Q&A: Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden on There is Love in You, the Speed of Cultural Consumption, and Getting Disrespected by Tori Amos


Kieran Hebden doesn’t like repeating himself artistically. Of course, all artists will tell you this. And now that electronic musicians like Hebden can flit from dubstep to ambient, or from folk to funk just by downloading extra plug-ins, it’s not exactly a bold stance to take on the issue of craftsmanship.

But Hebden also believes that each creative step he takes should be taken conscientiously: the chance meeting with Steve Reid that could’ve yielded nothing more than abortive jam sessions resulted in three albums and tours that took them to four different continents; an invitation to DJ at the End, the legendary, recently closed London club, became a residency that lasted almost two years. Those two steps also laid the rhythmic foundations for There is Love in You, the first Four Tet album Hebden’s made in almost five years. And with Hebden scheduled to perform at Le Poisson Rouge tomorrow, we recently got him on the phone to talk about rhythm, sampling, and overdosing on media.

It seems like one of your core principles as an artist has been embracing change-you’ve often said you don’t want to repeat yourself, you try to have each live show be a unique experience. So I’m curious how you feel about the speed at which culture is moving right now.

Kind of good. There’s a lot of stuff happening, but at the same time, I know that a lot of what’s coming on is kind of a re-creation of the past. A lot of the stuff people are getting really pumped about is really retro as well. It’s kind of weird. Things are moving faster and slower all at once, if that makes any sense.

But what about the amount of media we have access to? I sometimes wonder personally whether I’m giving myself enough time to digest the media I consume. Do you think you consume or expose yourself to media in a different way now than you did five or ten years ago?

Oh yeah, totally. It’s gotten stupid. There isn’t enough time in the day to-never mind hear all the records that have come out-but watch all the YouTube clips you’ve been sent, listen to all the MP3s being sent, read all the blogs. There’s way more than anybody can consume. There must be so much stuff that I’d be interested in that’s getting brushed aside. There seems to be just an insane number of records that are coming out.

I think the media does a pretty terrible job of covering what’s come out. When you see these polls at the end of the year of everybody’s favorite records of 2009, they’re so terrifyingly similar. And you’re thinking, “There’s a hell of a lot of records that came out this year, do we really have consensus that these are the top ten?” [laughs] Is everybody just kind of falling into rank somehow because it looks better for the publication? I think people kind of take the easy way out with a lot of that stuff.

So it’s going to take time to understand what’s actually going on right now. It’s going to be ten, 20 years down the line ’til we can look back and start working through all the music that’s happened, in the same way we look back at the ’80s. There was so much music that was completely ignored in the ’80s that keep getting reissued now, bands like ESG and Liquid Liquid that hardly anybody knew about in the ’80s.

I did an interview the other day with Beatport, and we were talking about the quantity of MP3s on their site, and how many more there will be in ten years’ time. There must be so much lost music in there already, and in ten years, it’s not going to be like trawling through an old record shop, it’s going to be like perusing these immense, bizarre archives of digital music. It’s going to be hard for people to look back and make sense of it.

Do you try to set a personal limit on how much of this stuff you take in every day?

I take each moment as it comes. Things are going better in my life if I have time to do things in a simple way. For example, if I’ve got time to listen to a vinyl record-to actually sit down and listen to both sides of a vinyl record-once a day, then things are going pretty well, I’ve got things going at a good pace. I think it’s really important. If you’re listening to stuff on a computer, it’s too easy to check your e-mail while you’re listening. I still listen to more stuff on vinyl than I do anything else. I find that when I listen to a record, I put more care and time into it instead of frantically flicking through MP3s.

You recently gave an interview with Pitchfork about your return to the Four Tet moniker from such a long time off. In that interview, you said, “There’s that feeling of, ‘Why make another [Four Tet album]?'” And I’m wondering what your answer to that question was.

