Thoughts on A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

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When I finished this book, I turned back and read the final 20 pages again. It’s irreverent, post-modern and cocksure. Eggers writes with a breakneck verbosity that can, on occasion, seem glib. I wasn’t sure I liked him at all, until I finished the book and felt like crying. Because behind the bluster and the literary arsenal here is a very human story indeed, one with which anyone who has loved and lost can relate.

I first encountered Eggers through the foreword to ‘Infinite Jest’, a book to which this bears some comparison. Both are liberal with their sentence structure. Both pay little heed to traditional prose, much less the covenants of received pronunciation. Both are smart and incredibly self-aware. And, more than anything, both understand the flaws of humanity and how ridiculous it is that such flawed beings become creatures of habit and convention. If we’re all so fucked, then who’s to say what’s right and wrong? 

“Sometimes a book isn’t a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Sometimes it’s the only story you knew how to tell.”

Tahereh Mafi 

This book is written with a sense of freedom and whim that will be the envy of anyone who has sat struggling to put pen to paper. It moves arrhythmically: fast then slow, slow then fast, forwards and sideways; jagged and ragged. The pace changes, on occasion, leave your head a-spin, confused. At times you wonder whether Eggers is too clever for his own good, finding yourself wondering where you last met the character he drops back in, after 100 pages of neglecting them. 

But that feeling of despair you get when Eggers is stood on the end of a pier, facing his past and facing the deaths that have defined his life so squarely in the face packs such a cumulative emotional punch that you can’t help but love his intelligence and applaud the balls with which he attacks this book and by virtue, life itself. 

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British Sea Power – KOKO, London 10/04/14

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Photo by Jason Williamson

FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE LINE OF BEST FIT

It ends not so much on an oily stage, but a crowded one. By the time British Sea Power complete their encore in KOKO, they are legion: flanked to the right by a cocksure, 10 foot grizzly bear, to the left by a bashful, tentative polar; embedded in a twist of leaves and foliage; drowning in the whoops of a crowd that wants more. Iconoclasts to the last, trackies-tucked into socks to a man (only violinist Abi Fry is exempt from the garb), they could’ve played all night. Make no mistake, this was some performance – a festival of abandonment off stage and on.

British Sea Power’s career trajectory has always made for fascinating listening and viewing. Last year’s excellent Machineries of Joy was a return to form after the minor mis-step that was Valhalla Dancefloor. The two instrumental soundtrack albums which they’ve recorded and toured live showcased the high level of craftmanship within the band, which often lived in the shadow of their oddball subject matter and stage props. Tonight, the three coalesce magnificently.

The band selects wisely from their back catalogue. A whirring organ-led “Heavenly Waters” segues beautifully into “Fear of Drowning”, both from that most blistering of debut albums The Decline of… (anyone else struggle to believe it’s been 11 years?). The brass-led “Monsters of Sunderland”, a highlight of last year’s record, bombs straight into “It Ended on an Oily Stage”, from Open Season. “We Are Sound” and “Once More Now”, from Valhalla Dancefloor, sound much fresher in such illustrious company than they ever did on record.

It’s a tribal bunch that follows (because some of them surely do) BSP about. The standing area is a sea of booze bedraggled 30-somethings, ebbing and flowing, threatening to sweep everyone around them away. “Remember Me” and “Waving Flags” both inspire attempted crowd surfs, while the gorgeous instrumental “Great Skua”, played to a backdrop of crashing iceshelves and migrating birds, brings a lump to the throat. Frontman Jan attempts a handstand during the encore (“Spirit of St Louis” and “No Lucifer”), and the band depart: bears dancing, crowd frenzied, ceiling quite possibly crumbling.

Joey Barton’s faux-nietzschean patter. The ineptitude of the Metropolitan Police. The chord progression in a Noel Gallagher song. The quality of a British Sea Power gig. It’s nice to know that in 2014, with all our polar vortexes, floods up to *here* and disappearing jetplanes, there are some things in life that can still be relied on.

 

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Erlend Øye – Islington Assembly Hall, London 03/04/14

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FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE LINE OF BEST FIT 

The de rigueur hipster beards and black rim specs are present and correct, but there’s a more eclectic bunch than usual gathered in Islington to welcome Norwegian kook-master Erlend Øye: lagered up 20-somethings, doting white-haired couples and, perhaps the highlight, a svelte and be-lycra’d cyclist, helmet under arm, glass of juice in hand. The mix is testament to Øye’s broad-based appeal. Through his work with the Kings of Convenience and the Whitest Boy Alive he has garnered a reputation as a songwriter par excellence and a performer of repute. And while most will have come tonight on the strength of previous records, it’s rare to see such an enthusiastic response for a set composed mainly of new, unheard songs.

