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Pop is full of odd couples, but this year's Mercury prize shortlist contains a particularly compelling one. Jon Hopkins, 31, is baby-faced and fashionably dressed, the image of a young DJ. Behind him is the shorter, scruffier King Creosote, aka Kenny Anderson, 43, the afternoon light catching the silver in his beard. The pair's album, Diamond Mine, marks the first time both have been nominated, although Anderson claims they have no chance of winning – "I'm always the bridesmaid, never the bride," he laughs. Whether it wins or not, this stunning record of acoustic songs given ambient treatments is reaching new audiences.
The pair met in 2004, at a gig Anderson was playing at London's ICA. Hopkins was a solo artist; some tracks from his 2001 album Opalescent were licensed to Sex and the City, where they accompanied Sarah Jessica Parker tottering through Manhattan. Anderson, meanwhile, had released his own records on CD-R since the late 90s, and run his small record label, Fence, from the Fife seaside village of Crail.
Hearing Anderson's songs transformed the way Hopkins made music. "I was so obsessed with precision in sound – and then I heard Kenny's stuff." Hopkins wriggles his limbs with pleasure as both men settle back with their pints. "It had so much more spirit and soul, and I loved his vocals, all recorded in one take. Suddenly I started to see the shortcomings in trying to be perfect."
Anderson looks mock-offended; the pair's relationship is full of this gurning, boyish humour. Hopkins hit on the idea of re-recording some of Anderson's old songs, using sounds like tearoom chatter, sea birds and rain to give them new colours and depths. The Sex and the City money also meant he could take his time.
After taking his field recorder to the North sea, Hopkins made Anderson rerecord his vocals in London – where the Scot encountered his exacting standards. "[Jon] remembers the notes I've hit," he tuts. "So suddenly I had someone going, 'No, no, no!'" Outside the studio, the pair became friends. They enjoyed whisky-fuelled weekends; one drunken routine, remembers Hopkins, centred on a joke about a "one-eyed cormorant looking for a shag".
By 2006, King Creosote's reputation was noticeably rising; Hopkins had also been recruited to work on Coldplay's album Viva La Vida with producer Brian Eno. Then Warner Brothers signed King Creosote – but this major-label dalliance would turn out disastrously. Anderson reels off a list of irritations: the string section Warners tried to smother over the lead single; how they only accepted Hopkins as producer when Coldplay were mentioned; how they tried to tell him what to wear (Anderson responded that they could "whistle Dixie"). The final straw came in 2008, when Anderson couldn't get into his own aftershow party. "I remember getting a call, my friend said, 'They're fucking drinking your booze!' That sums it up, really."
Yet such a negative experience means the success of Diamond Mine is all the sweeter. This time round, says Hopkins, they did what they wanted to do, supported by indie label Domino, who had released Hopkins's second album Insides. Domino manager Jonny Bradshaw cried when they played him the first completed track, John Taylor's Month Away. A heartbreaking, 10-year-old track Your Young Voice, inspired by Anderson's baby daughter, and Running on Fumes, now accompanied by engine hum and clicking indicators, also impressed Four Tet's electronica veteran Kieran Hebden. "He said it was what he'd wanted to hear from me and Kenny for years," Hopkins smiles. The friends grin at each other.
It is also an album which, as Hopkins says, "slows your brainwaves down, forces you to forget about everything, and listen." It came out in March to their best ever reviews; they were touring America when the Mercury call came in July. Hopkins dropped the nomination into conversation after 10 minutes of "random stuff"; Anderson's jaw, he says, hit the ground.
The tour had been fittingly random: especially as they played to nine people that night, though other gigs were well-attended. "I don't mind, though," laughs Anderson. "It feels like this is the beginning of something. And to feel that so far down the line, after putting out 40 effing albums ... oh my God!" He laughs. "It means, I can still do this, it's not over." Anderson tilts his glass towards Hopkins, and toasts the future.