When I spoke with Hopkins over Skype from New Delhi, it was obvious that he truly loves that handful of records. They are both the inspiration behind and the context for a unique career that has seen this pianist, classically trained at London's Royal College Of Music, variously work in experimental ambient music and with Coldplay, produce folktronica with King Creosote and, in Immunity, create a crossover album of finely-wrought, emotional electronica. Hopkins further explored these moods on a recent LateNightTales mix. Here, he talks about drugs and transcendental meditation, Eno and psytrance, and how these have made him the creative force he is today. Just don't ask him about his favourite microhouse tracks.
There is a tendency if things aren't deemed refined or cool to pretend you never listened to them, but I was a huge Eat Static fan. I loved elements of the synth work, so I should be announcing it proudly. I saw Ozric Tentacles innumerable times. Sometimes it was amazing, sometimes terrible. But you felt you were witnessing something very pure.
Both were seen as zoned-out, trippy acts. Did the teenage Jon Hopkins get stoned and trip a lot listening to music? Was that your way into electronic music?
From the age of eight I was fascinated by electronic stuff, anything sequenced: "Crockett's Theme" by Jan Hammer, Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode. Then, as a teenager, through someone I was getting stoned with, I got into Ozric Tentacles and their electronic spin-off, Eat Static. Most of it I can't bear to listen to anymore. It's all this ridiculous alien conspiracy stuff peppered with samples of people talking about Area 51, but there are some transcendental musical moments in there, and this is really interesting. It's got a quite impossible time signature, 9/4 or something, and all it really is is an arpeggio, a pad and some echo-y noise. And, yeah, I do remember tripping to it quite vividly.
Were you involved in that psytrance/Planet Dog scene, which Eat Static were a part of, as a clubber or was home-listening your thing?
No, no clubbing at all. I went to the Whirl-Y-Gig once in 1997. The reason my music ended up a clubby thing was because when I started touring Insides, which doesn't have anything danceable on it, I was suddenly being put on in clubs and I was listening to and getting inspired by who I was playing alongside. I would rarely go if I wasn't working but I really enjoy a night after I've done a set.
This was the first track on their second album, Insen, and what I was struck by was this completely bipolar sound world. You've got a completely organic, untreated piano then Alva Noto doing what he does on top and almost no middle ground. It's digital versus completely wooden, deeply human but really electronically violated. Realising that you don't have to sculpt the real instruments to sit with the digital, that you can leave them there like that, and, in fact, that the contrast positively effects both elements definitely had a big impact on Insides. I also love the skill, beauty and naturalness of Sakamoto's improvised playing. He conjures up such a depth of mood with a few notes. It's a great exercise in less is more.
Like some of your own work, this is quite disrupted and glitchy. Were you a fan of turn-of-the-millennium experimental laptronica and microhouse?
I wasn't aware of it all. In the electronic world, I have extremely limited bands of knowledge. Then, I was listening to more folky stuff and producing King Creosote albums. I remember someone playing me this and maybe it rekindled some interest in starting to use my electronic mind again.
Like many of your selections, "Aurora" is also quite long. What is it about length that you love? Obviously people like Villalobos have taken it to extremes.
It's funny because I wasn't aware Villalobos did that until about two weeks ago, when I heard that amazing Mari Kvien Brunvoll remix ["Everywhere You Go"]. It doesn't even evolve that far. But you don't want it to end. I guess he probably thought, "Well, why should it?" and just carried on. I like that you can create these worlds which people can inhabit themselves. My songs are getting longer as I get older. I just love the freedom. I won't get on the radio, so you might as well do what you want.
Platform Zero (Volte-Face Remix)
For a club track, the structure of this—basically a long build to an enormous peak—is unusual. Do you feel an affinity with that? You said earlier that you think of your tracks as post-rock almost, but using elements of dance music.
I'm not really sure what a normal structure entails. The reason I like that track so much is it's very like—how blunt can we be?—a drug experience. It's like you're dancing, start tripping out, then you're back in the room. It's rhythmically functional but it's got this spacey element, this echoing dreaminess, which I really connected to.
Speaking of altered states, is it true that you practice transcendental meditation?