Øye has come to perform tracks from his forthcoming record Legao, his first solo outing in more than a decade. He’s joined by the Icelandic Ziggy on guitar and keys, and Victor, a Finn who plays woodwind. The stripped-back accompaniment lends an earthy feel to proceedings. The flute whirls whimsically around in the foreground of Øye’s vocals, riffing and melodious. The sound is light and the songs are simple. In short, it’s not a million miles away from a Kings of Convenience record, which is pleasing for most.

The breezy sound of the early tracks is in danger of being swallowed up by the cavernous, sold-out venue, revellers at the back content to chatter their way through the opening gambits, much to the consternation of those around them (says one loudly, as a flute solo takes off: “I used to play the flute at school.” Response, from a few rows back: “Nobody cares, shut the fuck up!”). But as the show goes on, Øye’s wit wins through. His patter, as with his lyrics, can be dorky and clunky but incredibly disarming. “Who do you report to?” he sings, on the Jens Lekman-esque track of the same name. “It’s warm up here too… thank god I’m standing next to some cool people,” he says, between songs.

The new material is broken up by a couple of reggae tracks sung by Ziggy (it’s fascinating to hear a genre often associated with monosyllabic choruses tackled in the sesquipedalian Icelandic tongue) and a couple of covers – a gorgeous, finger-picked rendition of Big Star’s “Thirteen” and “New For You” by “unknown” California band the Moore Brothers – before Øye takes the mic to hold court with a Q&A. “Ask me about life: I know a lot, I’m 38,” he says before fielding questions on Italian cheese and his advice on a happy life (live in Italy).

The pace picks up towards the end: the crowd is nods in unison to The Whitest Boy Alive cuts “Upside Down” and “Golden Cage”, while the chorus of “La Prima Estate” is bellowed back at him. The abiding impression is, though, that the music is just an element of an Erlend Øye gig. With his dad dancing, effervescent smile, self-governing barnet and oddball sense of humour, tonight is as much about the spectacle as anything else.

Photo by Sara Amroussi-Gilissen.

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Interview: Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs

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FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE SKINNY

There was a lovely documentary that aired on BBC4 a few years back telling the story of the music that soundtracked Southern California during the late 60s and early 70s. In one scene, Glenn Frey of the Eagles remembers how he’d be wakened every morning to the sound of Jackson Browne sat at the piano downstairs. “He would play one verse, then play it again, and again, and again. Twenty times in a row, till he had it exactly the way he wanted. Then he’d move on to the next verse. Again, 20 times. It went on for hours… I don’t know how many days we listened to this same process before it suddenly hit us!”

It’s unsurprising to hear that Adam Granduciel, the lead man of Philadelphia band the War on Drugs, has seen this same documentary. Nor is it a shock when he calls back the final line of Frey’s story: “‘Ah, so that’s how you write a song!’ That documentary is hilarious!” Granduciel is a disciple of the classics: a musician and a songwriter who has been irrevocably shaped by the golden sounds of that era, right through those of the 1970s and 80s. Barely a review goes by without some mention of Dylan or of Springsteen or Young; not a spin of one of the War on Drugs’ three superb records passes without the listener recalling one of the three.

But it’s also hard to escape the suspicion that Granduciel himself would like nothing more than to sit at his piano all day playing music, albeit to a different end than Browne. “I love sitting down at the piano in the morning writing songs and picking up melodies,” he tells The Skinny from the Philadelphia house that has been his home for more than a decade. “For a while there, I would get up in the morning, make coffee and sit there for hours and play piano, sometimes pressing record, sometimes not.” Rarely, though, would he leave his piano with a finished piece.

Unlike Jackson Browne’s portable and hummable classics, Granduciel composes collages of sound: songs within songs, melodies upon melodies; pieces so sprawling that it’s often impossible to pinpoint an epicentre (tip: it’s much more fun not to try). From debut record Wagonwheel Blues, through Future Weather EP and Slave Ambient, up to new album Lost in the Dream, the band’s sound has been growing more textural, the layers denser and the edges a little more blurry. But, paradoxically, the War on Drugs’ sound has become more and more refined.

Lost in the Dream is marvellous. A product of Granduciel’s vision and obsessions, and of his Faustian pursuit of the right sound. “I was always such a fan of the classic artist: the obsessed, modernist painter or the guy who couldn’t leave his work alone,” he says. “Music was the one thing that as I kept getting older, I was getting more obsessed with… with recording, with getting better. That’s the one thing I do have that unbridled passion for. It’s fun for me to go on these journeys with the songs. People joke that I’m a perfectionist, but when you work at something for a year and start to see the songs take shape, then you start making drastic changes… ok, like mute all the drums, then the song reveals itself a whole new way, that’s really fun for me. All of a sudden you can turn it on its head, make last minute decisions. It’s obsessive for me in that I don’t wanna put it to bed… it’s not that I can’t. I wanna see how far this can go, what else you can do to make it that much more special.”

