Interview by Adam McKibbin
Kieran Hebden has won over a sizable fanbase while recording and performing under the name Four Tet, an essentially solo project that popularized the subgenre term "folktronica," due to Hebden's penchant for siphoning seemingly countless genres through his electronic filter. Even while he was evolving as a studio wizard on original material, Hebden also developed a reputation as an inventive remixer (credits include Aphex Twin, Beth Orton, and Doves), as well as a DJ who could flat-out party.
A longtime jazzhead, Hebden embraced an opportunity to play alongside drummer Steve Reid, who has sat behind the kit for James Brown, Ornette Coleman, and two of Hebden's favorites: Sun Ra and Miles Davis. The duo released a complete document of their first weekend in the studio together—an experimental two-volume set called The Exchange Session. After subsequently touring the world, they decided their work was not yet complete, and returned to the studio for an adventure of a different sort: Tongues. The new album showcases a deliberately sharper focus and a broader range of influences, but still keeps a careful distance from conventions, be they jazz or electronic.
Prior to the release of Tongues, Hebden chatted about his massive record collection, the challenge of translating studio spontaneity into a live performance night after night, and the myriad talents of the man behind the drumkit.
Do you think it will be difficult to work with collaborators in this manner in the future because the bar has been set so high in terms of your chemistry with Steve?
Not particularly. I try not to worry about stuff for the future; I like to see how things naturally unfold and follow my gut instinct. With a lot of the music I make on my own, I don’t necessarily make big conscious decisions in my mind about “I’ve got to try to do this.” It’s never been my way of doing things to make very firm decisions about seeking a certain thing or engineering a certain situation.
Is it important to you, though, to feel like you’re in virgin territory? Do you pull back if you feel like you’re doing something that you’ve heard before or done before—or do you let it run its course?
Yeah, I’ve got to push myself if anything starts feeling too comfortable. I never want to take a step backwards. I’ve put out quite a bit of records now, and when I look back over them, I feel as though they’ve all marked a progression and development into different areas. It’s really important to me that that carries on—especially when I look back at musicians I really, really admire, people like Miles Davis or [Jimi] Hendrix. Their work completely kept evolving and changing, and I admire that so much. It reminds me that I must push myself as well, and try new things and not repeat the same ideas. When you’ve done something once, you’ve done it.
As you were making Tongues, did you feel that everything that happened during the session had the same sort of intrinsic, of-the-moment value, or do you reach places occasionally that feel like dead ends?
On the first two albums, we’d been doing these really long tracks that were about getting lost in this dense, spiritual jazz mayhem. (laughs) Thinking about the musical meeting point we had at that moment, we both really love music by people like Sun Ra and John Coltrane, and I think we had that type of thing in mind when we were working on those first records.
When we went to record the new one, we’d done that already, and we decided straightaway that we needed to do something very different—and the obvious thing to do was to make short tracks. We agreed we wouldn’t record anything that was over four or five minutes. When you’re making improvised music, it’s quite natural to make longer tracks, because then you have time to establish mood and then explore it. But when you’re making three-minute improvised tracks, you’re thinking about pop music and all these sorts of things, and trying to get across your melodies and ideas in a short space of time. It’s quite a different mentality. I was moving away from jazz references quite a lot on this record, and as I’ve got to know Steve more, I’ve come to find that he’s very open-minded toward different styles. He’s not just in the jazz tradition; I can play him anything from Aphex Twin to Madlib and he totally understands and gets into it. For the types of sounds and references I wanted to use [on Tongues], I was thinking about everything from Silver Apples to Kraftwerk.
I think we recorded 36 tracks or something; we did loads and loads of recording, then chose the ten best to make the album. We weren’t interested in getting the tracks right and rehearsing and then recording, but we wanted that level of quality control. Rather than using the best takes, it was using the best tracks from all these improvisations.
Was it pretty clear?
It was really difficult. I’m really into the concept of albums in general. I really enjoy making records a total experience within themselves; you put it on in the beginning and listen all the way through and, it sounds a bit cheesy, but it takes you on some type of journey. For me, it was important to choose the best tracks, but also choose the tracks that sat together to make a coherent record.
You’ve said before that Steve is above and beyond any drummer that you’ve worked with before; what are the factors that contribute to that declaration? Is it largely a matter of technical talent, or is it something more abstract?