Twice a day. It's great. What I found when I started doing it is that when you listen to a track straight after it's almost like it has another dimension to it. Like you can visualise it, the colour is more vivid or there's this intangible quality that you weren't aware of. It really feels like it's expanding your ability to take things in. You are definitely able to capture ideas faster and to catch deeper ideas.
Do you see drugs and meditation as similar, in that they are both ways in which people seek to open themselves up to a more instinctive experience of the music they're listening to?
I do think they're related. Drugs can show you what is possible. You then learn meditation to try and find natural ways through to those same places. Every band that's changed the history of music has been high when they've done it, and electronic music is no different. To find a way to that space without taking something that, ultimately, has big downsides is definitely a good thing.
Running The Loping
This is Bill Callahan who, I suppose, makes lo-fi folk.
It's in a very different sound world, this is just voice, acoustic guitars and drums, but the qualities I look for in music are often the same: this transcendent, hypnotic thing and how much you can do with very little. The way his voice mumbles through these funny, poetic lines about moving to the country and everything he's left behind, it's profoundly relaxing. That album [A River Ain't Too Much To Love] is full of tracks like that, but here it's so pronounced. It's so lazy-sounding and timeless.
This album [Quique] was hugely inspirational to me, but I didn't know anything about it until 2005. I was at the Fence Collective night up in Fife and I first heard Seefeel's "Climactic Phase Three," but "Charlotte's Mouth" is more spacious, less upbeat, less euphoric and particularly beautiful. It's two looped chords, essentially, short sections of guitar, I think, and I reckon it set a precedent for a lot of loop-based stuff since. I'm a Field fan and it reminds me of that. Was it a known record at the time?
Yes. The British music press were all over the shoegazing scene that Seefeel were associated with. Your later music has more propulsion to it, but it certainly shares a sense of epic drift with a lot of shoegazing stuff.
I used to listen to Lush, who had a foot in that. But I only started listening to Slowdive when I saw them at Pitchfork in Chicago. I came to it really late, but maybe I was influenced by the things that shoegaze influenced. These things filter down to me in a weird way. "Epic drift" is a great way of describing it, that's exactly how I feel about it. I always found the name "shoegazing" hugely inappropriate because for me, far from being an inward looking sound, it's glorious and euphoric.
You mentioned the Scottish folk musicians Fence Collective. You worked closely with them, eventually making the Mercury-nominated album Diamond Mine with King Creosote. How did that come about?
That was a big musical turning point for me. I remember a friend putting some Pip Dylan and King Creosote on at a party, and I was just struck by the looseness and casualness and the obvious joy of it. I started delving into King Creosote's vast back-catalogue, went up, introduced myself, asked him for a vocal so I could make something, and that was how our first collaborations came about. We just clicked.
The ease with which they wrote and recorded made me realise I could be way more free and messy. I'd just spent a year on my second album, Contact Note (a little heard non-classic [laughs]), which was incredibly technically detailed, very quantized and gridded and my mathematical writing process was just destroyed by these guys. It made my music much more free-sounding. Now I love to push those imperfections.
Lost In The Humming Air
Possibly my favourite piece of music of all time—it's just the floatiest, most transcendental, trance-inducing thing. It's hardly a piece of music: it's like a shimmering golden cloud that sits in my mind. I've had many nights end with that album on, and it had a huge impact on my writing. There's a very soft drone behind there. I think Daniel Lanois was responsible for the sonic element on this record; all that dreamy stuff I thought was Eno. And then you've got Harold Budd playing improvised piano, but there's a process that the piano has been put through which creates a glorious, very trippy tail to every note. This record introduced me to the idea that you could use processing as an instrument in its own right.
And you have worked with Eno haven't you?
We've done a lot of stuff over the years. I met him in 2003 and worked on Another Day On Earth, and then we did the Small Craft On A Milk Sea album, bits on the Coldplay albums he worked on, and we did The Lovely Bones soundtrack. The Pure Scenius thing, which was a series of improvised shows with The Necks, Karl Hyde and Leo Abrahams in Sydney, was one of the musical highlights of my life.
What is he like to work with? It must have been daunting for you.
