Friday night, fabric, peak time 1.30am, and London is in the midst of another farcical Indian summer. Four Tet, (Kieran Hebden to his mother) is commencing his dj set. Oozing out of the crystalline Room 1 speakers comes the serene, haunting and woozy tones of jazz pin up John Coltrane. Not your average club fodder then but then nor is Four Tet your average producer.
A true eclectic, Hebden is a man who in the 90’s made whimsical, tripped out down-tempo excursions – and was subsequently labelled ‘folktronica’ by the trend darlings – has collaborated with cult free-form drummer Steve Reid, loves early 90’s hip-hop, glitchy sounds and makes melodic techno records complete with twinkly edges.
Bonafide set about unravelling the skin of this musical chameleon, to coincide with his FABRICLIVE 59 mix CD, release. On it, he stitches together sparse, bouncy 2 step rhythms from the UK garage past, abstract 70s synth excursions, Villalobos modern European techno minimalism and several of his own exclusive, bass heavy, cylindrical house cuts. It’s a fantastically diverse yet coherent ride.
We made a phone call to Seattle, to talk… a lot, amongst other things, about garage.
Kieran, there’s a lot of 2 step garage records and influences on the mix, what grabbed you so much about this sound?
When it really kicked off, it was about the time I was putting records out. I just remember it being really fresh and exciting moment in British music for me. It was kind of brief, there was about a year when it was very creative. I found it to be very experimental. I mean you had bands like So Solid Crew who would come out and their first 12″ would be amazing and then three major singles later everything had gone to shit and they were in The Sun every week and the music had kind of disappeared.
So do you have a producer that stands out from that era and influenced you?
MJ Cole was a massive influence for me. I was in a band called Fridge at the time, doing experimental rock music and we actually did some shows with him, he got in touch because I was going on about him in the music press so much. I was just really inspired by his production.
He did that thing where he mixed incredible rhythms and would weave in the most unlikely, amazingly over the top piano melodies and classical parts. The instrumentation was really unique. People were using all sorts of weird samples and influences; even chart records like Artful Dodger were coming out and using really unlikely synth sounds as the main part of the track. That made everything feel fresh and interesting.
And what about the other major British music movement of the early 90’s, like jungle, was that a big influence?
The big thing about jungle for me was it was the first kind of experience of a musical revolution. Before jungle existed, I could never have imagined it in a million years and then suddenly it was there, at all the parties I would go to as a teenager, and there’d be a pirate radio on and you just couldn’t believe it, you were like; “what is this music, it’s crazy, fast, it’s the weirdest sounding ever” (laughs). I think witnessing that happen and being a young kid wanting to make music and seeing that happen, done by teenagers, just working on an Atari ST in their bedroom, that blew my mind. I think what happened with jungle was an enormous influence on me. I wouldn’t be making music right now if jungle hadn’t happened the way it did.
But for the actual music, I wasn’t at the raves and stuff, I missed that part of the scene. I was buying records here and there, people like Photek inspired me immensely, he’s one of my heroes. But when the 2 step thing happened, I was a bit older and I engaged in it in a much more intense way.
You mentioned jungle being made on Atari’s t4 and being inspired by the DIY, bedroom set up of that music, don’t you like working in studios?
The stuff I’m doing, I’m doing on just a laptop. I don’t use anything else at all; I just travel around and make tracks on the headphones. I’ll go to a studio to use the big speakers and to hear things clearly. I’ve boiled it down to the simplest set up I can really. I’ll sample stuff off records and plug it into a soundcard into a laptop; it’s all pretty straight forward. I’m definitely not collecting vintage synths or anything like that! It’s manipulated audio.
So let’s talk about fabric and your association with the club, you’re soon to release a mix cd for them. Is it somewhere you have an affinity with?
I’ve played there a handful of times, a few when it first opened and at a night Gilles Peterson did. I remember one of the best musical nights I’ve ever had had in London involves fabric, which was the week they opened. They had Daft Punk play there and it was the Warp 10th anniversary that night as well.
