Dialogue with Four Tet: The London producer discusses Plastic People club and Burial
Assessing the trajectory of Four Tet’s creative arc is like watching a drunk weave through traffic: dizzying, difficult to follow and ostensibly an accident is bound to occur -- except that it never has. Throughout his 15-year career, Kieran Hebden has glided across an array of genres, flashing a sonic schizophrenia and technical virtuosity that’s left label-obsessed music writers bereft of ways to categorize his sound.
Initially, Hebden was branded “post-rock,” forming Fridge with his schoolmates from South London’s Elliott School, a musical hotbed that also birthed Burial, half of Hot Chip, and the Mercury Prize-nominated jazz musician Emma Smith. When his partners went to university, Hebden adopted the Four Tet moniker and began trafficking in free jazz-tinted, hip-hop-grounded sampledelica on 1999’s “Dialogue,” seemingly an abrupt turn to outsiders, but understandable considering he lists the Gravediggaz’s “6 Feet Deep” among his most seminal influences. 2001’s excellent “Pause” found every bleary-eyed hack with a laptop branding him “folktronica,” an albatross he subsequently and artfully eluded with forays into the world of remixing (tweaking everyone from Andrew Bird to MF Doom), improvised jams with legendary drummer Steve Reid, and an increasing dance music bent, incorporating everything from techno, European library music, and dubstep (as evidenced on last year’s “Moth/Wolf Cub” split with Burial).
His new album “There Is Love in You,” released last month, might be his most towering achievement yet, a singular work that both splinters the notion of genre and consolidates the far-flung experimentation that characterized his previous output. Known for esoteric samples spanning stray voices to rubber ducks, Hebden created an instant classic out of everything from an infant’s heartbeat to a child playing a toy piano to a gorgeous constellation of chopped-up vocal samples -- all of them sutured to entrancing four on the floor beats. In advance of his show at the Echoplex on Saturday night, Hebden spoke to Pop & Hiss about his aversion to genre boundaries, his love of hip-hop, and the possible closure of his old haunt, London’s Plastic People nightclub.
Much of "There Is Love in You," was live-tested at London's famed Plastic People nightclub, where you recently held a DJ residency. Last week, the news broke that it's in danger of being closed down due to concerns about drug use and excessive noise complaints. How have you been reacting to that news?
I’ve been hearing about it while I’ve been away on the road, but it sounds really terrible. It's one of those situations where the police seem to have really targeted it. After all, it's just another club on a major stretch in London where there’s hundreds of nightclubs right next to each other. I’ve got a feeling that of all the clubs in the area, it’s the least full of bad behavior. It’s been a very inspiring and influential place for many many people in London. Hopefully, it'll be able to keep going.
Plastic People is a little sanctuary for people whose focus is purely music, and there aren’t many places like that. The people who run it aren’t interested in it as a commercial venue. It’s like a temple of sorts, in the tradition of Paradise Garage.
Specifically, how did it impact "There Is Love in You"?
It had a big effect. DJing every month at Plastic People made me alter the album based on how the tracks worked in the club. Also, those dance sounds seeped into me; it wasn't a conscious decision, but all the rhythms were certainly heavily influenced. I was able to try out the tracks and see how they worked through a big sound system, and ended up tweaking them. A song like "Love Cry" is designed to be played on a massive system.
When you released "Pause," you were ascribed the "folktronica" label, which seemed rather silly considering that your approach to mashing up disparate sounds was closer to that of a hip-hop producer. How much do you see yourself in that vein?
I think, on some level, what I do is hip-hop. I mash together samples and sounds and drum loops. I still work that same way and it comes from that basic hip-hop blueprint. The "folktronica" thing had came out of sampling acoustic guitars which everyone from Large Professor and Pete Rock had been doing for years. Or take people like Timbaland: He incorporates a huge variety of sounds. One of the things I love about hip-hop is that the producers are always looking for sounds and samples from everywhere. They're listening to an incredibly wide variety of music. Pete Rock is knowledgeable about psych rock and folk and other music. The great hip-hop producers and beat makers have broad tastes.
Your career has been marked by several varying shifts in sound. How much of that is a conscious decision to avoid repeating yourself and how much is a reflection of what you're listening to at the time?
I go through phases of what I'm really interested in. I'm always out buying record and sometimes I just want to listen to reggae or I'll get back into jazz, and that influences the music and its rhythms. I think my methods and approach are closer to someone like Madlib than a house producer like Jeff Mills.
How did the collaboration with Burial come about and what did you take away from the experience?
We were talking about doing it for ages, since the first Burial 12-inch. We’d gone to school together and always wanted to work on music, but it was a matter of one day getting around to it. We worked together in the studio, we didn’t do it by e-mail at all. At first, we were doing it for fun, and once we had something that we were happy with, we decided to put it out. It was a fun process. I'm really proud of it -- especially the "Moth" track. I think people expected us to put out a gloomy dark dubstep thing, but it came out a slow, soulful, house-type track. It nods more towards Moodyman than to something like Skream.
-- Jeff Weiss
Four Tet plays Saturday at the Echoplex, 1154 Glendale Blvd., 9 p.m. $15.
Photo: Four Tet. Credit: Jason Evans