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Jon Hopkins: "I don’t really have any modular synths, drum machines or any of that stuff - it’s all really Ableton and source audio from random places"

jon hopkins
(Image credit: Steve Gullick)

Best of 2021: This hack was recovering in hospital recently and literally the only music I could face listening to was an advance copy of Jon Hopkins’ transcendent Music For Psychedelic Therapy. 

The new album sees Hopkins skipping the dancefloor grooves and hypnotic synths of Immunity and Singularity to take himself, and us, on a personal, musical and spiritual voyage of discovery taking in Ecuadorian caves, ayahuasca and meditation, before becoming fully realised in lockdown sessions at Hopkins’ new studio in London. 

Album closer (and first track released from the album) Sit Around The Fire, has Hopkins collaborate with East Forest to provide a sumptuous ambient backdrop atop which sit the wise words of the late, much-lamented Ram Dass, and is eight minutes of music that should be made available on prescription. 

For once, writing verbal descriptions of music feels inadequate. The label’s suggestion that the album, “sounds best played in one sitting, lying down in the dark,” is hard to argue with.

jon hopkins

(Image credit: Steve Gullick)

Sit Around The Fire soundtracks the wisdom of long-time hero, Ram Dass…

“It’s been really amazing to release that track. The names kind of give it away, but the last two albums [Singularity and Immunity] I always saw as being related. So, I think doing a third album in that vein wasn’t appealing although I obviously didn’t realise at the time that it would end up going quite so far in a different direction.” 

Ecuador is about as far away as you can get… were any of the ideas for the tracks written in situ whilst you were over there?

“Nothing happened over there apart from me experiencing the place. I’ve said this in interviews before so I hope it’s not boring for people to hear but I believe in writing using the subconscious, so I think, essentially, you just have to have a lot of experiences… in my case, as many cosmic and mystical experiences as possible. 

"You don’t have to actually worry about capturing or remembering them in any way as it will all go in. Then, when you start writing, it’ll be informed by that whether you like it or not. It doesn’t just have to be cosmic or mystical, it will absorb your relationship experiences, your break-ups. Everything you’ve been through and everything that’s going on in the world is all going in there. 

It was amazingly satisfying to never once even look at the part of the screen where there’s a tempo

“The Ecuador piece itself, which is actually one piece of music in three chapters but it’s very clear that it’s meant to be listened to in one go… That’s an example of a piece that does have a specific narrative based on an experience I had. 

"You can hear it, the first chapter is waking up in the cave, listening to the water pouring in from the safety of the tent and then the middle chapter is the meditation deep underground, and the third chapter is emerging back into the forest. I took a little Bose Soundlink speaker with me and played a couple of drone sounds through it. 

"So, as well as the field recordings that my friend Mendel Kaelen (the founder of Wavepaths) made while we were there, there’s also that one drone sound, which is the first sound you hear in that track… it’s like a crystal bowl that I’d recorded. So, you’re hearing that through the reverb of the caves as the Bose speaker was 50 metres away and we’d set up the field recording mics. That one drone note was the trigger for the rest of the track.” 

What did you capture the field recordings on?

“It was a Fostex that Mendel brought with him. He’s a Dutch neuroscientist who came along to do some brain-reading type experiments on us... [laughs] although I don’t think they call it brain-reading really. He lugged this pretty high-end Fostex with him, which, if you capture things to the maximum bitrate then you can slow things down and still find loads of usable sounds.” 

The field recordings add a very binaural quality to things, don’t they? 

“Yeah… Mendel’s recordings are only used in the Ecuador piece, but the rest of the album has a lot of background recordings too, which I do with a bit of trickery with dimensional plugins like stereo-width and mixing things in. 

"For example, the first track, Welcome, has got birdsong, which was recorded in Devon and at the same time the synth tracks from it were being played back in the woods. So, you’re hearing a mix of a studio recording and that same recording being played back in a wood.” 

A little bit of open air gives recordings a completely different resonance, doesn’t it? 

“That’s right. I’ve talked about this before because on Diamond Mine, with King Creosote, I used a lot of field recordings. My friend Dan who records under the name 7Rays, contributed a lot to the record. He lives in these woods, so I was sending him sounds and he’d play them back on speakers hanging in the trees."

I entered a sort of trance state [...] I became aware that I was making something that might possibly be the best thing I’ve made.

"It’s amazing and you can just hear that it’s taken out of that studio perfection. However much you messed with your recordings in Ableton they’re still hermetically sealed in a way but mixing in those same recordings but from the wood brought that magic I was looking for.” 

