Springy electric-socket hair, dark droopy eyes—Kieran Hebden looks like a man who has spent untold time tinkering in front of a glowing computer screen late into the night. The depth of his production work as Four Tet, however, belies the physical man-hours necessary for such precision. Every shuffle and stab unwinds easily, and even the most uncontrollably ecstatic vocal samples float unbothered over the clamor. A marked sense of restraint characterizes his productions, with any bombastic intent cloaked in some sort of undermining subtlety. “Pyramid,” the outstanding original track Hebden included in the FabricLive mix he released last year, might have featured an exhilarating jumble of claves and the garbled stuttering of a spurned lover, but it also included two minutes of drum-less ambience, a calming blanket momentarily warming the dance floor.
Four Tet is a terrifyingly adept electronic producer, but it’s not like he has ceased to make human contact, preferring to coo at floppy disks and converse in binary. On the contrary, he is an in-demand remixer who has lent his talents to artists as varied as the XX and Tinariwen and collaborated with Burial and Thom Yorke. Lately, he performed as part of psychedelic dance wizard Dan Snaith’s Caribou Vibration Ensemble, unleashing analog synthesizer mayhem on unsuspecting crowds. This Saturday, Four Tet will perform at the long-running Mister Saturday Night party with residents Justin Carter and Eamon Harkin. Hebden was relaxed as he spoke about playing Herbie Hancock records at Low End Theory, the rhythmic lessons he took from Steve Reid, and why he avoids digital listening.
Can you talk a bit about what playing the Caribou Vibration Ensemble shows was like? What did you enjoy most about practicing and working with a full band as opposed to working alone in front of a computer?
We’d done that project before when they had done ATP in New York, when the Flaming Lips let them play and we did it there, so we’ve done it once already. This was a different lineup; James Holden was in the band as well and it was a bit more based around electronics and stuff compared to the one before. It was an amazing experience, a really unique thing to get that collection of musicians together and to feel like we did something quite complicated, and pull it off as well. Just a really, really great experience. I used to play in bands as a teenager so it’s not particularly weird for me to be involved with something like that. Just great.
Since you’ve been working as a solo artist as Four Tet you’ve still done numerous collaborations; with Steve Reid, Caribou, Burial, Thom Yorke. What do you think it is about your creative process or personality that has attracted so many collaborators?
I’ve just been doing stuff for a long time and put out quite a bit of music. I’m traveling around all the time and touring and things, and you just tend to meet other musicians. During lulls it’s just a nice thing to work together, you know?
You’ve been DJing far more frequently since the release of There Is Love In You. Has the extended travel altered the way you consume music? On the road you don’t really have time to just sit down and focus, and there might be more disparate influences coming in.
Not particularly. I kind of make a point of having time to listen to music and put a record on and listen to both sides. I tend to listen to a lot more old music that way then new music. In terms of all this travel, my life’s actually been like that for quite some time now. I have music all around me, always. It just feels like a part of my life as much as eating or brushing my teeth. Music’s just there.
What do you look for in a song before playing it out? Do you ever worry an increased focus on DJing leeches some of the more blissful aspects of music enjoyment if you’re focusing on functionality over other experiences?
Not particularly. I mean, there’s loads of records I buy now with the idea of thinking how incredible it’ll play on a big sound system. But I’ve always had that feeling anyway about that kind of stuff in that context. Even when I wasn’t doing as much of the DJing as I’m doing nowadays. I definitely try not to play music that’s just functional DJ music in any sort of way. For me a lot of the music I play works in both contexts. One of the things I like doing most is playing a club and playing things that most people don’t see as club records at all. I’ll play something like Joni Mitchell, or something like that, and it works. That feeling is really special to me.
What was a a recent song you’ve heard that you thought would traditionally never work in a club, but you decided to play it on the dance floor and it drew a huge response?
I think a lot of stuff in the back-to-back sets that me and Daphni [Caribou’s Dan Snaith] were doing over the weekend. A lot of the stuff we play people see as very bizarre and tough to play in a DJ set. I played a lot of jazz records when I’m DJing, stuff you don’t hear very often in clubs these days.
But you go see amazing DJs, someone like Theo Parrish or someone like that, they know all about how to do that. I think someone like Parrish is such an inspiration to me, to see him build a crowd up and then play something like a Herbie Hancock record. I did that in a club called Low End Theory in LA a few weeks ago. I played Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon,” which has a jazz-funk style, and people kind of freaked out in the audience. The kids were all asking each other what the record was. It was a young audience who’d never heard it, and that was an amazing experience. That for me is part of my musical personality, I think it’s a classic, and it’s been kept out of worlds like that for a long time, so for people to hear something like that in a club nowadays is very bizarre and unique.
