Time Dilates Around You: Jon Hopkins Discusses Asleep Versions

The producer considers patience, meditation and the importance of the pineal gland while talking Kiran Acharya through the four immersive remixes on his new EP, released today

Jon Hopkins is in Japan listening to the mechanical clatter of the pachinko parlours. A mesmerising cross between pinball and slot machines, the game makes addicts of players obsessing over steel balls plummeting from the top of vertical boards, bouncing off pins as they fall. Any balls that successfully escape are traded in their thousands for tatty prizes, and because gambling for money is notionally illegal in Japan, prizes are later exchanged for cash amidst the impenetrable din of the parlour. "It’s the most ridiculous noise I’ve ever heard," says Hopkins. "And I haven’t even been in, because my ears are practically bleeding. It’s an extraordinary sound, about a million balls clanging around in rows of machines. You hear this on every street corner."

Hopkins flew to Tokyo early this month to begin work on the follow-up to his 2013 album Immunity, continuing the demanding tour schedule which has truly launched him as a solo artist. His October appearance at the Royal Festival Hall was a sold-out success, with shows to follow in Brooklyn and Brighton before a 2015 audiovisual extravaganza in Brixton. He hasn’t been listening to much new music lately, preferring trusted favourites such as Harold Budd and Brian Eno’s classic The Pearl. He does have the new Aphex Twin earmarked for a listen in Japan, and has enjoyed both the latest James Yorkston and The War On Drugs, with whom he performed at Pitchfork Paris.

It’s too early to guess how the new album will turn out, although the Japanese trip is not a search for sonic souvenirs. "Unless I’m actually in the studio I don’t tend to listen out for sounds in a sound-sourcing creative way," he says. "I just let things wash over me a bit." Instead, his last major studio experience came in February when he left the UK to write outside London for the first time. Heading to Iceland, he arrived at Sundlaugin, the abandoned 1930s swimming pool that Sigur Rós converted into a 180 square foot studio before releasing ( ) in 2002. Hopkins has no personal connection with the band, but his sessions resulted in the beautiful and immersive 26 minutes of the Asleep Versions, four remixes that plunge into Immunity songs to give slower, more immersive results. Recording in Iceland allowed Hopkins to understand immediately why the delicacy and ambience of the Sigur Rós sound is so persuasive. With Moog synths, a grand piano and a hundred-year-old harmonium, Sundlaugin was heavenly. "You see the genesis of the music as soon as you get there," he says. "You do feel tendencies to write in that direction. Sigur Rós changed the landscape of European music I think, this incredible combination of hugeness and intimacy in their tracks. I won’t deny that it’s been an influence on me. I’ve tried to keep it not too obvious. But it’s hard to tell, because you absorb everything you ever listen to. Sometimes it comes out when you’re not looking!"

Just as influential is Hopkins’ 13 years of kundalini yoga and commitment to a variety of meditative techniques. At the age of 21, a period of illness and fatigue straddling the release of first album Opalescent led him to a book named Meditation As Medicine by Dharma Singh Khalsa. The exercises allowed him to regain energy, composure and creativity. "I just had this brainwave one day: ‘I should learn how to meditate.’" With benefits that make the commitment seem effortless, Hopkins advocates practice for all. "I started discovering how profound it can feel," he says. "It changes the way you think and it changes the way you behave. It makes you more mindful of other people. It’s just an amazing thing.

"I do an enormous amount of kundalini yoga, which stimulates the pineal gland," he says. "I think they’ve discovered that music can activate the pineal gland, and while there’s a lot of mysticism around it – on a more practical level it deals with your melatonin and gets your sleep working properly, gets your ability to slip into trance states working. Music can completely do that too. Making these tracks, I was in a very pleasant state for quite a while. By the time you get to ‘Open Eye Signal’, for instance, the idea is that you’ve been slowed down, your thoughts and your consciousness have slowed and your blood pressure has dropped, all these things. I just love that. The feeling that time is dilating around you and that you’re falling off of the edge of the earth."

‘Immunity’ (with King Creosote)

On this version of ‘Immunity’ the warmth you’re hearing comes from the amazing old organ they had in the studio in Iceland. There’s not actually any sub-bass there, just this very dense analogue organ. It had an incredible low end to it. As regards my own mixing, I don’t place any particular emphasis on bass over anything else but I don’t want this EP just to be a floaty ambient thing. I wanted this record to have some grit to it. There are some loud bits, and there’s some serious sub, particularly in the early section of ‘Open Eye Signal’. I tried to make the sound almost break up, where it gets almost quite shuddery and loud.

I haven’t been listening to that much new music – I tend to listen to a lot of the same records, the very early Eno stuff, ambient stuff. The Pearl by Eno and Harold Budd, I listen to that most of the time. It’s amazing. Because I’ve been touring so much, music is something to escape to rather than something to discover. I’m looking for familiarity at the moment. In fact a lot of the reason this EP exists is because I did so many shows for the album. I’m up to 145 or something now. Perhaps understandably I started getting a bit exhausted, from the travel and the pressure and everything.

