Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

Interview: Four Tet

January 18, 2010


Kieran Hebden describes his recent stint as a monthly resident at London’s Plastic People club as inspirational. Coming from him, it doesn’t sound like the typical DJ platitude. With the night to himself and an enthusiastic crowd open to anything from highlife to Art Blakey or Carl Craig, it sounds like his ideal situation. Hebden has an inclusive approach to music; from his start in the band Fridge to his solo work as Four Tet and recent duo recordings with powerhouse drummer Steve Reid, he finds way to redraw the Venn diagrams people place around genres.

While his rolling, surging rhythms often have an all-encompassing vibe, his recordings tend to be documents of specific times and places. Much of Hebden’s new album, There Is Love in You, which contains the same techno pulse that surged through 2008’s Ringer EP, was road-tested at Plastic People and tweaked to fit that crowd. When we spoke to Hebden, he discussed his need to document his progress, leaving himself hidden messages and going in utero in the club.

Pitchfork: After you made Ringer, you mentioned you had previously been doing DJ sets at the End in London, which were a big influence. Have the recent sets you’ve been doing at the Plastic People residency been as big an influence on this album?

Four Tet: Even more so. After the End closed down, Plastic People gave me a monthly thing and I’ve been doing that for the last 14 or 15 months. I was there throughout the whole making of the record. I’d do five to six hours, starting at 11 p.m. and going on to 4 or 4:30 in the morning. It would just be me, and that’s what I liked about it. I had all the space in the world and could play whatever I wanted. Pretty much all the tracks on the record were tried out in that club, and I worked on the tracks so they sounded as good as possible in there. “Love Cry” was probably the first track I did for the album, and I’ve been playing that every month for the last year or so. I wanted to make something that was for the night.

Pitchfork: When you started making There Is Love in You, was there a specific goal or challenge in mind? It has that techno pulse that you displayed on Ringer and some other elements that came from other points in your career.

FT: The rhythms and the techno influence seeped into it naturally. I think it was a combination of what I was doing with Steve Reid and DJing, those two things. When I started working on the new music, it was rhythmically different than what I had done in the past. It’s such a normal thing for a dance producer to make music and try it out in the club, but that was relatively new to me. I wanted to make a good album that felt like it had a point. After putting out quite a few albums, there’s a feeling of why make another? I was trying to make something that was an album experience. I think I’m still stuck in that traditional mindset. I’ve done quite a few records now, and I look back and think of them as documents of my musical journey. I think the most important thing for me is putting out records that document ideas. I want to be able to look back on all this in the years to come and see how I explored those ideas. With a lot of the music I really love, like Miles Davis, you can go back and see the processes and the stages.

Pitchfork: Has your relationship with Steve Reid changed since you two began to play together?

FT: We’ve been through a lot. When we started playing together people expected it to be one or two shows, an experiment, and it ended up being something that was an inspiration that changed both of our directions a lot. I focused the bulk of my time over the last three to four years on it. This year, we decided to slow things down a bit. I wanted to make my own record, and he has this ensemble that he plays with. Soul Jazz just released this book of old jazz records that Steve has been involved with and they’re reissuing some of his catalog. I’m sure we’re going to do more in the future. We don’t have any concrete plans at the moment. It’s just one of many steady things going on.

Pitchfork: Deliberately or not, is he a great teacher?

FT: Playing with him, I’ve learned more about rhythm than I ever could. When I sit down to make music now, my whole understanding of percussion and rhythm is totally different. I learned a lot from him: his sense of dynamics, the way he can add momentum to a track. He knows when to hold on, when to play out and when to really change things up at a certain moment. He’s just a really, really high quality musician (laughs). You play with someone like that, and if you’re not learning, you’re seriously missing out.

Pitchfork: On the new album, there’s a track called “Pablo’s Heart”, which is 11 seconds of a swooshing, pulsing beat. Is that title to be taken literally?

