it’s been a big step forward in sound, but when I do films I’m writing about 28 pieces in a few months. You’re using sounds and methods of recording you’ve used before. It definitely makes you a faster, more efficient songwriter, but if I really want to push boundaries in sound and structure then it has to be done through my own music. I was lucky enough that Immunity did well to the extent that it did, I’ve been confident enough to do say “I can do anything else at all”.

Finally, you mentioned in an interview a while ago that your favourite sound in the world was birdsong. I was wondering if you have a favourite manmade sound? Mine is the sound of cycling along loose cobblestones.

Well nothing really sticks to mind, there was this beautiful set of wind chimes when I lived in L.A. for a few months last winter. They had a very particular chord and hearing that when I woke up in the morning and seeing hummingbirds fly around, that was pretty special. That’s a question I’d have to think about for a while, there’s probably a more interesting answer than that. Maybe a very distant train sound, like steam train over a valley.

I did spring it on you to be fair. Another favourite sound of mine is when you’re washing up a pan and while the water is rushing into it you clang something off it, and it makes this great almost flanged sound.

That sound is actually on a King Creosote record. He really loved that sound and he recorded himself doing that with his daughter, and on Bombshell, a record I produced of his nearly 10 years ago now, there’s a song called ‘Church as Witness’ and you can hear that sound at the beginning of it. It’s a really atmospheric sound.

Wow, what a coincidence! Anyway Jon, thanks for taking the time out to talk to me!

Jon Hopkins plays Winter Party at the 3 Arena this Sunday 30th October. Tickets are available from Ticketmaster here.

Words: Adam Heaton 
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