King Creosote & Jon Hopkins Interview
I recently interviewed King Creosote and Jon Hopkins about their lovely album, ‘Diamond Mine’, for The Quietus: you can read the feature here.
Both parties were very generous with their time, however, and I got loads more material than I could use in the article. To that end, here are some more of their thoughts and anecdotes on making the record, what it means to them, and how they started working together…
The interview was conducted thus: I travelled to meet KC in Fife, wherein he talked and walked me through the album. Jon Hopkins was in plaster cast, and therefore in London: his trip north for our expedition was thwarted by his metatarsal. But he was always with us, at the end of the line: delivering his side of the plot in a tale of memory and family; of idealism and reality; of patience and seabirds and tears and flyovers.
Just to recap, ‘Diamond Mine’ stars Fife singer-songwriter King Creosote (Fence boss Kenny Anderson; Holy Grail: Talk Talk’s ‘Spirit of Eden’) and London electronic composer Jon Hopkins (fresh from his alliance with Brian Eno; Holy Grail: Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’).
And so this long-player reclines into being, with the whirr of percolators and crockery clatter and the comforting, unhurried chatter of a late-morning tearoom in springtime Anstruther. First Watch lays bare the tools of this sublime endeavour: lo-fi field recordings; hymnal piano chords; heavenly electronic sorcery. The heart-stopping vocals will follow anon.
NM: You’ve been musical allies for a while now – Jon produced KC’s 2007 album ‘Bombshell’ – but when did you first meet and start working together?
JH: It was 2004, and a friend played me this compilation called ‘Fence Reunited’ – you know, King Creosote, Lone Pigeon, Pip Dylan and all this really classic Fence stuff. And it totally blew me away, just the whole concept of unpolished music that was recorded without a thought for second takes or any of that stuff. I had always come from a serious production angle, getting everything really spot-on, really clinical. It changed the way I look at things.
JH: So I kept an eye out for KC dates in in London, and the next time he played I went up to him and said hello in a really nervy, fan-boy way. Then I saw Kenny again at a Homegame [idyllic Fence festival] in Fife, and I just blundered up to him this time, used the direct approach. I said, ‘look, give me a vocal for any song and I’ll do a remix’. So he gave me the vocal for The Vice-like Gist of It and I basically completely ignored the backing track and improvised a totally new piece of music under the voice – new chords and everything. We both ended up being happy with it, and it went out on Kenny’s Bootprints  single as a remix, which was really, really exciting for me. That was kind of the start of it all.
KC: He’d just turn up at things. I remember doing a show at the Barbican, I think it was that Folk Britannia show, and it was the first time I’d played HMS Ginafore’s And the Racket they Made. Right after it Jon was like, ‘I want that, I have to work on that song’. He knows what he likes and he’s not afraid to ask, and that’s kind of how it’s always been. Anyway, at one of the Green Man festivals, he let me hear what he’d done to And the Racket they Made [you can hear it on ‘Bombshell’]. And I was in tears. I was a wreck. I said, ‘oh my God, how on earth have you done this?’
KC: And Jon was like, ‘right, we need to do more!’
John Taylor’s Month Away
There’s some distant gull action, the lap of a tide, two guitar chords, a swell of accordion. And then the double sucker-punch: KC’s larynx and Hopkins’ alchemy. A pulse can be discerned within the music, or within the bloodstream – it’s impossible to say for sure.
We follow the shore along Roome Bay Beach; scale the wintry slopes of the churchyard; head to the pub for macaroni and chips.
NM: John Taylor’s Month Away is about a fisherman, is that right? You sing in it that ‘I’d much rather be me’, but don’t you have that life too, in a way? Being away from home for extended periods of time in the name of work?
KC: I’ve felt a bit that over the last while actually, yeah – it’s not the same though, because it’s just so regular, their job, and it’s like hunger or bust, it’s so extreme – but I do understand that thing of being continually elsewhere. For every tour I do, there’s always an excitement and a dread. And then for every tour ending, there’s always an excitement and a dread. And it’s this constant cycle. It’s never, ever right. And yet it’s the best life that anyone ever had.
