British experimental producer Jon Hopkins really comes alive on stage. His shows are all-out sonic assaults that pay tribute to old horror-movie soundtracks like Mike Oldfield’s theme for The Exorcist, combined with abrasive and electric hell-on-earth bass. But his freshly released Immunity LP, for Domino, relies more on field recordings and analog samples, with slow-building 10-minute melancholic techno opuses trumping digestible dancefloor bangers. We recently spoke with the London-based producer about his love for Moderat, his curious passion for the dark side, and what it was like collaborating with Brian Eno.
What’s your formula for your current live show?
The new record is a bit slower than the last one. It’s not a dubstep BPM, it’s more a techno 145 BPM, and it’s a bit more hypnotic. I’m trying to keep more of a groove going rather than stopping and starting so much.
Some songs on the new album, Immunity, made me think of Moderat. Were they at all an influence?
Yes, I’m actually a very big fan of Moderat and Apparat. They were definitely some inspiration. What I like about their last record was the mix of sound sources, like vocals, interesting drums. I’ve built this new album with me playing things physically. I’m playing rhythms out of things in the real world, not just electronic. A lot of the inspiration comes from field recordings in the world of my studio and around it. I didn’t just take drum machine samples and try to make a sound and process it into a snare drum, say…. I drum naturally to avoid anything sounding too rigid.
So the last album was more drum-machine-based?
No, it wasn’t, but it was more like, I made sounds in Sound Forge, which is very much an electronic source. This time I used an acoustic source and processed them electronically.
How has having Brian Eno as a mentor and collaborator influenced your work?
He doesn’t really do the live sound thing, but working with him, you learn a more enjoyable way of working. When you’re tinkering on a track in the first stages, he’s very good at focusing on getting all the ideas as quickly as possible. Being really impatient is actually a really good way to start your songs. Cut everything, and then find it later. He warned me against starting an idea and getting lost in the ideas immediately. In fact, being a bit less particular over all can help the life of a track.
Was it intimidating when you first started a working relationship with him?
It was on the first day. I was only 23, and he was reading the paper in the studio when I came in. He was so normal and I was just some kid, really. As soon as we started playing it got more introspective and we got along beautifully. Having worked with him for 10 years, we don’t hang out socially but every time we get together musically, there are great results.
What did he see in you?
He was just looking for a young musician to work with and the guitarist Leo Abrahams referred me to him. He definitely hadn’t listened to anything I had done, but there was a synth there that I was very familiar with. In that first day, we recorded stuff that went out on his Another Day on Earth album, and he must have thought that was alright. It was an amazing experience for me. We got on very well musically, straight away.
What was your earlier work like?
I did my first album when I was 19 or 20 called Opalescent. It’s sort of ambient with a softer post-rock feel. It suffers from being too light but there were some nice melodies in it. The other one was in 2003 called Contact Note, a little different but still more on the tame side.
The music you make tends to be very dark and brooding. What is it about darker soundscapes that attract you?
It’s just nice and exciting, isn’t it? When I’m having a fun happy good time, I feel more inclined to explore the darker side of music. In my past albums, I was more of a broke, stumbling musician and it was like an escapism thing, trying to make the world to escape into. Now I love exploring darker thoughts; there’s enough inspiration for that stuff. The track “Collider” is pretty apocalyptic-sounding. There’s a sadness that I quite like. I wasn’t expecting the overarching melancholy. I actually set out to make sort of a party album, but it turned out to be really serious.
What sort of genres do you identify with when it comes to your own music?
There’s techno in there. I do like some Sigur Ros, I’m not sure what to call that—post-rock? Icelandic stuff, anything atmospheric. Film scores are a big part of my job as well. I don’t know how to describe what I hear always.
Why go with your legal name rather than a made-up artist’s name?
There was never really a choice. When I did my first album, I was just like, “That’s who it’s by—me!” You never decide when you’re that young if this is going to become something you’ll always be attached to. I could have gone with something weird, but once you put more distance to it, I realize I couldn’t have gone with a better name. I do lots of different things, like collaborations and film scores. When you score a film, you wouldn’t have an alias anyway. I’m not trying to hide behind a mysterious personality or present any kind of front.
A few years back you did a remix for “I Know,” a song on David Lynch’s Crazy Clown Time album. What was that like?
It was a great to be listed along with guys like Underworld, Boys Noize, and Skream. I got booked to play and met him at the album launch in Paris, too. I said hello, and he’s like, “That’s a killer remix you did there, Jon,” with his nasally voice.
How does writing film scores translate so well to your music?
That’s what I imagined I wanted to do the most as a teenager. I didn’t really know that you could be an electronic artist because I didn’t know any of them. There’s something about writing for picture that I’ve always felt as instinctive. The first film I did was Monster. It was beautifully shot, it looks incredible, and it was so easy to write to. I loved picking out melodies while looking at the film. It was just so natural.