Q&A: Four Tet's Kieran Hebden On Having Music Around Him At All Times, Remixing Opera, And Sticking With Vinyl

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.

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