“I WAS ALWAYS SUCH A FAN OF THE CLASSIC ARTIST: THE OBSESSED, MODERNIST PAINTER OR THE GUY WHO COULDN’T LEAVE HIS WORK ALONE” – ADAM GRANDUCIEL

For the new record, Granduciel recorded demos of each of the tracks on tape in his home studio, a place which he speaks of in a reverent tone. The song Suffering he wrote on a Fender Rhodes piano and drum machine before taking it to the band and working on it for a few weeks. Eventually, he realised that he preferred the demo and took it in its primitive form. “I can do things in the comfort of my own home the way I want to do it and get the mood right for these songs, find the mood or work on a song till really late,” he explains.

It would be logical to paint a Spector-esque image of Granduciel the perfectionist. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the man haunched over a mixing desk, listening to the same snare drum beat all night long while everyone else around him sleeps, such is his boyish love for the studio and for sonic doodling. But he says that he’s learnt to draw a line. He no longer records religiously. “I used to,” he says. “I used to smoke a lot more pot, I used to have all my stuff in my bedroom.” But over the past 18 months, the rising profile of the band, the demands of touring and the desire to produce another record have all helped him acquire some level of professionalism. Even if it is by default.

“I used to do everything in my house,” he says. “But now we have a rehearsal space. At this stage in the game we can’t be preparing for a big tour and rehearsing in my house… every time I touch the microphone I get shocked.”

The house with a big yard holds happy memories for Granduciel. He moved from Oakland, California to Philadelphia in 2003 but being “not overly social,” he doesn’t credit the city at large with having major influence over his music. It was more a case of the music scene beginning to gravitate around his home. He thinks it was in his house that he met Kurt Vile, one-time War on Drugs member and still one of Granduciel’s best friends, and most of his other collaborators.

 

“When me and Kurt met, this is where we would play and record all the time back in the day, where our bands would rehearse. It’s this weird institution among my circle of musical friends. They’re like: ‘let’s go to Adam’s because all the gear’s there.’ There’s a sense of home here… it’s affordable and there’s a freedom to really not be anything but yourself. Music can be your number one thing, I don’t need four jobs just to pay for my apartment. That’s been a big influence. I guess being in the same house in this neighbourhood which is always changing, being a part of my little weird city community, rather than the music community, is a little strange. I always joke that I’m my block captain. My neighbour takes in my trash can and I take in his, I give him a ride…”

There’s no clock-watching during a chat with Adam Granduciel. He gives the impression that he’d happily chew the fat all day, particularly if it happens to involve music. We talk Townes Van Zandt, who, unlike Granduciel, had something approaching a phobia of recording studios. “Townes probably got so much enjoyment out of playing his songs in a room, on a porch or in bars,” he offers. “He didn’t need to put it… in a capsule. Being a little bit of an introvert, the recorded material is where I get to sit on my couch with my best friends and play them my songs.” We discuss his favourite producers. “Really all the greats: Bob Johnstone of Columbia, Tom Wilson (Dylan, the Velvets)… who produced the Roxy Music records? Eno?”

It’s hard to reconcile the enthusiastic voice on the phone with his own admissions of depression, loneliness and paranoia. Equally, while the War on Drugs’ records are moody, they’re never maudlin. Some of the themes are dark, but they’re delivered in a way that suggests light at the end of whatever tunnel their creator may have been facing into, be it in the form of a joyous whoop, the crack of a snare or the exhilarating key change on a synth. Bill Callahan once sung, in his inimitable deadpan drawl: “Dress sexy at my funeral.” The same sentiment exists on Lost in the Dream. It would be impossible to avoid the dark clouds, but why not skewer them with rainbows?

“I really enjoy pop music and darker records that are rock and roll rather than sombre,” Granduciel says. “Tonight’s the Night, which is so dark, has classic rock and roll elements to it. When I’m writing songs I’m never thinking about the mood… it’s always there. I don’t really write sad musical things, brooding things. But I like the landscape of these large songs and feel that I can step out a little more and express whatever I’m feeling, hoping that it’s not too personal, that it’s still relatable, and that I’m not the only person that can feel that way. That helps the songs be a little more uplifting. I always love a good keyboard hook. I’m playing along with a song – say Red Eyes – and, oh! there it is! I knew it was there somewhere! This is exactly what I wanted that song to be, that’s what makes me happy, this is a great rock and roll number, not over-thinking it, just going for it. As long as I still get joy out of making albums, I’ll feel like I’m moving forward.”

 

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Crimea River

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Pic by Kanstantsin Lashkevich (Flickr)

FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE GATEWAY

If it wasn’t for the bright yellow and blue rosette fastened to his lapel, the slumped figure ambling down a South London hill towards me would’ve blended seamlessly in with the fog of early evening commuters that surrounded him. As I got closer, I recognised the face, hidden behind a glum glare, from a protest I’d attended a fortnight before. It was Stepan Shakhno, a leading member and spokesperson for Euromaidan London, the UK arm of the Ukrainian protest group that helped overthrow the government in Kiev.

