Music

Stay in the Rhythm

Scott Wright

Four Tet and legendary jazz drummer Steve Reid get serious with a pair of upcoming albums capturing the unlikely duo in all their improvisational glory.

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."

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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