Four Tet (part one): “I never want to get stuck repeating myself.” Interview by Wayne Stronell

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Together with school friends Adem Ilhan and Sam Jeffers, Kieran Hebden was the third member of UK post-rock band Fridge, releasing highly collectable records on Output Recordings throughout the 90s. The instrumental trio released four EPs for Output Recordings; two albums and a compilation of the vinyl singles, and flirted momentarily with Go! Beat Records for two EPs before setting up their own Text Records and releasing two albums. Kieran Hebden openly admits he has always enjoyed working on his own, and the first Four Tet 7” under the early name 4T, (also released on Output Recordings) came out the same year as the early Fridge vinyl singles. It’s been a progression from the very first release, alternating between his solo work as Four Tet, and the band’ output as Fridge.

On the eve of the release of his fifth album There Is Love In You, I had the opportunity to chat with Kieran, and while the interview was meant to focus on the new album, it was too hard to ignore the last 13 years of his career, and I was quite certain he’d probably had endless interviews that only concentrated on the now, and part of understanding Kieran’ sound is looking how he got there. The grueling wheel of music press must be taking its toll. “It’s just surreal; I don’ think I could describe it as grueling, but strange for sure, I’ve done them every 15 minutes for the last hour or so.

“I was never really into the rock sound; guitars, drums, bass, vocals always seemed tiresome, nothing really grabbed my attention, and experimentation was what excited me, something fresh and original. When ‘out-rock’, ‘post-rock’ or ‘experimental rock’ caught my attention in the mid 90s, it offered something new, not entirely original but fresh, with no vocals to distract my attention from the many influences I was hearing from what I thought was a redundant sound. Years of listening to electronic music had brought me back full circle, being excited about sounds that real musicians make. Fridge really seemed to make a connection, distilling everything good about rock instrumentation, jazz experimentation, and technical finesse in the studio.”

Kieran Hebden seemed to take this one step further, releasing a more electronic sound as Four Tet, his solo project. “I’d always made music on my own, even before Fridge. I had a little four track at home and it was very normal for me to always be experimenting with recording and things. Then we had the Fridge record out, and I’d been working on this solo electronic music just as an experiment, just learning how to do stuff.”

“I played that to the guys at Output, and they were into that as well, so I put it out,” he continues. “I just thought of it as an experiment really, but then when the first Four Tet records came out, they were just as popular as the Fridge stuff, and I think the response was so good, that it encouraged me to take the solo stuff more seriously in some ways.”

He has embraced both creative avenues, which appears to have kept him well grounded; he comes across as a humble, passionate, and focused musician. For now he’s concentrating on his solo output as Four Tet. “It’s just a different experience, like you get the chance to really see through pure ideas in a really clear way. Then you also miss that thing of being able to bounce ideas off people as well. I do enjoy working on my own I think, its something I’ve always done, and I always will find myself going back to.”

Since his very first album Dialogue Kieran has fused many styles and sounds. Jazz always seems to be a major influence, no matter how subtle. His music is never static; the progression with each release is what continues to make any Four Tet release essential listening. “It’s always been an idea of mine to make sure that my music is moving and changing, and evolving. You mentioned the influence of jazz earlier. Listen to John Coltrane or Miles Davis or something, and look at all the records they’ve put out, and [hear]how the records document the musical journey they went through. It’s always very forward thinking. That’s the attitude I want to have towards my music: its constantly moving on to the next thing, and I never want to get stuck repeating myself. I guess that’s my main thinking.”

This hasn’t stopped Kieran collaborating. The other members of Fridge have been busy doing other projects, so this has left room for Kieran to make contacts with other musicians, either as direct collaborations or as a sought after remixer. I was keen to ask him was how he came to work with the legendary jazz drummer Steve Reid.

“I’d actually always had the idea I wanted to work with a drummer. It was after Everything Ecstatic came out, I’d put out three Four Tet albums one after the other quite quickly, and I thought I just wanted to do something really different for a bit, work with some other people, do something a little more scary and different again. I mentioned to a friend of mine in France that I wanted to work with a drummer, and he managed to track down Steve, and he got in contact with me, and he’ like ‘you won’t believe who I’m in touch with. I’m in touch with Steve Reid, and you should meet up with him.”

“Steve and I met up and arranged a concert, and what started off as one concert actually became the main focus of my music for quite a few years.” This is where I embarrass myself, completely forgetting two of the releases with Steve Reid, and I sheepishly try and cover up this omission with some lame comment that sometimes there’ just too much music, “actually there was four albums, two volumes of Exchange Sessions, one called Tongues, one called NYC.”

