Wondering Sound MAY 12, 2009 - by John Schaefer


File under: instrumental post-rock/glitchy post-classical
From: London
Personae: Jon Hopkins, piano and laptop; with guests Leo Abrahams, guitar and hurdy-gurdy; Emma Smith, violin; Davide Rossi, electric violin; Vince Sipprell, viola; Lee Muddy Baker, drums; King Creosote, humming; Lisa Lindley-Jones, additional vocals

Jon Hopkins is a classically-trained pianist led astray by his love of ambient electronics and studio production. His first two releases, both on Just Music, attracted the attention of Brian Eno, among others. Through Eno, Hopkins became a co-producer of Coldplay's global smash, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, contributing keyboards and eventually touring with the band. The Coldplay album begins and ends with songs co-composed by Hopkins; both are based on material that appears in the song Light Through The Veins, now the first single from his 2009 album Insides, on Domino Records.

Hopkins' music is an appealing yet unsettling blend of lyrical classical piano, or occasional bowed strings, with chilly electronics and rumbling sounds that can be difficult to identify. He's developed a keen ear for texture, as on the track The Wider Sun, where violin/viola create a sort of downtempo chamber music, only for the sound to imperceptibly fade to an electronic wash. In Hopkins' atmospheric, post-everything work, boundaries between acoustic and electronic are as intentionally blurry as those between rock and classical.

We caught up with Jon Hopkins in rural Suffolk, England, where he was composer-in-residence at the Faster Than Sound Festival, preparing a new work for robots.


Yeah, it's me and Tim Exile, from Warp Records, and we've been commissioned to write music for these musical robots. They're controlled by MIDI and they play violins, viola, cello, and percussion. It's just coming together now but I think it'll be great.

On the impact of his classical piano training:

There is none, really. I mean, no conscious link. Studying classical piano exposed me to works I wouldn't have listed to otherwise - I liked Ravel's piano music, and became a big fan of Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Thomas Newman's film scores. Maybe that's given me a desire to write music with a structure, and to have an emotional and human element, even with electronic music. But I don't do any traditional scoring; I mostly start by playing the piano - playing a melody, capturing it on the laptop, and guiding it somewhere.

On the "Coldplay Effect":

Weirdly, the effect of working on the Coldplay record was to make me write darker stuff. A lot of Insides was written before or during the Coldplay sessions - Light Through The Veins was from 2006. But after working with them, the need to make accessible melodies didn't feel so strong. I felt I could do stranger things, angrier things even. So it actually had an opposite effect than what people seemed to expect.

On working with English choreographer Wayne McGregor:

Amazing. A dream collaboration. He didn't want to talk about the music; he just let me do what I want. I wrote music that was heavy, lots of techno and dubstep, basically wondering what might be most exciting, and hardest for the dancers, and unexpected. Some of it actually ended up on the record - the title track and Vessels. I saw it for the first time the day before in rehearsal. To watch someone take what you've done and create something different around it... it was amazing. I couldn't tell you what it was about, but it worked well without you needing to know anything.

On Brian Eno:

When I went to his studio for the first time, I was this nervous twenty-four-year-old meeting someone I'd admired for a long time. Our mutual friend Leo Abrahams introduced us, and we started jamming - Leo on guitar, me on keyboards, and Brian with a range of different effects units and these Kaoss pads. Korg makes them and they have touch-screen controllers, and Brian would control one with each hand. But he had three of them, so at one point he had to use his nose. Some of that material ended up on his last record, Another Day On Earth.

On going back to classical piano:

Never. I did love it, and it was the only thing I put real effort into between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. But I did a big show at seventeen with the Royal College of Music orchestra, after accidentally winning a competition. It was the most terrifying day of my life. Wearing tails, having to bow in the right way - all that crap. I still have nightmares about going back and fucking it up.