The Mercury Prize-nominated electronic musician was in NYC for two shows in one day. So were we.
JON HOPKINS SHOULD BE EXHAUSTED. He performed in Mexico City this morning. There were delays—of course there were delays—so he did not hit the stage until 2:30 a.m. He rushed to catch a flight to New York City after the set. He landed at JFK about two hours ago. A taxi took him straight to MoMA PS1, in Queens, where he is scheduled to perform at 4:00 p.m. on a bill with Liars and IO Echo. Later tonight, Jon will headline an after-midnight show at Cameo Gallery, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. If everything goes according to plan, he will hop a plane tomorrow and arrive in Montreal just in time for his Théâtre Telus show with Modeselektor and Apparat.
Jon has been busy before but not quite this busy. The 34-year-old Londoner has released four solo albums and a few EPs and singles since the early-2000s. But Jon's latest album, 'Immunity,' released in June through Domino Records, is his biggest breakthrough so far. It premiered on NPR and earned Pitchfork's “Best New Music” tag; and, along with the latest albums by Disclosure, David Bowie, Arctic Monkeys and James Blake, 'Immunity' was nominated for a 2013 Mercury Prize. (It lost to Blake's 'Overgrown.')
It was not Jon's first Mercury Prize nomination. The second album he made with Scottish singer King Creosote, 'Diamond Mine,' was nominated in 2011. But, before this year, Jon, who began his career as a touring member of Imogen Heap's band, has been primarily recognized for his collaborations. Namely for his work with Brian Eno on the ambient music icon's 'Another Day On Earth' (2005) and 'Small Craft On A Milk Sea' (2010); and for his contributions as a co-producer on Coldplay's Grammy-winning 'Viva La Vida' (2009), as well as the British alternative rock band's multi-platinum 'Mylo Xyloto' (2011).
Also with Eno, Jon worked on the soundtrack for Peter Jackson's film 'The Lovely Bones.' In 2011, his original score for Gareth Edwards' science fiction movie 'Monsters' was nominated for an Ivor Novello Award. And he recently composed the music for 'How I Live Now,' the new film by Kevin Macdonald, the director of the award-winning films 'One Day In September' and 'The Last King Of Scotland.' (The 'How I Live Now' soundtrack includes the song 'Garden's Heart,' Jon's dreamy collaboration with Natasha Khan, a.k.a. Bat For Lashes.) From songwriting and production work to film scores and playing Sydney Opera House with Eno and The Necks, his resume is diverse and impressive.
But, with 'Immunity,' one of the most thrilling and bold and peculiar dance music albums of 2013, Jon has stepped out of the shadows of his partners. Now he is rushing forward on his own.
JON'S PUBLICIST HAS EMAILED ME numerous times in the last two weeks to remind me how busy he will be today. Right before I am supposed to meet him and his Domino handlers backstage at PS1, his publicist calls to remind me one more time. She says he will need time to sleep between his two shows, because three concerts in 24 hours is too many concerts for one human in one day. This sounds reasonable. But I am expecting to see Jon delivered to the PS1 stage on a stretcher. Exhausted. A ghost. Wobbly and frail. Too overblown to answer my questions. Or too frantic to sit still.
Surprisingly, Jon looks very well rested even though a crying baby prevented him from sleeping on the plane from Mexico City. He is all smiles and charm. His face is chiseled. He has thick eyebrows, and dark eyes that are clear and glowing and sincere. I am convinced Jon is the nicest person I have ever met in my life after speaking with him for only a few minutes as he drinks his first iced coffee, ever, because, he says, there is no iced coffee in London. I tell him I find this hard to believe. He assures me it is true, I trust him, and we talk about his set, which is supposed to start in 15 minutes.
“I'm not used to playing outdoors,” he confesses. “I didn't know this was going to be an outdoor performance. I didn't know anything about this show at all, really. My friend, Four Tet, advised me to do it, and I think he put a good word in for me, so here I am. Since I haven't slept, this all seems like a next morning, when-you're-still-up-partying kind of show. A similar unusual state of mind helped me write this album, though. The day after, with a hangover, is when I'm extra-inspired. When I'm lacking sleep, something in my brain must be freed, and it allows me to be more creative. Now if I know I'm going to have an adventurous night, I try to make sure I have a clear day following it so I can make use of the feeling and go into the studio early and try to harness it. Some times, I can't move. We'll see what happens today...”
