We’re Not Purists: A Conversation with Daniel Avery and Jon Hopkins

The electronic artists discuss their new albums and the humanity behind synthetic beats.

Jon Hopkins’ newest album, Singularity—like his Mercury Prize-nominated, 2013 breakthrough, Immunity—is a work of richly layered, uncommonly emotive electronic music. It’s a realm similarly inhabited by Daniel Avery on his sophisticated second record, Song For Alpha, which finds the longtime DJ pushing even further into the more introspective side of club music. Currently touring America together, the artists discuss working on their new albums and using synthetic sounds to make a human connection.
—Moderated by Sean O’Neal

Daniel Avery: We met shortly after our previous albums came out, around 2013, and we talked quite a lot about who would get past the finish line first with the follow-up. As it turned out, they both took five years. How much was left on the cutting room floor?

Jon Hopkins: None at all.

DA: Literally none?

JH: It’s all being written subconsciously, over time, but the gap wasn’t a five-year writing period. I did a solid two years of touring with [Immunity], and I didn’t even think about what I was gonna do next. I finally started writing at the end of 2015, and the first few months was just fucking around, trying to make anything that wasn’t awful. I’d just moved over from Logic to Ableton, and I was stripped of my expertise, so it made every idea just sound so much worse. So it started off with everything on the cutting room floor, and nothing was cool until I hit on one sound, finally, for “Neon Pattern Drum.” It has this weird rhythmic effect at the beginning, and that was the first sound I made that I thought, This is actually not rubbish. And that kind of kicked it off. I knew it was gonna be nine tracks quite soon, and once the vague themes were in place, I knew what track was going in what order, what purpose they had to serve. Within the first year, it was all set. Then the second year was all about building the sound, doing the sonics. Was your process very different?

DA: Total opposite. I feel the same way, it’s always subconsciously being made in the background. But I went into the studio pretty soon after Drone Logic came out—probably less than a year. I did have ideas, but those ideas kind of ran away with me. In retrospect, I think I went in too soon, because the folder for Song For Alpha contains close to 100 tracks. Not all of them are fully formed, but they exist, and I spent significant time on them. I was going in with preconceived notions, and it wasn’t until the final year that I said, “Just exist in the studio, and let music come to you. Take that breath and don’t think too much.” And all of a sudden, my entire outlook changed. But it took me four, five years to get to that stage.

JH: Do you think that was pressure from Drone Logic, and people having been really into it?

DA: I hit a lot of the clichéd “difficult second album” hurdles that I swore I would never consider. I hit nearly every single one of them.

JH: I don’t think it’s whether you want to hit them. It’s just they’re there.

DA: And it wasn’t until I stopped giving a shit about any of them that something started to move.

JH: That sounds like it forced you to learn the lesson.

DA: I learned more about myself as an artist in those years than ever before.

JH: Our situations are parallel—although, it was my fourth album where people finally listened. But it’s only a difficult second album if people listened to your first one. I did my second one, and I think less people listened to it. But I carried on. It was only on this fifth one that I felt the magnitude of that pressure. Because you don’t want it to be worse. You don’t want to upset people. But at the same time, you have to let all of that go. You have no choice, in the end, but to think about the process only, and not think about the goal. These all sound like clichés, but they’re all true. When you’re on your own, staring at the screen, you can’t be thinking about how it compares to this or that, or whether it’s gonna upset that guy who liked the chill one at the end of the one before. Or whether it’s gonna be too edgy, or not edgy enough, for the reviewers.

DA: Your fourth album that broke through, Immunity—is it fair to say that’s because you’ve embraced more of a club element?

