Producer Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, has been prolific during lockdown, not only finding new ways to make music but also to listen to it.
Kieran Hebden has been one of electronic music’s leading producers for more than two decades. His 2003 breakthrough album Rounds made the UK albums charts and was featured in many ‘album of the decade’ lists. The curse of its success was inspiring the term ‘folktronica,’ a non‑existent scene clumsily invented by journalists, and which has haunted him relentlessly for two decades. He has consistently jinked his way out of the musical pigeon holes thrown his way by the press ever since, perhaps most surprisingly by releasing two live free jazz albums with legendary jazz drummer Steve Reid. And, of course, writing some of electronic music’s most critically acclaimed tracks and albums of the past decade.
We are speaking in the depths of lockdown 3.0, and since the first lockdown began he’s been living with his family and working in a remote cabin in the Catskill Mountains, two hours from New York. “The level of isolation is intense,” he says, but from the outside looking in, it appears it’s all been going on for Kieran.
In addition to frequent live‑streamed performances from his studio, he released two Four Tet albums almost simultaneously in December 2020, just nine months after his previous LP, Oceans, dropped. He released an EP with Thom Yorke and Burial a few weeks beforehand, and coaxed an album of the year contender out of the legendary reclusive West Coast beat‑maker Madlib at the start of 2021. And he pulled an unlikely curveball by releasing a single with Skrillex just as the lockdowns began to ease.
“I miss being out and about desperately,” he says. “But I’m such a lucky person because I was somebody who got to play all the events I wanted to. I’ve done so much stuff, I don’t feel I’m being deprived.”
Two Types Of Producer
Some peace and quiet has given Kieran the time to finish some long‑term back‑burner projects. The Madlib album began out of an exchange of music between the two long‑term friends. The Californian DJ and producer had been doing collaborations with rappers and making music without much of a plan for release. “I was like, ‘Why don’t you try and make your own album?’” There were no stems, mostly minute‑long clips and some were just MP3s, but Madlib was unsure who would want to listen to them or even how to put them together as an album. “[Making albums] is a big thing of mine. You supply me with the music and I’ll find a way to turn it into an album.”
Kieran describes the process as a “weird mixture of editing and what people think of as mastering”. It follows a series of jobs producing for other artists, including two albums for Neneh Cherry, two records with Boston’s alt‑rock band Sunburned Hand Of The Man, and Scottish folk star James Yorkstone’s second album, as well as an album for Beth Orton that never came out.
“I engage as a producer in two ways,” he explains, “the first is in that more modern electronic music sense of remixing and creating the sound for a project, and the other is more old school, working with a band and engineers and giving direction on how to capture this thing.”
On his own album Parallel (released on Christmas Day, 2020), he engages his mellower, ambient side on a record that features his first foray into modular music (naturally a 27‑minute‑long piece marrying drones and dancing melodic sequences) and repackages some tracks previously released under his cryptic Wingdings‑font alias. Parallel was accompanied by a second album, 871, released on Christmas Eve of the same year, comprising previously unreleased songs recorded between 1997 and 2001.
Has the lack of live shows affected his output? “If I’m DJ’ing and playing clubs a lot I become so wrapped up in making club music that I find it very hard to sit down and write without having that in mind,” Kieran explains. “I’ll start working on something and next thing you know, I’m thinking, if I did this to it it would be so good in a club.”
When he made the album New Energy in 2017, he took a year off from touring because he realised that the only way he could get out of the club music loop was to have a break from it. “And that’s when I started pushing the boundaries a bit more,” he says. “When you’re making club music there’s a narrow range of tempo so I’m very glad to be working on music where the club is the last thing on mind.”
An Album A Day
It’s more than fair to describe Kieran as one of the greatest electronic music producers of his time. But what is it that makes a great artist? For Kieran, it’s not just creating (and finishing) great music — it’s listening to it.