At the protest outside the City offices of a leading state-owned Russian banks, he’d been defiant, telling me that Russia should be sanctioned to the hilt by the west for its incursions onto Ukrainian territory; that the US and EU should subject Moscow to the same scything embargoes they enforced on Tehran. Now though, he seemed less buoyant. “The sanctions aren’t enough,” he told me, in reference to those placed on individual members of Putin’s inner circle and former members of the Ukrainian government.

Shakhno seems articulate and urbane. He speaks perfect English and works in the London offices of German oil and gas explorer RWE Dea. With his colleagues in Euromaidan London, he’s part of a growing group of young Ukrainians who wish their homeland to modernise and grow closer to the west. As we spoke, 1,610 miles away a garrison of Russian troops was amassing on the Ukrainian border. Ukrainian soldiers soon vacated their barracks’ in Crimea and the fear remains that Russia might launch an invasion into mainland Ukraine and perhaps even Russophile parts of Moldova and Georgia.

It’s a situation which has escalated perilously quickly. Late last year, the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych postponed the signing of a treaty with the EU which would have given Ukraine access to visa-free movement of people and funds for modernising its infrastructure. The postponement was done so in the face of Russian ‘soft power’: President Vladimir Putin offered Kiev billions of dollars in financial support to renege on the agreement and threatened potentially crippling economic and trade sanctions if it didn’t.

In truth, it’s the kind of diplomatic policy favoured by the west. When a country steps out of line – Zimbabwe, Syria, etc – the west imposes sanctions. When it falls back in again – Burma, Iran – it lifts them. Similarly, when a country is ‘friendly’ to the west, it can expect to be lavished with aid and infrastructure investment (usually in return for economic reform, to bring it into line with the liberal doctrine favoured by the US and EU). Russia, it could be argued, has tried the same soft power model in Ukraine. But when it failed, they decided to take military action.

For many Ukrainians, who have long since lived in the Soviet shadow, it has been too much to take. Euromaidan took to the streets of Kiev shortly after the treaty was pulled and their protests, which have been replicated on smaller scales throughout Europe, led to the almost slapstick departure of Yanukovych.

The anger isn’t limited to the youth. I was in the audience at a commodities conference in London recently when an executive at Metinvest, a steel producer and one of Ukraine’s biggest companies, called Vladimir Putin “a criminal” and pled with the west to not stand idly by as the aggression continued. His daughter, he said, had been among the protestors in Kiev and had been subject to “the tyranny” of Yanukovych’s henchmen on the ground. It was a remarkable outburst from a man who conducts a large portion of his business within the Russian borders.

So what exact course of actions do the protestors want the west to take? I recently spoke with Chrystyna Chymera, another of Euromaidan London’s spokespeople, who said: “The token sanctions announced by the EU and US simply fail to target the individuals in the Kremlin and their financial backers responsible for the invasion and occupation in Ukraine. Ukrainians and Tartars in Crimea are fearful of their lives as Russian troops, tanks and paid thugs line the streets. We demand harsher sanctions that directly reach the pockets of Putin and those responsible for this illegal invasion.

“Even when it’s doing well, the Russian economy is fundamentally weak and propped up by high-gas prices. Of course Russian gas is important to Europe, but Putin knows that the euros and pounds flowing the other way are much, much more vital to the Russian economy. The UK, Europe and the US have the power to use financial pressure to stop Putin’s aggressive advances and interference in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. It simply a matter of political will, and they have no need to fear Putin’s bluffs that he will cut off the gas. The UK, Europe and the US can severely hamper Putin’s illegal invasion by stopping or at least reducing the amount of Russian gas they are importing.”

But for the members or Euromaidan, the unfortunate truth is that the west will likely use another unofficial form of diplomacy: appeasement. The rhetoric needs to be tough, but the action has thus far been tame. The sanctions placed have targeted peripheral members of Putin’s regime, along with one minor Russian bank, freezing their overseas assets and revoking visa rights. They are more token than anything else, but unless Russia launches a fully-fledged invasion of Ukraine, this is how things will remain. The political and economic will to sanction Russia’s trade and exports doesn’t exist in the corridors of European power. France, Germany and the UK, Europe’s three-largest economies, all import the majority of their energy from Russia in the form of oil and gas. Slapping sanctions on Russia would mean they have to look elsewhere, at a greater cost. Perhaps, one UK treasury employee told me jokingly recently, the stance might change with the weather, when energy demand falls in line with the departure of winter from Northern Europe.

Many Westminster figures are also opposed to tightening sanctions against individual Russians. What would happen to Chelsea FC if its oligarch owner Roman Abramovich’s assets were frozen, for instance? A Dutch banker told me recently that if Francois Hollande, France’s president, were to freeze Russian assets in Paris, then what is to stop Putin seizing those of French banks Société Générale and BNP Paribas in Moscow? It’s not a romantic conclusion, but the kind of realpolitik which rules the world. It’s difficult not to admire the earnestness of Shakhno and his cohorts; equally tough to dispel the fear that their efforts are in vain.

