For 12 years, London’s Kieran Hebden has been subtly manipulating the bounding lines of electronic music under the name Four Tet, applying tenets of free jazz, post-rock, hip-hop, and folk to a winning series of albums that invariably dodge established genre tags. The bastard term “folktronica” followed Hebden through his breakthrough second album, 2001’s Pause, and its delirious follow-up, 2003’s Rounds, before the 2005 album Everything Ecstatic shattered all signs of pastoral reverie with wild jags of dissonance and broken beats. What followed was a relative bout of silence from Four Tet proper. Instead, Hebden kept busy by releasing a series of skronky, improvised, collaborative albums with legendary jazz drummer Steve Reid and DJing at popular London clubs, where his entire perspective on making music changed. In advance of his Feb. 17 show at Le Poisson Rouge, Hebden spoke with The A.V. Club about the impact of that change on his excellent new album, There Is Love In You.
The A.V. Club: Some reviews have been calling this record “a return to happiness” after the colder tone of 2005’s Everything Ecstatic. Do you agree with that?
Kieran Hebden: Not really. I thought Everything Ecstatic was the happiest of them all—hence the “ecstatic” name. The whole concept behind that was total out-and-out euphoric mania. I think tracks like “Smile Around The Face” are the jolliest things I’ve ever done, really. But one of the things I like about my music is the fact that it’s instrumental, so there are no lyrics to guide people. One person will say to me, “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.” Another person will say, “That’s the happiest record you’ve ever made.”
AVC: It’s like with music sung in a foreign language. People can graft their own feelings to it.
KH: Yeah, I’ll be listening to things sometimes, like a Brazilian record or whatever, and I won’t have a clue what’s going on. Suddenly, it’ll occur to me, “This person could be singing about child pornography and I don’t even have a clue.”
AVC: Your record’s lead single was “Love Cry,” and the record is called There Is Love In You. Why “love,” specifically?
AVC: Some critics have characterized the dissonant elements of Everything Ecstatic as a reaction against your music being branded “folktronica.” Did you grow to hate that tag?
KH: The tag was annoying, but the album wasn’t a reaction to that particularly—it was just where I was at the time. I’ve always explored things that people find a bit more freakish, like free jazz, and I’d gotten to a point where the live music I was making was really hectic and turning much more confrontational. So when I started working on Everything Ecstatic, that was very normal for me. I think it was a departure, but people read it as an escape from something, whereas every record I do is, I feel, a departure.
AVC: Up through that album, you released a new Four Tet record every two years or so. Was there a reason you didn’t return to that name for five years, except to release an EP?
KH: You said it: I put one out every two years. I was stuck in a pattern, getting a little too comfortable. I wanted time to branch out, try new things, to explore myself as a musician a bit more. It was time to collaborate with some other people, and just as I was getting that idea, I met Steve Reid, which made everything obvious at that point. You know: “This is perfect.”
AVC: How did you and Steve Reid meet?
KH: I wanted to work with a drummer doing what I do, but more improvised, and I mentioned it to a friend of mine in France. He called me one day and said, “You won’t believe who I’ve tracked down.” He’d managed to get in touch with Steve Reid, who was living in Europe at the time, and we met up. The first concert was organized, and I guess we both thought it’d be something that’d last a day or so, but we hit it off very well and a few days later, we were in a studio. Something that was a weekend project ended up being years of music, still going on today.
AVC: Did you get the impression that he had an awareness of your work as well?
KH: Once my friend mentioned the idea to him, he got a hold of all my music. One of the reasons our first show worked so well was that the two of us did everything we could to learn about each other as a musician beforehand. Every melody I would play, he would play my dream beat on top of it. That’s an amazing gift to have as a musician. He listens so carefully, really gets into what you’re all about, and responds. That moment I started playing with him changed everything.
AVC: How did your collaboration with Reid influence There Is Love In You?
KH: I noticed very quickly that he plays with a different kind of natural rhythm than I’ve worked with in the past. He plays with a steady pulse moving along underneath everything, which is more techno. All my stuff was more hip-hop influenced in the past, but working with him, everything sped up. With the combination of that and my DJing, which is a much faster tempo as well, my whole thinking and sense of rhythm changed.
AVC: In what ways did your DJing experience influence the shape and sound of the record?
KH: Well, there’s the rhythmic influence, but also because I was DJing the whole time, I started trying out all the tracks in clubs. That is a normal thing for a dance producer to do, but that was a new way of working to me. The first track I made for the album was “Love Cry,” and I played it every single month at [London club] Plastic People. I shaped that track to have as much impact as possible, adjusting the mix or tuning a sound through that sound system.
AVC: How do you know that it's a success?
KH: People start screaming and ripping their clothes off and stuff. If everybody just leaves and goes to the bar, you know you’ve got it wrong. [Laughs.] You know, “Love Cry” has just drums for the first four or five minutes, and I remember when I first played it, when the vocal dropped, people cheered even though they’d never heard the record before. It was that whole concept of building up extreme tension. I had this thing with that song. I was so happy with the drums – there was a real swagger to them – that I spent forever trying to come up with something that did them justice.
AVC: Do you plan to return to your residency at Plastic People? Is there still more you can learn from that experience?
KH: I’d love to play there more if they’ll have me back. Especially on a night like that where you’re the only DJ and you’ve got all this time. There’s space to try out all these different things, link music in different contexts. DJing feels really significant to me at the moment. I find the more I DJ, the more ideas I have and the more music I want to make—the very next day, usually. With a feeling like that, it’s got to be working.
AVC: Did your 2008 Ringer EP draw more from your first residency at London club The End?
KH: Yeah. The nights I did at The End were very different. They were full-on techno nights. It was fantastic, an amazing learning experience, but I was eventually adapting myself a bit to try and fit into that world. I couldn’t go in there hoping that everybody was going to be up for a bit of Pharoah Sanders at 2 a.m., whereas at Plastic People it was just really on my own terms.
AVC: The art and intensity of the European DJ culture is a bit lost on people stateside. How would you describe the energy that had such a profound effect on you?
KH: You’re totally right. I spent three months in New York last year, and getting my head around the club scene there was very strange. It was like exploring something that just existed on completely different terms. I find that people in American are often much more purist. If you’re into hip-hop, you’re totally into hip-hop—you wear the uniform, that’s all you listen to. If you’re a goth, you’re totally a goth—you’ve got, like, 4,000 piercings, black hair, you really go for it. In Europe, people seem to mix it up a bit more. It’s more common to go see a band and then go to a big techno club afterward. But the strange thing is, most of the true pioneering heroes of dance music here are all American. People like Theo Parrish and Carl Craig and all the Detroit guys come over here and it’s a massive deal.
AVC: Do you think that energy, the constant bouncing off of different scenes and styles, empowers you as a music-maker?
KH: Yeah, totally. I’ve grown up here in London, immersed in a million styles of music. I don’t think I could do what I do if I came from anywhere else.