Kieran Hebden is the musical genius behind the Four Tet project – perhaps his most well-known moniker. After ten years of releasing digitally manipulated albums of all enveloping sonic drones, cut-up melodies and abstract musical landscapes, he is about to release his fourth Four Tet album. Influenced by his recent DJ residency at London’s Plastic People club, There Is Love In You is the most noticeably club influenced album the Londoner has produced to date. It is also probably his most highly anticipated album – the album preview on Soundcloud attracted nearly 150 000 listens only 48 hours after being uploaded. Electronic Beats contributor Hana Yanetski caught up with Kieran in a salubrious corner of London’s East End to probe a little deeper.
So how are you feeling about the new album, you must be pretty excited about a new Four Tet release after four years?
Yeah, this is the first full-length album in a while but it’s not like I have just had four years doing nothing! There was an EP last year with four tracks, which came in at about half an hour or so close to an album, but this is the first new thing that is properly full-length. I have been doing lots of other projects and working a lot with [jazz drummer] Steve Reid [Interview conducted before Steve Reid's unfortunate death]. We put out four albums, and I also put out an album with Fridge, the band I was in. It’s just that the Four Tet stuff gets the most attention, so everybody is, like, “First album in four years; what have you been doing?” I don’t see the other things I have been doing as side projects; it’s continuous, a music narrative through it all.
It must be amazing working with a drummer like Steve Reid.
Yeah, he is a musical legend! He is in his sixties, grew up playing with James Brown, people at Motown, he played in Africa, he played with all the great jazz musicians in the seventies and eighties – Miles Davies, and all these people. A very forward-thinking musician – not stuck in the past as he is always pursuing something new. I met him and we just hit it off straight away. I had this idea of doing improvised electronics combined with his live drumming, and he was totally open to that. We started on a project that might normally have been a weekend long collaboration, but we both loved it so much that we spent four years or so recording albums and touring all over the world, and I think there will be more in the future.
Every one of your albums has a different vibe to it. There is a definitely bassy up on your feat vibe to this one. How would you compare it to Everything Ecstatic?
Yeah, it’s definitely more clubby. I hope it’s different as it’s important to me that the music is always moving on. The stuff I did in the past was more hip hop influenced, and then when I started doing the stuff with Steve Reid he played with a different rhythm, much faster, more African rhythms and four-four type sounds. I also started DJ’ing loads. I went to Ibiza and did this night with Timo Mass, and he invited me to do these nights in London off the back of that, playing techno and that was a totally different world for me. I did a residency with James Holden after that at the End, and I’ve been doing a residency at Plastic People. I think that because of the combination of Steve Reid and the DJ’ing, when I sat down and worked on the new album it had a very different rhythmic feel, coming from house music rather than previously where the rhythms were coming from hip hop and jazz.
One of the tracks on the album is called ‘Plastic People’ – is it dedicated to your times there?
More of a nod of respect, because the residency I had at the club ran parallel with the making of the record. Loads of the tracks I was making, I would try out in my sets there, seeing how they sounded on the sound system. It’s somewhere I have always loved in London, a little sanctuary purely dedicated to sound and music, there aren’t even lights, and the concept is that you just stand there completely absorbed in the music. Through trying out tracks in there, the spirit of the record in a lot of ways came out of the experiences that I had there. One of the underlying ideas of this record is the concept of bliss, especially bliss through music. ‘Plastic People’ is made for that moment when you are standing there surrounded by complete darkness and you hear a record that touches you in a way that you lose yourself in it to a point that all there is in you is love, because the music just sounds so damn good.
Tell me about the track off the album ‘Pablo’s Heartbeat’. I liked it a lot.
Pablo is my godson, and that was his heartbeat when he was still in the womb, recorded from the ultra-sound. It was just recorded on a mobile phone and sent to me as a text message. I was doing some live shows at the time and was using it in the shows. You knew it was a heartbeat probably about the size of a peanut and it would be pounding away, the littlest sound ever being amplified through enormous PAs in big venues, making it sound like this mad synthesizer – it was great! I put little personal sounds and things all over the records, when I listen back to the records they are kind of like a diary of what was happening in my life during their making. That I put that sound in and called it ‘Pablo’s Heartbeat’ doesn’t explain to anybody what it is about unless they ask me. For me this music is my life, although I think that people can understand that there is something there through me putting myself into the music, it’s not just some kind of technical exercise. There was a heartbeat on one of my other records, and that heartbeat was a dog’s recorded heartbeat. I found this record when I was travelling around America and it was the sound of dogs’ heartbeats that was used to train vets, the fact that a record of dogs’ heartbeats existed blew my mind. But I hear that heartbeat and I don’t care if it’s a dog, it makes me think of travelling America at that point, finding weird old records and what was happening to me then.