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Withered Hand – New Gods

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FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE LINE OF BEST FIT

It’s not hard to see why Dan Willson, aka Withered Hand, was quick to be labelled ‘anti-folk’ when he first appeared circa-2008: everything about him cried ramshackle and raw. There were the grainy old YouTube videos of Willson playing along with members of Meursault at an Edinburgh house party; the acoustic guitar, plastered with the logo of K Records and other indie stickers; the voice, on first listen frail and injured, and the underdog tales, during which you’re sure that Willson is never more than a heartbeat away from taking himself down a peg or two.

But scratch beneath the surface, and the tag doesn’t seem so fitting. The voice, with time, becomes warm and lovely, as meek and sweet as a wish in a well. Superb debut set Good News was a search for substance, for identity and kinship, for spirituality and love. What, in this hyper-connected, post-everything age of absurdity, could be more societal and folky than the anxiety of social awkwardness?

Album number two, New Gods, doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Willson is still capable of turning out the loserisms on request, evidenced by song titles such as “Fall Apart” and “Life of Doubt” (indeed, he describes himself as ‘pigeon-toed’ on the record’s opening line), but he has clearly spent the intermittent five years refining his craft, returning with a sound that’s fuller without sacrificing the tunes, and songs which are more philosophical than slapstick. Willson has taken another step away from the anti-folk misnomer, determinedly embracing a wonderful brand of Byrdsian jangle-pop and in the process, producing a record which makes up for the frustratingly long wait with aplomb.

Good News reflected on a childhood spent as a Jehovah’s Witness and formative years chasing punk music and failed romance. This retrospection returns occasionally – the brilliant “Fall Apart”, in which Willson regrets the adolescent tragedy of feigned indifference – but his pen flows more contemporaneously and broadly here. There are tales from the road, the dustbowl Americana of “California” and the gorgeous harmonies of “Love Over Desire”, and he takes aim once more at the preciousness of organised religion on “King of Hollywood” (“Some of you should get with my God/he hates about everything”). Each song is delivered with customary wit, perhaps less aserbic than on Good News, but equally rich and self-probing.

And while the takeaway from the debut was the one-liners, New Gods is all about the music. The sound has more depth, yes, but nothing is over-egged. There are more hooks than a pirates’ convention, and subime melodies throughout. A few reference points fly past your ears more than once. Darren Hayman has frequently performed with Withered Hand, and Hefner’s influence on tracks such as “Between Love and Ruin” is marked. The classic power pop of Big Star and the Byrds can be heard in the arpeggios and jangles of “Black Tambourine”, while “Fall Apart” and “Horseshoe” have a surprising hint of 90s indie pop about them.

New Gods is an unusually good album, and is best encapsulated by the title track, the kind of song R.E.M. lived in the shadow of for a quarter of a century. “Now tell me we are not all the same,” goes Willson’s stargazing philosophy, slotting beautifully between the dreamy rolls of mandolin and bass. It’s one of the loveliest songs you could ever expect to hear; a lucid moment of perfection from a songwriter whose creativity continues to feed off his own imperfections.

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From the archive: an interview with Jon Hopkins

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FIRST PUBLISHED ON 4 JULY 2013 IN THE LINE OF BEST FIT

You can usually find Jon Hopkins in his shared studio, nestled among old garages and elevated washing lines full of clothing in residential East London.

Every few minutes, a DLR train flies shudders past at the foot of the road and as I approach the door, there’s the tinkle of an ice cream van in the near-distance. In the communal lounge inside, a hot air balloon hangs from the roof. There’s a ghetto blaster sitting on the mantelpiece and an old Singer sewing machine on a shelf. The chest of drawers last seen on the front cover of the Honest Words EP Hopkins made with King Creosote a couple of years back sits pride of place. Each of the 27 coloured drawers, I’m told, has one slot – and one slot only – that it will fit it.

Hopkins ushers me into his tiny studio, smiling and relaxed. He cracks open a Camden Pale Ale. “It’s great to see the local breweries doing well,” he says, before almost apologetically offering me a bottle of Cobra “That ice cream man has worked out that if he goes past at a certain time he’ll usually sell ice creams to us,”

The studio itself is a box-room filled with keyboards and recording equipment. It’s here that Hopkins spent nine months recording Immunity, his immaculate new record. It’s heavier than almost anything he’s recorded before: chaotic in parts, lovely in others, much like the studio that bore it. Perhaps appropriately then, a recording of Hopkins closing the studio door is the first sound on the album.

“There’s another sound on the record that I really wanted to get in there too,” he tells me, warming to the topic. “It was recorded the night I finished it, the night before mastering. It was about 3am and I’d made the last tweaks and committed to it.