I stepped up the yoga and various forms of meditation I was doing, a lot of which inspired the original album. I thought, almost for myself, that I wanted to write something that was way deeper and required way more patience. Something very much for that particular state of mind: not actually asleep but slightly above asleep. Whether people are going to be interested in exploring them like this I don’t know, but I think these four versions are as good as anything I’ve done. I’d probably say that about anything I’ve just finished. But you have to be in love with something to finish it, to take it to that level.

‘Form By Firelight’ (with Raphaelle Standell)

I’ve been using Sound Forge since 1998, I use it loads and used it on this record. It kind of keeps you in the 16-bit, which isn’t ideal for every genre, but I like it for my own solo stuff certainly. To give you an example, if you listen to ‘Form By Firelight’ you can hear the way the snare drum occasionally skips and does weird little things. That’s all Sound Forge stuff. In Iceland there was also this Yamaha electric grand thing, something between a piano and a harpsichord. If you turn it off and don’t have the pickup activated it actually plucks the strings instead of hammering them. You can hear that thin harpsichord-piano on the main theme.

I really love the idea of having a vocal that isn’t a lead vocal, so I spent a day with Raphaelle in London, and she came in and did a lot of layers, a lot of takes. That was in Bow, the same place as I did the King Creosote vocal, using the same mic. I love the vocal sound from that room. It’s been a studio for almost 30 years, and they’ve really nailed getting the really warm, personal kind of sound.

Then it was like doing an incredibly difficult jigsaw puzzle. I couldn’t make it quite work, because for so long it sounded like it was going to be a lead vocal and you were going to hear a lyric. I had to make sure it kept ducking away from that. But equally I didn’t want it to sound like it was in the distance, so it was a real balancing act. The idea was that the vocals would almost be swimming up at you then away again, a deeply ethereal and really feminine sound.

I use quite a lot of female vocals. I just love the femininity. The original version is very dense and heavy – almost claustrophobic, with all these thick organ chords and slow, sludgy sort of filtery beats. I really like the idea of having something that sounds underground or submerged and slightly stifled. This version is really light and delicate, really floaty with the lovely breathy vocals. It’s really sort of angelic, like a total opposite sound world.

‘Breathe This Air’ (Asleep Version)

I’ve got this fascination with trying to recreate states of mind that I’ve had in my life, and there’s a very particular one I was trying to capture here. A few months ago I went on the Caledonian Sleeper train to the Scottish Highlands. I don’t sleep that well generally, and while sleeping on a train might be a lovely idea I find it quite difficult. I got quite a lot of Valium, then my friend and I sat in the bar car and drank a lot of champagne – a great combination, I highly recommend it – and had such a laugh.

At the end of the night I got into my bunk and was listening to some piano music – it might have been that Harold Budd record – and through my noise-reducing headphones I could hear the sound of the train. But it was very muffled and very faint. There was something so nostalgic about it, like memories of something you can’t quite put your finger on. The old-fashioned train noise sat with the piano so well, and I thought, "That’s the beginning of one of these tracks. It has to be."

I love that real world sound coming into the song, sort of grounding everything but putting you somewhere you just weren’t expecting to be. As for the actual musical element, there’s been three stages of this track: the original, the version with Purity Ring and now this one. This one was born out of the live show. I was playing around with parts in different orders, and there’s just something about that chord sequence. It’s really simple, but I’m addicted to it. I chopped the vocal around live and found more life in it. It’s all about being open to the song having a life beyond just the album, and it felt like "just one more". But this will definitely be it, now, by the way. Not going to do any more versions of this song!

‘Open Eye Signal’ (Asleep Version)

Open Eye Signal was the first track of the album that I cracked. I really like the idea of having a small amount of definable elements. On previous albums I’ve got so many layers going on, so I wanted this to be synth riff, drum part and choral sound. Each has elements and complexity within them, but essentially it was those three things. The MS-20 was very dominant on the original, and the drums. After a couple of minutes this choral sound comes in which is my voice layered up a lot of times, and pitched up and generally fucked around with quite a lot.

It was part of a much longer take, as you can hear on this version. It was actually about seven minutes of different chords. I loved how it sounded. Just using one section didn’t feel like enough, and the thinking behind this version was to explore one of the three elements. I look at it almost like a spin-off from a TV series. Say there’s one character who only appears for a little bit but he’s a bit interesting and you want to see more. An interesting aside that’s not the main version, but continues the story in a different direction.

For me, songs are like little worlds or spaces to spend time in. These four tracks, and other versions I’ve done of other singles along the way, have been ideas I’ve had after a record’s been finished. They’re not supposed to replace the originals, but it’s as if you’re in that world and maybe looking the opposite way, looking round or looking up and discovering something else. I used to write with more traditional song structures, but a lot of the music I’ve been doing the last couple of years is quite fluid. The songs are completely malleable things.

Asleep Versions is out now via Domino. Jon Hopkins plays four more dates this year, including Brighton Dome on December 4 and The Warehouse Project in Manchester, 12; head to his website for full details

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