JH: I had this idea for First Watch and John Tayor’s Month Away – this kind of story that imagines you falling asleep while people are sat chatting around you in the cafe at the start – that’s why the chatter kind of disappears into a kind of haze. I suppose what I wanted to do with those first two tracks is almost make them like one long dream, or to make it feel like you’re just drifting off, and then Bats in the Attic comes in…
Bats in the Attic
Here is the piano chord that nearly got me killed. It is that first one – b-flat minor – and when it chimes, it strikes like lightning. It literally stopped me in my tracks, half-way across the village high street, as tractors and bakers’ vans jack-knifed around me. But I was immobile: unable to move, barely able to breathe, tears all over my face, just standing there.
JH: Kenny’s voice inspires weird chords sometimes. And I just really wanted to hear that chord right there. I put the guitar part through a kind of decimating filter before it, a walkie-talkie thing, which gives it this incredibly lo-fi vibe. So when this really clean piano bursts through the scratchy little sound it’s such a contrast and it’s also quite a surprise.
JH: What really does it for me in this song is the harmony. Lisa [Elle, aka Lindley-Jones] lives in Brighton but she’s incredible because she can kind of mimic Kenny’s accent slightly. I tried to get her to harmonise using Scottish sounding vowels as much as possible. I wanted them to sound like they were one voice, but his phrasing and his intonation is very unusual. It’s one of those situations where you spend all day working incredibly hard at something so it sounds like it’s been no work at all.
KC: I was a bit short of new songs for the album, so I was going through my song-book, and Bats in the Attic was in there. But I was like, ‘yeah, I was kind of keeping that one back for My Nth Bit of Strange‘. And I wasn’t sure about it either. I quite liked the verses but I felt the chorus – well, it’s not even really a chorus – I just thought it was so generic that I was kind of like, ‘Jon, I’m not sure about this’.
KC: But Jon said, ‘come on, just put it down anyway, you know, and I’ll decide whether we use it or not’. So I was said, ‘okay, I’ll do it but, you know. You can polish a turd so far…’
(Let the records show that while KC is an exquisite artist, he is sometimes not very bright).
Running On Fumes
Into the lodgings of King Creosote: his extended clan’s dwelling for generations. A turreted home overlooking the sea that’s been broken and patched back together again: plates on walls; walls mapped with music; accordions everywhere, just like his dad. We settle at the kitchen table. He sets down mugs of Earl Grey tea.
KC: I don’t know what Jon’s idea is of my life here. He only really sees it through Homegames, and if you drop in on Anstruther during a Homegame, it’s a bit like confusing Glastonbury festival with Glastonbury the village. So I don’t quite know what he gets from my lyrics, or gets from my voice, but he does get something. And what he does with it can be absolutely heart-breaking. I feel really privileged that he’s chosen me as somebody to work with.
JH: I don’t know what Kenny’s life is like, it’s impossible to tell. I hear the lyrics but I hear the melodies stronger, and I go with that. I let the vocals lead. When you’ve got a voice that beautiful, all you want to do is support it. I also tried to keep as much of the songs’ original hand-crafted sound as possible, while not letting it get in the way of the purity of the vocal…
JH: For me this record is a romanticised version of Fife. It’s like the way Paris appears in Amelie, and I don’t have a problem with that at all. But it’s also about making sure none of it sounds too twee, and skewing the reality a bit – you know, like recording seagulls on a 1980s cassette dictaphone so it sounds a bit shit… [Laughs]
JH: I think the darkness of Kenny’s lyrics helps too – it counters any sweetness: there’s plenty of strangeness and inversion going on.