“I just went outside and recorded the noise at that time. It’s nocturnal city life – there’s not really much going on – there’s the odd car in the distance. But the little field recorder I have picks up everything: my own footsteps, the tiniest breath of wind, even a bird flapping past. It’s on the track ‘Sun Harmonics’, right at the end. There’s a two-minute period of noise and it’s amazing. I love putting a document of an exact period of time that the record was put to bed.”

This typifies Hopkins’ music and his approach to making it. His sound exists where the organic and synthetic worlds meet – a thread that’s been sewn through his back catalogue of solo records and collaborations. Elsewhere on the record you can hear a recording he made of fireworks he made from last year’s Olympics, and the genesis of the track ‘We Disappear’ came when he noticed himself idly drumming out a beat on the table with a pen.

“I thought: ‘that’s cool’, and recorded it on my phone, took that recording, started playing keyboards over it and that was it.”

It’s usual for his tracks to emerge spontaneously. He’s loath to sit down to actually write a song, preferring instead to mess about on the piano or “fuck about with a synth”. He explains,”Laptop for me is a way of capturing and then processing and arranging things but the actual sounds have to come from all these things behind you now, or a real world thing”

Hopkins works on instinct alone and while there’s a definite arc on Immunity, he only started piecing together the concept after four months of working on the tracks. His solo work has always resulted in hearty, if limited to certain channels, critical praise and the respect of his musical peers, Immunity has been the first of his records to tickle the consciousness of the masses. He’s understandably pleased.

“It’s been really nice to have people understand what I was trying to do,” he beams, sitting opposite on a swivel chair, returning to his Pale Ale periodically. “I couldn’t be happier. For me the concern is, for this kind of music, it’s easy to let it go ignored. That’s what happened with the previous ones and I’m used to it – I’ve generally been fine with it. You just do it and it finds an audience very gradually over a few years. But this time, getting reviewed well means a lot of people have discovered it quicker, it makes the opportunities wider for me to do better shows and be more experimental with what I’m doing on stage, play to more people and travel more. There’s nothing bad that comes of it.”

His show at London’s Village Underground on a damp Wednesday in June was a perfect case in point of the “opportunities” he speaks of. The venue was heaving, the audience a mixture of bookish folkies, skinny-jeaned hipsters, seasoned clubbers and a helluva lot of journalists. Hopkins nearly took the roof of the place: delivering Immunity in its entirety, viciously and definitively. Some looked bemused at the depth of the most techno elements of the set. Most just joined in.

There’s no doubt that Hopkins’ work has become more aggressive as he’s progressed. The title track of ‘Insides’, his last album, is possibly the darkest thing he’s put to tape, while Monsters OST is laden with anxious moments. It’s a course that he’s taken deliberately, partly in response to earlier attempts to pigeonhole his music as “chillout”.

He explains: “I was put into that chillout bracket by the 20 or so people that knew my stuff [when his first record was released in 2001] which used to drive me mad… providing stuff for relaxation purposes. It was never my intention. I wanted to make things that are emotionally powerful in some way. I think it doesn’t matter what genre it’s in. Insides was me wrestling with… not purposely trying to make a point, that I’m not ‘Mr. Chillout’, but specifically trying to explore some of the darker areas I’d been interested and all that had been going on in my head, trying to push away from inoffensive, soft sounds I’d used before.

“Whilst it’s got a heaviness to it, Infinity is a less dark record than parts of Insides. Insides is a cathartic experience to listen to, for me it was trying to represent the hardest parts I’ve experienced in my life. Immunity is far more about creating a hypnotic space for people to enjoy it.”

This aggression, though, has taken a backseat for most of the collaborative work Hopkins has done. He’s toured with Coldplay; made the excellent Small Craft On A Milk Sea with Brian Eno (who he describes as a “hero”) and recorded a number of individual covers or remixes that are lessons in deconstruction (the most notable being last year’s pared-back piano version of Luke Abbott’s ‘Modern Driveway’ and his heartbreaking recent collaboration with Wild Beasts‘ Hayden Thorpe on ‘Goodbye Horses’, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of its original recording by Q Lazzarus).

Arguably, though, it’s Hopkins’ work with Kenny Anderson (aka King Creosote) that shows him at his most anatomistic. The pair secured a Mercury nomination for the sublime Diamond Mine in 2011. “I love his voice,” Hopkins says, “so I went to introduce myself at a gig about ten years ago. I asked him to give me a CDR with a bit of vocal so I could do a remix and that’s how it all happened, it was organic after that.

“We have a great working relationship where I don’t question the topline melody or the lyrics and he doesn’t question the arrangement and production. I deal with my bit and he deals with his bit and it just works.”

They plan on recording a new record together in 2014, once they find the time (“I really want to make something special with him. I’ve got some great ideas already.”). Between now and then though, Hopkins has a lot to do. He’s got a full solo tour and later in the year, the soundtrack to the new Kevin MacDonald film, How I Live Now, which he says he’s “really proud of” will see the light of day. 

