Classic interview: Four Tet - “There’s no room for traditional live performance on Four Tet records. It’s all about sequenced electronic music”

Four Tet
(Image credit: Christie Goodwin/Getty Images)

In 2010, Future Music magazine spoke to Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) about his new album There Is Love In You. You can read it below, and also check out the accompanying In The Studio video, which shows Hebden breaking down two tracks from the record (Sing and Love Cry).

It’s been 12 years since Four Tet’s first solo release, Dialogue, and since then, he’s carved and crafted a genre and voice of his own, with an unmistakable sound - consisting of seemingly unorthodox instruments created through sample manipulation - obscure rhythms and a focus on digital sound processing.

At a time when the analogue and digital worlds continue to bicker back and forth, Hebden is a man who’s proud to be firmly placed ‘in the box’, with all of Four Tet’s aural attributions coming directly from inside his computer. No hardware EQs, analogue summing, high-end consoles, or even, in the case of his latest album, mastering. 

That’s not to say Hebden’s digital advocacy extends to all his projects. For his multiple collaborations with legendary Jazz drummer Steve Reid - who sadly passed away in April this year - Hebden went to the renowned Avatar Studios in New York, insisting on specific outboard for the project.

His work with elusive dubstep producer Burial, meanwhile, was a mixture of ‘in the box’ processing and SSL console mixing, bridging the past and the future effortlessly in the resulting vinyl-only release.

For Hebden, the ends will always justify the means, be it a laptop with Cool Edit Pro or a 96-channel SSL console and junk shop-load of vintage gear.

Hebden’s new album, his first since Everything Ecstatic in 2005, sees his form take a new, dancefloor-friendly shape, dripping with four-four kicks, sidechaining and recognisable loop-based melodies.

He’s taken some of his cues from his DJ sets - his residency at London’s Plastic People in particular - aiming to create tracks he could drop between the usual techno burners.

It seems to have worked, with There Is Love In You peaking at number 35 in the UK charts and receiving praise from fans and critics alike. A perfect time, then, for us to catch up with Hebden in his mix room at Miloco’s The Square, London. 

Your sound has evolved yet again for There Is Love In You. Was that an intentional approach or did it happen naturally?

“It’s always intentional for me to try and make the sound change, I don’t want to put out the same record again and again.

“It was easier on this record because there’d been a much longer break since the last Four Tet album. When I started on this it was almost a different sound straight away, especially rhythmically.

“I think all the things I’ve been doing in between, with Steve Reid and DJing, I was building up tracks from kick drums and working at different tempos. Everything was just a bit more energetic.”

One of the things I love about Four Tet is that it’s almost humanly impossible. It’s about total electronic control.

Was that directly influenced by your DJ sets?

“That, and the stuff with Steve - he just plays much faster. It got me feeling a different pulse through the music I was making. The stuff I’m doing now is also less hip-hop influenced than my older stuff. It’s still put together the same way - mashing samples together is the basic idea - but in terms of arrangements, things have definitely come a long way.”

How did your collaboration with Burial come about?

"Burial and I actually went to school together so we've been friends a long time. When his first record came out, he got back in touch with me and we talked about doing something together at some point. It took us a long time to get it done but we finally got it out last year. That was mixed here [Miloco's The Square, London] actually.

"We did everything in Pro Tools in the end, but he would work on his own stuff, rendering it down and giving it to me to put into Pro Tools. We'd sit there, each with a computer, trying out ideas. He works entirely in [Sony] Sound Forge, with nothing else. We'd get some ideas or a loop going and he'd just be pressing play in Sound Forge to see what worked."

Did you take any inspiration away from that way of working?

"He was a very inspiring person to work with - the fact that he's put out those records and he's never used a quantiser, or he's never put anything on a grid. People flip out about the sound of the Burial records and it's because he's not using things that everybody relies on."

Tell us about your collaboration with Steve Reid. How did that come about?

“After Everything Ecstatic, I was feeling like it was time to do something a bit different. I’d been to this night of free jazz saxophone and drum duos in Norway and I’d seen Hamid Drake and Fred Anderson as a duo and Paal Nilssen-Love and Mats Gustafsson as a duo and then all four of them played together.

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“It’s kind of a tradition to have this saxophone and drummer duo and I thought I should do something like that - a kind of jazz duo, only it’s me playing samplers and electronics along with a drummer.

“I mentioned this to a friend of mine in France and he called me saying ‘you won’t believe who I’ve tracked down’, and told me Steve Reid was living in Europe and he was doing a show in London. So I went to meet him and we talked and arranged to do a concert in Paris and it was kind of an epiphany, we both loved it so much. 

“So we’ve done four albums now and it’s been the main focus of what I’ve been doing musically for the last three or four years. I laid off making solo music for a while as I wanted a break from it. But it was no surprise to me that when I did get around to starting new solo material, that it was going to be influenced quite a lot by what I’d been doing with Steve.”

Did it ever make you consider taking Four Tet to the stage in a live band format?

“No, not at all. One of the things I love about Four Tet is that it’s almost humanly impossible. It’s about total electronic control. Every sound you hear has been carefully constructed on a computer for a reason whereas the stuff with Steve was all about improvisation.

“One of the things that makes the Four Tet records what they are is that there’s no room for traditional live performance in any way. It’s all about sequenced electronic music.”