He’s got everything. The great thing about Steve is that he’s got all the technical talent that anybody could need with their instrument. I think he’s really mastered all the various things he could need to do—but he’s way beyond the concept of trying to show off technical talent. He’s about playing the right thing at the right time, playing the thing that will make people feel something incredible, and move them emotionally and physically—not just on some sort of intellectual level. At a moment when Steve is totally in the limelight and it’s his moment to really play something, he’ll play the simplest thing, but it will push just the right button in you at the right moment. That type of behavior in musicians is something that I enjoy so much, especially knowing lots of DJs and doing lots of DJing myself; I’ve gotten so into the idea of people understanding how to play music to an audience and how to make them feel something in a certain way. I think Steve totally acknowledges that when he plays. He drums in a very moving and emotional sort of way.
Also, I was talking about his rounded knowledge of music, which means we can play the three-minute improvisations and cover all the bases that you might cover in a pop song or something. He knows how to really develop something in a short space of time, and put across so many good ideas. He plays just the right thing at the right moment—I think that’s the talent he has beyond so many other musicians. He always gets it right.
Turning our attention to the live setting, are you reproducing portions of Tongues faithfully each night, or is nothing a given?
Straight after we recorded Tongues in February of last year, we’ve been touring and playing loads and loads. I think anybody who saw us last year will be familiar with some melodies on the album. When we started out, people thought that we were interested in some sort of pure, free improvisation type of thing, and that’s not what we’re about all, you know. We feel like we’ve got some good tunes and riffs and hooks, and we’ll play those every night—we’ll just play them in a completely different way every night. Improvisation is not a militant stance for us; it’s just that neither of us is interested in recording something and then trying to reproduce it every night. We want people to come and see us play, and explore the ideas in our heads in that moment—to get a slice of our musical ideas right now. For us, the music has to keep evolving and changing, not even record by record, but day by day.
I was curious about the corresponding technical aspects of the live show. I know that in the past you’ve been pretty strict about limiting visuals. So how do you handle lighting design for a show with Steve? Do you encourage the board ops to play along with you guys?
I give them exactly the same instructions every time: just make sure that we’re well lit. I’m not so interested in having a moody light show. I think that watching Steve play is an incredible thing; he’s a really physical drummer. So many people see us live and say afterwards that the really great thing about the show is seeing the communication between me and Steve. You see us look at each other, and respond to ideas straightaway—and you also see us enjoy ourselves. I don’t think any kind of lighting or visual is going to be more powerful than that interaction between musicians. I definitely enjoy that a show, when I can see the excitement in the musician’s eyes. To me, that’s part of the magic of live performance.
You’ve talked a few times about the importance of broad musical taste, and your wide-ranging taste has been pretty well-documented. Is there an exception? A genre that just doesn’t do it for you?
I’ve never got into a lot of classical music. But I find that, rather than being about specific genres, my tastes are more to do with the methods tied into the music. One of the things I do find that I typically enjoy is repetitive rhythmic ideas. All the music I listen to, be it a punk record or reggae record or jazz record or hip-hop record, is based on riffs and the idea of repetition—grooves and loops and that sort of thing. That’s something you don’t get in a lot of classical music. I find classical music is about taking an idea and exploring all the different possible permutations within a melody rather than repeating it a lot. I can see why that’s interesting, but it never grips me. I never get off on that. I’m always drawn to the more rhythmic, tribal music—and simplicity and soulfulness as well. There’s a lot of overcomplicated music that doesn’t excite me.
How many albums do you figure you own, ballpark?
I’m sitting in the room now with about 4,000 records around me, I think. (laughs) I’m obsessed at the moment with trying to get rid of records. It gets harder and harder and harder as I whittle down my collection—“can I bear to not have this?” I still listen to music on vinyl more than anything else. If I want to really kick back and genuinely enjoy a record, I find that getting a record off the shelf and looking at the sleeve and then playing the actual thing is still my number-one experience. Because of that, if I suddenly get this inclination that “Oh, god, I really want to listen to Wu-Tang,” the thought that it’s here on the shelf is quite a nice thing.
Four Tet / Jamie Lidell - Live - October 1, 2005
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