Interview: Jon Hopkins
A Mercury Music Prize nominated album, beautiful film score and a tough live techno show – if 2013 belongs to any musician for quality output and sheer hard work, then it may well be electronic music maker Jon Hopkins.
His latest solo album Immunity – released by Domino earlier in the year – has floored all whose ears it’s hit while his riotous live show has been the talk of this year’s summer festival circuit. For a very polite well mannered guy, his machines make dance music that give soundsystems a serious work out.
While his CV includes work with Brian Eno, King Creosote and Coldplay, he’s also been busying himself writing film scores, with his music due to adorn the forthcoming How I Live Now from indie filmmaker Kevin Mcdonald. We managed to get some time with Jon amid his busy schedule to question him about his film work, collaborations with Brian Eno and Coldplay and why music has been the only thing he’s ever really cared about…
What are your first musical memories?
From a young age it’s always been the only thing I’ve ever been passionate about. When I was about two, I was given a set of chime bars and apparently I arranged them into the right order for an octave and wrote a little tune on them. My parents tell me that the only thing which would stop me from crying was my mum putting Beethoven on. My earliest memories are all about music.
Were you classically educated in music?
I didn’t go to university to study but went to Saturday lessons at the Royal College of Music to lean the piano. It didn’t really rub off on my compositional skills. My influences were more film composers than classical musicians.
What does Immunity represent for you in terms of songwriting?
Well it took about nine months of very hard work. I was trying to go beyond traditional song structures. I wanted to get into more hypnotic, repetitive territory aiming at these more mind altering effects. I was trying to be free with the track structure so it was a challenge to keep them interesting.
Did you aim to make it nastier than previous releases?
I don’t hear it as that. It’s heavier but there are darker moments on Insides. It’s more forceful in its euphoria which is how I like to imagine it. But these things are never choices for me. I really do just write on instinct and see what happens. I’ve learnt over the years, the more you plan writing before the studio, the more you have ideas in your head without actually doing them. That’s pointless for me. It’s only when I’m in there that I know where I’m going next.
What have you learnt from collaborating?
Different things from all of them. With Eno it’s how he introduces accidents into situations by playing random chords without knowing what they are. He lets fate guide things. He’s very free like that which brings a fun, surprising element into music. My first two albums are precise, pre-planned sounds and he helped me shake that off.
With Coldplay it was really learning how I could apply my sound to an established band. I had to adapt around them and learn just how ruthless they are with what’s allowed on record. It was pretty inspiring. They chuck away melodies that most people would kill for. I definitely tightened up my own quality control after working with them.
What are the different challenges presented by screen composing?
I find working for screen much easier as the story is there, the arc of the piece is there, everything is told to you by what’s going on. It’s really just your job to augment it and bring it to life. It’s the star and the music is secondary so the pressure is off.
When you write your own music, you’re doing everything – you’re writing the script, being the star, everything comes from nowhere. I find film really refreshing by contrast.
Do you feel tied to musical convention when writing for film?
I just write on instinct. I don’t write for orchestras and don’t know how to write music. When directors approach me, they tend to want the sort of music I already do. They want me to write what I think should be there. It’s a certain mood they’re after so in recent projects, it’s just been a case of getting the film on the screen and writing music around it.
Has working with film been a real aspiration?
Yeah when I was a teenager I was thinking about the world I’d like to be in and I did always think the film world. But at that time I didn’t know there was such a thing as the ‘solo electronic instrumental musician’. I love spending half my time working on films and working on my own thing.
How did you first get into writing for film?
The Lovely Bones was my first film work. I was working with Brian on Coldplay material and we were just talking over lunch. He said how Peter Jackson had been calling him and writing a script for the Lovely Bones with Music For Airports on loop. He was really trying to persuade him to do it.
Brian doesn’t jump at the chance to write for film. It’s not something he’s particularly keen on but he got on so well with Peter Jackson that he agreed to do it. I was badgering him the whole time to do it and he let me help out.
After that, when Monsters appeared Vertigo films were confident I could do it because of the Lovely Bones. Monsters has led to these latest projects.
So word of mouth is important in getting the gig?
Absolutely – Lovely Bones was one thing but Monsters did a lot more for me because I was the main composer. As a film it went really far, the director Gareth Edwards is now working for Legendary Pictures making Godzilla. Everyone in the movie industry has seen Monsters. It did amazingly well. It’s incredibly good luck to have been asked to write on that, particularly as it was more the indie world and rather than the mainstream world, which I think I’m better suited for. The opportunities which have come up from that film have all been perfect.
You’ve also provided the soundtrack to How I Live Now. When did you record that?
It took about two or three months – I did it the same time as Immunity. It was a crazy amount of time spent in the studio. But it flowed really well for that film – it’s a beautiful film it’s apocalyptic, really dark yet interspersed with these beautiful passages. It really works with what I like to do with my music.
Which bits of work are you most proud of?
Without doubt the two most recent albums. I just feel they are the most coherent works. One concept, one set of emotions and moment in time. They’re both unified works. They sound more mature to me.
Do you have a favourite sound?
It’s bird song. I think there’s something which really connects with hearing that. Nature is one of the main things we’d hear all the time without traffic and machinery. There’s something about it which takes me back. It’s amazing.