ELECTRONICA AS NARRATIVE: JON HOPKINS ON THE VERY HUMAN PROCESS OF PRODUCTION

Not to be confused with the top-rated university, Jon Hopkins reigns from a decidedly more contrary world — music. The UK electronica artist crafts tracks that manage to achieve a rare combination of emotive expression and technical precision. There’s a perfection in the atmospheric pulse of Hopkins‘ tracks, a meticulousness to every sonic movement. His ability to weave resonant narratives through electronic music has caught the ears of everyone from Imogen Heap, with whom Hopkins jumpstarted his career as a guitarist, to ambient legend, Brian Eno. With collaborations and remixes with respected electronic innovators like Four Tet and Nosaj Thing under his belt, Hopkins more recently found resounding success with his June 2013-released LP, Immunity, garnering his second Mercury Prize nomination.

We caught up with the rising musician ahead of his upcoming show (Saturday, November 30 at the Echoplex) and talk movie scores, technology, and the very human process of music production.

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LA CANVAS: You’ve spoken in interviews a lot about the tension between technology and human emotion – why do you gravitate toward electronic music in particular to express emotion?

Jon Hopkins: It’s hard to answer that really, I mean my primary motive is just following my instincts – it was just as soon as I heard it when I was a kid, I connected to it. It was just more exciting to me to hear sounds that I had never heard before. it occurred to me even then that it was like an open platform – it would evolve like people do. It’s impossible to imagine the type of sounds that will be possible to make in time – and I love that idea, much more than trying to find new ways of playing the piano – which is the other side of what I was doing. But as the years went on, what I wanted to do as a kid has come true. So now I can imagine the sound and make it.

LAC: Speaking of making any sound you want – you mentioned listening to raindrops coming down a pipe and really wanting to capture that sound – what’s been the most difficult sound or image that you have tried to capture?

JH: I don’t actually try to capture the [exact] thing, it’s more like inspiration for things. So the raindrop thing was actually water running through pipes in a hotel room – it happened to be resonating in a way that was inexplicable. It was like causing this chord to happen and it was a completely random thing. It seemed like a random passage. It wasn’t like I was trying to replicate the sound but more the feeling of it. I don’t go around with a recorder.

The sounds that are on the record that are real world sounds, are ones that I captured from around the studio where I am. To me they seemed really logical to include. It’s like incorporating the world and my own reality into it. So I don’t go to lengths to capture things around me unless I am actually writing.

LAC: You’ve worked on a couple movie scores…

JH: Yes, I’ve done four actually.

LAC: If you could pick a movie score – not necessarily the ones that you’ve worked on – but just in general, if you could pick one to represent your life, which would it be?

JH: Hm, the reality of my life – it would be Twin Peaks. It has a pretty exceptional score. Theres something incredibly dark and deep and beautiful about that score that really resonates with me more than any other score has. It is just so well arranged. We imagine some art closer to our hearts than others – and that’s definitely the one for me.

LAC: When we listen to your music we get the sense that it is deeply personal. Does the process for your music ever exhaust you emotionally, or do you find that it energizes you?

JH: It’s a total mix of those two things actually. When you said ‘does it ever exhaust you?’ I found myself nodding. It’s like I put nine months of work into that album. It really takes a toll – it really takes over your life. It makes it in some ways difficult – when you’ve had an amazingly intense day, and you’re making a breakthrough on a track, it makes it difficult to come home and relate normally to a girlfriend or anyone I see – you’re in a different world. The best thing to do is take a few days off to become a normal human being again. But then after I take a long time off – after a week or so with no music at all, it feels like I am lacking something, lacking energy. Somewhere in there, there is a balance. I just haven’t found it yet.

LAC: Are there any challenges translating your productions into live shows?

JH: Actually it’s a difficult part of the album cycle. You have in your head that there is this huge fanfare and you go to mastering and you commit to it and then you have to deconstruct it all again for the live album. It is painful- you have to get right back into it and figure out how to do it live. Then it becomes fine when you actually start doing the shows, you think you’ve prepared properly. You take the tracks even further than they go on the record … there’s more you can do in the live arena. You can make them longer, heavier, more extreme in some ways and you can even feed off the crowd. It’s a great opportunity to explore the ideas you didn’t have the first time around. Again, it’s difficult, but amazing.

LAC: We’ve heard you speak about being against trends, and how they lead to a sound that can be identified as old. But, has there ever been a new trend that has caught your ear and had  you a little bit tempted?