Warm Up is MoMA PS1's long-running, outdoor summer concert series. The curators this year include representatives from hip record labels (XL, DFA, RVNG Intl.) and one editor from a hip music website (Pitchfork). The emphasis is on hip acts, some old but with a priority on emerging artists who maybe you have never heard before. Since June, there have been performances by up-and-coming producers Ryan Hemsworth and XXYYXX, indie come-ups Majical Cloudz and Kelela, dance music veterans Juan Atkins and Kode9, and rappers J. Cole and Mr. MFN eXquire. The lineups are always eclectic and, with the exception of J. Cole, the artists are normally at least half a notch left of center.
My first impression of PS1 is that it will be an awkward place to experience Jon's music. The shows happen in the courtyard of the gigantic contemporary art space. It is a claustrophobic scene. Towering brick and concrete walls on all sides with an elevated stage straight ahead. There are several rows of bleacher-style seats directly in front of the stage that face away from the stage, so a few dozen seated humans, their backs to the performer, stare at the few hundred standing audience members facing the stage. Awkward. It is the sort of place where you might want to wait out a zombie apocalypse, because nothing could possibly scale these high walls, but it is not the ideal setting for intricate and enlightened dance music. And today it is about 90 degrees. The sun is blasting down, slamming off the concrete walls and the dusty, gravel floor to produce a scorching, oven-y situation.
So when Jon takes the stage, perching behind his table of equipment, I am skeptical. How will this sunny Saturday afternoon party crowd respond to Jon's often-catastrophic and turbulent music? 'Immunity' is not as bleak as The Haxan Cloak's 'Excavation,' but it is also not half-as-happy-go-lucky as James Holden's 'The Inheritors' or The Field's 'Cupid's Head.' There are sanguine sections, and the majority of Jon's latest tracks are danceable, but I cannot imagine the yapping bros up front sporting khaki cargo shorts digging deep into Jon's complex music.
All of my cynical predictions, as is almost always the case, are incorrect. The crowd loves Jon's music. When the fuzz of 'Breathe This Air' dissipates to reveal echoing piano strokes, and those temporarily brush away the panicked beat, a refreshing stillness hovers. But it is the foreboding kind, so when the noisy beat returns, everyone bounces and slips into it as Jon drags them in. It is still confusing considering just how violent so much of Jon's new music is, and it is especially abrasive today because the piercing static and the weaponized bass are unpredictably bashing off the concrete walls.
Jon jounces with the 4/4 slam of 'Collider.' He is slapping pads and twisting knobs, his shoulders spasming as if he has thrown himself into a trance. There is not really much to look at, though, as is normally the case with this type of music, especially in the day, when there are no strobes or effects. But Jon's set, pulling mostly from 'Immunity' plus a couple songs from his last album, 'Insides,' is transportive. The portentously entrancing 'Open Eye Signal' causes me to forget where I am and I forget I am supposed to be looking at something and that there is even such a thing as looking at things. I drift somewhere else and I hear the myriad textures and the revolving patterns. I am lost in the fluttering lunar noises and the shredded melodies.
I recall the kid riding his skateboard in the 'Open Eye Signal' video. There is nobody left in the world except him and everything is empty but beautiful and then I think I hear screams behind the beat as if Jon has snuck a field recording of a torture chamber into the live mix and it is pure horror and delight and I am baffled so I open my eyes and I see that everyone is dancing, wildly, including the bros with the khaki shorts. Jon has won everyone over, it seems, because apparently people love dancing to brutal and sophisticated electronic music in the middle of the day.
The Warm Up green room is located in part of PS1's basement. It is calm and cool here—a pleasant respite from the sweltering concert space. There is a table with some food on it. Cold pizza, croissants, fruits, vegetables, chips. Angus Andrew, of Liars, sits on a chair and some other people are quietly milling about. They are probably musicians but I do not recognize them. A man who looks like he is a member of the Russian mafia occasionally says things softly to Angus, so I assume he is Liars' handler. There is no free booze, so it is a pretty tame green room, as far as green rooms go.
