Wavepaths Conversations — Jon Hopkins

Wavepaths founder Mendel Kaelen sits down with musician Jon Hopkins to talk about mental health, meditation, psychedelics, his deep relationship with music and more.

What is your very first personal memory of music?

That’s a very early memory: I must have been around 2.5 years old when I was given a set of chime bars. This toy allowed you to build your own mini-vibraphone-type-thing. Apparently, I arranged the notes as a scale, wrote a little tune on them and very excitedly bashed it out to my parents in the morning. Although I don’t remember the specifics, there’s definitely still some spark of memory left: that first feeling of creating something musical.

How has music shaped your life and personal growth?

Music has always been so integral to my life. It’s always been my work and my passion. Until recent years, really most of my interests have been in the creation and performing of music. I was drawn to music from a super early age. At school, my ego co-opted it to some degree and I would use it to gain some sort of social credibility. Then, as technology evolved, it became a refuge from difficult teenage years. Just to be able to make music on a computer became my whole universe, it was so exciting. By the time I was 18 or 19 years old it was possible to download some software and make music that was actually of releasable quality. This coincided with me being the right age to start looking for record deals. So, I started making things in an early bedroom studio. It was such an innocent and amazing experience: that first album. You never get that first album feeling again. That time before anyone has any expectations and you’re just doing it purely for love.

As my career started to pick up momentum, I got slightly taken over by it. But that actual moment when you hit upon a beautiful melody or a sound that triggers ideas for you: that magical feeling is still there for me. It’s how I make sense of the world. I remember this producer saying: if the music is going well, everything is going well. That’s what it’s like for me — and vice versa: if the music isn’t going well, then it feels like nothing is going well. Regardless of what’s actually going on in my life, I can feel on top of the world when I’ve written something. This is what the name Immunity is actually referring to. I get this feeling of immunity from the writing process, because it’s such a deeply satisfying sort of excavation of my psyche.

It was such an innocent and amazing experience: that first album. You never get that first album feeling again. That time before anyone has any expectations and you’re just doing it purely for love.

What has been your most personally meaningful experience with music?

I would say the first time I listened to this band called Ozric Tentacles — I must have been around 14 or 15 years old. It was one of the first times I had ever experienced marijuana; a very mild, small amount of it. I just remember hearing this incredible prog synth rock band. I’d never heard analogue synths used properly, or used in this way, and it seemed to me like absolute alchemy. They had this mystery to their sound as well, a truly enigmatic sound. I’d never heard anything like it. It was like I could actually see and touch the sounds and it sent me down this path of wanting to make psychedelic music. It really changed the course of things for me.

What impact do you hope your music will have in its listeners?

The kind of feedback I receive at the moment, in particular from people who’ve listened to the last two albums, is really more than I could ever ask for. People have written such beautiful messages, for example about how someone’s gone through an incredibly hard year or something, and then goes to a show or listens to the album at just the right time. People describing how the music has been cathartic, or how the words have helped them cry, or how it’s helped them dance in some way that has allowed them to shake some stuff off.

I can’t really ask for more than that. For me, progressing beyond simply making records and then performing them, is what lies ahead. And that is of course why I’m involved in Wavepaths. And that’s of course also why I’m talking to you now.

People describing how the music has been cathartic, or how the words have helped them cry, or how it’s helped them dance in some way that has allowed them to shake some stuff off.

Of course, I never get the experience of listening to my own stuff for the first time. I remember hearing Pink Floyd say that about Dark Side of The Moon: they were the only ones who never got to listen to that album for the first time. So, I don’t have the same experience as my listeners. But making music is a therapeutic process for me, as well as a weird necessity. I guess it stands to reason that there will be people out there who share that taste with me. And who are going to connect to the things that I feel the music is connected to. For me these are the universal themes of desire for transcendence, the power of hypnotic rhythms — anything trance-inducing and magical, really.

Do you feel that your approach to music has changed through time, either composing or listening? If so, how?

Making music has always had a therapeutic effect on me. This effect used to be there even more in the past. When I was young, I just wanted to keep creating stuff and I was never happier than in the studio. As you get older, you get some of the physical ramifications of the sedentary, screen-based lifestyle. And now that making music is my living, I also find myself needing to take time off. However, there’s a huge burst of euphoria and relief and joy that can come when you make a piece of music that you’re in love with.

