Jon Hopkins Talks Career Renaissance & Collaborating With Coldplay

Steve Gullick
Jon Hopkins

It's midafternoon in Berlin, and Jon Hopkins is already sound-checking.

Surfacing for air from his self-described "weird maze of stuff" onstage, the lanky British producer greets me with a sheepish grin and a cordial handshake.

"I hope people know where the show is," he says. "I couldn't see any signs anywhere."

We sit and sip water by a window at Bi Nuu, the cozy Kreuzberg club he's headlining that night. It's situated beneath a U-Bahn station, providing a constant soundtrack of shrill chimes and rumbling tracks. Skalitzer Strasse's human stream trickles by our tinted glass lens.

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Wearing a pink-and-black striped shirt and brown Oakleys that never leave his nose, Hopkins speaks gently and eloquently about utter disillusionment.

"When I was 23, I felt like I was further back than when I was 21," he says. "After two solo albums for this small indie label Just Music, they'd gotten no real profile. So I kind of turned away from the solo thing a bit."

Twelve years have a way of changing things. Hopkins, 35, will release his Asleep Versions EP on Domino Records this week, extending his solo career's stunning second act. The Surrey native has gone from coveted session producer to one of the most exciting modern electronic artists, earning a Mercury Prize nomination for his mesmerizing album Immunity last year and playing high-profile performances at Sonar, the Warehouse Project and Amsterdam Dance Event.

A classically trained pianist who grew up enamored with sequenced sounds by artists like ABBA, Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys, Hopkins abandoned his solo ambitions in 2003 to plunge headfirst into session producing for other artists, such as Scottish singer/songwriter King Creosote's 2007 Bombshell LP. His big break came when former Imogen Heap guitarist Leo Abrahams introduced him to Brian Eno, who invited the timid 26-year-old to come by Coldplay's studio.

"Brian invited me to come work with Coldplay for a day, and a day of jamming turned into a seven-year ongoing collaborative relationship," Hopkins recalls.

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A longtime Coldplay fan who describes being "blown away" the first time he heard "Yellow," Hopkins worried more about fitting in socially than musically.

"I was extremely nervous about coming into this situation full of high-powered music players as this youngster, but I knew if I could just get my sounds on there, people would kind of see where I'm coming from," he says. "As soon as I met them, I was like, 'Oh, no, they're just the same kind of people as me.' They're one or two years older than me and many millions of pounds richer, but from a similar demographic. London, middle-class, sensible chaps."

During the sessions, Hopkins played singer Chris Martin an original composition called "Light Through the Veins," which would eventually become Viva la Vida opener "Life in Technicolor."

"It had a really kind of amazing effect. He looked like he was tripping out," he says. "A few days later, he said, 'That's got to start our album, we've got to work together on this.' I saw that all happen, just from taking a chance to play it to him in an opportune moment."

Coldplay asked Hopkins to open for them on their 2008 world tour, where the artist suddenly found himself playing before 20,000-person crowds in venues like London's O2 arena and Madison Square Garden. Emboldened by his successes, he decided to take another shot at a solo career.

"There was writing coming out, it just wasn't going directly into solo things," he says. "If you wait long enough, your influences have moved on and suddenly you're excited about what you're doing again. I had this idea of really soft piano matched against these brutal electronics."

Hopkins harnessed that inspiration on 2009's Insides, a critical and commercial success that peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard Dance/Electronic Albums chart. The same year, he collaborated with Eno on the score for Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones.

His features animate as he describes the beloved analog synthesizers that began populating his studio during the Immunity sessions. He describes needing a new "starting point," recalling how the first few notes he ever played on his Korg MS-20 ultimately became the intro for "Open Eye Signal."

"I'm very impulsive and I always had a belief in instinct leading the way," he explains. "It's basically allowing the first idea to guide, having no preconceived plan for the track at all, and just starting and allowing the brain to hear what it hears and try and build each part based on the first."

While recording Immunity, Hopkins also made a brief but significant cameo in Coldplay's Ghost Stories sessions, providing a track that would eventually become second single "Midnight."

"Chris had been working with this harmonizer sound that had nothing to do with me," he says. "My track was playing in the background and he just quickly wrote that whole bit on top. It was kind of really an amazing moment, because we all had a feeling that there was another seed of a great song being born."

Recorded at Sigur Rós' studio in Reykjavik, his new Asleep Versions EP offers four ambient reimaginations of Immunity tracks that came out of sessions Hopkins "let evolve at their own speed" while juggling an intense touring schedule.

Hopkins' transition from the studio to the stage has been seamless, and watching him perform can be a dizzying experience. His tireless hands flit over the controls of his four Kaoss Pad controllers, throwing endless effects into his constantly shifting blend of ethereal piano, stuttered beats and glitchy twisted techno.

"I always make sure there's something for the audience to connect to, in terms of my movements relating to the sounds being heard," he says. "On a quite simple level, if you hear something and you see someone's done something, it really brings it to life a bit. I also need to be quite hands-on connecting with the beats, as I'm just twisting them all the time and doing loads of stuff with them."

Our conversation reaches a point of natural pause. The late-afternoon sun leans in from outside. Hopkins looks eager to return to his machines, so I close by asking how his trials helped set up his triumphs.

"Had those albums back then gone like it has with Immunity, I would never have met any of those other people, learned how to work with vocals or met Coldplay or Brian or anyone like that," he says. "You need these things, and you really appreciate it when things do go well when you've had difficult early years."