For a man with so many plates spinning, it’s difficult to know when Jon Hopkins will be able to dedicate himself to another solo record. The last one didn’t take four years to record, he assures me, that’s just how long it took him to fit it into his schedule. Here’s hoping we hear something under his own name emanating from this cluttered little alcove in East London before 2017.

From the archive: Jon Hopkins – Immunity

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FIRST PUBLISHED ON 31 MAY 2013 IN THE LINE OF BEST FIT

It was fitting that Jon Hopkins made his first major imprint on the national consciousness alongside Kenny Anderson. For a while their back catalogues are sonically disparate, the pair mirroring one another in other, striking ways.

Anderson, mostly under his nom de plume King Creosote, has dozens of solo albums. And while Hopkins’ oeuvre may be less vast, he’s spent the last few years project hopping – from production desk to recording studio, laying down a host of exemplary remixes along the way. Both employ a rigidly DIY approach: KC through the Fife-based Fence Records he runs with Johnny Lynch (aka Pictish Trail) and Hopkins with his enormous collection of field recordings which were used on Diamond Mine to such stunning effect. Neither man seems to bothered about pleasing anybody but himself either, as evidenced by Anderson’s idiosyncratic, nomadic recording existence and by Hopkins’ chameleonic approach from project to project.

Which brings us to Immunity: the outstanding fourth solo album from Jon Hopkins and a huge departure from anything he’s done before. The last we heard of him, Hopkins deconstructed Luke Abbot’s ‘Modern Driveway’, one of the finest electronic tracks of 2012, and remoulded it as a solo piano piece. And following the successes of his collaborations with Anderson and Brian Eno, he could have easily continued along the same ambient path to few complaints. On Immunity, though, he takes for the opposite tack. The album is the most dancefloor-friendly Hopkins has produced to date. Whereas the excellent Monsters OST, released in 2010, hinted at a more aggressive tonality to anything we’d previously heard, it stopped short of cavorting with balls to the wall techno – which is the dominant theme here.

The menacingly industrial opening track ‘We Disappear’ – all synthetic grind and mechanical beeps – segues wonderfully into the pulsating ‘Open Eye Signal’ (I defy you to stay in your seat) to set the tone. The pair showcase Hopkins’ ability to dabble deftly with dark, chilling atmospherics, but – as he’s shown so often – rarely does he turn up anything other than beauty.

Just as he brought a modicum of order to Anderson’s sprawling, meandering folkiness, Immunity hammers home the notion that few know how to stitch an LP together as well as Hopkins. After the breathlessness of the opening one-two, comes the expansive, ethereal ‘Breathe This Air’. After the cumulative beast of a centrepiece ‘Collider’, comes the gorgeous, piano-led ‘Abandon Window’ – perhaps the most orthodox Hopkins track on the album.

The record is an absolute trip: a movable feast pressed to 12 inches of microgroove. At times, it will have you lurching for the nearest patch of danceable floor; at others, your head will be thrust back, eyes closed in bliss; while the finishing title track, with King Creosote on vocals, is the reluctant, melancholic, but acceptant dying embers. This summer – if we ever get one – deserves to be soundtracked by this, one of the most enjoyable, well-crafted albums of the year.

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From the archive: John Grant – Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London 15/05/13

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FIRST PUBLISHED ON 22 MAY 2013 IN THE LINE OF BEST FIT 

John Grant is an artist that inspires evangelism among his followers. You could see it when Midlake, self-confessed super-fans of Grant’s former band the Czars, coaxed him out of obscurity and into their studio to record his solo debut, Queen of Denmark.

It was apparent in the manner in which said album took off: there was a real, old-fashioned, word-of-mouth feel to its ascendency (living abroad at the time, I received various emails from people in the UK telling me I simply had to get my hands on his record). There’s the sell-out British tour and the fact that every time there’s a moment of silence in tonight’s jam-packed Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a gaggle of infatuated revellers will loudly declare their unconditional love for him. Throughout, I’m half expecting a pair of knickers to land at his feet, as he self-consciously shimmies his way through a stellar performance.

He emerges to the groan of a synthesizer that’s so sonorous, it feels like it’s coming from the bowels of the old Empire itself. The 4/4 backbeat to ‘You Don’t Have To’ ushers him toward the mic, the lights flickering fluorescent. New album Pale Green Ghosts is a departure, for sure, but it’s arguably not until you’ve seen him perform it live that you realise just how different he intended it to be. In a week dominated by the catfight over Daft Punk’s new record, the title track, performed to a mesmerising green light show, reminds us all what a great dance tune should sound like. The searing synth riff of ‘It Doesn’t Matter to Him’, too, bellow around the theatre: louder, dancier and bolder than you could ever have envisioned (although I’d hazard that anyone who’s heard it on this tour will only ever hear it this way again).