JH: Oh yeah, I mean I talk a lot of bullocks in interviews (laughs). It’s not quite as clear cut as that. But there are some elements of my sound that I can pinpoint, ‘Oh that was inspired by this’ everything was a trend at one time. So it is difficult – you really do feel differently about what you do everyday so sometimes you will say things like that…

There is a particular type of compression that’s very common, sidechain compression – I can’t really describe the sound – its like a way of making a bass drum or whatever part you like displaced with the part behind it and it makes everything sound fat and amazing. It is definitely a trend of the moment. I try to do it subtly so that it isn’t like super obvious. There are some examples where it is being used too extremely years ago when it was at its peak.

I just prefer to cherry pick the things I love the most and not worry about what trend they’re from, I guess thats a better way of putting it.

I do like the idea of combining sounds of all different times, whether it is right now or ages ago.

LAC: Do you have any guilty pleasure listening?

JH: I prefer to call it ‘proud pleasure listening.’ I am quite an admirer of ABBA and the production in ABBA – and not everyone is into that. My dad was always playing it. And Fleetwood Mac as well. Im quite proud to announce that I like these things cause there’s a reason why these things are so enduring, it’s cause they are amazing. They have a common level of skill and writing and production.

LAC: Lastly, what’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in the next few years?

JH: I don’t really know at this point. The album has opened up all kinds of new opportunities. You know if you asked me this a few months ago I might’ve said I was going to do another collaboration – but now I want to set up my own studio. I really want to start my own place that is custom built. Eventually I want to do my own solo album – take it to another level with that. So that may well be a two year project. But yeah, you don’t know who is going to call and have something exciting for me. You never know if you are going to get a call from a director and be linked to a 4 month project.

I’m touring ’til August, and everything else is happening after that.

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Catch Jon Hopkins playing at the Echoplex this Saturday, November 30 alongside fellow European electronic musicians, Clark and Nathan Fake. Purchase tickets here.

Photo: Oddbjørn Steffensen

LISTEN UP: TÉLÉPOPMUSIK

Telepopmusik

Yes, they’re back! After eight years the French electronic group Télépopmusik has announced that they will be releasing a new album by the end of 2013. Last month they quietly released a two-song EP, Try Me Anyway / Fever. This week the group released an official music video for Try Me Anyway featuring Betty Black.

 

Télépopmusik is of course best remembered for their 2001 dreamy, astral song “Breathe” which featured guest vocalist Angela McCluskey. The massive success of “Breathe” subsequently had McCluskey singing in most of the songs on the group’s followup album, Angel Milk (2005), helping to define Télépopmusik’s signature atmospheric sound. McCluskey will again lend her voice in the new upcoming album. However only two of the original members, 2 Square and Antipop, will be producing songs for the album while the third member, Dumont, continues to focus on managing his own label, G.U.M., which houses artist like Woodkid and The Shoes.

‘Til the new album drops, you can stream the new EP along with a few remixes from various producers on their SoundCloud page here.

INTERVIEW: ROBERT DELONG

Robert DeLong is changing the paradigm for performing electronic dance music. In a world where superstar DJs perform from behind a booth (unless you’re the stage-diving, cake-wielding Steve Aoki), it’s supremely refreshing to encounter DeLong, a one-man dance party who performs his music live with a setup of up to 20 instruments ranging from drums and guitar, to a hacked Wii remote and flight simulator joystick mapped to midi controllers and gyros which control voice distortions. Ahead of his performance at the Getty’s “Off the 405” series tomorrow, we speak to Robert about science and what it takes to put on such intricate and hyperactive performances.

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LAC: You’re originally from Seattle but are now based in LA. How would you compare the music scenes in both cities? What about electronic music in particular?

RD: Definitely. I left Seattle when I was 18, about 9 years ago. I kind of grew up in the indie scene there. In junior high and early high school, I was kind of in the pop/punk/ hardcore scene still. I’m not real familiar with the Seattle electronic scene and certainly wasn’t back then. Going back there, I’ve played 3-4 times in the last 6 months. It’s definitely growing, but it’s not like it is here on the West Coast in LA and SF, which are, you know, kind of hubs for dance music. Seattle definitely has a lot of niche electronic stuff going on and the dance scene is growing. It’s interesting seeing people in Seattle, they respond differently to dance music than they do here. A lot more crossed arms (laughs) but I think people enjoy it.

