Form By Firelight: Jon Hopkins

Clash explores the making of 'Immunity'...

Machines are now part and parcel of everyday life. From the blink of waking to collapsing back into bed, our every moment is spent surrounded by things which whizz, whirr and (just occasionally) beep. Yet these machines aren’t entirely independent of our touch, requiring human assistance in the vein of genesis, maintenance and execution.

The relationship between digital and analogue, organic and technical is one that threads through Jon Hopkins work. It’s there in the first few seconds of new album ‘Immunity’ (Clash review) – a key turns, and the door to his East London studio is unlocked. “I tend to be in here by 10 or 10.30, and then leave at about 7pm,” he tells Clash. “When it’s coming to the end, the last few weeks tend to get a bit mental."

"I think it’s important to keep to those hours and do normal stuff outside,” he continues, before wryly adding: “I’m knackered! It’s not the healthiest way of life – there’s a lot of sleeplessness, a lot of bad backs. The highs are incredible, I mean, when things are going right.”

As ever, though, the results are worth those hours of perspiration. ‘Immunity’ is perhaps the finest album Jon Hopkins has yet made – fresh from a series of collaborations, it finds the producer focussing on his own voice, his own tastes and appetites. Yet, as Hopkins explains, this cuts off the release valve of having another opinion, another aesthetic in the studio.

“I find that everything else – all the other projects, including film scoring – is a hell of a lot less pressure. It’s like you’re not the crux of it, so you have to see the whole picture,” he says. “When I’m doing a film score, the story is on the screen, so you’re augmenting rather than being everything. The solo work is where you really kind of push yourself – get new equipment, learn new techniques. Through collaboration you can use your newfound skills to make that better.”

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Perhaps the most direct statement in Hopkins’ career, ‘Immunity’ is a mesh of tempos and textures, with each dip and curve seeming cause ripples in a very real, physical fashion. At times bordering on the cerebral side of techno, each track seems to be aware of its twin existence as a studio and performance object.

“I hadn’t really done it before my previous album, and that’s really where I started playing on my own,” he explains. “I quickly discovered that what I thought would work live didn’t, so I had to work pretty quickly to get it up to scratch. This one is definitely filled with all the experience I’ve had since then, and I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s a lot more upbeat as well. I got more into that, and it’s something which translates well and is a lot more fun to play.”

‘Immunity’ is certainly fun – a joy to listen to, each track extends outwards, forming its own path, obeying its own internal structures. Probed on this, Hopkins insists that he doesn’t view music in a linear, narrative fashion. “They’re not narratives for me,” he insists. “Some people do hear them as narratives, though. Because it’s abstract, it’s quite open, and I can relate them back to certain things; but I don’t know how accurate that is, really.”

Rather, the producer views each composition as a structure, as block hewn from his imagination. “I do have a bit of synathesia,” Hopkins demurs. “I see the tracks as physical structures, they exist somewhere in my imagination. They’re definitely not tangible places, it’s definitely an abstract thing but they are rooms or spaces. I do have a very strong sense of colour with each track. They’re not stories; they’re kind of abstract, snapshots of emotions or experiences which I’ve had internally.”

Perhaps the complex way Hopkins views his own work leads into concentrated fashion with which he approaches the studio. Rather than throw ideas down, the producer carefully builds up each whim, each passing fancy into vast, idiosyncratic structures which gleam with a certain sense of originality. It’s a taxing approach, one which means that ‘Immunity’ contains virtually every piece completed during the studio sessions.

“There was one track I had written which didn’t get on the record, but I’m not one of those people who has 50 ideas floating around,” he insists. “I really put everything into the ones which are there – two or three months into it I’ll know what order they should be in. It’s like a focal point for me, all those last, key months of working.”

Allowing himself the space to begin the project in as wide a manner as possible, Hopkins admits that he didn’t start ‘Immunity’ with any set ideas in mind.

“I tend to just start without a huge game plan. You can imagine what you might do, but I’ve learnt over the years that it just never looks like what comes out at the end. With (2009 album) ‘Insides’, I had so many layers and complex arrangements, and although there’s an element of this on the second half of this record, on the first half I wanted the tracks to be definable in terms of their elements. (Second track) ‘Open Eye Signal’, for example, is really just drums and synth – there’s really not that much else to it.

“I kind of work a lot of detail into those things separately, but they are definable parts. I’ve had tracks on previous albums where I’ve had 120 layers of tiny little additional sound effects and atmospheres. I wanted to see if I could make something effective with less.”

Continuing, Hopkins cites an overriding need to change as a massive factor in the development of the new album. “The important thing for me is that it doesn’t sound like the album before it. For example, I forbade myself for writing on the piano for the lead tracks. I also wanted to use 4/4 rhythms a bit more, kick drums on every beat – that was an interesting structure to be forced into because it makes you be far more creative.

“If you force yourself into that, you push interestingly into those boundaries. My previous albums tend to be all over the place, with crazy time signatures and stuff. In a way, having too much freedom can make you less focussed. Having more limitations is quite central.”

Ultimately, despite the direct, physical nature of the material, ‘Immunity’ is an album to be savoured slowly; allowing its dips and curves to float under your skin is almost a necessity to understanding how Hopkins is operating.

“It’s funny, because I haven’t had a ‘big’ album – I’ve had slow-burning albums, and that’s I guess the nature of my music,” he says. “I’m not a hits-type person, more of a slow-burning thing. If you don’t have that then you don’t have this thing to re-create or this time to make something fat, bloated and rubbish. You kind of have to keep lean and just work really, really hard to keep it going. I can still kind of hear the ambition in this one, even though I’m not a young man anymore.”

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Words: Robin Murray

'Immunity' is out now - check out the Clash review here.

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