If this shift in his sound wasn’t enough, his collaborations continued to surprise the music press, in particular his involvement with the remix project for Madvillain. Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise; it’s been obvious from day one that Kieran has a love of hip-hop. This was reinforced when he hosted Rage on ABC TV recently: he showcased his love of a broad spectrum of sounds, but the program was heavily dominated by hip-hop. Kieran has managed to connect with one of the few American labels still pushing the boundaries of hip-hop – Stones Throw Records.

“I met the Stones Throw guys really early on, the first time they came to London. I think they did three nights, at a small club here called Plastic People, and I went and met them. I’d just pressed up this 7″ by this guy Koushik, I gave them copies of that, and they ended up signing him. So I was in touch with them, and I did this thing called the Red Bull Music Academy in Brazil, and I hung out with Egon and Madlib, and Madlib had just started working on the Madvillain record I believe. They just called me up a few months later and said ‘how about you do a remix of one of the tracks from the album’, and they asked Koushik as well.”

“They ended up sending us all the accapella’ from the whole album. I think we both ended up doing four or five mixes, it was too hard to choose one. Once we turned in so many remixes, they had the idea of doing two proper 12 inch records.” What was contained on those two EPs became a staple in many a DJ crate for quite a while (mine included), and are now highly sought after. “The Madvillain album was one of the great albums of the last 10 years or so I think, and being asked to do that was really exciting.”

The buzz hasn’ stopped there. A mysterious black label 12 inch was released in 2009 with minimal information. This time it was a joint release with Burial, which seemed like a perfect collaboration of like minds. Upon it’s release the internet was abuzz with debate over whether it was a split release or a collaboration. “That was a total collaboration,” Hebden confirms. “We didn’ do it be email, we worked together in the studio together, we really wanted to do it that way. I went to school with him. When he put his first 12” out, he got back in touch with me, and it was something we were talking about for ages, but kind of slow getting it together. By the time we did get around to putting something out, he’d got a huge reputation off the back of his music, and we ended up having this record on our hands that everybody got quite excited about, which was really good fun.”

Kieran Hebden has been a prolific artist, but the back catalogue of remixes he has done for other artists is also outstanding. He has reshaped many a song by artists such as Aphex Twin, Anti-Pop Consortium, Bonobo, Beth Orton, Super Furry Animals, Radiohead, Matthew Dear, Sia, Nathan Fake, Bloc Party, Battles, David Holmes, The Cinematic Orchestra, and the list goes on. Although his own sound is injected into the remixed songs he still manages to stay true to the original.

“The remixes come from the artists direct, and half from the record labels,” he says. “It’s pretty normal that a record company will get in touch and say ‘we’ve got this coming out and we want to hit a new audience with it.’ A lot are done like that. Most of the remixes I’ve done over the last few years have been for musicians I have a mutual respect for, bands like Battles, or Thom Yorke. It’s a chance to collaborate with them, without having the complications of trying to get in the studio together.” It’s in no way easy work though, for an artist that respects other musicians’ work, Kieran is often humbled by those he produces remixes for. “It’s hard. You feel the pressure because you really want to do something the other person likes – you want to be respectful to them and what they’ve done in their song as well. It’s a little bit of a mind field in that way, you also feel very proud and honoured to be doing it at all, it feels good.”

After all this banter, a record company representative interrupts our conversation to let me know I don’ have much longer before Kieran will have to prepare himself yet again for another interview. I take this prompt as a signal to actually talk about the new album, There Is Love In You. The album draws obvious influences from krautrock and African rhythms, with more emphasis on a dancefloor sound. This is no doubt a result of his recent DJ performances as well as his association with emerging producers. “That’s definitely true, it’s a combination of all that, and the stuff with Steve Reid. After working with Steve my whole rhythmic idea had changed a lot. The rhythms he works with are a lot faster, and more influenced by African music, with a different kind of pulse through it. That combined with the DJ gigs meant that when I started on the new record I found that, especially rhythmically, I’d moved away from a hip hop influence into a different area. It just felt like a good way to move on, just to speed the music up, to put a different emphasis on the drums, and it changed the sound straight away.”

I make reference to the short ‘Pablo’s Heart’s from the album. “It’s a heartbeat,” Hebden reveals, regarding the sound dominating the track. “A friend of mine had a child. It’s my Godson’s heartbeat, before he was born. I recorded it at the hospital on a mobile phone. I was using the sounds at concerts and things, it sounds like a mad synth or something, especially heard really, really loud. I put it on the album as a little gift for him.”

There Is Love In You is available now on Domino Records, and you might just find a few copies left of the first two 12″ releases, Love Cry and Sing.

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