Jon Hopkins Wants to Take You on a Blissed-Out Trip
At his London studio, he talks to us about how new album 'Singularity' condenses the feeling of a transcendent high into pulsing techno.
All photos by Steve Gullick via PR
Anyone who's tipped themselves over the edge on psychedelics already knows the feeling: you can go quickly from pre-high excitement to throwing up everywhere. On an otherwise quiet winter's evening, I found myself chucking up a cup of magic mushroom tea on my mate's lawn. Even after vomiting up the shrooms, I spent an elastic-feeling amount of time on another plane of consciousness for the first time, with Jon Hopkins' fourth album Immunity on repeat on the stereo. When I woke up, a sponsored post from Johns Hopkins University, looking for participants in psychedelic research, stared back at me. How very Truman Show.
Hopkins’ new album, Singularity, feels like a testament to those weird, otherworldly states – whether drug-induced or not. And when I meet him on a rainy spring afternoon in his compact home studio, a few months after my, er, tea experience, he’s keen to hear about it. He even calls it “excellent” (I left out the vomiting bit, in fairness). Singularity itself builds like a psychedelic experience, its delicately constructed ambient techno swelling into a headspace-filling alternate universe as each track unfurls. The likes of lead ‘single’ “Emerald Rush”, and what Hopkins refers to as a “massive techno bastard” of a track “Everything Connected” do a good job of capturing that spiritual flavour, but you have to digest the album as a whole for it to really come into its own. It’s an hour-long escapist’s dream, built from swirling, beautiful electronica and punishing, club-ready bangers in equal measure, both of which begin and end on the very same E-flat note.
As he takes me round the studio – roughly a 0.6-second tour – what’s striking is how little equipment there is; just a couple of synths, a piano and a MacBook. “What more do you need?” he says, smirking, as if creating such sprawling, evolving soundscapes is as simple as… well, whacking a few sentences about getting pinged in your mate’s shed into a Google Doc (sorry mum). Taking refuge on the adjacent, much larger living area’s sofas, we talk about the power of psychedelia on his music, and the importance of taking the time to get away from it all, over a cup of tea – breakfast, this time.
Noisey: So Jon, I came here to apologise for tripping balls to your music, but it almost seems like you want people to have those experiences with it?
Jon Hopkins: I wouldn’t say I want them to, but it’s lovely to hear about it, because I just know the power of the experiences I’ve had to music in that space. I feel like on some level, if you’ve had those experiences, you can’t really not be informed by them. I hope I’m making something that makes sense from whatever state of mind you’re in, but there’s no doubt that – particularly with this album – there’s more of a nod to enhancing the psychedelic experience. It’s pretty trippy! [laughs] But it’s your brain that creates that effect, not the molecule you take. That triggers the change in the brain, and the connectivity in the brain, but it’s still you that’s making that effect – therefore, just like it’s possible to achieve those states of consciousness through meditation, music is a piece in that puzzle.
That’s clearly something you’ve dabbled in yourself, both meditatively and through other, naughtier means.
I’ve had some pretty pivotal psychedelic experiences. I’m really only familiar with the naturally occurring psychedelics – the things that humanity has had a very long relationship with. I’m interested in the very much tried-and-tested, plant-based drugs used by generations before us, psilocybin in particular. This tiny, tiny pocket of recent humanity has decided there’s something bad about that. For the rest of history, it was revered, and they had a sensible attitude towards it, and appreciated the value of what you can learn by essentially giving yourself access to the deepest parts of your psyche, the collective unconscious, the subconscious - all those things that are resting just below the surface.
Is that something you’re seeking when you’re making music?
I can trace my desire to transmit these things through music back to my first experiences smoking weed, like everyone, as a teenager. Back then, you bought what you could if you wanted to experiment. The early months of it, I remember having the most vividly euphoric experiences, very transcendent, very blissful; a body high, but also with a strong mental side. It felt like it opened a door which has never shut, and my interest in spirituality through music has definitely come from that, through the rest of my life.
So you were a big-time stoner then?
It was interesting – skunk screwed me up so much that is became a very unpleasant experience. I gave it up around 18, and didn’t have any interest in any psychoactive substances for at least ten years after that. I felt like that door had opened, but I felt too fragile for the experience. That’s why I started learning to meditate, because I wanted some controlled way that I could access those states of consciousness. That is really the best role of psychoactive substances – to show you what the end game of meditation is. I would never advocate anyone doing anything without educating themselves and finding out exactly what they’re in for. But having simple breathing techniques, or focus techniques at your disposal for when you are in that situation can transform the experience from something that can be worrying to one that’s actually incredibly nourishing and amazing.
You’re sounding a little 'Talk To Frank.'
As a teenager, you don’t really have restraint. You’re discovering this thing that feels amazing, and everything else in life is boring at that age – it certainly was for me at that point – and your parents don’t know what you’re doing, so why would you not? It’s all underground! I know that in the States, where recreational marijuana is legal, it’s used far less by younger people. It’s not an underground, mysterious, cool thing, it’s just something that adults do. The black market pushes it in the wrong directions, and makes it far more of a risk.
I gather you’re pro-legalisation, then.
I do believe there’s a human right to experiment with your consciousness, as long as you’re harming no-one else. And I think it’s something that will happen in our lifetime, for sure. It kind of blows my mind to think that if I take a mushroom that’s grown and naturally evolved in a field of its own accord – if I pick that up, technically someone can come and put me in a cage [laughs]. That’s amazing!
