Coldplay Producer Jon Hopkins Is Now Center Stage

Talking to the Brit producer on Brian Eno, David Lynch and crawling on the floor with a microphone.
Jon Hopkins
Jon Hopkins © Brandon/Redferns via Getty Images
By Gemma Lacey

A few days ago, British electronic music producer Jon Hopkins released a collaboration with Natasha Khan, a.k.a. Bat for Lashes, called 'Garden's Heart.' It's a beautiful composition, created for director Kevin Macdonald's film 'How I Live Now,' which stars Saoirse Ronan and which Hopkins is scoring. In addition to film-scoring -- he also did 'Monsters' in 2010 -- Hopkins co-produced Coldplay's 'Viva La Vida' and has four solo albums of his own.

We nabbed Hopkins – who popped along to RBMA New York in May and whose new album 'Immunity' (on Domino) is so majestic we’ll happily stake our house on him receiving a Mercury Prize nomination -- to talk about thinking visually, his most important influences, working with Brian Eno, strange samples and how to keep it interesting in the studio.

Is scoring films something you’ve sought out or did it happen quite organically?

I think it happened because my first two solo albums didn’t really do much. The first one got me some good licenses in TV and stuff, so I was able to live off it long enough to make the second album. But the second album didn’t do anything, so I had to look beyond solo music. I started thinking, 'Shit, am I going to need to start learning to be a producer?' So, I met King Creosote and started producing with him and that lead to me getting a bit of experience. When Brian Eno asked me to work with Coldplay, I’d had some experience by that point and it added a lot.

The film thing was always something I’d dreamed of doing when I was a teenager, particularly. I didn’t really know you could be a solo electronic musician, that thing didn’t exist for me much back then, so film music was a dream for me. My stuff naturally has a film-type sound to it, that’s why I think I love it.

It just started occurring to me how much life is brought to a recording when it isn’t just pure electronic, or perfect recorded sound.

Do you think you’re a visual person, as well as a music person?

I get asked that, but I hear my music as fully abstract. I don’t see visuals with it, apart from maybe an abstract 3D structure, not actual places or anything. But, people do when they hear it, which is great. It just naturally is that way. When I released my third album, Insides, it happened to be noticed by some film people and they got in touch, and that’s how I did my first score.

Is there anything you’d particularly like to write a score for or anyone you’d like to work with?

I’ve never really thought about that. There are obviously directors I’d like to work with. It’d be great to work with David Lynch or someone like that… obvious ones. I’m an enormous Twin Peaks fan. You can hear it in the music, it’s in there somewhere. I did a remix for him, so I got the experience of meeting him. He hasn’t made a feature film for a while now [2006's Inland Empire], so it might not happen, but you never know.

What were the high points of working with Brian Eno?

So many things happened in that time. I met him in 2003, worked on his album 'Another Day on Earth,' and then years later worked with him and Coldplay, and then again on 'Small Craft on a Milk Sea.' All these situations were about improvisation and that’s his whole thing, that’s what he loves most. He doesn’t really like tooling around with finished sounding pieces and editing, he just likes to create new stuff. I got really inspired to just throw all my ideas down.

That was a change of process for you?

My first album was me finding my way, trying to write something and the second one was so precise. It feels a bit lifeless because it was so over-worked. I think he broke me out of that, a bit.

There have been moments where I’ve literally been on the floor with a tie-clip mic, rubbing the carpet to get a little shaker sound.

What inspired you to use found sounds on your new material?

It just started occurring to me how much life is brought to a recording when it isn’t just pure electronic, or perfect recorded sound. It doesn’t have as much character when it’s not mixed with some sort of noise. I found that it’s almost like if you record the noise from outside the studio and you put the listener in my head, exactly the position that I’m in when I’m writing it, it seems to give it some reality and depth.

I also found that if you mix these things in quite loud, you get these amazing, accidental artifacts, like the noise of someone walking down the street; it will happen to join in with the rhythm that you’ve made. These sorts of accidents happen all the time, and it’s almost like you recognise that they’re going to happen and you engineer them to happen, rather than trying to keep everything under control.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve sampled?

There have been moments where I’ve literally been on the floor with a tie-clip mic, rubbing the carpet to get a little shaker sound. Some of the sounds are really microscopic. My studio is in a building with three other studios, and my room is next to the kitchen. Before I put my soundproofing up, you could hear the noise of people washing up, so there’s sounds of dishes being washed in one track.

Is there a record that changed the way you listen or think about music?

In the 'Aeroplane Over the Sea' by Neutral Milk Hotel, that’s my favorite album. To me, that’s the reason why I write so specifically in album format and will always want to; that idea of telling a story over an hour-long period. When I first heard that record I was like, this is a fully realized world that has been made by this guy. It’s so creative and you can get completely lost in it. And if you read the lyrics that he’s printed they don’t match with the music – they go off to explain things, sometimes, which I think is so creative.

For some people, being in the studio is quite a torturous process. Do you find that you produce a body of work quite quickly and refine it afterwards?

Yeah, that’s exactly it. I spend a long time refining because I find that satisfying, but the core of the track is written in the space of a couple of days, maybe. I like to make it sonically interesting. It’s important to me to capture the energy of the first ideas, capture all the feelings that you have that day and get the essence of it. Any amount of refinement, as long as you’re careful, shouldn’t overwork it. If you keep the ideas you had then that spark of life will still be there, hopefully.

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