Most musicians make changes when they begin work on a new album, whether it’s getting a new producer, better instruments, a new bandmate or more inspiring workspace. As he started on a follow-up to his Mercury Prize-nominated 2013 release, Immunity, Jon Hopkins decided to upgrade his brain.
Following two years of touring that breakthrough album, then composing the score for the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet at the Barbican, he was burned out. First he moved from Hackney to LA for a year, between 2015 and 2016, where he learned Transcendental Meditation. “It’s not hard, you don’t have to force anything. You just have to be in a chair and not bothered for 20 minutes,” the electronic producer from Wimbledon, 38, explains. “But when you come out of it there’s this period – which increases in length the longer you do it – of expanded consciousness. Colours appear more vivid, sounds appear deeper. You can tap into that and write music in that space. It’s very inspiring.”
But that’s not all. In early 2017 he travelled to the outskirts of Amsterdam to a “Psychedelic Experience Weekend”, where he could experience a powerful dose of the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, psilocybin, in legal circumstances carefully monitored by “facilitators”. He’d taken them before, but as a naughty teenager. “There’s a big difference between recreational use and the way these things were revered and treated very carefully by our ancestors,” he tells me. This six hour trip affected him profoundly.
“It was a very deep communion with myself. I went up to my room and put some very peaceful music on. I remember staring at my hand and seeing all these little dots of light and colour running through my veins. It was like I could see the life force. I thought, ‘My God, I’m a human! I’ve got a body, isn’t it amazing? Why aren’t we all happier?’ I felt happy to be alive, humbled and joyful.”
We meet in the scruffy studio that he rents long-term on a back street in Bow. The communal space, above his basement music room, is a jumble of interesting bits and bobs including a portrait of David Lynch painted for him by an old girlfriend, a beautiful old filing cabinet which also appears on the cover of the Honest Words EP, which he made with his occasional collaborator King Creosote, and a large plaque commemorating nine million copies sold of the Coldplay album Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends. Having been introduced to the band by another of his on-off collaborators, Brian Eno, Hopkins also worked on their Mylo Xyloto album, where he is credited on the sleeve with “light and magic”. Coldplay’s song Midnight, on the follow-up, Ghost Stories, began with an old piece of music that he wrote.
A large wooden carving of a mushroom sits by the window, but Hopkins is far from the foggy-headed hippy you might expect from all this psychedelic talk. He’s got a broadcaster’s speaking voice and a smart side-parting, and makes me a cup of tea without becoming overwhelmed by the shininess of the spoon. He says that he went to Amsterdam to increase his wider wellbeing rather than specifically in search of musical inspiration, but it couldn’t help influence his creativity. “I think if you do it, it’s inevitable that the music will be affected. But I didn’t go into it thinking, ‘I’m gonna get tunes out of this,’” he says. “When I’m actually sitting there writing, all I’m thinking is what the next sound is. After I was finished and I looked back, though, it really sounds like a cosmic album.”
I’ve spent a while now with Singularity, his fifth solo album, which is out in a fortnight. It is indeed a trip. It shifts from aggressive, hammering techno to ambient piano music and back, ending with the same sound of a vibrating piano string with which it began. It also incorporates the noise of thunder, a calling scops owl and the choir London Voices, whose wordless sounds are filtered gently until they resemble the vibrations of a bell. It’s intense, beautiful and the most ambitous collection he has created.
Hopkins recommends listening to the whole thing in one sitting, rather than dipping into your favourites on Spotify. “If you want to go as deep as possible with this, then listen in one go,” he says. “Most people probably won’t and that’s fine. That’s why I have singles. But the whole thing is much more powerful in sequence.”
I’d add that listening on good headphones while on the move adds to a feeling that anything is possible musically. On the way to meet him, I’m fascinated by a low rumbling noise that drifts over one of the quieter tracks. Then I realise it’s a plane passing overhead.
I ask him if, just as a singer-songwriter might spend a long time crafting their lyrics, he can know what an instrumental electronic track is about. “I have some ideas,” he says. “The overall story of it, such as it is, is a purification almost. And it’s definitely a sort of microcosm of the psychedelic experience. I wanted it to be a full circle, but with the last track as the polar opposite of the first. Like it’s burned itself out or purified itself, but at the same time it ends exactly where it started.”
Singularity also sees him playing with sound just for the challenge, pushing the things that are achievable with computer music. “One of the main ideas on the record was to have sounds that morph into things you don’t expect. I love starting a track in one place and you don’t know where it’s going to end up. There’s a ridiculous amount of layering in these songs. You could make a whole album out of the sounds in one song if you wanted to.”
Hopkins has given much of his career over to working for others, from time spent in his late teens as a member of Imogen Heap’s band, to work with Coldplay and on Brian Eno’s 2010 album Small Craft on a Milk Sea, to soundtracks for Hamlet and the Kevin Macdonald film How I Live Now. Diamond Mine, his 2011 album with King Creosote, earned the first of his two Mercury nominations.
Before beginning Singularity, however, he knocked out two minor pieces of collaborative work – production on the London Grammar song Big Picture and a remix of Disclosure’s Magnets – then cleared his diary to devote himself entirely to his new solo material.
“Whenever I’ve improved, gone up a level in sound making, it’s been because I’ve done an album,” he says. “When you sit there doing a film score for three months, there’s no time to mess around experimenting. You adapt what you’ve already done. But when I’m doing this, I’ll spend six weeks working on one sound if I want to. It was really nice to say no to literally everything, and I’ve kept doing that. Nothing competes with the buzz of making your own record.”
In this case, there’s not much that competes with the buzz of hearing it, too. Minds will be blown in May – no drugs required.
Singularity is released on May 4 on Domino.
Village Underground, EC2. May 10
O2 Academy Brixton, SW9. Nov 2