Just over two decades in, Kieran Hebden’s work as Four Tet feels more vital than ever. To understand why, we dissect the cornerstones of his sound.
Elliot School in Putney Heath, South London isn’t especially graced with elaborate teaching budgets or benefactors. But what makes it unique is the unusually high number of gifted music stars to stem from the school. Hebden is just one of many illustrious allumni that also includes The xx, Hot Chip, members of chart topping garage stars, So Solid Crew, 60s crooner Matt Munro and Burial. Hebden and Burial collaborated on one of 2009 biggest surprise collaboation's ‘Moth.’
Most significantly for Hebden’s early forays into music at Elliot School however was his friendship with Simian Mobile Disco. Up until that point in his musical development, his songs largely consisted of recordings of his guitar-playing into a four track recorder. A keen hip-hop fan however, he longed to be able to use a sampler.
At the time, samplers were an expensive luxury that lay beyond his reachh, but luckily, advances in DAW software were about to rocket his musical experiments to the next level. “Way before they were Simian Mobile Disco, the guys were in my computer science study course and they gave me this software for a program called Cakewalk. I was able to sample records and sequence them for the first time ever. That’s when the whole Four Tet thing started,” he told Pitchfork, in 2013. Alongside Four Tet, Hebden also formed a band called Fridge with two classmates from Elliot and the trio went on to record five albums for labels like Trevor Jackson’s key 2000s label, Output Recordings.
1997 was a landmark year for the - then - 19 year old Hebden. As Fridge, he released two EPs and an album. It was also the year he debuted his first solo release with the epic two track ‘Double Density’ EP. Released on Output under the name 4T Recordings, the A Side, ‘Double Density; had all the future hallmarks of Four Tet’s various career twists: the breakbeats and emotive guitar hooks of his 2000s folktronica period and his sampling prowess in weaving abstract sounds and textures, delicate melodies and psychadelic synthesizer effects.
His first release as Four Tet followed in 1998 with the 36 minute ‘Thirtysixtwentyfive.’ “It’s crazy that the first thing I made was this 40-minute track, but for me it was made up of like five years of ideas I had in my head. I was just making stuff very, very fast. I didn’t think about its relevance to any music that was going on at the time, didn’t think about anything at all,” he told Pitchfork.
Although he rarely gives interviews, in those he has taken part in, Hebden rarely holds back from expressing his disdain for the term 'folktronica.' The label was applied to his music after the release of his second album, ‘Pause’ in 2001. As media interest gathered pace in the wake of its release, he found himself grouped together by journalists with other artists he felt he had no explicit connection with other than a shared used of organic sounds.
Genre walls have been the death of many great artists who failed to recover from the burden of being constrained into a musical box by journalists. Hebden responsed by turning to first free jazz in 2005’s ‘Everything Ecstatic’ and then house, techno and trance in the 2010s as best demonstrated by the glut of club tilted vinyl releases on his label, Text and albums like 2015’s and 2017’s ‘New Energy.’
Jazz courses through the veins of Hebden’s work as Four Tet. A self confessed jazz nerd, his first album ‘Dialogue’ in 1999 married jazz samples with hip hop and he most notably returned to raid the wild corners of free jazz in his 2005 album ‘Everything Ecstatic.’ His Dad was a big jazz fan and introduced him to the genre at an early age and the young Hebden grew up listening to West Coast jazz cornerstones like Art Pepper and visiting Bracknell Jazz Festival. He cites Soul Jazz’s 1995 jazz compilation Universal Sounds of America as a major influence on his jazz leanings.
Influential jazz drummer Steve Reid appears on four of his albums and become a great friend to Hebden. He met the then sixty something legend, who’d played with stars like James Brown, Fela Kuti or Sun Ra, in the mid 2000s and over a series of live shows and studio sessions, the pair pushed and pulled each other, breathing new life into their respective artforms until Reid sadly passed away from throat cancer in 2010.
here is the digital of KH - Question for anyone who wants it https://t.co/iwiqyPNksh— Four Tet (@FourTet) March 11, 2018
Few artists have created such a hype around their own music without the aid of PR teams and management quite like Hebden. After spending the first half of his career locked onto the industry gravy train of writing and release promotion, he shunned the promo teams to do things his own way in the 2010s. His imprint Text largely became a 12inch focussed, often vinyl only label.
He announces releases via his Twitter account, and has grown his legions of fans on social media with a steady stream of free tracks, teasers, unreleased tunes, mixes and curveball free gifts. When his Questions track, released under his own name in 2017 on a vinyl only 12 inch, was priced out of reach of ordinary vinyl fans by the Discogs sharks last year, he responded by tweeting a free download link to the WAV of the track. Unsurprisingly he has over two hundred thousand followers on Twitter and over a million followers on Soundcloud.
Hebden’s first major clubbing phase occurred over the turn of the Millenium when UK garage ruled the clubs and airwaves. In the 2010s, he returned to the genre in earnest, often displaying the jumpy beats and shuffles of garage tempos and sometimes to create audaciously true-to-the-genre cuts like free track 'BACKTOTHESTART.’
As unashamedly obsessive musical geeks go, Four Tet is a stratospherically high achiever. His music combines accessibility with obscurism in equal measures however, and this feature is one of the key reasons for his enduring appeal as an artist. His consummate geekiness attracts a like minded devotion from his fans and perhaps the first move to truly win the nerds over was his remix of Aphex Twin, released in 1999 as the A1 of the ‘Warp10+3 Remixes’ compilation.
Hebden is half Indian on his mother’s side and he can thanks his Indian grandparents for the hugely influential touch that Indian music has had on his career. His grandfather gifted him a collection of records that sat on a shelf unlistened to until his grandmother’s death prompted him to go through them. 2013’s album ‘Beautiful Rewind’ pays a heavy debt to this influential stash of music and his use of Indian samples has continued onto to his last album, 2017’s ‘New Energy.’
Hebden’s latter-career dalliance with dance music was largely responsible for helping to drive the latter half of his career and he can thank the unlikely source of Timo Maas for instigating it. The German prog star invited him to be a resident for his night at London’s The End club in 2006. It proved to be the residency that would allow Hebden to truly cut his teeth as a DJ. From clearing the room consistently in the beginning to systematically packing out the main room near the end of of his tenure at the club, it reinforced his skills and his aptitude as an eclectic selector.
For many inquisitive fans the discovery that Four Tet’s musical output is heavily populated with samples is a divisive moment. Many feel the rug has been pulled from under them or the curtain has fallen to reveal an imposter cloaked in the recorded genius of others. Those with even a passing knowledge of sampling however can appreciate his work as operating at the artforms’ highest level, often blending disparate sounds and textures to create entirely original-sounding compositions.
While discussing his 2003 album, Rounds he said “Rounds ..is all samples, except for the electric guitar on the last track. Everything else is from vinyl bought on the road. I probably sampled 300 records to make it. Pause is all samples. Everything’s Ecstatic is all samples. They all are. But no one has ever caught on to that.”
These days he's happy to open up on the subject of how he makes his music and his work as a predominantly laptop producer is especially interesting in a decade where the use of analogue hardware has become almost a prerequisite for acceptance by today's cool kids. Four Tet's persistence in working 'in-the-box' and heavy reliance on software such as Ableton Live to sequence and play with his samples is completely at odds with the dominant music technology trends of the 2010s.
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