I’ve read a quote of yours where you say your whole life changed musically following the collaborations with Steve Reid. How do you think that manifested in some of your more traditionally dance-oriented releases like the Fabric album last year?
I think I learned a completely different understanding of rhythm from Steve. There’s a specific American drum tradition that is the backbone of most of the music I love. He played with James Brown, he played with Sun Ra, then evolved into funk and soul and jazz and all these things. That all the way through to hip-hop, which is probably the music that’s been the most inspiring and influential to me in my life, and he was kind of the essence of that. Playing with him, I feel like I just learned so much about rhythm and dynamics and what makes a great groove, gives me this great feel, things like that. It was suddenly like being able to tap into that kind of magic. He was the essence of that. To work with him and have one of the greatest examples of that sort of tradition being there in my music is an amazing experience.
Are you familiar with the Grammy Re:Generation movie at all?
Basically, it’s a movie sponsored by the Grammys where they paired some DJs with opposing genres, putting someone like Skrillex with the Doors, or—
Given a situation where you would be asked to do something like that, what genre do you think would pose the biggest challenge for you to remix?
There are loads of things. I couldn’t do shit with an opera track. Something like that’s got no connection to me and my life at all. There’s loads of music that I don’t understand or like or know anything about. It’s pretty easy to work out what music is not going to work. I love the idea that they decided to make a project based around music that’s not going to work. It’s hard enough finding the things that are going to work. But bringing those bodies together, different styles or different generations, actually making something of any sort of substance, that’s a serious challenge.
On something that did work: The Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer album from this last year with the ECM label. What did you think of that? With your connection with jazz, what label would you choose if given the opportunity to dive into archives and pilfer anything you could get your hands on?
That was probably my favorite album last year. In terms of a full body of work I found that one really interesting and exciting and fresh-sounding. I already loved the ECM music, and one of the things I liked about this record was that it was kind of irrelevant to me, the ECM connection. It was like listening to a totally different thing, I found that to be very fresh. It’s so hard for you to get wrapped up in a project like that and the whole thing ends up having an air of nostalgia around it, and can end up being quite meaningless and cheap in some ways, and to have something like that that takes inspiration from the music and comes up with a totally new thing is really hard to do. If someone were to give me sounds from a label to work with, any label from back in the day, from the 60’s or 70’s, would be really incredible. The recordings are all full of wonderful sounds and wonderful musicians playing. I remember Madlib did that stuff with Blue Note and things like that. All those labels jut have great sound. It’s a really massive challenge to take stuff like that and make something that takes the music forward somewhere, and I think that was one of the really great things about the Villalobos/Loderbauer album. It managed to do that.
What new projects do you have in the pipeline now?
Nothing hugely specific. I’m just working on new bits of music and just want to get some releases lined up for this year. There isn’t an album about to pop out next week, but there definitely will be stuff out this year. I’m just working away on it at the moment. Me and Dan from Caribou are actually going to start doing these back-to-back DJ sets more, and do a lot of festivals, make it more of a regular, established thing that we do together. The usual mix of touring. I mean, the way people release records has changed. A few years ago I was very much in that traditional album cycle, where you put an album out do press, tour for 18 months. I feel like that kind of way of doing things… I’m not sure it’s very relevant anymore, especially in electronic music. People are waiting more for the next time you put a track on your Soundcloud or something. They seem to like that even more then when you put a new album out. So really, I’m just working on new music and I’ll be working out ways to release it once I’ve got something together.
Do you think the relentless release schedule in the realm of dance music detracts from deeper enjoyment of the genre at all? You mentioned how much old music you listen to; I feel like it’s so easy to get overloaded when there are so many producers that are worth listening to all releasing loads of music at the same time.
It’s a weird time. It’s just different. It used to be a situation where you’d be able to listen to most of what was coming out in the area you’re interested. Now there’s just no way that’s a possibility. You could be into the most obscure music, and there’s so much of everything it’s impossible to know it all and take it all in. The difference is you have to find your own little things and just hide away with them and enjoy them. I think trying to take in too much can be difficult. You can imagine I get sent an obscene amount of music each week, digital promos, and I have to confess I probably delete 95% of emails straightaway and never listen to them. I can’t even begin to cope with it. There’s an odd thing here and there, but I’ve found the way to manage is just to pick out a few things and properly enjoy them. I still find that if I go to the record shop and buy some things in the shop, or check them out when I’m there, I seem to be able to focus more on those things. The digital thing is a bit nuts to me. I don’t really mess with Mp3s or all that stuff. I find that if I just stick to buying vinyl records I tend to actually listen to more music, whereas when stuff’s coming out of the computer I’m checking my email at the same time and rushing through tracks and constantly clicking different links, all this stuff. There’s a million distractions.
Four Tet spins at Mister Saturday Night tomorrow at 12-Turn-13, and performs at (le) poisson rouge on March 10.