Transcendental States

Text by Lee Chang Ming
Images courtesy of Steve Gullick and Marcus Lin

It’s easy to get lost in the immersive sounds of Jon Hopkins. In 2018, he released first album in five years, Singularity, as continuation and deepening of his critically acclaimed album Immunity. Inspired by psychedelics and meditation, his latest work dives head first into the artist’s various states of mind. The album begins with a single note that multiplies and morphs into a hypnotic barrage of rhythms as beats expand and distort.

Before his first live solo set in Singapore, we sat down with the electronic wiz to talk about his process, David Lynch and tribal drumming circles.

You’ve talked about Singularity being a journey that’s inspired by psychedelics and meditation. People often associate DMT with being a visual experience, so I was wondering for you, did you have any audio encounters during your trip?

It’s nothing so specific as that, it’s more like the mystery of why these molecules occur in nature that affect our consciousness so much. I couldn’t translate the DMT experience into musical words or anything because it’s so strange.

It’s this sort of mystery of existence that you get confronted with when you’re in those states of consciousness that I wanted to write about. Sometimes you return from those crazy states with ideas. I’m not advocating that people just and go try these things, but in the right setting with the right knowledge and the right education, there’s some very valuable things that can be learned, and I think a lot of creativity can be unlocked. None of my music would sound the same without these experiences I’ve had.

You used field recordings in both your albums Immunity and Singularity. I imagine using field recordings makes your music a kind of sonic collage: taking pieces from your environment to create something new which takes on a life of its own. Do you view your music as a mosaic of your feelings and experiences?

Yea, I think so. I mean, I’m not consciously thinking about what I’m trying to do when I’m doing it. Sometimes I’ll be making a sound, maybe electronically, and I’ll think, “this needs some air or some space around it.” and a natural sound layered over it will always bring that.

There’s always something romantic about that idea of it not all existing digitally — not existing in a lifeless vacuum. Of course you have moments that are pure electronics and that can be exciting when it’s juxtaposed with something with a little bit more life. I guess anything multi-layered is technically a collage of some sort, and you could probably retrospectively analyse each piece and relate it back to bits of experiences I’ve had, but I’m not really doing that when I’m making it. I’m just following my instincts.

So it’s more of an intuitive process.

Yes, I just need to know what the next step is. So I’ll hear a sound and I’ll think about what I need to do next. It’s not like I can say from the beginning and predict how everything is going to go. Over the years I’ve learnt to trust that.

I’m quite inspired by David Lynch and the way he makes films. He’ll have an idea but not necessarily know what it means until later — and I love that concept. Just trusting that it’ll end up making sense, if only to you. Of course in music it’s more abstract than visual art often is, so you can get away with mystery a little easier.

I wanted to talk about the idea of space and moving through different states of mind: was that something that you wanted to touch upon in Singularity?

Yes maybe. I think this one, to me, feels like a single journey. That word get used so often to talk about album, we all need to collectively think of another word (laughs). The simple fact is that it is that. That’s why I’m interested in the sequencing of tracks. I like to know what order they can be in way before everything is finished so you can relate them to each other sonically and the beginnings and the ends can make sense when paired up.

I think this album wears its heart on its sleeve, more than any other that I’ve done before. Immunity has this sort of slightly melancholic sound, which is what came out [although] it wasn’t really intentional. This one has more euphoria to it and that’s just the representation some of the feelings and experiences I was having before and during writing it.

Earlier you mentioned that your process is intuitive and that you won’t know how it would sound like in the end. But as the listener we only hear the end product. I always like this idea of chaos and randomness and how that feeds into the process. We may not see that in the final work but it’s still affects the kind of mood created.

Yes, and randomness…it doesn’t feel random in retrospect, but at the time it does. Basically I’m using Ableton which allows for quite constant experimentation. I used to look for a certain sound and now I just kind of land on anything and start playing, and realise that that’s where you’re supposed to be. It’s just trusting the flow of it more.

