Photos by Mathew Parri Thomas.
What do Donald Trump’s election win, binge watching the Sopranos and an intense form of meditation that induces a psychedelic state through exposure to ice cold water have in common? The answer is that they all helped shape Jon Hopkins’ new record, Singularity.
It began with negative feelings that overwhelmed him after Trump’s rise to power. “My brain is very sensitive and takes in energies from everywhere around it and it can be incapacitating. I remember after the US election I spent a few weeks at home on the sofa just watching The Sopranos. I needed an injection of positivity and new energy after that.”
He found this positive energy through the discovery of the Wim Hof method: a breathing technique that, using long intakes of oxygen coupled with exposure in freezing cold water, increases energy levels, boosts serotonin – and, according to Jon, was “profoundly important” to how the album came into being. “It was just after the aforementioned Sopranos viewing and I was very drained. Every time I went to the studio I started feeling dizzy, as if my body was trying to say ‘You can’t write, you need to go home’.”
“The doctors tried to get me to go on antidepressants and I said ‘I don’t feel depressed. I feel dizzy, I feel worried about the world but I don’t feel artificially boosting my serotonin is the answer’. It seemed like a really blunt and insensitive approach.”
“It was then that I heard about the Wim Hof method – about the effects of taking in more oxygen because we don’t take in enough. It’s a simple rebalancing thing. And then a week after starting that I was back in the studio and I was working a couple of hours a day and then three and then four. So yeah, the album really wouldn’t exist without that technique.”
That album, Singularity, his first album in five years, has that sense of rejuvenation and exploration. It’s an intricate, expansive and immersive piece of work; an album made in the shadow of those external factors – of political turmoil, the world turning to shit – but refracts them through an internal lens, using his deepening interest in transcendental meditation to find a sense of peace and beauty in the face of everything happening around him.
“The first track has a lot of foreboding and that’s probably a reaction to some moods that I was picking up. But I made a conscious decision in the end that I wanted to make something that didn’t just reflect how fucked up everything is – I wanted to emit some beautiful feelings.”
“That’s a state of mind that I’ve accessed through meditation and, for me, rather than it being an escape from reality, it’s more like a deeper connection to reality. It showed me that whatever is going on in the world, it’s still possible to experience joy and stillness.”
The success of Hopkins’ last record, Immunity, changed the course of his career completely. He was more in demand than ever before, he started DJing around the world and it meant he was given time to make this record exactly what he wanted it to be. “There was a lot more stress around making Immunity because I had done three solo albums already and none of them had made their way out of the underground. With this record I took my time. I think it’s really important not to rush to the starting point, because you can often start writing things that sound like off-cuts from the last record.” He spent some time mapping out the album and came up with a concept, though he soon realised this was futile. “I’ve completely ditched the idea that I could possibly know where it’s going – what I really do is working in the dark, until I hit on a spark and then I pursue that relentlessly.”
That spark came out of a track called ‘Neon Pattern Drum’. “It’s the most experimental track on there in some ways – it begins with a solid pattern then it disintegrates into rhythmic chaos. You can’t really hear the rhythm and then the bass line comes in and I was like ‘Ah, OK, I like this’. After I found that things started to flow a bit quicker.”
As songs began to take shape it was then about weaving disparate sounds and contrasting ideas together. There’s a moment on the record where ‘Everything Connected’ – a huge monolithic “techno bastard” – segues into ‘Feel First Life’ a tranquil, still, choral number. Getting that journey right for the listener was something he thought a lot about – in fact he had the tracklisting decided a year before he’d finished the album.
“I know it’s not particularly relevant to the way a lot of people listen to music these days but it’s one of the main things for me. That particular transition is a very good example of it – trying to make that bridge between techno and choral music in just a minute was a challenge. You couldn’t just bring the choir in straight at the end of ‘Everything Connected’, it would be ridiculous. So it’s trying to get a path through that single connecting drone and and then the choir kind of swims up from underneath. I love all those unexpected moments.”
“It showed me that whatever is going on in the world, it’s still possible to experience joy and stillness.”
Hopkins’ ability to see his songs as physical places or, as he says, “a sort of dimensional space in my head. I just have this strange way of seeing music in my head”, helps him to build these immersive sonic worlds. They are worlds that bring together the electronic and the organic, with sounds from the natural world incorporated as part of the songs. These ‘used sounds’ have been a core part of Hopkins’ previous albums and they’re here too: this time a recording of thunder is tuned to the sub bass in the title track and the sound of an owl is used as a melody on ‘Recovery’. “It’s almost a little piano meditation really and while I was working on it a friend of mine was in Greece on holiday and could hear the Scops owl we’d heard when we were both on holiday in the south of France. It just makes this beautiful little beating sound every few seconds. She’d recorded it on her phone and I listened to it and thought ‘That is going in!’. It was a moment of perfect synchronicity.”
This idea of abrasive electronic noises rubbing up against these sounds of nature is central to the themes of the record. “That’s really a constant conversational battle going on in my head. I have to be in London and I love it for many reasons. At the same time a deeper part of me is constantly yearning for untamed nature. I think that results in a really interesting tension in the music – Immunity had these very heavy sections and very peaceful sections and I think you need the craziness of cities. If it was all fluffy and pretty then that would be meaningless.”
This returns us to the Wim Hof method, that to achieve peace you need that dramatic exposure to the ice cold water first, or as Jon says “There’s no comfort with discomfort.” I ask whether I should be investigating this technique for myself. “If you want to feel amazing,” he laughs.