To give you a recent example, there’s a track on Singularity called Luminous Beings. I’d really been struggling with some of the more complex programming elements of the album. And when I hit on the main melody section in the middle of that track, the joy that came flooding through was just incredible! I remember it very clearly, because I actually started sleeping well for the first time in ages. I felt like I was connected to some sort of divine inspiration. It’s just a bit of music… but at the time it felt like everything. And that’s the power it can have over me sometimes. It can really induce a therapeutic flow-state.

There’s a huge burst of euphoria and relief and joy that can come when you make a piece of music that you’re in love with.

This is where the use of Ableton can be really encouraging, because you can follow your crazy ideas and you can go down musical pathways incredibly quickly to explore them. It allows you to be really experimental on the fly. That’s how I ended up with ideas that I would have never had without this exact platform.

What is your relationship with psychedelics? And did this influence your approach to music in any way?

When I was around 27, I had an experience with psilocybin mushrooms on a beach in Scotland with some of my oldest friends. It was a perfect pristine beach, there was no one there but us and we had a big campfire: the perfect setting for a psychedelic experience. I took a good number of mushrooms. And that’s when I saw the infinite wisdom of nature clearly for the first time. That experience really lifted the veil in terms of how I viewed nature.

I remember lying on the beach with my feet in the sea and looking at some snails on a rock. They were a perfect spiral and were all performing a role in that vast system of nature. I realized that nothing is wasted and everything is set up perfectly. I was looking at the sky from upside down and I had this incredible vision: I was in the clouds, looking down at this perfect blue sea. And then this flock of ducks flew right across the middle of that vision as the sun came up. It was so profoundly beautiful.

This experience sent me off down a different course, though I didn’t then get into any kind of regular psychedelic use at all. Looking for deeper truths and wanting to explore the mystery of consciousness didn’t come until many years later.

As my career started to gather momentum, I fell into a phase of not really exploring these states of consciousness at all. It wasn’t until I was maybe 35, that I became interested again. By that time, I’d been meditating for many years and I felt pretty secure in myself and in my ability to deal with things. I then had a DMT experience and several mushroom experiences, all with far more research around them and far more care and education — as I’ve learned to respect these things.

My last album, Singularity, grew out of really exploring these cosmic states of consciousness and going further away from my body than I ever had. This all happened within very safe confines and with guidance — including The Psychedelic Society’s retreat outside of Amsterdam. During that retreat, I took a very high dose of psilocybin truffles. I was in the last months of writing the album and that experience helped me channel some of the more cosmic ideas really well.

As anyone who has had a psychedelic experience knows: you can’t really translate it. But the way I write music is instinctive anyway. I don’t sit there thinking: I’m going to write a piece about this trip. I just write music and retrospectively, I know what the tracks are about. There’s this track called COSM on that album, named after Alex Grey’s Chapel of Sacred Mirrors . I think that’s just a beautiful name and that track very clearly follows a DMT experience I had. But when I was writing it, I was just aware that I was following a thread. If you read interviews with David Lynch, he talks about how he’s not always aware of the meaning of what he’s doing until later, when it’s done. And I really feel the same about the way I write. I learned over the years to trust that the subconscious is going to provide guidance.

It’s worth mentioning meditation in this, as well. Take Transcendental Meditation, something I’ve been doing for 4 years now. That practice is like a bedrock of security within the psychedelic experience, but it also definitely allowed me closer contact with the subconscious material that’s there.

I learned over the years to trust that the subconscious is going to provide guidance.

In what ways do you take care of your own mental health and well-being?

I experienced some real difficultly in that area. Quite soon after my 21st birthday, I developed what they call chronic fatigue syndrome, which is a hopelessly inadequate name for a kind of glandular imbalance. You never feel well or rested or active: you just feel incredibly ill and at its worst it can be completely immobilizing. I was confined to my mum’s house for a good two months and then for another few months, really not moving much at all and not achieving anything.

I moved through that with the aid of Kundalini yoga, which I just learned from a book called Meditation as Medicine, by Dharma Singh Khalsa . A brilliant book with simple descriptions of Kundalini exercises that you can target for things that might be wrong. There’s movements involved but also meditation and breath-work, so I got introduced to that world really early. And then I recovered from the chronic fatigue. It took a while and there were some setbacks on the way, but I recovered from it.

