With a new dance-oriented EP and multiple collaborations with Steve Reid under his belt, Four Tet's Kieran Hebden looks back on a career where he's opened for Radiohead, played for Badly Drawn Boy, and explains why it's unlikely he'll do either ever again.
For Kieran Hebden, everything is in its right place.
Under his Four Tet moniker, the 28-year-old, London-based Hebden is a musical chameleon, a genre-bending shapeshifter that gleefully defies categorization. Creating his songs solely on a computer, Hebden takes an osmotic approach to music making, and Four Tet is basically an invitation to toss all kinds of influences against the screen to see what sticks. Emerging from the ashes of his post-rock band Fridge in the late '90s, Hebden's first release under the Four Tet guise , Dialogue, synthesized hip-hop beats with obscure jazz samplings, leaving critics scrambling for a description to the album's bent, post-trip-hop aesthetic. Four Tet's second full length, Pause, was dubbed "folktronic" by the media for the album's liberal use of acoustic pluckings, complementing its laid-back vibe. It was a somewhat decent (if not lazy) attempt to pin down Four Tet's sound, and Hebden fought hard to defy any kind of genre profiling. A prolific remixer of everyone from Aphex Twin to Andrew Bird, Hebden has toured with Radiohead and performed as guitarist for Badly Drawn Boy, while hosting a DJ residency at a London club in between records. PopMatters spoke with Hebden from his London home, discussing his new disc Ringer, his childhood, and meeting his musical soul mate in a 64-year-old American jazz drummer.
"I grew up in London, which has had an enormous impact on me as a musician," said Hebden in his soft spoken, delicate accent. "It's such a multi-cultural place because you're surrounded by Europe, and as a kid walking down the street I'd hear all different kinds of music. It would be very normal for me to hear drum and bass in the morning, classical in the afternoon and hip-hop at night. I was a teenager when the whole drum and bass thing started happening in England. It was a very DIY approach to music, with people making records in their bedrooms. I was also heavily influenced by hip-hop and the whole sample culture of people taking sounds from the past, messing with them and creating something new. The whole hip-hop concept has been one of the most defining movements for people of my generation, and it's helped shape my concept of creating music. My father also had a big impact on me. He's a really big music fan and I grew up surrounded by music. He's played me records from the time I was born. I grew up with a really solid knowledge of classic soul, jazz, rock, blues and funk. Thanks dad."
Hebden began recording and touring with schoolmates in the band Fridge, playing guitar but quickly becoming interested in different soundscapes and instruments. As the band dissolved and Hebden adopted the Four Tet project, he dropped out of school to pursue his passion. "My whole family is pretty much in education," said Hebden. "My mother used to teach primary school and my father taught University sociology, while all my aunts and uncles pretty much work in education. I quit University and never finished my degree, but everyone was totally supportive when I started doing music, and they still are. I think my family always realized that the stuff I was doing was quite unique, and to be given the chance to do something for a living that most people don't manage to do is really special. They were all like, 'Go for it!'" With the release of his second album Pause in 2001 and Rounds in 2003 for London-based Domino records, Four Tet was suddenly attracting attention in America as well as Europe, and Hebden soon found himself pegged with an irritating categorization.
"It was all a bit ridiculous," says Hebden. "The early stuff I was doing was being labeled folktronica by the press, and I was suddenly hearing that attached to everything I was doing. They called it folk because there were some acoustic instruments in what I was doing, but folk music was no more of an influence on me than hip-hop, jazz, soul or techno. The thing that was annoying to me was it put the emphasis far too much into one category and genre, and the next thing I know I was being asked to play folk festivals all the time. I never make music and think about what kind of genre it is.
"One of the things I'm primarily interested in is changing people's perception of what defines a genre, and what's possible in those boundaries of genre. It was annoying, but at the same time I was excited that people were trying to come up with new terms to describe what I was doing." The latest Four Tet release -- the four-track, 30-minute EP Ringer -- finds Hebden mining the techno and electronic influences of his past, while reinventing them to suit his needs. "One of the nicest things I've heard about Ringer is a friend saying that it still sounds like one of my records from the past, in which I've previously explored hip-hop, rock and folk, this felt like I was doing the same thing with dance music, which is ultimately about turning a genre into my own sound. Every album is a combination of all the things I love about music."
