Four Tet: Jazz Is a Feeling
Part 1 of 2: An in-depth conversation with Kieran Hebden
Dimitri Nasrallah - May 24, 2011
One of the most eclectic minds in electronic music today, Four Tet (aka Kieran Hebden) is one of those rare artists whose records and outlook grows more interesting with age. The core of his ever-expanding horizons, one could argue, is two-fold. On the one hand, a deep appreciation for the obscure ends of free jazz and early electronic outposts has led to a musicologist’s purview of how musical styles evolve. On the other hand, Hebden keeps a very close ear to the ground with what’s going on right now, highlighting and promoting numerous younger acts through his remix work and journeylike DJ sets.
Getting his start in the mid-90s as part of post-rock trio Fridge, Hebden released a flurry of albums with the band before releasing his solo debut as Four Tet in 1999. Since then, his work has grown increasingly more surprising and unpredictable. His first major critical success came with 2003’s Rounds, and after 2005’s Everything Ecstatic, he began to make his free-jazz interests more overt, with a series of collaborative albums with cult-legend drummer Steve Reid. 2010’s There Is Love in You proved to be a high watermark for a producer who already had a wealth of accomplishments to his name, firmly establishing Four Tet as creative force in both the indie-rock and electronic realms.
In advance of Four Tet’s Nocturne 4 appearance at MUTEK 2011 on Saturday, June 4th, MUTEKMAG caught up with Kieran Hebden for an in-depth and wide-ranging conversation. Today, in Part 1 of our extended talk, we discuss the upcoming show, his roots, and his numerous collaborations with free-jazz legend Steve Reid. Part 2 of the interview runs on Thursday.
1. THE MUTEK 2011 APPEARANCE
For your MUTEK appearance, you are going to be doing a partial collaboration with Rocketnumbernine, from what I understand.
Yeah, the plan is they’re going to do a little set on their own, and we’re going to do a little set together, and then I’m going to do a set on my own.
Have you guys ever performed together before in that kind of context?
Yeah, just once. Gilles Peterson put on this event called Worldwide Awards earlier this year in London, and it was actually his idea. Would we be interested in doing something together? We actually wrote two pieces for it, and rehearsed and everything, and did that kind of one-off.
Just around the same time, MUTEK got in contact and said they’d really like it if I was up for doing the festival this year, especially if I was interested in doing a unique collaboration with somebody. And I said, oh, it’s funny you ask now, I’ve just been doing this thing with this band called Rocketnumbernine, so how about that? Fortunately, they were up for it. I guess people don’t really know Rocketnumbernine hardly at all, so I’m really happy that they were into the idea.
How did that first show go?
It was great, yeah. Really, really good fun. It seemed to go down really well with the crowd and stuff. It was a really amazing night. You know, it was Rocketnumbernine and Flying Lotus and James Blake and Mount Kimbie and Ramadanman, a kind of unbelievable line-up. So, yeah, Jerry Dammers of the Specials doing a tribute to Sun Ra, and loads of good stuff.
How did you guys meet?
Well, I actually know Rocketnumbernine through Steve Reid. The connection goes back a while because their drummer Tom, who is good friends with Steve. Steve used to hire Tom to come on tour with us, to help out with driving and drum tech and stuff like that. Him and I became good friends as well. Another member of Rocketnumbernine is his brother, Ben, and when they first started out they were kind of more improvised music and sort of more abstract stuff. Then a couple of years ago they changed direction a bit and started working on these more composed sort of tracks that were much more dance-music influenced in lots of ways.
And then James Holden got them to play. I’d seen them a few times and I saw them again at that, and it had turned into this whole new thing. Since then I’ve seen them live loads, and we talk together. I put out a 12-inch of theirs on my label, that I recorded and produced for them. We’re definitely kindred spirits and have become connected in lots of ways, through connections from the past and what we’re doing currently as well.
2. THE EARLY YEARS
You mentioned that part of the thing that made you kindred spirits is the fact that they’ve evolved so much in such a short periods of time. One could say the same thing of your career, if you follow it from the beginnings and Fridge, all the way up to where it is now. There are two completely different producers at both ends of that spectrum. How naturally has that evolution come to you? Has it always been a part of your personality to want to push forward and try new things every time out?
Yeah, from the moment I first got involved in music. Especially when I was a teenager, it was all about having the experience of trying different kinds of styles and things. I guess Fridge was just one thing out of my time in high school that evolved into something more serious. And then once I actually thought this could be a full-time thing, I quit college and things got more serious. I got into the mentality of, ‘Well, this is what I’m doing, this is what I’m using all my time for now. It’s not just a hobby anymore, it’s a focus in my life.’ I think at that moment, I really made a conscious decision. I don’t want to waste this time. I want to experience as much of this music as I possibly can.
The whole thing was a bit of a fairy tale. I mean, how could this last longer than a couple of months, being allowed to do music as like a job.
Fridge was right out of high school, and that band made waves internationally in certain circles, so the attention got quite far for how young you were at the time.
Oh, yeah, definitely. Everything fell into place in a really amazing way when I was very young. I don’t know if you understand how at that time you made demo cassettes and tried to give them to people. The first one I ever gave anybody got to Trevor Jackson [of Output Recordings] and it got us our first record deal, so we were blessed at that point and things just fell into place in a really natural way.
I was incredibly naïve about the music industry, how everything worked and the whole mentality of how to do things. Looking back on it now, I’m really pleased. We made all sorts of crazy mistakes in that early stage, but it was brilliant as well. The early part of my music making was perfectly documented. It’s all there. You never get that kind of naïve moment in your music making back.
That naïveté works to your advantage. There’s a certain level of honesty that comes out of that.
