Stay in the Rhythm

Kieran Hebden, better known as Four Tet, is in fine, fighting form. “People keep saying that dance music is dead, which is just so stupid. I wanted to strike back at that whole way of thinking.” He made Everything Ecstatic — his new album and a record every bit as ebullient as its title suggests — as a pointed riposte to those detractors. It is also his Houdini-like escape from a straitjacket critics have put him in, the folktronica tag that has burdened the last two Four Tet albums. “Some people think electronic music has become about making nice records that you can listen to while you sit around at home. I wanted to get away from that. Folk music is all well and good but I wanted to represent techno and hip hop and soul and punk and all the other stuff I love.” Everything Ecstatic is, says Hebden, a celebration of music itself. “I’ve been listening to a lot of gospel and spiritual music and I wanted to make something that has that degree of passion and conviction. Sun Ra thought he could contact aliens with his music. Gospel artists believe that when they sing, they’re communicating directly with God. That’s what I was after.”

Everything Ecstatic is an important album for Hebden, and not just in terms of what he wants to convey. “I see this Four Tet album as being the end of an era. I’ve been in this cycle of putting out an album every two years and all the promotional stuff that goes with it. I want to take a break from all that. I don’t want to be stuck in this big record-company machine.” However, a break from the grindstone doesn’t mean a break from music. Far from it: Hebden wants to try new things, to test himself as a musician, to experiment and collaborate.

The first fruit of this new adventure is a live free-jazz project. It is a natural move for Hebden; after all, a Four Tet album sounds as much like Alice Coltrane as it sounds like anything at all. Also, there’s a revival of sorts stirring: The spate of new deep-jazz compilations and a growing trend of collaboration between the electronic and jazz worlds (Carlos Nino and Dwight Trible’s beautiful new record, Sleepwalker and Pharaoh Sanders recent work together) suggests the stirring, redemptive, experimental kind of jazz is once again back in vogue.

“I’ve always liked jazz-duo records,” explains Hebden. “The kind of thing Rashied Ali did with John Coltrane and Frank Lowe, and all the English stuff too, like Evan Parker and John Stephens. These records, all completely improvised, would always feature a saxophonist and a drummer. I decided I wanted to try it, but with electronics and drums.”

Hebden soon found the ideal drummer in Steve Reid. Chances are you haven’t heard of the 60-year-old New Yorker, but you will certainly have heard him. That’s him, at age 17, on Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street”. He also played on James Brown’s “Popcorn” and Miles Davis’s Tutu. Over the course of his staggering 45 year career, Reid has played with just about anybody you’d care to mention: Sun Ra, Fela Kuti, John Coltrane, Jimmy Hendrix. He’s also made some amazing records in his own right that, thanks to a series of Soul Jazz reissues, have found a whole new audience.

“He’s my dream drum partner,” says Hebden. “There’s a sound I always strive for in my records. That rhythmic African-American tradition, that pure, soulful, funky rhythm. The thing is I’m a middle-class English guy and it’s just not in me. But it’s something I’m always reaching for in my music. Now to suddenly work with Steve, who is the very essence of that idea, is fantastic. He’s one of the purest examples of that drum tradition on the planet.”

Reid agrees that their partnership is something special. “We fit like a glove. We’re both left-handed and left-minded.” It is customary for this kind of collaboration to be played live without any rehearsal, the idea being that the sparks of inspiration ignite on stage. Hebden and Reid premiered their project in April at the Cartier Foundation in Paris. “We didn’t discuss it all!” laughs Hebden. “There were no rehearsals, nothing. Steve would leave messages for me saying, Kieran, stay in the rhythm, stay in the rhythm! And I’d be like, Okay, Steve. I’ll do that. It was nerve-racking, but I felt prepared.” Reid, an old hand at this type of thing, was a little more relaxed. “Man, to tell you the truth I don’t even like to sound check. “

The Paris concert was quickly followed by a second in London, and then the pair hit the studio. “Everything we did that day is amazing,” says Hebden of the recording. “When I listen back I can’t believe it. Everything is just so focused. To hear my stuff, my melodies and sounds with Steve’s rhythmic input has been a revelation. It’s the kind of music I’ve always dreamed of being involved in.”

