Instinct is everything: A conversation with King Creosote and Jon Hopkins

Cozy, amicable, friendly, warm, funny: all adjectives that can be rightly ascribed to the patter of King Creosote and Jon Hopkins as well as their music. Having tickled the eardrums of anyone who encountered it, their collaboration record Diamond Mine has been one of the best received releases of 2011. The effortless combination of the latter’s electronic nous and the former’s folksy, meandering story telling is simply beautiful. In a recent online chat with The Line of Best Fit, both parties explained how the record came into being and what it symbolizes. Naturally, then, the conversation turned to roots, methodology and, of course, Fife.

Firstly, great album… my favourite new album of 2011 to date. Jon has collaborated in the past with Fencers… how did this particular collaboration come about?

KC: ‘Your Own Spell’, to my knowledge, is the first collaboration that I know of between Jon and a Fencer, it just took a few years to complete the project we started back then. If there’s an earlier collaboration, I WANT TO KNOW ABOUT IT – he’s MY friend, dammit!

Jon: Thanks, glad you like it. I met Kenny back in 2004. I instantly loved his voice and as I began to get familiar with his massive, bulging back catalogue, I started having ideas for new ways to present certain of my favourite songs. I approached Kenny for a vocal stem back then and my remix of the track ‘Vice Like Gist’ Of It was what came out. We then tried recording a few more, without thinking what the purpose was – versions of ‘And The Racket They Made’, and ‘Your Own Spell’. The former ended up on Bombshell, the latter on Diamond Mine. We were happy with the results so we just carried on recording when we had time and were in the same city.

What were you aiming for when you entered into the project? Did you have a particular outcome or sound in mind?

Jon: I didn’t consciously aim for anything, just to make something that moved both of us, and hopefully other people too.

How did the recording process work? The recording seems subtle, more subtle than, say, Silver Columns (also great). Was this a conscious thing?

KC: Jon keeps tabs on most of my King Creosote output, whether on Fence or other labels, and chooses the songs, or vocal performances, he likes. I then painstakingly rearrange my vocal chords to the configuration they were in before the fags and booze took their toll, pitch up at Cafe Music in Bow, and the rest is down to the power of Auto Tune.

Jon: I never make conscious decisions about how something should sound – at the risk of sounding like a wanker, I only ever work on instinct and these songs just totally dictated how the productions and arrangements should go. The aim was that the instrumentation and the non-vocal sections would augment the stories and melodies of the songs – once we had recorded the vocals, everything else just grew around them. The recording process was simple – I spent a few days with Kenny back in May 2009, putting down the vocals and acoustic guitars for the songs that we hadn’t already started, and then I built up the tracks around them whenever possible. Kenny sent me some amazing samples and field recordings that he had made over the years, and I combined these with field recordings we made up in Fife to give the record a real sense of place and to try and keep it from having a flat “studio” sound.

What does each contributor bring to the studio, in terms of attitude and expertise?

KC: Because I live miles and miles from London, I only pop in and out of the studio at Jon’s behest. It’s usually just to sit in the best studio atmosphere I know of, and sing songs into microphones. Jon asks me for a CDR of noises and loops now and again. It’s a complete mystery how it comes out sounding as good as it does. I’m essentially a one-take Jake.

The songs were already in existence prior to Diamond Mine. How did you decide on which ones to use?

KC: Once Jon got started on this thing, he already had certain songs in mind, or definitely certain themes. ‘John Taylor (’s Month Away)’ and ‘Bats (in the Attic)’ are peppered with Fife character(s) and place names, so it was a no-brainer to put those forward. There were a few others that didn’t make the grade, including the song that gave us the album title. Jon directed the songs pretty much.

Jon: All the songs are in existence on King Creosote albums that are already out there, apart from (opening track) ‘First Watch’,  a piano piece I wrote specifically to introduce ‘John Taylor’s Month Away’. Kenny kindly allowed me to pick which songs we would record. It was a massive privilege to have free reign over a back catalogue with that many amazing songs in it.