Yeah, and you can’t recapture that moment. You know, there are so many people I know where you hear their first album, see some of their early shows and there’s something really magical there. Then you see them a few years later and it’s all slick and brilliant, but there are also certain things that have gone that you never get back no matter how hard you try.
You mentioned an appreciation for jazz even as far back as high school. Jazz sounds like a very pivotal part of what you do, even though it’s not necessarily there in every aspect of your music. Are you formally trained in jazz at all, or has it always been a matter of listening?
I’m not trained at all, but my father’s a massive music fan and jazz is definitely one of his big things, so I grew up in a household surrounded by that music and played it a lot. It was more bop and straight-ahead stuff. I knew of the mad, squawking free jazz, but I didn’t really know about Impulse Records. I had heard Miles Davis, but I hadn’t heard Bitches Brew and things like that.
I think it was when I was in my late teens and just as I started university, when I was 19-20 years old, I really discovered all of that stuff. It was like this music that I had been dreaming of and wishing had existed. Almost suddenly, I realized this music was a combination of everything I liked most. It had an incredible, heavy kind of rhythmic element. It had very interesting sonic arrangements. I’d listen to Herbie Hancock, and he’d have a record with synths and flutes and two drummers. That was fantastic, very ambitious and open music. It was definitely trying to push boundaries, and that was just so exciting for me.
I love all types of music, but I got so inspired and excited by that heavy sort of spiritual jazz from the late 60s, early 70s. I just keep coming back to it and as a real constant, something that truly inspires me. Getting to work with Steve Reid, someone who very much came out of that music and was truly part of it, was the icing on the cake, really.
3. STEVE REID
I’m glad you brought up the Steve Reid collaboration because it strikes me as one of those eureka moments in you trajectory, one of those doors that open creatively that can never be closed again. Yet at the time, from the outside it seemed like such a “what the fuck?” moment, how are these two coming together? But then you check out the records and you see everything that came after it, and the context that settles in and it makes complete sense. How did you guys meet?
I had the idea that I really wanted to work with a drummer. When [2005’s] Everything Ecstatic came out, I did a lot of touring for that record, more than I’d done for previous records, doing a 40-date tour in North America and a long tour in the UK, We did this big show in London with me and Faust, Explosions in the Sky and Kid Koala, that was the line up. It was this huge night. It was the biggest show I’d ever done. It was amazing, a truly fantastic night. It ended and I got home and I remember thinking, I’ve done it. You know, that’s it. I feel completely fulfilled with this right now. I just knew that point that I wanted to do something different. I just needed a completely new experience.
I think it was maybe a week or so later, I was at the Oslo Jazz Festival and I went to this night of duos, of saxophones and drums, with Hamid Drake, Fred Anderson, Mats Gustafsson and others. I saw that, and I just had this moment there, it was like, these jazz duos are often drums and saxophone, imagine if I did drums and samples, or drums and laptop. What if I get my kind of ideas into this?
I mentioned this to this friend of mine in France, and he contacted me a month or so later. He loved the idea. He was a guy I used to buy records off. And he was like, I met Steve Reid, and I told him your idea, and he wants to meet you and he was coming to London, the London Jazz Festival, a few weeks later. I went to meet him, and we discussed the idea and he seemed really up for it and like-minded and enthusiastic about the concept.
We just agreed to do it. My firend in France arranged a concert for us. We never had any rehearsal. We just went into the first concert not knowing how it was going to turn out. It was either going to be a disaster or be okay, or just be a one-off. That was the real life-changing – it changed everything. Just the sound check was like, whoa, a whole other world of possibility with what I’m doing with my music here. There’s loads of things I’ve been interested in doing. but I didn’t even realize I had the potential to do, which certainly came alive in that moment.
Steve and I obviously became really great friends and made four albums worth of material together. There’s loads and loads of stuff that ended up turning into really, really big projects, and that became the focus of what I was doing for a while. Sometimes I do something like that, and since the Four Tet stuff is much more popular than other things I do all the time, some people think, oh, this is like a side-project. Music’s not like that for me. Everything I do is like the next stage, part of musical journey I’m on. There’s no sideways. I’m moving along a certain kind of path in everything I do can feed into the next project. Even when I make records now, even it’s not completely obvious, it’s very inspired by the stuff I do with Steve Reid. It’s the education I got from him in rhythm.
From what I can hear, it definitely sounds like you opened up after that and that the range of Four Tet just became so much wider. It’s much more unpredictable and surprising. I mean, apart from the fact that you guys did four records together, the generational difference also opened up this amazing jazz drummer to a whole new generation of people very late in his career. He must have been pretty happy to feel vital to a new generation.
Oh yeah. It was such a wonderful time for both of us. Really, it was exciting for me. I felt like I was branching out, creating something that really seemed rhythmically very exciting, and an amazing personal experience. So, for him, I think he felt the same. One of the great things about Steve was that he was never stuck in the past at all. He was like, I never want to be one of those “oldies but goodies” type of guys, who doesn’t want to be with the young guys moving on.
We’d go and play clubs, and there’d be like a drum & bass DJ, and then there’d be me and Steve. Things like that. It totally made sense. We weren’t just playing seated theatres. We were doing a whole variety of things, even playing alongside rock bands at festivals. I think he was just thriving on that. Absolutely loving it. It was also completely how his ethos had been all along. He wanted to reach everybody and young people especially. Yeah, I think the fact that we got lots of really great bookings and good audiences, that was really exciting for him.
Part 2 of this conversation runs on Thursday, May 26th
Four Tet performs at MUTEK 2011's Nocturne 4: Saturday, June 4th @ Metropolis.