What I didn't appreciate was quite how he worked. I thought he was a real technical guy, a sound-maker, but he's more an instigator and director of ideas. He'll play sounds and make melodies and treatments, but he doesn't really do the toiling away on tiny details. Quite a lot, he'll make a track come into existence by directing people, which worked well for me because one thing I can do is improvise. I've been improvising with Leo Abrahams [who introduced Hopkins to Eno] since school. Once we got in there playing together it wasn't that stressful. He's a very relaxed man. He's really childish, really obscene, really funny.
This was an electronic record [Orblivion] that I did actually get when it came out. I can proudly say.
[laughs] Thank you. This was at the tail end of my stoner phase and it's an incredibly psychedelic world of sounds which, at that age, I couldn't begin to work out. It's still amazing. It has this weird, skipping, swung beat, and, in the middle, there's a section which still takes me by surprise—it's the main reason I like it—where it suddenly goes all soft and changes into an unrelated key and there's this reversing, shimmery sound. It doesn't sound like a song but a journey—a really weird trip out.
It sounds quite cacophonous. There is a lot going on in there, from East Asian scales to tropical rhythms. So you're not averse to music that overwhelms you?
This album is brimming with ideas; it verges on overpopulated at some points. But, for me, I either connect with something or I don't. There is still something mysterious and transcendental in this.
In The Flowers
Despite many of my friends and every music critic in the world loving them, I can't abide Animal Collective. Jon, sell this track to me. Why is it important?
I wasn't a huge fan until I went to a gig they did with Four Tet and Caribou at the Scala in London in 2007, and it was just wild. There was this crazy bunch of people shouting and clapping away, and it just seemed so different. I listened to the records after that and, while there are nice moments, I didn't get into them. I struggle with some of Merriweather Post Pavilion, but this first track is one of my number one tunes. The chord sequence is extraordinary, so original and strange, and then he sings over it weaving together these most unrelated chords in a really cohesive way. It blew my mind. When it evolves into that massive rampaging chorus of shaking tambourines and echoing claps with that heavy kick drum under it all, it seems so impossible that it could get to that point. And not only that, but it could work so well. It's incredibly exciting.
The lyrics to this are brilliant: all about the epiphany of raving and the freedom of dancing, but the busyness and density of it, the self-conscious cleverness of it, makes it feel like I'm being set an exam question.
As a rule, I can't listen to incredibly complex music, but this I find really direct. There's a lot going on but there is clarity. I'm glad you mention the lyrics, though. That line, "If I could just leave my body for the night," when you've been thinking about that concept for your whole life and, suddenly, it appears in one of your favourite songs, that is pretty cool.
This is at the end of quite an unusual album [Mind Bokeh] with a lot of surprisingly pop moments on it, which I respect but which aren't my taste so much. But this is the kind of thing of his which I love. On his earlier albums he used to do lots of amazing guitar-only music, recording on valve and tape and sometimes putting the tape under water and recording it back, so it's all wobbly… and nostalgic for something you never really experienced. What Boards Of Canada do with electronics, he does with guitars. This is like a tapestry of loops, obviously done with guitar and a pedal and a really simple beat, and he conjures this amazing melancholy minor-key mood. It's a beautiful thing.
It's from I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, an amazing album, and it's a very surprising respite in the middle of an album that has lots of distorted guitars high in the mix with vocals under them, in that My Bloody Valentine way. Then there's this beautiful, languid and very cinematic instrumental.
That cinematic quality is something people associate with your music. How did that evolve?
It happened instinctively, definitely. I feel quite hemmed-in in London, living in Hackney and having a studio in Bow. I don't feel there's enough space. I love finding it in music and, internally, with meditation. Also, film scores have been a big influence on me and the way that music brings images out. I don't separate them, really. That's why, when I finally had the budget, I put a lot of focus on film-quality music videos. That was a great step for me.
I wrote "meditative" in my notes, which is something you clearly come back to again and again in the music you listen to. This, with that lonesome slide guitar, is a remarkably serene piece, isn't it?
I clearly need this sort of thing. I've done 158 shows for Immunity, the writing of which caused endless insomnia and, while it's all brilliant, I turn to music for peace. I love that this sounds like whoever is playing the guitar part is playing it for themselves, for their own therapeutic reasons. You're just lucky enough to be there.