You’ve certainly gone about as ‘off-grid’ as you possibly could with this album… 

“Yes… and it was amazingly satisfying to never once even look at the part of the screen where there’s a tempo! Everything just got placed on the screen where it needed to be without any real thought and just letting instinct guide it. 

"That was such a joy after so many years of the precision and the tooling that goes with making beats. I’m not done with that as I’m really looking forward to making some things I can DJ and maybe even some versions of the album tracks that I can DJ but there will definitely have to be a Volume 2 of this as this was a different level of experience, really.” 

Back in the old days it was a blessing to finally get a grid to work on but it’s nice sometimes to jump off it too?

“I think it’s nice to have the option. In a way we have too many options, but I think you have to set your own limitations. When you’re able to literally do anything then it’s up to you to put your foot down and say ‘alright I’m gonna work within these parameters’. That can actually be more freeing. But with this album it was almost just forgetting about all of that and forgetting about the technology. It got written in a very intense period in history, but I don’t see this as a lockdown album in the slightest."

I don’t really get a huge amount of pleasure in spending hours making a bass fit perfectly or twiddling little Notch filters to get everything right.

"It happens that I got the time to do it then, but this has been brewing my whole life really. I was going through stuff personally as well that informed the record emotionally, too. All I remember is what seemed almost like one long night in the studio. I’d moved studios before I finished it. I was in Café Music, which FM visited me in before. So, I started there, and it was nice that I had somewhere to leave the house and go to work as my own studio was being built but wasn’t finished. 

"I have this memory of going in there all the time, working in the dark just feeling my way through it. It seemed like an album that was coming from a completely different universe and that I just had to get out of the way and let it happen. It was a strange, strange time.” 

Was it a conscious decision on your part to dispense with the modulars and the drum machines for the writing process? 

“None of it was conscious, really. What happened was that the Ecuador piece, the ideas and the recordings for that, came from the expedition in 2018… around the time that I was releasing Singularity, actually. 

"I always thought that the Ecuador piece would be a 20-minute, standalone, piece of music but then the Ram Dass opportunity appeared when East Forest got in touch with me through a mutual friend, the Brazilian DJ Anna who is really amazing. She gave him my email and he got in touch and asked me to work with him on this amazing talk that he’d been given by the Ram Dass Foundation. 

"Suddenly I had Ecuador and I had Sit Around The Fire, and, at that point, I couldn’t quite see how they could sit together. That was October of 2020, I guess and Sit Around The Fire was finished within a couple of weeks. As you can hear, it’s a fairly simple piece… there’s not a huge amount of sound design. Then in January, when we entered that most difficult bit of lockdown, suddenly all this new stuff started coming to me. 

"That’s when I entered a sort of trance state and for the following five months, I became aware that I was making something that might possibly be the best thing I’ve made. It was then I realised that Ecuador and the Ram Dass piece fitted perfectly into it. The opening track, Welcome and all the epic stuff in the middle of the album were all done in that five months, which is pretty quick for me!”

You can tell you’re onto something when you’re channelling it through you so quickly?

“Yeah… and I’d moved studio in March, right in the middle of that burst of writing. It was a very smooth move, which let me carry on finishing it, then we mastered everything in June. I’ve been working a long time with a guy called Cherif Hashizume and he helps me with the mixes, so I’ll work on a track up to a certain point then he’ll come in and help improve the sound. I mixed everything I did up to Singularity but, as I’ve got older it’s got to the stage where I could be using my time for something else.”

Is mixing a process you don’t enjoy as much as the creating part? 

“I don’t really get a huge amount of pleasure in spending hours making a bass fit perfectly or twiddling little Notch filters to get everything right. So, it was amazing to be able to trust someone else with that stuff so I could have more energy to actually create. 

"We got into a brilliant routine from Singularity onwards but particularly on this album, where I would bring him in quite early sometimes to improve the sound that I was working with and then he’d do a full mix at the end then I’d come back in at the end and that would often unlock my final layer of work. 

In this era of music creation in particular you can get the machines to do almost anything for you but the one thing they can’t do is to have good taste or true individuality

"So, between us we got it to this point where the mixes are exactly how they’re supposed to be. I definitely found it easier not having any drums in there because there’s just so much space. It’s such a science making room for everything.” 

No temptation at any point to stick the odd beat into proceedings?

“Never even for a second! What I did think towards the end was that there are moments there, particularly in some of the stuff in the second half, that could be turned into different versions. I’ve always done different versions of album tracks… the Asleep Versions EP, We Disappear with Lulu James. 

"If you look at some of my Ableton sessions, you’ll see hundreds of tracks and some of those things actually sound really good on their own but they never get heard on their own. I love using some of those as starting points for new pieces and I think there’s a lot of potential for that in this album.” 