Even more so on this record - it’s covered in sidechaining and four-four beats. How did it differ, mixing more in a club style?

“I thought about the mixing of this record in a slightly different way, beyond studios and homes. I wanted to make tracks I could play while I was DJing and would stand up well next to other club tracks. I started to get really interested in why some club records sound so amazing. So when I started working on the sonics of this album, I paid loads of attention to bass drums and made sure everything sounded right for the world of clubs, as well as at home.”

And it was all in Pro Tools, in-the-box?

“Yeah I like working that way. It’s a very kind of digital project and it feels natural for me to keep it in the computer and use plugins for EQ and stuff like that.

“The stuff with Steve Reid for instance, would always be mixed through a desk. The last record we did at Avatar Studios in New York and it was mixed to tape and it was much more a traditional jazz recording situation. We wouldn’t put a plugin on anything; it was all about outboard. I was choosing studios because I needed Pultec EQs or PYE compressors - it’s a whole other world of production. 

“On the Four Tet records, one of the concepts that gives it its sound is that it’s all in-the-box. It’s not about budget, circumstances or efficiency - it just allows me to make the music in a creative way. I usually don’t think about the mixing while I’m working on things; it just kind of happens as I go along.”

There are some recorded instruments on this record though, right - vocals, guitars, synths…?

“There are, but even when I record something in, I won’t get the track up and try and perform a perfect take. Sometimes I won’t even have the track on. I’ll just record a bunch of sounds from a keyboard or a guitar and manipulate them to fit with the track I’ve got. It’s going back to that thing of it wanting to become an edited, sequence-type sound rather than human performance. 

“If I sat down with a guitar and started soloing over things, I’d never get anything done that hadn’t been done before - the guitar is such an explored instrument. But if I record small parts and try and manipulate them to fit with the track - pitching it, stretching it, slowing it down, speeding it up - I forget that it’s a guitar almost, it just becomes sound. 

If I sat down with a guitar and started soloing over things, I’d never get anything done that hadn’t been done before - the guitar is such an explored instrument.

“I’ll pick up a guitar or a keyboard because I want the sonic quality of that instrument, not because I’ve had a great idea for a line that comes in at a certain point.”

What about DJing, then?

“When I was at Plastic People, I’d be the only DJ there and I’d play 5-6 hours, very, very eclectic. The great thing about Plastic People is that it’s so open-minded. You can play three techno tracks followed by a jazz record and people get excited.

“I also did a residency at The End, first with Timo Maas and then with James Holden. Those were much more techno-orientated.

“Part of the fun of the whole experience is trying to get that great communication going between the audience and me, where they’re getting excited about what I’m going to play next and I’m getting excited about trying to keep their attention. 

“With techno and house records, that relationship is amazing - you’ve really got the space to build something up over the period of an hour and drop something that totally changes everything and makes people freak out. I really got into trying to create long drawn-out sets that build atmosphere.”

What are you DJing on?

“It depends on the venue. At Plastic People it was pretty much vinyl-only. They’ve got a really nice setup with great sound. If you’re playing some dodgy tent at Glastonbury and you show up and there’s mud all over the decks, then I’ll just bring CDs.

I’m not interested in Serato or Traktor really - I don’t want a situation where I’m having to look at a laptop screen while I’m playing, so that I spend more time looking at the crowd. You see so many DJs who just aren’t there at the club with you, who are just browsing a file manager for a few hours. With vinyl, all you can see is how long is left on the record and it makes you have to deal with what’s going on around you.”

Tell us about your live setup…

"I have a kind of weird live setup. I've got a Pioneer DJM-800 mixer and two laptops, one running Ableton Live. Ableton plays all the main rhythmic loops, things that need to be in time, etc.

“The other laptop runs like five or six instances of Cool Edit Pro and that has all the melodies and glitchy parts. They're not synced - I just trigger Cool Edit with the mouse. One instance of Cool Edit could be playing a guitar line, then another instance could have the same guitar line and I'll be freestyling with the mouse and then a third guitar line will be playing in another instance, pitched up.

"I also have the output from the headphone slot on the Pioneer going to a little loop station [Red Sound Cycloops] and it works out the BPM. I grab loops of what's going on and extend parts of songs and things. Plus, because the timing isn't perfect, if I bring in the same loop playing in Ableton, it starts to phase and do all kinds of crazy stuff.

“I also have a Boss Dr Sample [SP-303] with lots of sounds like drum hits, 808 kicks. The Cool Edit laptop is also passing through the 303 so I can use the effects.

"There's also a Korg Electribe that I've only started using recently because it's got really great white noise and analogue drum machine sounds. I'm hoping to also use the iPhone using [Intua] Beatmaker, which has some really cool things.

“The live stuff needs to seem a bit on edge for me. If everything goes out of time during a show, it's almost a relief - the audience knows that something is actually going on. I never plan a setlist - about half an hour before I start I'll walk into the venue and try and get the vibes of the room and decide what my first few tracks will be and go from there."

Do you think the club style is going to continue into your next records?

“My plan is never to plan. I’m just going to tour this record and see how the music evolves from there. It might be next year when I sit down to make new music and I might never wanna hear another bass drum in my life. I’m getting old and my taste is getting worse - Sting put out that lute album where he sings like Robin Hood. It’s gotta be coming up soon where I make an incredibly bad taste decision, so maybe that’s my next project.”  

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