If 2013's Immunity promoted Jon Hopkins from respected niche taste to noted techno auteur, his brand new album, Singularity, enshrines him as one of today's most visionary, ambitious producers. We reached the Moogfest headliner, who heroically stepped in on deadline day and took our call in an airport lounge after Chelsea Manning cancelled her interview with us, to learn more about the spiritual dimensions that are so clearly but abstractly present in his music, how his two similarly named albums relate to each other and thrust toward a trilogy, and his holistic approach to albums in an age that tends to favor the track. Hopkins performs his live set at the Carolina Theatre at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, May 18; he also has DJ sets at The Armory Thursday and Friday nights.
INDY: Your albums are such deep listening experiences and they happen so much in controlled stereo space. How do you translate that to a live show?
JON HOPKINS: The first step is separating every sound out. Often, I'll reduce a lot of the stereo complexity or it just becomes messy. So even though it may sound emotionally similar to the record, a lot of layers have been taken out. I've also revisited tracks from Immunity and primed them to sit alongside the new ones.
And I assume you build in visual elements?
Yeah, that's a big part of it. It's a good opportunity to really think about how these tracks should look, which is something I don't really think about while writing.
That's interesting because to me, your music is so visual. But you're not even thinking about the visuals when you're making it.
Yeah, it's funny, I've noticed that people have very different responses to the visual side. A lot of people see very specific things. I don't. To me, they're kind of like dimensional abstract spaces and shapes, complex, almost like buildings or rooms with objects in them. I'll meet one person who gets one landscape from it and another who gets a whole series of colors from the same track. Sometimes at shows you see people standing with their eyes shut, and I love that. In some ways, that's the purest approach.
That must be cool to see people with their eyes closed and imagine all the different things they're seeing—everybody in their own world with this piece of music that you made.
That's the beauty of music. It's a language that says things you can't say in words, but one where people hear different things. I always find it remarkable, the effects of music on the brain.
Your music feels like a brain to me. It's very psychological in some way. But I also understand from the recent New Yorker article that this album follows a seeking period in your life. Can you tell us about your life leading up to this record and how it seeped in?
Yeah, I think every record I make is a distillation of what's happened not just when I'm writing but, particularly, before that. It was a period of burnout following too much touring and the insomnia I developed. Seeking solutions plunged me deep into meditation, which is something I was familiar with already. But I learned new types, transcendental in particular, and I also just found myself having a lot of visionary experiences with natural psychedelics. It was this opening up of consciousness. Whatever mood, whatever transitions that are occurring in the brain, they will come out in the music whether you like it or not. In a way it made for a potentially riskier album in that it's quite a lot more open-hearted and wears its heart on its sleeve, to use two cheesy heart references.
With the last record, [Immunity]—in London particularly, it's a safer bet to make a sort of dark, heavy thing than it is to make a sparkly, spiritual record. I became very convinced that I had to do exactly what I felt. It was an amazingly complicated process at first but as I got towards the end of it, things just started seeming to fall into place. It ended up being as magical an experience to write as I hope people will have listening to it.
I always had this latent sense that, OK, this is someone who does yoga or reads Carlos Castaneda.
[Laughs] I have got the book, I haven't read it yet. I need to read it.
You'll love it. Great tour reading. So, Immunity, Singularity—it feels like a trilogy forming.
You're absolutely right. I even have the third name.
Are you sharing that name yet?
[Laughs] No! The second one's been out a week.
Fair. Can you talk about how those concepts relate to each other, and also how they differentiate those two albums, Immunity and Singularity?
I haven't thought about them in relation to each other that much. So much of this happens on instinct. There was an element of using music almost as a shield back then. The name Immunity came from this feeling I get when music's going well. If you're writing something and it really, truly lights you up, the world feels like a different place, hopeful and positive. So that was music as a shield and as a release, maybe. There's quite a lot of aggression in the music as well, and there is on this album, too, particularly in the first half, but with Immunity there was more nihilism, maybe less clarity about what I really wanted to transmit. On this one, the concepts are bigger. Immunity was kind of looking in, introverted, while Singularity has a feeling of vastness. In a way they're completely opposing.
It should be interesting to see how you resolve that opposition on the third part of this trilogy.
I know that it's going to have to be very different. I feel like with this one, I've taken this exact combination of styles, at least rhythmically, as far as I can.
Well, as long as the title ends in "-ity," we'll be fine. So Jon, I always have this sense that you approach albums holistically, not as like collections of tracks. How does that whole start to come into view for you?
Yeah, that's really important to me. People ask, "Why do you bother doing this when no one listens to it that way?" My response is always, I can't really make it my business how people consume it. All I can do is make it exactly how I see it being made. At the beginning, of course, you have no real idea, but really quite early on, it starts forming into a whole, and I can imagine the kind of line graph of it. It will become apparent what the first track is, and it just allows you to sonically piece together a narrative. The songs should work in isolation, but the way they affect each other can exponentially improve the experience. For me, an hour is the perfect amount of time. I just love that format. There are people who refused to listen to the singles because they've heard me talking about this, which is just lovely.