 

LAC: How did you get into electronic music? Were you ever a “raver”?

RD: Well, I was always listening to heavily-electronic influenced stuff like Boards of Canada and trip-hoppy type of stuff. When I came here [to California] it really was the first time I’d gone to an electronic event. I’d always heard house and trance but I’d never experienced it in a live setting. It’s a communal event more than anything, and seeing that is kind of what got me into it. Of course shortly after that, the wave of dubstep hit LA and a lot of people who weren’t into electronic music kind of understood it more because of that. I was never really a “raver” but a lot of my friends went to events. So I went to raves and stuff. Well, I guess I did get “dressed up” a couple times (laughs)

 

 

LAC: You have a really interesting setup. What’s the highest # of instruments you’ve ever had on stage with you? I’m sure it varies from show to show.

RD: What you saw at Coachella is pretty typical; it’s pretty much the same setup all the time. Sometimes I’ll have guitar on stage for longer sets and different pieces of percussion. As time goes on, it’s always growing a little here and there, I imagine it’ll grow more.

LAC: I think I noticed a Wii Controller on stage. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you’ve integrated non-traditional tools into your set up?

RD: Yeah, I have a joystick like from flight simulator. I have a Wii remote and a gamepad and software that converts it to midi. The Wii is hooked up to Bluetooth so I can just wave it around it has a gyro in it and I can control the delay in my vocal. I have this toy that these guys in SF make that’s called a Midi Fighter, that you can wave left and right. I didn’t use it much at Coachella but I use it more for my longer sets.

 

LAC: What’s next on your list of technological “hacks”? Do you have plans to add other non-traditional things to your arsenal?

RD: The next step for me, I kind of want to get people to help me design custom controllers designed for a very specific purpose in my set. But right now what I’m working on, I’m touring a lot, so we’re kind of redesigning the computer aspect of my rig. So I should have new laptops on stage. It’s kind of nerdy and technical.

Robert DeLong Hi Res Photo

LAC: Let’s circle back to Coachella. What was it like to play there?

RD: It was fun! Although, I’d kind of come off of playing a lot of festivals, and of course when I heard, I was freaking out, you know, Coachella’s such a milestone. But it kind of was like any other festival, except very hot. It was super fun, and it was super cool to see the tent packed so early in the day.

 

LAC: I actually think I spotted you inside the Yuma. Did you go exploring much at Coachella? Who were some of your favorite acts? Best memories?

RD: I got to explore a bit more the 2nd weekend. I spent some time in the Yuma and that was definitely fun. It was fantastic. Tame Impala was great, and I caught a bit of James Blake, he was really good. I’ve seen him a few times before. There were some others that really stood out to me, but my memory’s a little fuzzy.

 

 

LAC: Did you see any acts during the windstorm?

RD: I think I was doing interviews and stuff. The windstorm–that was madness. We actually ended up driving back a little bit early because I had to fly up the next day. That was pretty brutal. God, the roads were like zero visibility.

 

LAC: You were into science growing up. Are you still into science? What gets you geeking out nowadays?

RD: As a kid my dad would read me National Geographic as my bedtime story. I was always into Popular Science. I always figured I’d go into physics or music. I chose music… I’m probably dumber for it, but, you know, it’s more fun. Now I pretty much just read Popular Science, blogs and watch TED Talks. I just kind of go on the internet… I don’t keep up too much but I read an article a day.

 

LAC: Your show was like a non-stop dance party. How do you keep from passing out during your performances? Do you work out to build stamina or does the Adrenaline keep you going?

RD: I practice a lot. If I can do that set three times in a day, then I can definitely do it once. I do a lot of running. It’s really important to stay in shape if you’re doing that much jumping around. But yeah, the adrenaline can definitely make you feel like a bit of a machine and then afterwards you’re really tired.

 

LAC: What’s next? Any big festivals/shows this summer?

RD: I’m playing the Getty this Saturday and I’ve got a bunch of festivals. I just did Governor’s Ball in New York; that was really great. It was madness with all the mud! I have a few other big US festivals then I’m off to Australia and off to Europe for a while.

See Robert DeLong perform live tomorrow evening at 6pm at the Getty for their “Off the 405” series. This is a free concert series, so arrive early to ensure space.