Jon enters and immediately removes his Nike sneakers. One of his Domino handlers is making arrangements for Jon to get back to the hotel before him and the other handler head off to the Omar Souleyman show. (In a few weeks, Souleyman's Four Tet-produced album, 'Wenu Wenu,' is supposed to drop on Domino imprint Ribbon Music; the Syrian artist is playing a rare New York City show today.) The second Domino handler asks Jon what he thought about the set and Jon says: “I could feel the subs underneath me, which was nice.” A few minutes later, there is a plan. A cab will pick Jon up in front of PS1 in 45 minutes and take him to the Wythe Hotel, in Brooklyn. In the meantime, Jon will tell me how he got here.
JON WAS BORN IN WIMBELDON, London, in 1979. His parents were not musicians, but there was a piano in the house and Jon loved to play it. He says he was doing just fine teaching himself, and having fun improvising, but his parents wanted him to “harness [his] talents,” and so they enrolled him in Saturday classes at the Royal College of Music when he was 12. He was still in regular school during the week, but, for the next five years, Jon studied music at the college on the weekends. “For a minute, I thought about being a classical pianist,” he recalls. “At my best, when I was about 16 or 17, I was able to play a lot of my favorite pieces and realize nearly any musical idea I had. I've completely lost that now on the piano. I can play the slower stuff you hear on my records, but my finger technique has slipped away and I can no longer play anything fast or complicated.”
Jon enjoyed playing the piano—he once won a competition that allowed him to perform with an orchestra—but he was way more fascinated with electronic music. When he was 10, his parents, always supportive of his creativity, gave him an old Tascam portable studio for Christmas. “They had no idea what it was,” he says. “But they knew I was interested in recording. I had no idea what it was, either. I didn't know what any of the buttons did. It took some time but I figured out I could layer tracks onto a cassette. I could record one thing and then put another track on top of that. I remember very well the first day I discovered panning: Everything started to sound incredible! Discovering these things on my own, and not being told how to use these devices, was always very exciting for me. I'm a big believer in slow, painful discovery processes being the ultimate way to learn.”
His fascination grew. He describes himself as “a reclusive kid,” so he devoted a lot of time to fiddling around with sound. When he was 14, he got an Amiga 500 computer and patiently taught himself how to make music with it. The next year, he saved enough money to buy a Roland D-20. “I'm a big believer in following instinct over everything else, and it was electronic music that made me the most excited,” Jon says. “The thrill I felt when I bought my first second-hand synth was overwhelming. I knew that was what I had to do. I knew I had to explore the sounds I could get from that machine, and from the Amiga 500. So I started chopping up samples, and sampling the things I was listening to at the time, which was early Chemical Brothers, early drum and bass, early acid house. I taught myself sampling and it kept me up all night. I never felt this way about piano. If I'm writing on the piano, it's within the set boundary of what I can do with the instrument, which is a lot, really, but not enough. Electronically, it's endless what can be done.”
Jon's first job after he graduated from school was playing keyboard and sampler for Imogen Heap. His friend, Leo Abrahams, also a Royal College of Music student, played guitar for the band. Jon toured with Imogen Heap for about one year, in support of 'iMegaphone' (1998), but the money soon ran out. He then devoted time to his solo work. The following year, he released his debut album, 'Opalescent,' on the Just Music label.
It was not a very good album. There were some beautiful, blissful electro-acoustic, drone-y moments. But, overall, it was New Age-y and awfully hippie. The guitar parts on 'Elegiac' were corny. 'Private Universe' was stiff and uptight. The majority of the tracks, like 'Inner Peace' and 'Grace,' were optimal as background music for an elevator ride to a place you did not need or want to go. Some of the songs were used in episodes of HBO's 'Sex & The City,' however, so Jon was able to make some cash from 'Opalescent.' But, looking back, he is not so pleased with it.