Grant’s gallows humour transcends both of his records and it’s to the fore tonight too. From the deadbeat anthem ‘Queen of Denmark’ to the goofy existentialism of ‘Sigourney Weaver’, Grant has a Vonnegut-esque ability to sugarcoat the most barbed and venomous couplets in comedy. Often, too, the melody Grant hangs the lyrics on is at odds with the content: Grant himself draws the comparison between ‘I Hate This Town’ (about depression and alienation) and Abba’s ‘Chiquitita’ (a slightly more trivial number about teenage heartbreak), before regaling us with his confusion over how the band’s Frida would clap as she performed live (of course, he had us all join in).

Between tracks, too, his patter has the power to thaw the most hardened hearts. ‘Ernest Borgnine’, he tells the audience, is about how he felt when he was diagnosed with HIV, before setting the audience off in laughter again with a joke and an anecdote about Borgnine, the hero he once got to meet.

“I hope you can feel this,” he tells the crowd, clasping at his heart as he takes leave of his encore. We can – everybody can. From the moment he introduces his Icelandic band and thanks the support act before singing a note, to the final moments of ‘Caramel’, this has been an extraordinary occasion marked by humility and warmth.

Over the past months, there’s been a hell of a lot lot written about Grant’s illness, his depression and his addictions. Tonight, though, has been about his remarkable ability to channel his many-headed demons into something positive and beautiful.

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From the archive: Philip Glass, Nico Muhly and Timo Andres – Barbican Hall, London 12/05/13

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FIRST PUBLISHED ON 20 MAY 2013 IN THE LINE OF BEST FIT

I’m sat in the stalls of the Barbican Hall, at the end of what’s been an evening of beautiful, challenging music. Timo Andres is sat straight up at the piano in a rococo beige suit, his head back and his long arms stretched out before him, playing out the last bars of Philip Glass’s Etudes for Piano.

My mind wanders to an evening spent watching renegade concert pianist Chilly Gonzalez a few weeks back in the Cadogan Hall, during which he tried to dispel the idea that the piano was an unconquerable instrument. There were postcards being sold on the merch desk proclaiming that a monkey playing a note is no different to Tchaikovsky playing the same one, or something to that effect.

As entertaining as Gonzalez is – and his possibly faux reverse snobbery shtick is a joy to behold – he is wrong. Andres has just replaced Nico Muhly at the keys, who himself was preceded by Philip Glass. In some baton-passing way, the sequencing feels symbolic. From the master, to the protégée, to the (outside of classical circles) relatively unknown. All three are playing pieces from the same movement, but each emblazons his own contribution with a personalised stamp.

Glass (in a straightforward navy cardigan, naturally) carries an air of unaffected normality. I’d recently watched a rerun of the stellar Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts – a documentary tracing his journey from avant-garde nihilist of the Lower East Side to toast of Carnegie Hall. All the way through, the man was unflappably normal. The day after Einstein on the Beach opened at the Metropolitan Opera, the , er, broke Glass was driving a taxi around New York City when a passenger leaned forward to tell him that he had the same name as a “very famous composer”. He plays his pieces coldly – scientifically, Gonzalez might say. Etudes is not difficult to enjoy. Perhaps the reason Glass has enjoyed so much crossover success is that you don’t have to look too hard, to listen too deep, to find the crux of the melody, and his style is as minimalistic as the music itself.

Muhly, by contrast, is altogether more involved. He leans – dives – into the music, contorting his body with each lift and fall. His head bobs forwards and back, the sweat glistening on the side of his face. A Scream and an Outrage is his baby and by the end of his performance of Etudes, he is emotional and drained. He snatches the music from its holder and bows, fulsomely. The calibre and breadth of performers he’s gathered for the weekend is testament to his own chameleonic ways. Conor O’Brien of Villagers is nodding in approval a few rows in front of me, and earlier in the evening we’d had our hearts ripped from their cages and served still beating on a plate by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond’s performance of the impeccable death speaks by David Lang.

Twenty-something Andres is a hybrid of his predecessors, at least stylistically. He, too, evokes something scientific – his bowtie and muffin hair suggest that if he were to speak (which he doesn’t), he might ask us to tell him about our childhoods. He’s not as distant as Glass, but nowhere near as intense as Muhly. Glass played from memory, Muhly from manuscript and for Andres, there’s an iPad sat on the rack, emitting a dim, tinny light that’s drowning in the face of the grandness that surrounds it. His long fingers arguably coax more elegance from his pieces than the others and his style is more playful.

As the three align to take their applause, I recall Gonzalez and his ersatz philosophy again. While Glass, I’m sure, would never claim to be a “musical genius” (Gonzalez’s words), there’s something interesting about the way in which each has struck out from the “world of serious music” (Glass’s). But as he homes in on 80, Philip Glass is still producing music which can be interpreted and reinterpreted ad infinitum, which challenges and thrills and which finds new territory and pulls new life from the same set of parameters he was given 60 years ago. That, to me, is something marvellous.

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