 

 

INTERVIEW: SIMIAN MOBILE DISCO

A CHAT WITH JAS SHAW AT FYF FEST 2012

Fresh off the release of their third studio album Unpatterns, English electro duo Simian Mobile Disco stopped over in LA this past weekend to headline FYF fest for the second year in a row. LA CANVAS sat down with member Jas Shaw to talk about the band’s evolution, the new album, and how to perform electronic music live.

 

MAX: Your new album Unpatterns is very different from Attack Decay Sustain Release. How would describe your transition from DJ/Club music to the roots of ambient, electronic house music?

 

JAS: I think that’s a pretty good description. I think it reflects our journey into electronic music. You can hear in Attack Decay that we were just coming out of being a band, and that whole scene of bands playing in clubs, and all of that kind of stuff which we take completely for granted now. But at the time even djing in venues afterwards there were no decks”

 

When we were touring as Simian, we would be like “oh lets have an after party somewhere” and they actually wouldn’t have 12/10s (turntables) there. Now every club in the world knows to have them. I guess you can hear that, in that record and we kind of felt we went too far with vocalists on “Temporary Pleasure.” With this record, we were super selfish with it, and think it reflects a lot of the stuff we listen to at the moment, and also a lot of stuff that got us into electronic music. A real gateway into “proper electronic music.”

 

 

MAX: So this is the second time you’re playing FYF, right?

 

JAS: Yes, hah we love it! We played it for the first time last year, and we were really excited that they asked us. Sometimes, because of the band that we are, we kind of don’t obviously fit here, as a lot of the bands are actually punk bands. We are really into that kind of stuff, so we were really pleased to be booked for it. We had a really nice time, and when they asked us to come back it was a no brainer, we said we would definitely do it.”

 

MAX: Also you guys have a very interesting light show, somewhat reminiscent of your music videos. Will there be one for tonight’s show? Any surprises you have in store?

 

JAS: Actually we have a new light show for tonight’s performance that we haven’t even seen. I mean we have seen it in production, because we are only coming out for one show. We said, okay, maybe we can find someone local to do it, because we couldn’t bring our lights over because they are so heavy, flying out would’ve been insane. So we have been talking to the local company, going back and forth with ideas. We were hoping to see it last night, but we came in late to check all of our gear, and it wasn’t ready, so everybody has been asking.

 

There’s something I kind of like about that, it’s going to be interesting. It won’t be smooth, and there will be some screw ups, but I honestly think that a lot of electronic shows I’ve seen that are flawless become decreasingly interesting. Honestly if there are some fuck ups, we will just be like “sorry, we will get back on it now.”

 

MAX : So the screw ups make it more unique then?

 

JAS: They make it HUMAN, which is one of the things I think is essential and often missing in electronic music. It doesn’t necessarily need to be human in terms of there needing to be a voice, but there needs to be room for error, room for good things to happen. The worst possible situation is you press GO, and it runs smoothly, and it’s the same EVERY night. No one wants that.

 

MAX : So you guys will be at the forefront of doing that?

 

JAS: I don’t know if anyone else will do it if we make a mess of it, but if you see the system that we have, it’s all happening live. There’s a lot of room to play well or badly, and there’s a lot of room for us to jam and take things based on how we feel the crowd is reacting, and how we feel actually.

 

With all of those things, I feel like a good live show should be a collision of how we are feeling, how the gear works, who else is playing during the night, and how the crowd reacts. Even to a certain extent, paying attention to the kind of PA you are playing on. If you are playing on a PA that is very “subby,” like particularly if you are playing a warehouse party, you can get away with playing really minimally. But at a venue like this, we will probably play more vocals, because it’s kind of a rock show. It doesn’t have the same pressure here that it would in a room, like the physicality of it.

 

All of those things, without really considering them, inform how the set goes, which I think is the nature of a live show. There are things that we have not worked out yet, but at the end of it, you are kind of nervous. You should feel a bit nervous before you go on.

 

MAX: How many times have you been to LA?

 

JAS: Quite a lot actually.

 

MAX: So what’s a typical day in LA for you when you’re not working?

 

JAS: You know, I feel like I haven’t spent very much time in LA. Every time I’ve come to LA it’s always been to play. And usually you arrive feeling pretty ropey, for one reason or another, in the afternoon, and then you leave at night. For example, I leave tomorrow at noon, I’m sure I will be going back to the hotel.  But, one of the things I really want to do more is go out to the places where people actually live.

We always end up staying Downtown, or in Hollywood.  We went over to visit a friend who lives in Silver Lake, and all of a sudden I was like, okay, this seems like the kind of place where people actually live.