JH: It’s completely fair to say. I think it allowed people to understand it for the first time. It was very hard to put into any category, apart from random, eclectic electronic stuff—techno with cinematic bits. When there are a few bangers there, it opens it out. But that wasn’t a conscious thing. It came from friendships. I became friends with Nathan Fake, and we hung out loads, and he got me interested in this whole Border Community world. Also, Kieran Hebden [Four Tet], whom I toured with—his music is influenced by [James] Holden and Fake and Border Community. I started to fall in love with the way those guys kept the emotional, melodic content, but they also had these amazing grooves that feel really human. I would be at their club nights, and on the same bill as Nathan, so their music taste rubbed off. And entirely unconsciously, when I started writing, I found that I really wanted to work with a kick drum. Then the first track I wrote in that vein was “Open Eye Signal.”

It was really exciting using this new framework—a very simple, single pulse—as like a restriction. You have to use that, because you want that hypnotic element, but it has to hit the heart in the way I’m interested in, not just mindless, repetitive stuff. That was the fun challenge, to bring in other layers which could still have the effect of my earlier music. And across the album, it goes between those two points.

DA: Something informed by techno or club music, but still has that emotional, human heart to it—that’s where I think our music intersects. Drone Logic was very direct. It was born out of the club. Song For Alpha, I wanted to maintain those elements, but I wanted the album to spread its wings a bit wider. There’s more human, emotional, cerebral elements that come to the fore. This is exactly the album I wanted to make, and I’m very proud of it, but I’m aware there are probably pockets of early Avery fans like, “Oh, this isn’t Drone Logic again.” When “Open Eye Signal” came out, were you aware of early Hopkins fans turning their noses up at it?

JH: There’s two or three people on Twitter who liked the first album, who are in their late 50s. The first album, when I wrote it, I was 19. It’s nice, but it’s very home demo-y, mellow, ambient stuff. They get very, very angry when I make something with any kind of edge to it. It is sort of nice that they care so much about something that I did a long time ago. But at the same time, the idea of writing like you did 20 years earlier is not very appealing. What I liked about [Song For Alpha] is it has this really spacey, ethereal quality to it, which wasn’t on Drone Logic. It feels more… personal. It just feels some sort of turn has been taken. Is that a reaction to having spent so much time in the club?

DA: It is. It’s more introspective. I wanted that sound of being in the middle of a dance floor—somewhere like Room 1 at Fabric, middle of the floor at Berghain—and that feeling where you close your eyes, and the depth of the reverb and the power of the room feels like it can engulf you. It’s those moments that have really stayed with me. I wanted to achieve that throughout a track.

JH: Do you also intend it to have a restorative quality? I find I can’t write really dark, edgy stuff for very long without it taking something from me. It feels like it sucks the life out of you.

DA: I love dark music, to an extent. But what I love is to have those dark elements, but then for a light to emerge from beyond the horizon. I think that’s another thing that we share. You can have the heaviest kick in the world, but when that one synth emerges, it just feels like a light’s being turned on.

JH: Someone’s thrown you a rope.

DA: Exactly.

JH: I think you can look at those two worlds and have them in isolation, and have them way less powerful. Everything is heavy, or everything is floaty. But then there isn’t friction. I came from an opposite starting point with ambient, then dance. On this record, there’s two solo piano pieces with very few notes. For me, I’m only allowed to do that if I’ve done a lot of rhythmic, danceable stuff. I can’t indulge those ambient tendencies until I end up with the balance we’re talking about.

DA: You’ve now made two way more club-influenced records. Have you thought about what happens next?  

JH: I’m only really capable of writing what happens naturally. When I go into the studio, that is what is happening. I can’t guide the notes or rhythms based on any intention. This record, in name and sound, was very much a follow-up to the previous one, but it goes much further in the “cosmic” direction. Which echoes my own life, because it’s gone more cosmic in the last couple years [Laughs]. So if anything, it would go further in that way. The thing I have vaguely in my head is something quite a lot more out there. I like the idea of breaking the form down quite heavily, so that it’s more sound design-y, more unusual. It may be that that’s more suited to an installation. I’m always thinking about various forms of installation instead of albums.