Was there anyone else involved in the recording? There are some delightful harmonies!

KC: There are some hefty talents on this record – Lisa Lindley-Jones on vocal duties, Mark on drums, Leo Abrahams on various stringed instruments, and Emma Smith on violin. I’ve met and kissed all four. There might be others Jon’s kissed for me.

Jon: Yes we brought in Lisa Elle from the band Dark Horses to sing harmonies, Leo Abrahams (who has played on most things i’ve worked on, including Bombshell) to play banjo, the drummer Phil Wilkinson, and the Elysian Quartet’s Emma Smith to play violin. Lisa’s harmonies particularly are massively important to the record. Lisa also contributed harmonies on Bombshell and I became addicted to the combination of her voice and Kenny’s.

The production seems to intentionally extenuate Kenny’s vocals throughout. Jon, is this something you worked on and consciously did?

Jon: I was very keen to do that as I reckon Kenny’s voice is one of the most distinctive and beautiful voices out there. The vocals are the heart of the record. I never wanted the productions to overwhelm the voice, hence the relative simplicity of the sound, and the lack of the random experimental electronic elements I tend to use in my own stuff.

John Taylor’s Month Away’ is one of the most beautiful tracks I’ve heard in a long time. What is the story behind it? Do you know the character?

KC: I live in Crail, a picturesque fishing village in North East Fife, and until a few years back I thought only my gran and I lived on the main road down to the harbour. Fishermen are very few and far between. One day there was a commotion out in Shoregate, so I popped outside to find I had, in fact, a neighbour, and that he’d fallen asleep pissed and set his couch on fire. I doubt I’d have met him otherwise. We got talking, and he soon quashed any romantic notions I’d had about a life at sea.

You can guess his name I’m sure.

How does this collaboration differ from those you’ve both previously been involved in?

Jon: It was different for me in that we weren’t together for more than a few days of it. But over the years I think we’ve probably talked about it a lot, and for me, every visit to the area was massively inspiring.

KC: My collaborations with the Fence Collective basically amount to two things – here are my songs, play what you like on them, or give me a vocal track and I’ll do what I like to it. Taking the latter example, Jon is like a genius version of me, working with a vocal from me.

Do you have any plans to work together in the future?

Jon: No specific plans time-wise but I’d say this is definitely going to be an ongoing collaboration.

KC: I do. Jon let me hear some new off-kilter drum beats he’s working on, and I’m the man to confuse those further. I think of Jon as being in my band anyway.

What are your favourite musical collaborations and what are, in your opinion, the most ill-conceived?

Jon: I love the Brian Eno/Harold Budd records. And the Kieran Hebden/Steve Reid thing witnessed live was massively euphoric. I didn’t like it when Pat And Mick teamed up. Nor was I a fan of Hoddle and Waddle.

KC: I liked ‘Under Pressure’ by David Bowie and Queen. I thought this would be enough for me to then become a fan of Queen, but it wasn’t. Some people discovered Queen via EastEnders’ Anita Dobson, and they were better impressed. Bowie’s good though. He made a grand job of that Christmas hit with Paul Daniels.

That 4AD one The Moon and the Melodies with Harold Budd, I had a tape of that.

Jon, you mentioned on Twitter that you had been trying to think of a way to play the album live. Has there been any progression on that front?

Jon: Did I? no, not yet, but luckily we have Leo, Lisa and Emma joining us on stage at the Union Chapel gig in May, which will mean that it can’t be ENTIRELY shit.

Finally, was there any single theme you wanted the album to convey, musically or lyrically?

Jon: Musically I wanted to recreate the feelings I had personally had in visiting Fife for the Homegame the first few times, and in particular to try and conjure that kind of dreamy, emotional feeling that you are sometimes left with after drinking a particularly large amount and meeting lots of amazing people.

KC: For me, it’s a Fife record. The songs are rooted here, and it is as charmed an existence as Jon makes it sound.

Written for The Line of Best Fit

King Creosote & Jon Hopkins’ Diamond Mine is out now via Domino Recordings. Stream the album in full below.

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