Serving as producer as well as his own manager, Hebden works in a very isolated environment, a far cry from the group dynamic of Fridge. "I kind of go through phases I guess," says Hebden. "Sometimes I really love working on my own, being able to explore your own headspace and expand on your visions and ideas, but I also like the excitement of bouncing ideas off somebody else and seeing a collaboration materialize into something really great that neither of you could possibly do on your own." Working on his own records, Hebden has organically grown into a full-fledged producer. "I find I work out a song rather quickly, without a lot of deliberation. I start loads of things that get abandoned halfway through if I realize that its not gelling in the right way. I think that's what being a good producer is about. People don't realize a lot of the time that you can have loads of great technique and make great sounds, but understanding how to finish a track and know which bits are working and which aren't ... that's what really great production is about. I don't know how to explain when something is right. I find myself enjoying it. I can listen to it and think, 'yeah, this is music that I want to hear.'"
One of the most fruitful collaborations has been Hebden's work with jazz drummer Steve Reid. Reid's iconic work with Miles Davis, James Brown and Fela Kuti -- as well as his session work for Motown -- has proved to be a foundation of inspiration for Hebden. Throughout their collaborations, he has not only found a creative partner, but a friend and musical mentor. The duo has released two collections of experimental improvisations, The Exchange Session Volumes 1 and 2 and the jazz/electronic fusion album Tongues.
"The two musical things that have had the biggest impact on me have been my collaborations with Steve Reid and his impact has been that my understanding and concept of rhythm and composition have changed dramatically. Our improvisations have made me learn a great deal about structure and composition. Steve's rhythm as a player is considerably faster than the music I used to make. My music has always been very hip-hop influenced and usually between 90 and 100 beats per minute. Steve plays at 130-140 BPMs, very fast with a kind of underlying pulse. The main thing that we agree on is that there should always be progression. The way I've been working for quite awhile is to achieve some kind of constant progression, with things always moving forward and evolving. I can see how everything I've done has played into making Ringer."
Four Tet's commercial appeal may be selective, yet Hebden has waded in the commercial mainstream, and realized that it's not suited to him. "I opened for Radiohead in 2003 and it was a very positive experience," says Hebden. "At the very least I think I gained some new fans from it. On tour, I had the experience of seeing what its like for a band on that scale, with the huge production and scope of everything. It's an interesting thing to see. I also played guitar in Badly Drawn Boy's band the year he won the Mercury Award and he was doing these huge festivals. That was a really good experience because I got to see what it's like to be on one of those big festival stages with everyone singing along while I bashed out chords on guitar. I totally and utterly enjoyed it but I only did it for a few months, and at the end of the tour I was completely happy and satisfied when it ended with the knowledge that I'd done that.
"I know what it's like and I'd gotten it out of my system. I quite like the experience of seeing how things operate for massive bands. It's good for my curiosity, and serves to remind me that I'm quite happy and content where I'm at. I've got a lot of freedom to do what I want to do. After my album Everything Ecstatic came out in 2005, I did a lot of touring and the last show was a prime gig in London. It was a big night with a couple thousand people, and my feeling after wasn't 'Brilliant, now let's try and play for 5,000 people in bigger venues;' my feeling was 'OK, I've done it, that's enough for me.' It's much more important for me to keep doing interesting things rather than endlessly trying to make things bigger and bigger."
During my conversation with Hebden, I'm amazed at how quick and assured he is in regards to his career and success. There is never a hint of false modesty, only a cordial school-boy politeness. His ambition doesn't lie in commercial success and excess, but in constantly exploring the boundaries and possibilities of sound. "I'm much more interested in trying to find the time to pursue things that are really interesting to me, rather than pushing towards doing big, excessive things," says Hebden. "I'd like to follow the career trajectory of Steve Reid. He's lived the ultimate dream. If you can do what you want to do and get paid enough to live comfortably, then that's the dream. I've talked a lot to Steve about his life, and he's been involved with so many exciting and important moments in the history of music. He's worked as a full time musician since the age of eighteen and never done anything else. He's an incredibly happy person whose had a wonderful life and it's been a true adventure. That what I want. I want to look back at my variety of adventures and never get tied up in one thing. I'd miss out on too much."