But I do a lot of live shows, and by choice and out of genuine desire, I will make things that I know will work live. But I can’t tour forever. You know what it’s like. It’s amazing. It’s probably one of the best jobs you can have. But at the same time, it is extremely bad for you. I love doing it, and I’m still not gonna stop anytime soon, but it’s not gonna be forever.

DA: I’m nearly 33. I started DJing when I was 18, and I’ve been DJing every week in that time. There’s been no let up. It’s just part of who I am now. Recently I have started to think, what would happen if I did stop, and where else could it lead? But I just don’t know the answer to that question.

JH: You’re still enjoying it, right? Do you still feel the same love you did?

DA: In the moment, I do. Yeah. I think so more now than ever.

JH: Do you have those moments where you’re just about to go on, and you’ve gotta dig so deep? Are you able to always find that energy in there somehow? I always ask musicians this, because we’ve all been in that situation where you have a nap after dinner, and you wake up and you’re like, “Oh my God, I don’t know how I’m gonna be entertaining. I’ve never felt less entertaining.”

DA: For me, the energy of a club, I still find it exciting. And the second I stop finding it exciting, I will just have to stop. I’ve been places where I’ve been ill, or I have no idea how I could even step out the door, let alone walk into a nightclub. But there’s something about that positive, communal energy of a club that I still find exciting. My favorite thing is that feeling like it could go on forever. I could happily exist here with my friends and like-minded people, and it’s not going to end. That is unique to DJing, really.

JH: What is the longest set you’ve ever done? This is an area where we differ enormously.

DA: Ten hours is the longest. I’m at a stage now where I wish I could do it every gig. Watching people come in and sitting on the floor, then those very same people climbing the walls several hours later, and drawing a line between those things. It’s different music, but it’s the same feeling within that music.

JH: That’s a nice way of putting it. There’s not really words to describe what it is, because that’s what music is for, but I like the word “transcendent.” I started off writing things that were really similar to the producers I was into when I was 19. Guy Sigsworth, he was my hero. He did all of the early Björk stuff. He really brought artistry into pop. There are little bits of him, lots of Talk Talk, lots of Sigur Rós. So that was more my influence than the club.

DA: Yeah, despite me being a DJ for so long, even though it has been a huge part of my life, I even now struggle to publicly call myself a DJ. I still feel like the indie kid who grew up in a small town in England, and my heroes were never DJs. My heroes were Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine, or Mogwai. And I think this is probably why you and I share these views. We’re both outsiders when it comes to dance music. We weren’t born into it. And we don’t really have a stake in where it’s gonna go, because we were never part of its foundation.  

JH: We’re not purists. And I think real music lovers don’t care about that stuff. There are some militant techno people out there, I’m sure, who would consider my stuff abhorrent. But I haven’t heard from them, generally.

DA: And who gives a fuck? We don’t care.

JH: Yeah, exactly. If that person accidentally went to one of your shows, they probably would like it.

DA: Because what we do is still genuine.

JH: It’s done with integrity. It’s still the outpouring of a human. And I do think there’s a desire for more emotional depth and meaning in everything these days. You see people looking for it, because mainstream culture has become a bit bereft. I’m noticing all these things in the wings—all these amazing podcasts of people talking, really in-depth, about super-personal things in a really intelligent way. I see this sort of music as part of that movement. An increase in self-awareness, in understanding your own internal world, I think there is a definite move in that direction. We’re just cashing in. [Laughs]

(Photo Credit: Left and Right, Steve Gullick)

For Daniel Avery, the recording of his second album Song for Alpha (in his studio in a repurposed shipping container situated on the curve of the River Thames) proved a cathartic release from the chaos and white noise that seemed to seep in from the outside world–whether it was wild geo-political shifts or favorite club spaces unfairly threatened with closure. It was inspired largely by his transient life spent between nightclubs, flights, the passenger seats of cars and hotel rooms, cementing a worldwide reputation as one of the defining techno DJs of the decade.