KC: I don’t know what’s Jon’s and what’s mine on this record. It sounds electronic but there’s not that much electronic stuff on it, like he’ll play me stuff and say ‘do you know what that is? That’s your guitar.’ And he’s treated it in such a way that it sounds like something totally different. He’s the piano player, and the producer, and the arranger, and he’ll take something and just put it through this mangling thing, and it’ll come out the other end, and I’ll just be like, ‘wow. That’s genius. What’s that?’ And he’ll say, ‘you know what that is – you played it.’ [Laughs]
KC: Jon asked me for a CDR of random noises, so I went through my eight-track and gave him a load of stuff, which means there’s bits of ‘Vulcans’ in there, and there’s bits of ‘Love Hate’, and I love that. He’s taken these noise backdrops, and he’s kind of poached in. But at the same time, without his version of And The Racket They Made, would those bits of ‘Vulcans’ or ‘Love Hate’ have been there in the first place? It’s a question of who influenced who, and it just goes round and round…
A lilting waltz about hope and protection; the flickering rhythm and blaze of a lighthouse; a KC ‘ham-fisted banjo part’ uncannily rewired by Leo Abrahams – and a vocal straining with ‘cracked vulnerability’…
KC: I did most of the ‘Diamond Mine’ vocals in the year I wasn’t drinking, so that’s 2009, and then I went back in 2010 and did Bubble. But Jon said, ‘it’s not working, you’re not singing as well as you did, you’re going to have to get off the drink again’. I’m not even a big drinker! I was like that – ‘really? But I’m hitting the notes – what is it you don’t hear?’ But he hears a thing: he hears an early version or he hears a live version and he absolutely has to replicate that.
KC: Anyway, a month passed by, only for Jon to say, ‘right Kenny, that vocal you did for Bubble – it’s excellent!’ I couldn’t believe it. I’d left the studio with my heart in my boots. Jon just said, ‘yeah, I’m sorry about that – it wasn’t what I wanted, but having listened to it, it’s got something in it, some kind of cracked vulnerability…’
(KC shakes his head in his hands, laughing at the memory, as a panpipe rendition of Phil Collins’ Against All Odds pervades the room).
Your Own Spell
There is a particular pace to this album. It traces the beat of our quiet routines. I realise this while ambling to the post office, ‘Diamond Mine’ blaring in my ears, as delivery trucks unpack their produce and I pass a handwritten shop-front sign that reads, ‘NOTHING IS MORE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE GOOD OLD DAYS THAN A BAD MEMORY’.
KC: I can’t remember why, or at what point, I felt the need to write Your Own Spell. I don’t know that guy any more. I know it was me, but it was a different me. I wrote this back at university, in the eighties. Bubble is ancient too – a lot of these songs go way back: Jon basically hand-picked them all from my song book.
JH: The album kind of dates back to this song. I got Kenny to come round and sing Your Own Spell while he was in London in 2006, and I think it was the first time he’d ever done multiple takes for one vocal. I made him do like seven or eight takes but he does this thing where he varies the vocal lines enormously each time. It totally challenged my ideas about recording and performance and although we went through it so many times, I found that it still had a really improvisational quality to it.
KC: I can’t do multiple takes of things because I never sing the same thing twice – I don’t know that discipline. Jon’s classically trained, we’re totally different. It’s good fun working with him, because he’s a laugh, but it’s hard work. It’s probably the hardest work I’ve ever done. I’d never worked with anyone like that before. I’d never done six takes of anything.
Your Young Voice
And before you know it, you’re at the last track. This album plays havoc with notions of time.
JH: I’m obsessed with the idea that you can be hypnotised by music. There are a few weird low frequencies that come in on the record, and they have a kind of calming effect on the brain. There are also a lot of sounds that repeat but get slower and slower each time, and there are a lot of things that disappear into echo after a few minutes, and notes that go on for longer than they should. It all kind of has the effect of telling your brain to slow down; and to give the music your full attention.
JH: When we went to master the album in London, it was one of those amazing days – really, really dark skies and raining – and we were sitting in this room with this massive window overlooking the Westway; you know, this incredibly fast road. But it’s totally soundproofed, and the cars all come right at you. It had a very strange effect on us. We fell into a kind of daze and it felt like five minutes had passed, but also like a year had passed.
KC: That’s what I really like about the album. You listen to it – you really concentrate on what Jon’s done, even just on that first track – and before you know it, the bath’s run cold.
KC: For me, every record I make is going to be my next attempt at Talk Talk’s ‘Spirit of Eden’. And I never will make it, because it’s untouchable. But I honestly think that Jon has captured something of it with Diamond Mine. When he let me hear it I was like, ‘you know what? I really don’t know what to do next’, because, in some ways, I’m at that peak. I don’t know where to go from here.
You can buy Diamond Mine here or from all good record shops: it’s out now.