Six tracks were recorded, some of which will be released on The Exchange Volume 1 by Four Tet & Steve Reid, coming out on Domino Records in January. For Reid, it represents a new way of working. “Before I met Kieran I listened to some of his albums and I thought it was a little scary that he didn’t play nothing on them. But to watch him work is incredible. He’s a real electronic musician. No one is going to believe this record when they hear it.”

Despite the decades that separate them, Hebden and Reid have become fast friends. “I’m taking Kieran under my wing,” explains Reid. “He’s a real nice kid. It’s great to find a young guy that’s not in this for the money. He believes in this shit.” It seems to be this shared belief that musical integrity is absolute that unites them. “That’s why I’ve been under the radar for so many years,” says Reid. “I do things based on musical decisions, not economic decisions or what’s hot. This is serious, man. We’re not messing around here.”

There is a track on Rounds, the last Four Tet album, which borrows its title from Valerie Wilmer’s chronicle of the early days of free jazz, As Serious as Your Life. It’s a title that could easily serve as Hebden and Reid’s musical manifesto. As Hebden puts it, “Steve and I see the music as being physically important: on a political level, on a spiritual level. It’s not something to be taken lightly.”

It’s this seriousness that drives Hebden, and a paucity of it in the current musical climate has created a vacuum that he abhors. “That level of passion and dignity is something I feel is missing in a lot of modern music. It seems so apparent with a lot of the rock bands around at the moment trying to revive late 1970s, early 1980s punk stuff. You see bands around, and they’re being compared to Gang of Four. Gang of Four were a very, very serious band with a real agenda. Now a band will come along and maybe have the same kind of jagged guitar sound but their agenda will be to get on the cover of the NME. Then they burn out within a year because they’ve toured so hard, just to make as much money as humanly possible. Then they deliver a shit second album and no one ever hears from them again. A lot of these bands, their main agenda is purely to be successful. There doesn’t seem to be any other depth or layers to it.”

The Four Tet and Steve Reid live experience has depth and layers to spare. Hebden’s impossible invention and Reid’s muscular playing combine in strange, thrilling ways. There’s an intuitiveness to their exchanges that astonishes, given the show’s spontaneity. They incorporate one of Reid’s recent works, The Drum Story, in which he chants, hollers and testifies to the power of rhythm in an unjust world. It’s a rallying cry, a call to arms, and it adds a distinctly political edge to proceedings.

It’s all very different from a standard Four Tet performance, which sees Hebden alone on a dark stage with his laptop and an assortment of gizmos. “It was a new experience for me,” he explains. “The stuff I do on my own reminds me of dee-jaying. I know I’m going to play recognizable music to people, but I want to change it as well. The idea is to play the album but take it into new areas and to mess around with it, see what’s possible. Whereas the idea here was to create music completely anew.”

Many electronic acts embellish their live performances by bringing in a band or creating a visual show. Hebden, however, wants the music as he plays it to be the sole focus. “My own music is very much about being completely electronic. It’s about performing the humanly impossible. I’ve never been interested in the idea of being able to recreate it with live musicians. It just seems like a step backwards to me. It would be inappropriate for the kind of music I make.” But working with Reid has inspired Hebden to explore even more musical avenues. “It’s opened up a whole new area for me, and there are possibilities, things I didn’t even realise I was capable of.”

Next he plans to try his hand at hip-hop production. His recent EP of Madvillian remixes and a call from Cut Chemist have provided all the encouragement he needs. There is also talk of an album with Prefuse 73. And, of course, there will be more work with Reid. They return to the studio in June, this time with a full band, to record the new Steve Reid Octet album, Spirit Walk due out later this year from Soul Jazz.

“Who knows where all this will lead,” Hebden says. “One of the things I think about with every record I make is that I want each one to count. I want to make it worthwhile. This is something I want to do for life. That’s what I’m aiming for.”