Four Tet

former Fridge-magnate Kieran Hebden has released four albums as Four Tet and has just released the Exchange Session Vol. 1, a collaboration with veteran free-jazz percussionist Steve Reid. Keith Wallace gets the lowdown from Hebden over a herbal tea...

How do you describe what you’re doing at the moment with your music?
I don’t even try, you know. I just kind of get on with it, follow my instincts, and see what happens really. Lately I’m almost trying to do something that people can’t really describe, I’m just trying to do something different, something new and something that will change people’s minds about what’s possible in music.

Was Everything Ecstatic a reaction against the “folktronica” tag which has been applied to you?
Well, like what I was saying earlier about wanting to make music that was different, I really want my music to always move on and change and the notion of it suddenly getting a name and being put into some kind of box, I had never wanted to be restricted in that kind of way. I think regardless of whether people expected that or not I would have tried to do something really different on the next album. I think after the “folktronica” thing there was a natural instinct to let me change things after sampling all kind of acoustic string instruments: I’d definitely done that to death. The folktronica thing was annoying at the same time because I thought it honed in on such a small part of what I was doing, folk music was such a little reference especially compared to hip-hop or funk or soul or techno or all those things, hip-hop is a hell of a lot more prominent in my music than folk music is and no one mentions that very much.

Do you think that you fit into any scene, with people like Caribou or Koushik or Boom Bip? Do you feel that they are kindred to what you are doing?
I think I fit into a scene of people, but it’s got nothing to do with what the music sounds like though, just the fact that it has to do with attitudes, musicians that I feel kindred to are the musicians that have a similar outlook about what they’re doing and have similar interests in music. Someone like Dan from Caribou is a really good friend and Koushik is a really good friend. Regardless of the sound we’re making, we all make music for similar reasons, we’re excited and inspired by similar things, I think that links us you know, the same way I feel a link to the Animal Collective or Sunburned Hand of the Man or bands I’ve toured and worked with.

Is Domino a happy home for you ?
I’ve done three albums with them now and I’ve been buying records on Domino since I was a teenager and they’ve put out loads of records that are hugely important to me and it feels nice to be part of that, it’s one of the strongest British independent labels there’s ever been. I remember getting early Palace records and stuff, Gastr Del Sol, Jim O’Rourke, all the American stuff they were doing. Quickspace Supersport are one of my favourite bands of all time, Flying Saucer Attack, so many interesting records...

What about download culture—does it bother you if people illegally download your records?
No, not particularly, I don’t mind people downloading my music, there’s a side to it that frustrates me but I think maybe because I’m becoming an old fuddy-duddy the side of it that frustrates me is that I really love the art of the album, I like putting together a body of work kind of forty-five minutes or so and releasing it with the idea that people are going to play it from beginning to end, and as music is downloaded people select tracks and everything is kind of chopped up. Another thing that frustrates me intensely is that I think people are listening to music at a lower quality than ever before, people listen to music on mp3 through their TV or something, and mp3’s sound really horrible a lot of the time I think. I remember sound quality always getting better and better like when CD came out, but now it’s suddenly taken steps backwards.

But one of the things that really does excite me about download culture is the fact that I can distribute music all over the world at incredible speed and at the end of the day the fact that I can reach a kid in Venezuela is probably a hell of a lot more important than me worrying about people not absorbing the music in my stuck-up way, I should just be bloody happy that people are listening to the stuff all over the world! Because of the internet there’s an incredible audience for my music, probably more than I even realize. People moan about losing sales but I’ve found the more people download my record, the more records I sell. I also know that once I start touring I’ll turn up in towns where I’ve sold fifty records but seven hundred kids want to come out and see the show, so it builds a genuine fan base—that’s the important thing.

In your collaborations with Steve Reid has it been exciting to mesh live free jazz drumming and electronics?
It made me realize I was capable of more than I even thought. We’ve done two albums together, him on drums, me on electronics doing improvised stuff. We did a couple of shows in Paris and London and some radio sessions and then we went into a recording studio and recorded these albums. It’s been a really exciting project for me.

When you do production work on other peoples records like James Yorkston’s and Adem’s do you take a totally different approach than working on your own music?
It’s a really different scene, I love the whole culture of records and releasing music, so the idea of doing production was exciting to me because being given the power to be in charge of making that document of somebody’s music and deciding how its going to sound, how its going to be recorded and what the atmosphere of that record is going to be like is really exciting and it’s an honour to be allowed to do something like that, so I’ve always been fascinated by that.