FT: It is Pablo’s heartbeat. Pablo is my godson. His father recorded the heartbeat on his mobile phone at the doctor’s office and sent me the recording. His parents were coming to see a live show I was doing, so I took that sound and played it through the sound system. It was really loud and sounded like a mad modular synth when the bass was pumped up. It was this really crazy scene. His heart at the time was probably the size of a pea and I was using it to make this immense sound. He’s not very old, so he won’t understand when he sees the record. I put it on as a little present to him.

Pitchfork: It’s your Herbert moment. Does that have any relation to the end of the track “Plastic People”, when it sounds like there’s a kid hitting some bells or percussion? Is that Pablo as well?

FT: I was working on music while staying with some friends of mine, and their little girl Opal was playing this little toy piano and I recorded it. If I listen back to my old record, Rounds or something, an album I made over a period of a year or so, it’s almost like a diary for me. I don’t think I listen to it like anybody else would. For me, it’s about all the memories from that time, how I made each song, where I was and what was going on. I always put little references to my life in the music I’ve made. It’s no different with this record, I’ve just done a couple of things more explicit this time, like calling the track “Pablo’s Heart”.

In the past it would have been buried and I wouldn’t have told anyone about it. I wanted him to have a little gift almost, a sound off the record. There aren’t lyrics or anything in my music. I don’t have any explicit thing for people to read into, so I like putting a lot of personal touches in the music. If I bare my soul in bits and make it personal, I think people can sense that when they hear it. I don’t know what it is. People read into the music. I have a feeling that they can believe that I’m trying to put some emotion forward. It’s not just some technical exercise.

Pitchfork: Could you give an example of something like this from Rounds, something that was buried that people wouldn’t know to look for?

FT: People ask me about all sorts of sounds. There’s a sound of a screeching toy or a rubber duck and everybody asks me about that, but it was an absolutely random thing, just a cool sound. I’m just going to work that into the break. People are like, why is there a toy on the record? It’s those moments when you realize just how much people are reading into things. But there’s another moment on Rounds when you can hear my sister. She was staying at my house at the time, and there’s a recording of me going into her room and opening up the blinds and she’s having a go at me, moaning about me opening the blinds. It’s little stupid things like that, random sounds.

There’s a heartbeat on Rounds as well. The album opens with a heartbeat. Most people ask me about that, but it was a recoding of a dog’s heartbeat. I found this record that was made for vets in the 1970s. It was supposed to teach them about all these different illnesses. I had a lot of recordings of dogs’ heartbeats. I included a little bit of that not because I’m a crazy dog lover, but because it was about finding that record at a certain place and time. I was on tour with Fridge or something, having this amazing, amazing time.

Pitchfork: You recently collaborated on a split single with Burial. How did that collaboration come about and what was the recording process? And was the enigmatic release a deliberate move to make people pay more attention to it?

FT: The way it was released was meant to put all the focus we could on the music. When it came out– and I don’t know how it’s like in the States– there was so much hoo-ha about Burial. What’s he doing, why doesn’t he care about music awards, that kind of stuff. So we made this music and were excited about it, and thought, how are we going to put this out so there won’t be all sorts of annoying questions to deal with? Let’s just put it out with no information at all. As far as I’m concerned, it worked out really, really well.

Pitchfork: How did the collaboration start and how did you two meet up?

FT: We went to high school together, at Elliott School. When the first Burial 12″ came out, before the first album, he got back in touch with me. He said he was a fan of the stuff I was doing, and he was excited to be doing music as well. We were talking about doing stuff together, but we were kind of slow at getting it organized. None of it was done over email. We were in the studio proper, working together, so it was slow getting done. By the time we had something finished to release, loads more had happened and he’s obviously become very successful.

Pitchfork: Once you reconnected and discovered he was making music, was it interesting to compare and contrast your experiences starting out in music?

FT: I don’t know about that. His story is so unique. You can’t look at what he’s done and compare it to what I’m doing. He has such a focused idea of what he’s doing and seeing it through in such a clear way. It’s just very different. When we were together, I don’t think we even acknowledged what was going on with either of us in the outside world. It was just about us quietly making music together. Until we had something done, we didn’t have any intention to release anything. It was just for fun.