“Not many people have heard it,” Jon says about his solo debut, which he recorded when he was 19. “I like about half of it now. It has a melancholic, gentle side. But I can't stand the other half. I wish I could un-write a track or two, even. I wish I could remove them from history. I was young and the best thing that came from it was that it managed to set me up to write the second one, because I earned a bit of money. People still buy it, so I guess it was a good start.”
His next solo album, released by Just Music in 2004, was 'Contact Note.' Jon is not so pleased with that one, either. “At the time, my confidence was sort of high because I was making a living from the first album, so I thought people would be excited about the second one. I spent a whole year on it, and then nobody cared about it! But I had sincere aims and I thought it would be a really epic record. Aside from the last few tracks, it's all so clean and perfect sounding. Back then, I thought it was edgy, but it's all so polite.”
Ouch! “Polite” is the ultimate criticism. Nobody wants to make Polite Music. But it is true: 'Contact Note' was very, very, very polite. Like 'Opalescent,' the songs have a space-y, New Age-y, elevator-y vibe. Inoffensive corporate background tunes conducive for a post-lunch commute back to the matrix. The music was so cautious you could actually hear Jon restraining himself on the lifeless 'Sleepwalker' and the plodding 'Searchlight.' Normally, you can glean a musician's current work in that same musician's old work. But, on Jon's first two albums, there are no signs of the adventurous vision and contagious zest of 'Immunity.' Not yet.
After 'Contact Note,' Jon temporarily put aside his solo work. “I did nothing,” he remembers. “Nothing was working, so I wanted to learn something else and I decided on producing.” He devoted himself to the studio, picking up gigs as an instrumentalist and producer. And, luckily, this eventually led to his encounter with Brian Eno. Jon's pal from music school and Imogen Heap's band, Abrahams, randomly bumped into Eno one day at a guitar shop in London. The two hit it off, started working together, and Abrahams brought Jon to meet Eno. An edifying and prosperous creative relationship developed. Jon and Eno connected instantly and parts of their first jam session became Eno's 'Another Day On Earth.'
“I had looked up to Brian since [he co-produced U2's] 'Joshua Tree,'” Jon says. “Then I started listening to his ambient albums and I became a serious fan. If you think of my second album as being polite and controlled, then Eno taught me how to move away from that. He taught me how to spend less time on the fine-tuning. I slowly moved away from the over-thought technique you can hear on my first two albums. He made me more comfortable using improvisation in my writing process, which was something I had forgotten how to do.”
Jon did not apply what he learned from Eno to his own work for a few years. He was too busy with other collaborations and production gigs. Around this time, he also started working with King Creosote. Over the next few years, in various capacities, Jon worked with Creosote on 'Bombshell' and 'Flick The Vs.' Jon's biggest breakthrough, though, was when he received a text message from Eno requesting his assistance on a Coldplay project.
“Brian admired how [Coldplay] was keen to get away from their previous album,” says Jon. “They'd come to the end of the road with their old recording method, and Brian is very good at breaking down musicians' established habits, which is what he was indirectly doing with me. He got them all playing in a room together again. Brian said, 'This is how you started out as a band, now go do it again.' It was so obvious but the band said: 'Of course, this is great, we're a band again!'''
Jon spent the next five months working on Coldplay's 'Viva La Vida.” It was a huge success. It has sold over 10 million copies since 2008. Coldplay also asked Jon to tour with them, so he performed for the first time in huge, sold-out arenas around the world, including Madison Square Garden. And, by the end of 2008, Jon signed a solo deal with Domino Records.
'Insides,' Jon's third album, was released in May, 2009. It was vastly superior to 'Opalescent' and 'Contact Note,' though parts of it were still polite. It was not as daring as 'Immunity' is, but Jon's voice was getting stronger, more confident. You can hear traces of his new sound on the claustrophobic 'Colour Eye' and the spacious, contemplative 'Small Memory.' 'Light Through The Veins,' which was used on the Coldplay LP and remains one of the highlights of Jon's live set, was his first bonafide and exhilarating dance floor track, as a sticky, spiraling melody expanded into an anthemic, gravity-defying rush. The album performed fairly well, too. It climbed to the 15th spot on Billboard's Dance/Electronic Albums Chart. And, once again, Jon went on a world tour, sharing stages with Four Tet, the xx, and Röyksopp, and performing at big electronic music festivals like Electric Zoo and Mutek.
