Under his Four Tet alias, Kieran Hebden produced some of the most meticulously layered and beautiful electronic music of the past decade. A restlessly creative individual, Hebden first came to prominence with the post-rock outfit Fridge in the late 1990s before his career blossomed as a solo artist following the release of 2003’s Rounds. In recent years, Hebden has eschewed producing tracks imbued with his signature warmth, confidence and restraint to focus on collaborative projects and maintaining a consistent DJing schedule.
The latest Four Tet album, 2010’s There Is Love In You is Hebden’s first under that name in five years. It has been universally acclaimed as the most satisfying Four Tet release since Rounds, and is arguably his most focused effort to date. Interestingly, it is also the only record he has released that includes the use of vocals.
Discorder was fortunate enough to catch up with Hedben in advance of his sold out show at the Biltmore Cabaret on Feb. 24, where he will be supported by Nathan Fake from the Border Community label.
Discorder: Your new record has been very well received by both critics and fans. How much does the critical reception to your work matter to you?
Kieran Hebden: I don’t really guide my music towards generating a certain critical response, but I find it flattering to put out a record and have people say good things about it. At the same time, I think it’s important not to get too wrapped up in good or bad press because it comes and goes, especially in England, where the music press can be very fickle. If you’re making music and you’re very worried about what the response is going to be you’re going to put yourself in a slightly weird situation. So it’s better to focus on ideas and just trust what you’re doing.
D: In creating There Is Love In You, it seems that you took into consideration other people’s thoughts to a greater extent than in the past, particularly by testing out unfinished songs in your DJ gigs. Did your decision to do that stem from a wish to experiment with your creative process, or was it just part of your natural evolution as an artist?
KH: I didn’t really think about it that much. I was DJing a lot and while I was DJing I realized that the music I was making was clearly inspired by the context of hearing what it would sound like over a loud PA, as well as how it would sound following other dance records. That way of working is normal for dance producers and DJs that produce, to try out all their tracks all the time, but it was different for me even though it’s quite a normal thing for others to do. Obviously, also seeing the crowd’s reaction if I was playing one of my new tracks, if they seemed to be really into it, was exciting and inspiring.
D: Has the approach you’ve taken to DJing recently influenced your live shows in any respect?
KH: I think the live set definitely has a lot in common with what I do when I’m DJing. It’s open-ended in the sense that I don’t really plan it or anything like that. I want to be able to change things depending on the nature of the crowd, so it’s very similar in that way, but my DJ sets are usually about two or three hours whereas my live set is about an hour or so. So it’s much more concentrated and intense. When I DJ there are a lot more ideas and space than in a live set, and what I’m trying to do in the live set is a lot more complicated.
D: How did you end up touring and playing shows with the likes of Nathan Fake and the rest of the Border Community crew?
KH: When I first heard the Border Community stuff, and in particular James Holden’s album The Idiots are Winning, it was one of the most exciting, purely electronic releases I’d heard in a while. I immediately started exploring the stuff on that label and was really inspired by a lot of it, which was around the same time or just before I’d gotten into DJing and listening to more dance music. The Border Community stuff was just perfect—dance music but really next level production with melodic ideas, just trying to push boundaries. I met all those guys and we all seemed to have a really similar outlook on music.
D: You recently recorded an Essential Mix for BBC Radio 1. Given that the longstanding program is normally reserved for DJs that play within strict genre confines and your sets are renowned for encompassing everything from free jazz to techno and African music, were you at all surprised by the invitation?
KH: I was delighted to be invited, actually. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s quite a legendary series, especially in the UK where Radio 1 is the main station. And if you look at a list of all the DJs that have had the chance to record one, I was really flattered to be asked and included in that company. It’s nice to be able to do things to change people’s perceptions of what I do.
D: There Is Love In You includes a couple of tracks that feature vocals, which is a first for you. Was their use predetermined or did you find a place for them only near the end of the writing process? Also, did the sound of producers such as Todd Edwards or Akufen have any effect on your decision to treat the vocals by sampling and clipping them in a similar sort of way?
KH: Well, the first track I made for the album was “Lovecry,” and when I was doing that I had the drums complete and was trying to find something to happen in the track. I was trying loads and loads of things that weren’t working out, so I thought “What’s the least obvious thing that I would use in one of my songs: vocals!” I’d never used vocals in anything before, so I tried cutting up some vocal sounds and I just put the two words together randomly to make “lovecry.” It worked out really well and it just lit something up in my head.
It’s funny that you mention Todd Edwards, ‘cause that’s just the sort of record I’d be playing when I was DJing, and think “I love the way he uses vocal sounds without having lyrics.” I never wanted to have lyrics in my music, and I thought about using vocals as a melodic instrument on this album. It’s something loads of people have done before but it felt fresh to me. That was the basic idea that I started exploring more and more throughout the record. It was inspired by everybody from Todd Edwards to Akufen to Phillip Glass, using repetitive elements like choirs and vocals without making them about lyrics.
D: Do have any desire to feature production flourishes that have personal meaning to you (i.e. the human heartbeat that appears on “Pablo’s Heart”) more prominently as you did with vocals on this record? Specifically, I mean using them as the basis for songs or sound collages rather than burying them in the mix.
KH: I don’t know. I just like to do what feels right. Adding little personal touches is usually a spur of the moment thing, reflecting what’s going on in my life at that time. I don’t feel the need to bring my personal life experiences or anything into the music. It’s more something that I fold into the process at a certain point and I can’t imagine getting so wrapped up in something like that that it would form the basis for a whole track. I’ve never really followed through with any idea of sampling sounds in my life like Matthew Herbert does. I’m on a mission: I just follow it and see what happens. I’m sure I’ll do all sorts of bizarre things over the years, so I never say never to anything but I don’t have a big plan either.
D: In the past few years you’ve focused more on DJing and collaborations that your own compositions, specifically with Steve Reid and more recently, the 12’’ with Burial. Can you explain how the Steve Reid project that was the focus of your last appearance in Vancouver, at the 2008 Vancouver International Jazz Festival, came about?
KH: After Everything Ecstatic came out, I was looking to do something different. I had just put out three albums in a row, and I felt like things were getting a little too comfortable and I needed to branch out and do something a bit more “scary.” I mentioned to a friend of mine that I had the idea of working with a drummer to improvise and he managed to hook me up with Steve. The project was an experiment that was only supposed to last for a couple of days, but it turned into a big thing, with four albums and tours all over the world. It changed my outlook on music forever. It was the perfect thing to come along. The combination of that project and DJing, which is what I’ve mostly been doing for the past three or four years, had the biggest impact on the new album.
With Burial, I’d known Will for years and it was something we’d talked about that we finally got ‘round to doing after a long time. We just did the two tracks [“Moth” and “Wolf Cub”] for fun really, for our own enjoyment, and we decided to put them out. It was pretty exciting because by the time this had happened, he’d blown up and people really flipped out when we released it. I guess it’s had quite a big impact, because everybody asks me about it and it was quite a casual thing.
D: Do you have any other artists in mind with whom you’d like to collaborate in the future?
KH: Not at the moment. I’m going to be pretty tied up working on touring the new album and I just like to see who I naturally bump into on my travels. I think the best collaborations are going to happen in that natural sort of way, where you have a proper connection with a person and you both want to do it. For the Steve Reid thing, I said I wanted to find someone who could bring another element to what I was doing, so maybe there’ll be a moment where I’ll be looking for someone to do something specific–like, “Oh, I have to work with a bagpipe player now”–but I have no plans at the moment.