Exclusive: Four Tet’s Kieren Hebden

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As Four Tet, London producer Kieren Hebden has built a strong underground following with a series of studio albums, remixes, and extensive live and recorded DJ work. Music-nerd tongues are consistently wagging about his wide-open embrace of styles melding genuine instrumentation with abstract digitalia. Hebden’s all-inclusive interest also led him to partner with avant-jazz drum legend Steve Reid for three albums and several tours. In anticipation of an upcoming performance as part of Santos’ Mister Saturday Night series in NYC, Hebden took time to speak with our sister publication Earplug about collaborations, DJing, and his advice for boosting record sales.

Earplug: How has your live show changed since your first duo tour with Steve Reid, from the two Exchange Sessions recordings to the more recent touring in support of the Tongues album?

Kieren Hebden: The music I make with Steve Reid is always changing. Recently, it’s become more influenced by the DJing I do — lots of stretched-out, locked rhythms. The crowd is really mixed up from what I can see; people into all sorts of different stuff, which is great.

EP: Do you see remixing and collaboration in a similar light?

KH: Remixing is a bit more of a technical thing, working with something that’s already set out and tied to those constraints. Collaboration allows a lot more room to actually share ideas. I don’t hunt out collaboration really — I like to see who I bump into and what happens naturally. I like working with people I expect to have a natural connection with, rather than trying to force it. Sunburned Hand of the Man have a new album about to come out on Ecstatic Peace that I’ve produced — it’s the second LP we’ve made together.

EP: How has DJing changed your production?

KH: I played at techno nights at The End, so I was playing mainly techno and house in my sets. As long as there was a 4/4 kick, it seemed to work. I used to play sets that were as long as seven or eight hours, so there was time to do all sorts of things. I loved doing those nights, and that music definitely has seeped into my current production.

EP: Early on, the media was particularly taken by your focus on non-electronic styles, from jazz and folk to psych. Are there any new styles or periods you’ve found yourself drawn to lately?

KH: The media would always hone in on one thing, but I was always involved in all that stuff at once. I listen to music that’s all over the place most of the time. I’ll happily listen to techno, folk, jazz, and hip-hop in the space of 15 minutes. I’m not so interested in dividing music by genre.

EP: When you write new material, do you keep the eventual live show in mind, or does that come separately, later?

KH: I often work on the ideas for new tracks in my live sets, trying out drum patterns and stuff. I like to use live shows to continue my ideas, rather than just recreate stuff on albums.

EP: What do you think of popular music in the various places you’ve traveled?

KH: I went to Senegal and it was really exciting to see the music going on there. Amazing bands playing in restaurants in the evenings, and the musicianship was mind-blowing. That definitely got me to take more notice of the huge amount of great African releases that are coming out these days.

EP: Do you think that commercial licensing of music is becoming an indispensable means of supporting artists in the wake of diminishing record sales?

KH: It can be helpful sometimes if you need to get paid, but I’d never like to think of it as indispensable. If you start making records just in the hope someone will want to use them for a shampoo advert or something, I think you’re heading in a fucked-up direction. Record companies are signing things these days just because they think it will be good for commercial licensing, which is a sad state of affairs. I’m bored of hearing about supposedly hot, new bands who just got their song on an iPod advert and are getting a lot of play in Urban Outfitters or some shit, as if it means they’re a success.

I’d like to see everyone focus on music quality more to deal with diminishing record sales. Good music, good sound. I like to see those guys like Theo Parrish or Ricardo Villalobos or Burial, who just do their own thing and don’t seem to mess with any of the industry bullshit. Because their music is so good, they seem to have no trouble getting work. But I don’t think most of the music industry can even begin to understand where those guys are coming from.

<i>Four Tet DJs this Saturday, April 11, at NYC’s Santos Party House for the Mister Saturday Night weekly. Check his site for other upcoming live dates.</i>