Then in 2014 I started experiencing bad insomnia from being perpetually overstimulated. The transition from a really underground artist to a slightly more known one, left me constantly wired and I couldn’t sleep. That led me to learn Transcendental Meditation (TM), at the beginning of 2015. TM is like a permanent friend that’s there for you. A place you can go to, every single day, on every flight you get on: whenever you want to do it, it’s there. And it’s just the most beautiful, calming thing. I notice so many improvements. I haven’t solved the sleep problem exactly, but I’ve made a big dent into it.

What I’ve learned about difficulties in mental and physical health, is that they can be seen as gifts, as long as you respond to them in the right way. They are signposts from the body and the psyche, that point to what you need to be doing.

I combine Transcendental Meditation with a sensible amount of exercise and the Wim Hof method: a much more extreme process, involving cold exposure, conscious hyperventilation and retention of breath. It helps me to rewire the body a little and to recover from some of this chronic stress. People have expressed some kind of admiration that I do this amount of stuff, comprising a big part of my day, but none of it is warranted, because it’s not a choice. It’s the only way I can maintain my productivity and feeling of well-being. And while these techniques are a mechanical necessity for my body and mind, they also appeal to my long-standing fascination to learn different trance states. These states are then manifested in the music as well, for sure.

What I’ve learned about difficulties in mental and physical health, is that they can be seen as gifts, as long as you respond to them in the right way. They are signposts from the body and the psyche, that point to what you need to be doing. And once you do that, you can start loving your body properly and stop being angry with it when it doesn’t do exactly what you want it to.

If you would select one song (not your own), to be played in psychedelic therapy sessions, what may it be and why?

There are so many different ways you can go with this, so many songs to choose from. But there’s a piece called Evening Side by Four Tet: this is something I’ve personally gravitated to on almost every deeper psychedelic experience I’ve had. I’m not saying that it would be for everyone, because it ends with quite a tribal section that makes you want to dance a bit. But the main bulk of it is just so incredible when you’re in that realm of consciousness. I imagine it like a sparkling, multi-dimensional Cathedral. And there’s this magical Indian vocal. For me, nothing really equals this piece when you’re in that state.

Can you share your thinking and approach behind the making of your music for Wavepaths (Rediscovering Stillness)?

There’s a few meditational pieces that I’ve made just for myself and I haven’t released publicly yet. I like the idea of not just making things for the world and not everything being immediately available and reviewed. So, these are pieces that I use myself, to relax. And that’s the origin of the piece that we are using together here.

It’s the first and still only piece that I’ve made which involved generative elements. And I’m not going to pretend otherwise: it’s very inspired by Brian Eno’s generative music. Pieces like Discreet Music, Reflection and Thursday Afternoon have all been big influences. I don’t know what the system is, but there’s a system behind those that allows them to self-generate endlessly. What I’m doing is a lot simpler than that. I essentially recorded several piano phrases into Ableton and set up a whole lot of parameters — involving randomness and probability — which makes clips come in at random. I found it really relaxing, because you can just press play and things will start happening. You can lie there listening and they will just keep happening forever and they will never be exactly the same.

It’s the first and still only piece that I’ve made which involved generative elements.

How do you find stillness in your own life?

With a combination of Transcendental Meditation and the Wim Hof method. And by getting myself into therapeutic flow-states while creating music. And what’s interesting: it doesn’t matter for what reason you learn to meditate or do these things. It will evolve you. Even if you only do it to become more financially successful, in the end you will start to become that deeper entity and you’ll be more connected to things that are less superficial. You’ll become more tolerant and peaceful.

What makes you excited about Wavepaths?

There’s so many things that I love about it. I really like this vision of when the Wavepaths Spaces have proliferated and you can go to a random city, just look one up and go there for a moment of stillness. Almost like a kind of secular church. I think that’s a very beautiful idea. Also, the combination of psychedelic therapy and Wavepaths is something that I’m personally fascinated in trying, as soon as psychedelic therapy is regulated and legalized.

A Wavepaths conversation between Mendel Kaelen and Jon Hopkins.

Experience music by Jon Hopkins in Wavepaths’ first public space opening in the spring of 2019 in London (UK).