With a mane of wild hair and the darkly circled eyes of the sleep deprived, one could easily mistake Kieran Hebden for a grad student up too late at the lab. There is little evidence in his striped polo shirt and khaki shorts that he is one of the more sought after electronica producers and performers. Under the Four Tet moniker he has put out four lauded albums and today, the haggard look comes from having played a late night set in Ibiza the night before, and having just arrived in Japan earlier in the afternoon for his Tokyo show.
In fact, Hebden, a 28-year-old Londoner, looks much like many of his fans. Electronica, as opposed to its more proletarian cousin, dance music, has always attracted a chin-stroking crowd. The relationship between sampling and postmodernism, the evolution of technology, not to mention the influence of American composers like John Cage and arty predecessors like Laurie Anderson, have made electronica the genre of choice for intellectual music fans that take themselves very seriously.
Hebden clearly recognizes the type. “It’s OK,” he says with a hint of resignation. “But at the same time, I don’t think music is just about sitting at home, listening to it and intellectualizing about it.
“People need to remember that you can deeply experience music on an emotional level. It isn’t just about ideas. It’s nice to do a show when you see people jumping about and having a good time because music is about that. And you can have loads of great ideas, but if you don’t have a song behind it, it doesn’t work.”
His new album, “Everything Ecstatic,” can be read as a reaction to exactly this rather dry, restrained take on electronica.
“[For] the U.K. media, ‘Dance music is dead.’ I felt that electronic music was reacting to this by making ever more introspective records and wanting to be a cult thing. I just felt I didn’t want to give in to any of this. I wanted to make an electronic music record that was hugely confident and outgoing and I wanted to tour it.”
From the Day-Glo lettering on the album cover to the exuberant, even psychedelic tinge to the music on the record, “Everything Ecstatic” is about feeling, rather than thinking, about music. It is an easy album to relate to maybe because alongside the sophisticated use of samples, the careening sound collages, there is almost always a steady backbeat. It is no coincidence that Four Tet’s first Ibiza gig came after this album. One can easily picture a packed dance floor of Day-Glo clad youngsters dancing, mesmerized.
It is this kind of euphoria that Hebden wanted to re-create. “I got really interested in religious music when I was making the album,” says Hebden. “When people make that music they aren’t just doing it for a bit of brief entertainment. A gospel singer believes that the faith in their music is the most powerful force in the universe. It is the kind of thing I hear in free-jazz records or on John Coltrane records. It sounds like everybody playing in that room is trying to leave the planet with their music. There is this magnificent power and I think that was the idea that I wanted to celebrate in the record, the potential euphoria of music.”
Euphoric and visceral, “Everything Ecstatic” is a far different record than Four Tet’s previous three albums. But electronica in Hebden’s hands isn’t so much a genre with a set of distinguishable musical characteristics than a method or an approach that can accommodate whatever musical tangent Hebden, a compulsive music collector, is pursuing at that moment.
“I listen really eclectically,” he says. “I’ll wake up in the morning and listen to a dub record, and then a metal record, then a country record, then a techno record. It is quite open. I’ll listen to the new Britney Spears album then straight after that, John Cage. And it doesn’t seem weird to me.”
His changing taste has been reflected in each successive Four Tet album. The first, “Dialogue (1998),” was an attempt to infuse electronica with the high energy of free jazz. (The name Four Tet is actually a play on the word quartet). Even so, in the British music press, Four Tet was immediately dubbed hip-hop and though he might not embrace the bling of 50 Cent or Snoop Doggy Dog, Hebden stills sees himself squarely in this tradition.
“The whole idea of how I make music, comes from hip-hop,” says Hebden. “Sampling and collage are all rooted in hip-hop. When I am working on my records, the things that I go back to are old Tribe Called Quest records. My music is all about loops and drumbeats so in my mind, it is hip-hop in someway.”
“Pause (2001)” and “Rounds” (2003) were less emphatic records, drawing on Hebden’s interest in folk and ethnic music and garnered him yet another label — “folktronica.”
” ‘Rounds’ was so much about my personal life,” says Hebden. “I had an idea that I would make an album where I wouldn’t set aside any special time. I would integrate it into my everyday life, so that making music almost became as ordinary as brushing my teeth or watching TV or seeing my friends.”
If “Rounds” can be described as the music Hebden needed to hear, “Everything Ecstatic” might be called the music that he wants others to listen to. The album’s more outgoing, aggressive character grew out of Hebden’s growing appreciation of live performance.
“I’m not interested in being a pop star,” says Hebden, who performs later in the evening in the same clothes he wore to the interview. Given the lack of visuals or props, he clearly has decided to put his focus only on the music he is creating.
“I’m [performing] because I have musical ideas that I want to put forward in that context. I have this idea that the record should come out and that should be the beginning of the music.
“Touring is about exploring every single permutation of a track. Think about Coltrane playing ‘My Favorite Things.’ You hear him do it once, then you hear a recording a year after and he keeps pushing it. I don’t want to be nostalgic. I want to put out music and push it and push it until it becomes something else.”
Even on the record, “Everything Ecstatic” has an organic immediacy, even physicality. On “Sun Drums and Soil,” drums cascade around each other with an improvisational quality that makes it difficult to believe that the song was produced on a computer, not by a group of jamming musicians working up a sweat.
“Yeah, it sounds human,” says Hebden, “but then you listen carefully and you realize that it couldn’t possibly be. Bits of the drums go backward or slow down or speed up. It is all about human impossibility.”
Does he ever get the urge to back away from the computer desk, just pick a guitar and wail?
“I have a guitar at home and I play all the time,” he says. “I just feel like the chance of coming up with something [on the guitar] that is different than anything that has been done before isn’t very great. But if I sit down at the computer, there is a chance of doing something really different.”
The desire to do something different has also led Hebden into the world of collaboration, although he did get his musical start in a proper band, the postrock group Fridge. His new project is an improvisation duo with drummer Steve Reed, a veteran of many Amercian avant-garde jazz groups including Sun Ra and also a former member of James Brown’s band. For Hebden, their work, due out on two new CDs later this year, was a dream come true.
“Steve epitomizes the stuff that I want to get into my music and that — as a middle-class English person — is always going to be just out of my reach,” he says. “He can bring all this soulful funkiness that is in all the jazz music I love and all the soul music I love that no one seems to be able to do except black guys from America.”
The experience of live improvised music itself has also pushed Four Tet to another level, though with Hebden planning a break from recording any Four Tet material for a while, it maybe some time before it is translated onto record.
“It changed everything for me about what I was capable musically and where I could take my music,” says Hebden. “It gave me confidence. I was able to do even more on a computer than I even realized. I was doing stuff on the computer that other people weren’t doing. This really put it to the test. My music had reached a new stage. It was just seeing it work.”