Jon Hopkins On The Tension In Blending Techno And Ambient Sounds For His Latest Album ‘Singularity’

Steve Gullick

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“The Singularity” is a theory posited by futurists that describes a hypothetical event which will send technological advancement off the deep end — creating a kind of exponential growth in intelligence and technology. It’s a precise moment when all is possible and infinite, leading some to believe it represents the next moment in sociobiological evolution. For producer Jon Hopkins, the singularity represents a kind of harmony. As Hopkins’ first album in five years, Singularity begins with the long drone of a single note that then everything else on the album emanates from and returns to. The hard lined sounds of beat-forward techno are juxtaposed against softer, lush ambient moments, creating a collision of synthesized and analog sounds that are at times at odds with one another yet ultimately become indistinguishable.

It’s a welcome return for the artist who really turned heads in 2013 with the release of Immunity, his breakthrough album. With that record, Hopkins established himself as a songwriter concerned with narrative who made compelling, subtle yet expansive works of introspective electronic music.

We caught up with Hopkins as he prepared for his first batch of live sets since he toured in support of Immunity in 2015. The English producer expounded upon the continuity between this album and his last, the overarching narrative he sees his albums fitting in, and the way he plays techno and ambient off of one another to create an engrossing album that also feels introspective.

I couldn’t help but notice that the art from the Asleep Versions EP bears a strong resemblance to parts of the video for “Emerald Rush.” Were they by the same artist?

That is right and it is very much intention as well. That’s Robert Hunter. He’s got his own illustrated books and very mysterious, very distinctive style that I loved. So along with a guy called Elliot Deer, they worked together on the “Emerald Rush” video. I quite like to work with the same people. Keep the team going, you know we all kind of build our file together. It’s a nice way of working.

It’s sort of a nice way to connect Immunity with Singularity in the sense that there’s that visual theme connecting the two. Is that a purposeful visual theme and does it relate to the music? Do you see the two records as being connected?

Yeah I kind of see the arc of all five of my albums telling a continuing story. Obviously that makes more sense to me, because they tie in directly to my own experiences and my own kind of evolution, but I think each one to me is very much the next part of the story, whatever the story may be and it’s nice to have some sort of shared visual aesthetic along the way.

2013 was a big year for you as far how widely-acclaimed Immunity was, plus you released a soundtrack for How I Live Now, toured a lot, and participated in the 2015 Late Night Tales mix series. When did you actually sit down to make a record again?

So this process started in November of 2015. I really hit quite a block when I started, which is exactly what happened with Immunity as well. The “blank canvas syndrome” is quite a difficult thing for me. So I was trying to start in the summer of 2015 when I did this production of Hamlet in London and that was the last kind of big project I did outside of writing. I ended up just taking a few months off and then to get me moving again I took a couple of smaller jobs on like just single tracks. I did one production by London Grammar and one remix for Disclosure. Those two things got me back in the mode of being in the studio and writing. When I hit upon the first sound that I actually found exciting enough to view as a starting point for a track, that’s the sound that you hear at the beginning of track 3, “Neon Panda.” It’s an interesting sound I think and like a sonic breakthrough for me.

On that topic of jarring sounds that really stick with you I found even the opening note to opening track “Singularity” has that feel of not being quite sure what it is and then it starts to transform as you’re trying to like lock into what exactly is happening. Is that also the intent of that sound?

Yeah I mean the way you described it is actually what I hope is happening to the listener. That sound at the beginning of the record is a piano string vibrating and then it morphs into a series of different modular synthesis, kind of a groan I guess, and then it causes everything to sound like it was growling from there and everything was constantly morphing. That was one of the ideas I had before I started the record, that everything was starting with one note and then retreated to that same sound right at the very end.

How do you actually go about writing? Do you sit in front of a piano, do you sit in front of your computer? It seems like different songs on the album might have come up in different ways.

Basically, whatever you’re hearing on there will tell you where it was written. I think the capturing of actual performances is a relatively small part of the process. I tend to catch on live performances really quickly and improvisations get put down in the different clips. And then I’m able to know them and then begins the very long process of refinement and tweaking and improving and disrupting in particular. I like to kind of disrupt my own process quite a lot to make sure that things don’t end up sounding predictable or, like things I’ve done before. So, yeah, a good 90% of the process is essentially just looking at the screen and playing around with things. But I do love that you can get very deeply into that and the process after a while, it’s almost like you don’t see it, like you’re just seeing like the essence of your head and the like.

How do you change your approach each time to prevent yourself from repeating what you’ve done before? Like is there an exercise that you do or do you just like keep track of that sort of stuff?

Yeah, as a matter of fact, the main, one of the main ones for me is leaving a fair bit of time between records. If I would start writing just straight away after it would have sounded a lot more thinner. I need to wait until my tastes have moved on. The other thing I do is that I introduce at least one new piece of equipment for the studio between each album. I don’t like to do more than that because I think there’s a certain paralysis you can end up in when you, when you have too much stuff around you to work with and with all of it, you could spend, you know you could make a whole album with one instrument, let alone having ten different things.

On a writing note, like day to day, if I come up with a ribbon or a riff or a sound or something that, like I could settle for and it sounds kind of cool but maybe it’s a bit like something I’ve done before, I will tend to just try and disrupt it in some way. That could be tuning it down, fixing it weirdly or trying a crazy new chain of plugins on it. Or like with “Emerald Rush,” I was really excited by the rhythm of the main riff because I wrote it in a way that was more normal, and less kind of jarring and I just moved a lot of the start points around to places where I wouldn’t expect them to be. Meaning you’re still kind of hearing two different rhythms at once which I think vocally keeps it a bit more, a bit more interesting you know?

As soon as I put this record on I was struck by how immediate it felt and came together. As the record progresses there are these moments of like, in your face, techno and then also more serene, kind of ambient moments. Are these sounds presented as a kind of dichotomy?

Yeah, I love the tension of those two elements. There’s nothing I like more than juxtaposing very ethereal elements with a very kind of earthy, grinding, gritty moment. Like the track “Emerald Rush,” in the foreground it’s very propulsive, quite heavy, with a weird cordal riff that’s going on and then in the background it’s like very, very distant washes of sound and these very ephemeral female vocals that wrap around everything.

So the second half [of the record] focuses more on that side. The heavy elements drop away. And I like the idea that it’s a form of purification almost. You know, this dirtier world and it’s a lot more chaos and a lot more noise and then it sort of works itself out so that by the end it’s in a place of just incredible simplicity and the last track “Recovery” is one of the simplest things I have done but it’s almost like a reflection on everything that’s come before it. A space to exist in and to think back over the last hour. In an ideal world anyway.

Singularity is out 5/4 via Domino Records. You can pre-order it here.