We imagine that Ableton is one of the few DAWs that would allow you to work ‘off-grid’ so easily as it’s such a fluid piece of software? 

“It’s funny because I sometimes speak to people who use Logic or something else and they always assume that Ableton is all about the grid. It was originally aimed at dance music, I think, I may be wrong, but you’ve got the looping thing, which is suggested and easy and you can have all your clips eight bars long or whatever. 

"Nowadays it’s so different as you could have five clips all at very slightly different lengths and just let them loop and they will generate something amazing. You can use the clips mode to almost be a generative machine to create some interesting music and introduce randomness at every level… you can kind of do anything you want. 

"With this one I was mostly working in Arrangement Mode and putting things down as I felt. For me, the clips mode is mostly for when I’m trying to make rhythmic music.”

It’s certainly garnered a reputation as being one of the more creative DAWs to work in, hasn’t it?

[laughs] “I think it’s by a million times the most creative one. If I was working with bands, which I don’t, but it would be a case of capturing things on Pro Tools because that seems to be the best at that. When it comes to sheer freedom and creativity though… I’m a big believer in allowing accidents to happen in music, which comes from having Eno as an influence because trying to have control over everything at all times is just not realistic. 

"Why not embrace and even cause accidents? So, I’ll do things like have a long chain of plugins I have saved in Ableton that have been built to process one particular sound, but then I’ll try putting different sounds into that specific, really strange chain of plugins and see what you end up with. 

"It’s all happening live; you’ve got instruments that are active so if you just change the instruments but keep the chain… I’ll have plugin chains of maybe 15 plugins running into each other and the results end up so far away from what you started with. Why not try playing a piano or singing into that to see what happens? 

"So, it’s not like I imagined all those sounds and made them in advance as that’s impossible. Once you have the epiphany that you can’t imagine all your own sounds, but they’ll come through if they’re what the music needs, then there’s a great freedom in that. I think Ableton’s the only program that really supports that kind of work method.” 

I’ll make things without thinking what the hell I’m doing… just get it down and I’ll work on the mix later

Is sound curation a growing part of electronic music making? 

“In this era of music creation in particular you can get the machines to do almost anything for you but the one thing they can’t do is to have good taste or true individuality. So, in a way it comes down to understanding whether something sounds good or not. I’m not the kind of producer who’s so technical that I’ll sit there fiddling with frequency scientifically. 

"I’m the opposite; I’ll make things without thinking what the hell I’m doing… just get it down and I’ll work on the mix later. The one thing that will never be taken away is knowing whether it sounds good or not… [laughs] so we’ve still got jobs until then!” 

Ecuadorian cave aside, there are some lush reverbs at work on this new album. Are they hardware or software in origin? 

“There’s no outboard, really, other than the synths. The Moog One was very central… I don’t think the MS-20 is on it at all. There’s a lot of very processed piano and a couple of Kontakt patches I did in Una Corda, which Nils Frahm was responsible for designing. I used UnaCorda a lot through a ridiculous amount of plugins. The reverbs are a mixture of Altiverb, Renaissance Reverb, Ableton’s own reverb, which, when you turn everything up to max has a 60 second reverb! 

I don’t just want to make this serious, emotional stuff but, saying that, there will probably be a Volume 2 of this at some point

"That in conjunction with Valhalla Shimmer and various delays… Soundtoys EchoBoy, of course. Altiverb in particular, I’d say, gives you so much of that sort of binaural sound so using the rooms in it just to place things is really powerful.” 

Any plans to take this album out live and, if so, how would you go about it? 

“I’m not planning to. When I finished it, I thought, ‘I’m never performing this as it is what it is and I don’t want different versions of it’. When I was talking to East Forest about it, he said, ‘don’t close the door on it… maybe in a year once it’s been out for a while you’ll find people want a live version and maybe you’ll feel OK about doing it then.’ It’s still a bit too precious at the moment to think about doing a live version as I want people to really know it first. 

"It’s funny as that’s so different from the experience I had around Singularity because it was finished and around the time of release, I was already rebuilding the tracks for a live version. This album’s just nothing like that as it’s structurally the way it’s meant to be so the idea of doing different structural interpretations of it just doesn’t appeal.”

Writing this way hasn’t made you throw away all the drum machines and outboard, has it? 

“I don’t really have any modulars, drum machines or any of that stuff - it’s all really Ableton and source audio from random places. I’m not done with anything though… I’d quite like to make a light, fun banger as a single or something for people to dance to. I don’t just want to make this serious, emotional stuff but, saying that, there will probably be a Volume 2 of this at some point.” 

Jon Hopkins' Music For Psychedelic Therapy is out now on Domino Records. 

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