With James Yorkston I think everybody assumed it was going to sound like one of my records with him singing over the top or something, but it’s just not what I’m interested in at all! I just want to go in there and hear the songs and decide how are we going document them—I sort of just made the record sound as if he was sitting in a small room and that’s how we recorded it. With Adem’s records, he’s recorded it all already and it’s just me putting some perspective over the recording, making sure everything sounds right—Adem’s deaf in one ear so mixing records isn’t really even a possibility for him, so I get involved.

How did you end up working with Vashti Bunyan on her first live performance in over 30 years?
I knew Just Another Diamond Day because I know the guys that run the label Spinney that did the first reissue—they gave me a copy when they did it. Then Steve Malkmus asked her to play at that concert (the “Down The Dustpipe” festival at London’s Royal Festival Hall in April 2003) and she agreed and then I heard she was looking for musicians—Steve Malkmus mentioned it to Domino or something and I just volunteered to do it and suddenly the whole job was kind of handed over to me! I got Adem to help me out.

I’d never met her before, she just came around to Adem’s house for lunch and she was really, really nervous and she just picked up a guitar and just pretty much played all of the album there and it…it was amazing! Suddenly seeing someone who you didn’t know was still even involved in music performing their album and singing incredibly...

Then she taught us how to play all the guitar parts and everything—though we only did three songs at that concert it was a huge thing for her. Then I toured with Animal Collective and brought them to Scotland and they couldn’t believe that I knew her, so I invited her to the show and then we all went out for a meal and then they invited her to sing with them (on their Prospect Hummer EP). And now she seems to be doing a million things, like recording her incredible new album (Lookaftering).

You’ve recorded all the Four Tet albums at home, is that a comfortable way to be creative?
I think it allows me to make much more personal and intimate music a lot of the time. There’s that thing where you hear someone record an album and the demo’s they’ve recorded at home have a delicate intimacy you don’t get on anything else, I think for me maybe all my music’s coming from that demo type of environment.

Do you have a different approach to playing live than when you are recording? What do you think of the presentation of live electronica?
They’re not really a versus thing for me—they’re part of the whole existence of the music. When I make the record, it’s almost like the beginning of the music. It’s like these are these new ideas and here I am putting them out and then when I head out to tour it’s about taking that music and exploring and seeing what else is possible with it, watching that music change as my personal musical interests change.

I don’t care about recreating the record when I do a show, I care about going with whatever seems exciting at that moment, I want people to come to the show to get a slice of my musical mind on that day—that’s what people are paying their money for, to see exactly what I’m thinking musically at that moment, but that’ll be a unique moment that’ll never exist again. That’s what keeps it exciting for me and it also means that it starts to breed the beginning of new music I’m going to make in the future. The shows always seem to end up more banging because I react to the crowd—the crowd starts dancing and I get excited! I start playing really loud drums really fast!

When you’re doing live music you’re creating music that’s only going to last an hour, it’s not something that people are going to go back to and listen to again and again, quiet subtleties are often lost. You end up making big gestures, because you can’t help it if you care about the crowd and you’re trying to entertain people. Doing a live performance is about doing something with a bit of conviction and passion whether you’re playing the spoons or the harmonica or the electric guitar—you’re putting your heart and soul into it.

The biggest problem in live electronic music is lack of confidence: it’s a relatively sort of new thing and the technology is developing incredibly quickly and there’s no clear way how to do it or even a precedent and people just caved in because there’s such a negative reaction from old Bob Dylan fans and Mojo readers and, because of that, promoters show less and less enthusiasm for booking electronic things.

Where are the young kids coming out and being like “I want to be onstage with my fucking computer and make noise!”? I do shows and there’s sixteen and seventeen-year old kids coming up and asking me what software I’m using, how I’m doing this and that. I’m quite militant about not having any visuals at the show, no projections. Everybody went off on this multimedia fuckfest and just took all the weight out of it: people don’t really know what to do and they end up watching the screen and it takes attention away, whereas I find if I don’t have visuals people start dancing and people start enjoying the music and thinking about the people around them. It becomes a much more human experience and it puts the focus on the music.

I want to see people who have a real belief in live electronica, that’s what’s needed—to think that you don’t need to hide behind a screen and play in darkness. I remember going to see Fugazi when I was a teenager at Brixton Academy and here’s this almighty rock band, and they come on in this five thousand capacity venue that’s sold out and they just have all the house lights on, they set up all their equipment, and it’s one of the most exciting shows I’ve ever seen because they’re playing with the most intense passion that you don’t want flashing lights, you want to see the intensity in their faces as they do their thing and you want to see how real it is. I’ve come to see the musicians and I want to see the fire in their eyes much more than I want to see a smoke machine.

Four Tet
Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid

By: Keith Wallace
Published on: 2006-03-17
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