First I went to the Warp party and saw Boards of Canada, Autechre and Squarepusher. Then I went to fabric afterwards to see Daft Punk, left and then went to The End to see Roni Size all in one night! (laughs) I think that’d the greatest night of club music I’ve ever experienced in London. Just seeing Boards of Canada and Daft Punk in one night (pauses), I don’t think people would believe me if I told them.
You mentioned on the press release that the mix took a long time to put together, sourcing the originals of rare tracks to digitally mix, ripped from vinyl.
I spent about 3 months in total, just going through the legal process of clearing all the tracks took ages (laughs). It took a couple of months tracking down the producers, there were garage songs on there that I’ve only ever heard off YouTube, the whole project wasn’t really about me doing a mix but about me studying and exploring and going back to the late 90s, working out who did what, what still sounds good today and what’s maybe been under-appreciated.
And who would you say has influenced you over the years in terms of DJing?
It was always the more eclectic djs that interested me. I’d read about Africa Bambatta or someone like that playing a rock and roll record during a bloc party in the Bronx in the mid 80s and everyone going crazy. That kind of a thing appealed to me, building it up and getting the crowd in a frenzy, then playing something unexpected and it working brilliantly. I want to see people have a surprised moment on the dance floor, the first time I ever went to a club and Trevor Jackson was playing (a close friend and an attendee in the aforementioned fabric/Warp London nightclub crawl) at the Blue Note London at one of the Mo Wax nights. He was playing amazing records, so many things I hadn’t heard of. I’d go and see him DJ all the time after that.
Do you still like a night out to see DJ’s play?
Totally, if I’m around and there’s someone I want to see, I’ll go. Seeing Theo Parrish (legendary Detroit producer and master Eq fiend) down at Plastic People is still one of the great pleasures in life. I saw Moodyman in New York at an outdoor party and that was definitely really special. I watched James Blake the other night and I felt really relaxed and enjoyed it, and that’s so important to me. Doing what I do, I think you’ve still got to be in it. It’s dangerous when you see people that have run out of time to enjoy music as they’re so busy making it I really make an effort to have time in my life to enjoy music as well as making it.
You’re output the last few years has been a lot more dance floor orientated, opening your profile up a lot more. Do you think you’ll ever return to your earlier, down tempo stuff?
I hope I don’t go back to anything, that I move on to something completely different, things that haven’t been done before. People say to me “I love the stuff you did on Rounds or Pause”, but that was 10 years ago and I did it, and happy with what I did so there’s not much need to go back there. As I put records out, it’s supposed to be a musical journey of what I’m going through. I never want to go back to stuff too easily.
You’ve collaborated with Thom Yorke and Burial, the latter you went to school with, were you friends before you started making music?
We knew each other from school, were in the same class together, so I was in touch with him but lost contact after we left. We came back in touch through music when his first 12″ came out on Hyperdub, I bought it, didn’t know it was from him. Then, around the same time he sent me email, saying “Hi, I’ve started making music now as well” I was like “ahhhh!” I already bought that record, I love it! And we met up again and have been in touch ever since. I think he’s a genius, he’s put out some of the most staggering music of the last, (trails off) because we went to the same school we were there and had the same experiences in music.
And what artists have influenced you over your lifetime?
I’ve probably listened to Joni Mitchell once every fortnight for the last 20 years (laughs) but I don’t ever think, “I want to make a record like this”. I listen to it and think, “I love music, this takes me somewhere.” But landmark producers, we were talking about drum and bass when drum and bass happened, someone like Photek drew me into electronic music. We talk about hip-hop and hearing stuff like Wu Tang or all the stuff Premier was producing in the 90’s, that very much got me interested in sampling and looping. I was only 13 when Nirvana came out, it was hard not to get well excited by it! Things catch you at the right age, at the right moment and it blows your mind and get’s you into stuff, and that’s cool.