: What was Burial, or Will, like in high school?

FT: He was cool and had a really good time at school. So many people I was at school with have all ended up being musicians and putting records out.

Pitchfork: Was there a moment when you were going to school and growing up in Putney that really influenced you to pursue music and see the potential of sample-based music?

FT: I think the two biggest things happening around then that got me going were from America. The lo-fi scene and the riot grrrl thing had a huge influence on me. As a teenager I went to see Bikini Kill and all those bands. Following those bands, the message was that you could record a record on a Dictaphone in your bedroom and release it and that was OK. And that concept had a huge impact on me. When I first heard bands like Tortoise, it seemed to come off the back of that world, like let’s make a record with three vibraphones and release it on a seven-inch with black-and-white artwork. At the same time that was happening, drum’n’bass was happening at London, and it was the same message. Make a record in your bedroom on a cheap computer, play it on pirate radio, and that’s what’s it’s all about. You can do something really exciting and you don’t need any record companies. The way I do everything comes from that, the impact of those two things.

Pitchfork: And with those examples in particular, it’s not just that you can control the production but you can pursue your own taste.

FT: You kind of imagine that, when drum’n’bass came out in London, nobody could have imagined it. It sounded so crazy when you first heard it. How can it be this fast and this noisy? But everyone was dancing to it and going crazy. And then six months later, it was the music you heard on shampoo adverts. It infiltrated everything in this huge way. So the impact on me at the time was just kind of crazy.

Pitchfork: Do you feel there are parallels between the growth of drum’n’bass and dubstep in the UK?

FT: There’s kind of similar impact on an underground level. It’s not the same though, since dubstep hasn’t had the big commercial success over here. When drum’n’bass happened, when the two-step/garage thing happened, there was a chart smash every week; it operated on the underground and the pinnacle of pop mainstream at the same time. That hasn’t happened with dubstep. It’s not on the radio in the daytime, there’s no remix that’s broken through. I think that makes it kind of different right now. But people are into it and loving it. This year in particular, I feel like there’s a young generation of producers who are taking inspiration from dubstep but trying to push it in other directions.

Pitchfork: Are you referring to artists like Joker and Joy Orbison, who remixed one of your tracks?

FT: Yeah. Joy Orbison, he’s put out two 12″, but he’s had great impact. He hasn’t really done much, but for someone to come out and have such a defined sound so quickly, like that, I’m not surprised. His records sound sublime when you hear them. This guy Floating Points is my other favorite new London producer at the moment.

Pitchfork: There’s so much eclectic music you like. Did you have a specific epiphany with free jazz? I hear those rhythms pop up in a lot of what you do.

FT: That music has always been a rock solid inspiration for me since I got into it. It’s a backbone for a lot of what I do. My father is a massive, massive music fan. I grew up listening to rock, soul and jazz. When I was at university, I started checking out some free jazz records, lots of 70s Miles Davis and late 60s Impulse. It was like music I wished existed. I got into Alice Coltrane and Bitches Brew, and later I think Soul Jazz put out this compilation called Universal Sounds of America.

Pitchfork: The one with the spaceman on the front?

FT: Yeah. Hearing that was life changing for me. I think I got it and then hunted down every artist on that record, frantically discovering tons and tons of music.

Pitchfork: And that had Steve Reid on it, right?

FT: That’s the first time I heard Steve Reid. Discovering all that music was like bringing together so many things I really, really loved, all the rhythmic ideas, great melodies and the most incredible musicianship. I found the music fascinating. It’s from a time when there was a whole political message behind the music, ideas about spirituality and all these other mad things coming into play. It was music with a really important social agenda. The whole thing is this romance for me as well. It’s from a different era that doesn’t really exist anymore. People don’t have time for that sort of conviction. It was fascinating to find out and read about. That’s the music I find I always come back to; that stuff just blows everything out of the water. Love Supreme will still floor me. To hear records with that type of power and confidence and that level of meaning is really kind of mind-blowing. I’ve got such a love for all that music, so to actually be working with someone like Steve and to get all that knowledge is kind of intense.

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