Are you still working just on a computer?
Yeah, with the Four Tet the whole creative thing for me is about editing and sequencing, so the record is very much about using the computer and using it as an instrument. You’ll hear guitars and vocals and all sorts of normal sounds you are used to on a record, but rather than sitting and working out a melody, I’ll record a few random sounds and vocals and then create the vocal melodies in the computer by manipulating the sound. I try and work in that process because if I use the computer as the instrument I find that I come up with more interesting, unique ideas. If I sit down with a guitar, I find it so hard to come up with something that hasn’t been done before. It is such an explored instrument whereas computers are wide open for all sorts of new innovations.
Are there any individual sounds or samples that you used for the album that you have a particular fondness for?
For me, the absolute magic is about things coming together in unex-pected wonderful ways, which can make something powerful. When I did the second track on the album, ‘Love Cry’, I had the drums first. I knew that they were definitely powerful drums, but finding what was going to happen with those drums was the difficult thing. I ended up putting in this spiralling vocal, just two words repeating over again on top of it, it was the least obvious thing for me but when it happens, this magical moment, it’s like – wow! I didn’t predict that at all, but it made the sound so exciting!
And will the shows still have as much of an improvisational aspect to them?
Always. I’m kind of bored about how people are so obsessed nowadays with recreating their album when they do their live shows. I think it’s a bit of a tract that live music has got itself in for this huge demand of audiences, they hear the record and there is this expectation to hear those musicians recreate the record live. I remember this DVD by Led Zeppelin from when they were at the peak of their power; they were playing 20-minute versions of songs, taking their most popular songs and doing interesting things to them. I can’t imagine going to see Oasis and them playing a 25-minute fusion of ‘Live Forever’, it’s just not on anybody’s agenda anymore, it’s a totally different mentality. I like the idea of people coming to a live show and getting a chance to see where that musician is at today. If you go and see a band and they play the same set list a hundred times that year to the same backing track, it seems less inspired to me. So when I am doing my live music I always try and bring in elements of improvisation, I never have a set list. I get up there with maybe an idea of where it is going to start. I’m in a place where I have made so much music that I can now pull from loads of different albums and try different things, and I hope that from the start of the tour to the end I will be doing something different. I have started tours and by the end of them the seeds have been sown for the beginning of the next record.
I always wonder how musicians play the same sets without going mad.
Imagine if you were the bass player in The Killers. You are just going through the same thing again and again every night on one instrument. I couldn’t do something like that. I remember, when I was a teenager, going to see Prince and he did a fifteen-minute ‘Purple Rain’, and he would be changing the set and mixing in all that show- manship at the same time. The real great performers, Prince, James Brown, all these people, they all do it. People don’t strive for that greatness anymore. They just want to get themselves in a comfortable place where they can sell themselves all over the world. Maybe the musicians do want to do something better, but the concert promoters and the record labels and powers that are making all the money out of this are keen to keep things in a very organised controlled set up.
Have you got any more collaborations coming up?
The focus at the moment is I’ve got the record coming out and I am going to start the tour, so I don’t know if I have the time to take on anything much. I’ve got a couple of remixes and things like that at the moment. I have just done something for this guy, Eluvium, which is this kind of ambient piano music from America, and I have just done something for BabeTerror, a guy from Brazil who makes these mad vocals through guitars and effects peddles. Erol Alkan has just signed him to his label, and I have done the remix for his first single.
Finally – if you had 30 seconds to explain your new album, how would you describe it?
As I was saying about the record being wrapped up in my life, it is almost impossible for me to listen to it in any kind of context that anybody else would hear it. If you/I(?) listen to any records that I made in the past, it is like going back to a diary, that was my life at that moment and there are things in the records that remind me of stuff, I feel like I am on a musical journey.