After a decent run with his own music, Jon decided to devote the next couple years to more studio collaborations. He dove deeper into film score projects, too, which allowed him to improvise along with the visuals and hone his creative instincts and sonic-cinematic perspective. He worked again with Eno on 'Small Craft On A Milk Sea,' and with King Creosote on the Mercury Prize-nominated 'Diamond Mine' and the 'Honest Words' EP. He also teamed up with Eno again for Coldplay's 'Mylo Xyloto.' Like the last Coldplay album, it was a very lucrative endeavor and it prepared Jon to focus once more on his own music.
“Working with Coldplay totally changed my life,” Jon says. “I wasn't bankrupt, but I wasn't doing too great with my own music. After working with Coldplay, I was able to move to a nicer flat, and I got a studio outside of the flat. That was a massive change, because I'm not the kind of person who can work at home. It's not good for me. Some people love it, but not me. So when I started thinking about my next solo album, I knew I could afford to be more experimental. I had the time to work on my own sound and I didn't have to take on every project that was offered to me. For the first time since 2003, I said 'No' to everything and put all my attention on my own music. I cleared my calendar and made 'Immunity.'”
One of the first sounds on 'Immunity,' on the song 'We Disappear,' is a field recording of Jon's studio door opening and closing. It marks a new beginning for him. He spent the next nine months reinventing himself. He started using Logic and switched from a PC to a Mac. He stopped composing on piano. He bought some new hard synths and fell in love again with the unique sounds each one made. Taking Eno's lessons to heart, he loosened up. He stopped thinking so much about each minute process, he trusted his instincts, and he improvised. As he mentioned before the PS1 set, he went into the studio early in the mornings and with soft eyes, still blurry and radiant from the previous night's party.
The first song Jon wrote was 'Open Eye Signal.' It is an epic, eight-minutes-long dance odyssey that starts with a subtle pulse and gradually explodes into a hypnotic whirlwind of twisting rhythms, angelic atmospherics and thrashing thumps. “I never could have written this song on piano,” Jon says. “It was a whole different type of music for me: it was a real departure. And I didn't have to rush myself—I spent six weeks on this one song! I had to really learn what it was to make a techno rhythm so I could justify such a long track. I looped it and went around and around in it until it worked. It's got this 19 bar loop, which is unusual for that type of music, but makes it more free and open sounding. You never know when the chord will change. It was musically distinct for me.”
'Open Eye Signal,' with its abrasive slashes and doom-y zones, hints at something apocalyptic that was not present in Jon's previous work. There is a darkness: something terrifying. These vibes peak on the relentlessly brooding 'Collider,' as witchy drones and disorienting vocal fragments whirl around a fuzz-whipped beat. “It sounds like the end of the world to me,” Jon says. “Or the feelings associated with the loss of an ecosystem and all the damage that we've done. I don't try to infuse music with politics, and I don't intentionally try to make these points, but sometimes it comes out naturally.”
“It's noisy, definitely,” he continues. “To me, that makes it sound alive. I want my music to be a living, organic, rising, completely free-form thing that could go anywhere and do anything, but within the confines of a hypnotic techno rhythm. And the rhythms—which are these established techno beats—hide the experimentalism. The musical side is where the depth is for me.”
There are ominous musical moments, but there is light, too. 'Abandon Window' is life-affirming and tranquil, as a slow piano phrase softly tiptoes through a heavenly field of reviving white noise. About 'Sun Harmonics,' an elated and uplifting dance track that includes a field recording of the London streets made the night he finished the album, Jon says: “It is a happy place for me. I wrote that for myself more than anybody else. It's the perfect tune for nine in the morning, when you haven't slept yet. It's that kind of sun-is-rising, totally-bliss-ed-out, I-don't-want-it-to-end tune. I always wanted to write one of those, but I couldn't do it before.”