I was probably talking about how, after Everything Ecstatic [2005], I was in the mindset that there was no purpose to making another record at the moment. I’d done quite a lot, and I didn’t just want to be treading the same ground again. That’s probably why I veered away from it, did collaborations and a lot of different projects for a while. In my mind, I don’t think I was even thinking about another Four Tet record, it was just more like, “Let’s do something different for a while.”

Then I made the Ringer EP kind of out of the blue, and that was the first time that I felt I had some new ideas to try out and some reason to do it again.

It seems like a lot of those new ideas were rhythm-based. What inspired you to use those more house-y sounds on Ringer and this album?

While I was doing Ringer, I was doing these DJ nights at this club called the End in London with James Holden. Ringer actually came out towards the end of that. All this more intensive DJ stuff I’ve been doing has been going on for the last three years. The two big things I’ve been doing after Everything Ecstatic were the DJing and those things with Steve Reid. And I think when I did Ringer, everything I was doing rhythmically was completely different all of a sudden. Because, from those two things, especially all the things I was hearing in the DJ booth, all those rhythms are faster, and it’s all 4/4 kick and stuff. And also the stuff I was doing with Steve Reid was a lot faster, and he plays with a very kind of steady pulse. He kind of builds rhythm from the bass upwards, which is a similar way of thinking to when people make house music. Those two things totally changed the types of rhythms I was interested in working with.

Four Tet began as a sample-based project. Is it still? Or do you personally record more of your songs’ component parts?

I might play a bit of guitar, and then load it into the computer, but for me it’s more about creating the sounds and ideas from the recordings, then editing and manipulating them into new things. There are bits of vocals on the record where I’d get my wife to sing random melodies and things over tracks, and then I’d take those sounds, use them to create the melodies I actually wanted in the music. It’s still strictly all about editing and manipulation of samples, though.

So in the decade that you’ve been working as Four Tet, have you ever had trouble with sample clearance?

I’ve gotten into some trouble. [laughs] When Rounds was about to be released, there was this track that was supposed to be built around a loop from a Tori Amos record, and I didn’t clear the sample with her. She didn’t-well, I don’t know if she ever heard it, but her label and management weren’t very cooperative, so I had to redo the track with a different melody. That was a bit of a shame.

Let’s talk about your residencies. The End had a reputation for having a very open-eared clientele. Do you think There is Love in You would have turned out differently if you’d been DJing somewhere else?

Not particularly. I’m someone who does things on his own terms when I’m DJing. I play stuff that’s going to fit in with the crowd, but I actually play stuff to my own kind of taste. I wanted to fit in, but I wanted to do it on my own terms. Rhythmically, you’ve got to keep it right for a club.

What is it that you aspire to do when you perform? Is it about getting people to dance?

For me, it’s just a chance for people to come watch me making music. [laughs] It’s important for me that people can come and hear my music louder, on a big sound system, but I’ve no desire to be a pop star or a performer as such. I’m doing a show in London next week, and I’ve been getting quite into lights recently. It creates such atmosphere, and that can work. But the focus is still very much on the fact that it’s just me with a bunch of computers standing behind a table. It’s not exactly rock ‘n’ roll heaven.

But I think people get it. A few years ago, people would come to my shows and go, “What is this?” but now they know what they’re getting. People aren’t under the illusion that they’re going to see a ten-piece band or anything. [laughs]

You’re scheduled to perform at some outdoor festivals in Europe this summer. Does that kind of setting change your approach to performing at all?

Slightly, yeah. It’s a different experience. You’re playing to very large crowds at what can be very weird hours of the day, like four o’clock in the afternoon. I mainly don’t do the outdoor stages. I normally do stuff in DJ tents, which is better, because there isn’t all that bright sunlight. I find festivals usually have quite short sets, so you tend to just go at it kind of harder and faster. There’s no space at a festival, even if you’re going on at three o’clock in the morning, to play a 15-minute ambient piece or something. It would take quite a unique festival setting for me to get away with doing something like that.