In work my with Brian Eno years ago, he would sometimes purposely set the wrong sounds. So you’d have a mini sequence going, and normally you would have your corresponding 8 sounds or whatever, but he would sometimes open a different bag of sounds so that the MIDI is firing off all these wrong sounds. Some of it would be unlistenable, but some of it would be stuff you’d never think of, and the skill in that is knowing when it’s good or not. It’s like you made these mistakes on purpose, and then you judge which bits are worth keeping.

Very often when working with sound design and different plugins, I would just go to the most extreme settings and find something interesting in there that you can use, then separate it out. I’m not looking for engineering perfection or sonic accuracy — I’m looking for something that interests me.

Linking this to the live show and what we talked earlier about randomness. In your live shows, is there room for spontaneous impulse as well?

Yes there is, but within structures that are decided because I don’t want people to come to the show and hear unrecognizable versions of songs. There are certain sounds that define the tracks, and I’m not going to try and recreate those from scratch with rubbish live versions. I have to combine what’s preplanned.

There’s a very strong visual element to the show and that stuff isn’t made as you’re seeing it. It’s made by like 60 people involved. There’s a different team for every track. It’s a mixture of live, improvisation and planning. We’ve probably done about 60 shows now since May [2018], so it’s now well rehearsed and pretty smooth.

You’ve done a lot of producing for other artists and film scores. Does this process of working with other creative minds influence your own personal work and in particular for Singularity?

It’s interesting because this album is the first one which I really focussed on exclusively while I was doing it. For Immunity, I did two different films scores at the same time: one right at the beginning another at the end. For this one, just before I started it, I did a track with London Grammar and a remix for Disclosure. When they were done I just started the album. I didn’t stop working deliberately. But then you could never write off the idea of what I’ve done before, even years back, like 20 years of working in music, some of these influences would have rubbed off on this album. It’s just hard for me to say where they would have done so.

Do you have a preference between writing and playing live?

That’s an interesting question because I feel like it’s two different sides of myself. There’s an introspective element to writing. In 2017, I did the bulk of [Singularity], and a lot the time I was just in the studio and I would hang out with my girlfriend and that would be kind of most of the year. Then the album is finished and suddenly you’re all over the world and you meet people everywhere every week and it’s always exciting…they’re both exhausting (laughs), but they’re both great! But this is the more like the extrovert part of myself, where I meet people and I talk about the album and I enjoy all that. They’re like complete opposite sides of the coin.

With Singularity, the idea was that each sound is interlinked and the journey ends where it begins. Talking about this idea in a more philosophical sense it hints that everything from nature to society, is all connected. The album talks about these larger things but it’s also very personal.

I think an example of this sonically…the track Everything Connected that’s quite upbeat, loud and euphoric, and it’s got some of the biggest sounds I’ve made on it. Then at the end of the album you’ve got Recovery, which is the tiniest little piano track which is playing quietly. They’re both equally personal, but again they’re two different sides of what I want to transmit, if you will, just these different feelings out there through music.

Back to the psychedelic experience, you have these moments of vastness but then you also have this incredible moments of a personal kind of tenderness and vulnerability. It’s a confidence that everything is connected, everything is one, and everything is much simpler than it seems. But there’s also these moments of these extreme quiet and sadness.

You’ve talked about how you learnt self-hypnosis. Does that relate to repetition in electronic music, which can feel like hypnosis in a way?

Yes, or I relate it back to like tribal drumming circles which would have existed for tens of thousands of years, if not hundreds of thousands of years in human society.

The original electronic music.

Yes, or the original trance…and I think there’s something deep inside the human that craves this, otherwise clubbing wouldn’t be such a big thing.

Or like when monks do chants and repeat it for hours.

Yea, or like a mantra. So transcendental meditation, which I do, is repeating a mantra internally for 20 minutes. It does something…it takes you down, away from the surface tension of life into something deeper. I mean, we’re all looking for ways to achieve that — even if it’s just by drinking loads of booze (laughs). Something that takes us away from this chaos of our minds and stills the thoughts a bit.


Jon Hopkins played at Capitol Theatre on 13 February 2019. Special thanks to Hostess Asia for the invite.