“The songs are places for me,” he says. “'Sun Harmonics' is a place. You're drifting, it's meditative, you're hypnotized, you're floating, you're moving about. It's warm and welcoming. There is an edge to it but it's ultimately euphoric. These are not pieces of music, but areas where you can spend time.”
But now it is time for Jon to catch his cab. I help him carry his luggage through the labyrinthine underground hallways of PS1. We get lost—we cannot find the exit—Jon asks a security guard for directions. There are people clogging the staircase. One of them tells Jon he enjoyed the set, and Jon quickly says “Thank you” and keeps walking. We make it outside, but the cab is not there. For the first time all day, standing under the PS1 awning with his luggage, trying to contact his lost ride, Jon looks tired. He says we should meet in about six hours at Cameo Gallery. The cab comes. Jon crosses the street and he climbs into the car and it zips him away.
IT IS MIDNIGHT IN BROOKLYN. Jon is preparing for his set at Cameo. When he left PS1, he tried to sleep, but he could not. In search of food, he walked the streets around his hotel. He ate a chili dog and some tacos. Then he was able to sleep for about one hour. “I've lost touch of when I'm supposed to be tired and when I'm not,” he says. His set starts in 30 minutes.
Cameo is hidden in the room behind Lovin Cup Cafe, a very average looking bar with tables and booths. The 30 or so people sitting and standing around the bar probably have no idea what is happening in the back, down the winding hallway that leads to the performance space. It is dark inside and the people are already packed in—shoulder to shoulder, very little wiggle room. A beautiful installation hangs above the stage. Dozens of thin strands of bright light dangle like illuminated jellyfish tendrils and the colors twinkle and morph as Jon takes the stage.
He settles in once more behind his gear. As the beat of 'Breathe This Air' emerges, everyone instantly dances. The creeping ominousness of Jon's music is more at home here than at PS1. It is easier to zone out in the dark and I can feel the bodies around me moving and all their heat. When the first recognizable rhythms of 'Open Eye Signal' puncture the dystopic hiss and barrage of shattering glass, everyone cheers and sways. For the next 30 minutes, we are all totally swallowed by the throbbing, spellbinding sounds, shifting together like a puzzle, happily lost.
After the show, I meet Jon in front of Cameo. He sits on one of his suitcases and a few people talk to him and shake his hand as they are leaving the venue and Jon smiles and thanks them for coming and he says he had a great time. The hang is cut short when a very inebriated man who almost runs over a person while he is parking his car shows up and starts acting sketchy. He says some bizarre things to us that do not make any sense and Jon suggests we leave before something bad happens. His hotel is nearby, so I carry one of his suitcases and we walk.
“I always think of my music as nocturnal music,” he says, “so this second set made more sense than the earlier one today. The PS1 show was amazing, though. I love playing in the sunshine. But the darker, heavier tracks don't make sense during the day. They make more sense in a sweaty club, like this. The crowd was really into it, too.”
I tell him I could experience a full range of emotions across his late set, which is what is so compelling about 'Immunity.' Much of the electronic dance music that is popular now in the United States is not nearly as dynamic and warm. It often feels mechanical: there is the drop and the rest is filler. But 'Open Eye Signal' alone leaps from despair to joy to fear to glory and back again. It has highs and lows and grey areas where you have no idea what is happening or what will happen.
“It's a real journey from one side to the other for me,” Jon says. “In the middle of the set, there's a moment when I'm doing a 10 minute version of 'Collider' followed by 'Light Through The Veins.' It rises out of the gloom and has an amazing impact on the crowd. There is this great effect from maybe playing the song too loud, and it releases all of this pent up emotion. To me, it sounds like a whole story. It's an arc, but I don't know what that story is. It doesn't matter.”
When we arrive at the Wythe, about 10 people are standing out front, waiting for cabs to take them wherever they are going. They are yelling and partying and probably drunk because it is 3 a.m. on a Saturday night. I hand Jon his bag and we say goodbye. “I guess I should try to get some sleep,” he says. There is a hint of uncertainty in his voice, as if he might stay awake until his flight to Montreal.