It’s pretty fucked, when you put it that way.
I recently went on a legal psilocybin retreat just outside Amsterdam. You can buy psilocybin truffles, and everything was facilitated – there were therapists there, and it was just an amazing example of what you can achieve using those states of being in a safe setting. A lot of the music on the album comes from those kind of experiences.
How do you go about trying to replicate something that’s subconscious and otherworldly?
It’s a good question – by not trying, is the answer. Everything you experience goes into the subconscious, that’s how the brain works. The brain has this near-infinite capacity for storage of information below the surface. We can’t always recall it, and we don’t know, but it is always influencing our behaviour. Writing music – particularly music without lyrics – calls almost exclusively on the subconscious. So really, all I have to do is to have had these experiences, and know these states of mind, and know those states of consciousness, and it will come out in the music.
Is it a long process? Presumably you can’t force these accidental happenings.
Sitting in the studio, you just follow instinct. It’s only really when it’s nearly done that you’re able to look back and go, ‘Oh, right – that’s a pretty literal translation of a psilocybin experience I had’, but I didn’t know I was writing that. “Luminous Beings”, for example, I can look back on knowing that was a particular experience I had. It has this kind of feeling, like you’re lost and a bit confused at the beginning – we made a trailer of this very specifically, the trailer we released at the start of this campaign with just an edit of the track – but then there’s this feeling of bursting into a clearing, and a vast sky above and everything’s starting to make sense, and there’s lights above shining in time with the notes. These are very specific feelings that came to me in those states of consciousness.
That’s a very literal image. Why not just write a book?
Music is a language which is there when words don’t cut it. As you’ll know, one of the main characteristics of a psychedelic experience is its ineffability – you can’t sit there and describe it to someone who’s never had one; it’s like trying to describe sex to someone who’s never had sex. You can’t do it without using words that are only associated with sex [laughs]. Music can come in, and at least start to trigger a part of that feeling.
So you want to be able to describe these feelings to someone who’s never been there?
Yeah, or just a little bit of that feeling of wonder that you can feel. That’s what I think is missing from so much of what we experience now. As more and more wilderness is removed from our lives... we have no knowledge of the stars, and we think so little of the system that we are a part of. There’s so much awe and wonder surrounded by that, and when you take that away, you just become a disillusioned machine. I find music, and these experiences, and meditation, are ways of getting that spark back – getting that wonder back. It feels important to try and translate that into music and put that out there.
There’s talk of a mental illness epidemic, especially among young people. Do you think that lack of wilderness is to blame?
Yeah, I can see how. I blame these things [taps his iPhone] for most of it, to be honest with you. We’ve allowed these devices into our lives which are able to contact us, alert us, at any moment. We’re never really, truly free of this vast network of information, and notifications, and other people. I think growing up into that culture, I’m not surprised people are in quite a bad way.
But whenever one particular way of being reaches a point of too much power, there’s always a swing in the other direction. And it is happening, with the explosion of interest in things like yoga, and the research into psychedelics. People are looking for solutions to these problems, and finding them in older methods.
Do you want people to be able to sit down, put time aside, and listen to the record as one cohesive piece of work? Get rid of the phone, hopefully?
Yeah – if anyone wants to really know how to get the most out of it, then that would be my recommendation. I don’t expect most people to do that, and I make edits of tracks so they can exist in whatever showcase. But in this time where everything is pointlessly accelerating, I think it’s quite nice to say, ‘Well, here’s an album with quite a few 12-minute tracks on it [laughs], that actually you will benefit from listening to all in one go, rather than separately.’ You can make a choice whether to go with the current trends, or do what you actually want to do – what you believe in.
That’s a very rare thing these days: the idea of sitting down and listening to an album.
Yeah, and even if no one does it, I would still write in that way. The only thing I have a right to do is to make the album exactly how I want it. I have no right over anything that happens after that, and as long as you can remember that, you can always be at peace with what happens - how people listen to it, or ignore it, or whatever.
You’ve got live shows coming up. You’d hope that, if they’re in a room with you, these people are in your space for a couple of hours. No distractions.
That’s what’s great about live shows – there’s a shared energy in the room. You get to pump that music out, right into the middle of that. It’s a really important ritual that people have had in various forms over the years. What’s great about this genre, in particular, is that it hasn’t been infected – quite as much as the mainstream – by the phone-filming thing, that people do. I’ve been at more mainstream shows, and you’ll see literally 95 percent of people are filming whenever something interesting happens. They don’t look at the thing, they look at the thing through their device. But that doesn’t seem to happen in the techno or underground world so much. They still feel like really special events, particularly the headline shows.
Do you ever feel strange, making music that’s so informed by these natural experiences? There's a slight dichotomy there, with making electronic music…
There is, except that these things didn’t just appear from nowhere – they’re human creations. They’re tools, really, and we’ve always made tools of various different kinds to enable our creativity. It just happens to be much more complex. You can make the most human music with purely electronic means - you just have to work a bit harder at it.
Less phones, more laptops. Got it. Thanks Jon!
Singularity is out on Friday 4 May, via Domino.
You can find Tom not chucking up mushroom tea (seriously, sorry Ma Connick) on Twitter.