Consider the trajectory of an artist. You master your instruments, You make some noise. You become successful. And with success comes a dizzying list of things that demand your time. There’s calls with the agent. The Zooms with the manager. Emails with the PR and travel agent. The never‑ending slew of interviews. The travel itinerary headaches. The travel. The recovery from the travel. The lack of sleep. The pressure of all of this repeating endlessly... Until it doesn’t anymore because your career ground to a halt in a death by a thousand to‑do‑list papercuts. “Ten years ago I learned the hard way by completely screwing everything up on a personal level,” he explains. “I was overworked, working on admin all the time, not getting the time to work on music and my priorities were in a muddle.” His watershed moment arrived with the birth of his daughter. “That made me refocus my priorities. I’ve only got so much time in the day and I don’t want to be doing any nonsense if it prevents me from being with my kid.”
He made a bold decision to get rid of anything in his life that was “not fun.” He stopped engaging with press and record companies and decided to put out music himself without worrying about promotion or PR. Of course it helped that he already had a social media following in place that dwarfed the readerships of several music magazines put together. “I decided to just follow my gut instinct and make sure the priorities were in place,” he says.
Kieran realised that a crucial requirement for making his musical and family life work was getting things to a point where he has time to listen to an album every day. “That gives me a sense I’ve got the right balance going on,” he says. “Listening to an album will do way more good than spending two hours sending emails to people about promos.”
These days, whenever a new release is ready he forgoes the PR, and simply posts a link to his quarter‑of‑a‑million‑strong Twitter or Instagram accounts. His record label Text has a huge presence on Bandcamp, where he can occasionally be found posting direct messages to fans. And he regularly posts tunes by other artists to a playlist on Spotify that has almost 100,000 followers.
The other thing that Kieran does not have so much time for is the gear itself. The powers of Gear Acquisition Syndrome are not so strong in Kieran. The power of finishing music, infinitely so. “I’ve got my eye on the prize,” he laughs. “It’s more important that I finish a track than I master Pro Tools. If I’m going to master something, I’ve got to know that it’s going to serve me well.”
When I listen to Four Tet, I hear complex sequencers dancing melodies around cutting‑edge samplers and drum machines. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. For one thing, he doesn’t use samplers, either hardware or software — he edits audio directly in the Ableton Live arrange window, and that’s the only way he’s ever done it.
“I’m all about the mouse,” he says defiantly, “but I’m the sort of person where I could buy this piece of software and spend a week learning how to use it or I could just put up with whatever bullshit and actually make a track.”
It was clear even the first time that SOS spoke to Kieran (in 2003, see www.soundonsound.com/people/four-tet) that he had found his way of working: mangling audio at a molecular level on a laptop. “I only learned about swing settings a few years ago,” he says. “I used to spend time moving things around, and when I learned about MIDI swing it was a revelation.”
Although a case of modular gear lurks in the background of our Zoom call, it’s something he discusses with trepidation. “I use it here and there. It’s fun to play with but it’s not really a hit‑maker,” he says. “That’s the thing with the modular stuff. I play with it for a while and have fun, but with Omnisphere, for example, I can just start making music straight away. With the modular I fall into these weird modular traps and it’s cool but my relationship with equipment is all about ‘Am I going to get anything out of this?’”
He likes to buy the occasional drum machine, but incorporates them in an unconventional way. “I’ll buy one and play with it for an afternoon and get 10 drum loops out of it, and then I’ll put the drum machine away and never use it again.”
By far his greatest studio asset is a folder of samples that he has been adding to meticulously since the late ’90s. Its contents come from all sorts of places, and not just his impressive vinyl collection. Just this week alone, there was an ice storm which he spent gleefully sampling the sound of cracking ice, and he’s been recording himself playing guitar with a Boss Turbo Distortion pedal that he used to have as a teenager. “The thing I’m not interested in is working on a track and thinking of a sound and trying to recreate it.” Instead he draws on his massive folder of samples where he can audition “500 things” straight away.
“If I think a track will sound wicked with piano, I won’t spend ages getting a piano, miking it up and sorting it all out,” he says. “I would rather just dial in 10 piano samples, and the beauty of it comes from finding something that maybe kind of works and then messing with it.”
Kieran mixes and masters everything himself, and most of his mixes are completed in this unassuming room without any acoustic treatment or expensive outboard processing to call upon.
A self‑confessed control freak, Kieran mixes and masters everything himself, and most of his mixes are completed in this unassuming room without any acoustic treatment or expensive outboard processing to call upon. “People are often like, ‘Hang on, you’re just in a weird little spare room in this house with no treatment working on a remix for Rihanna?’” he laughs. “Stuff like that is a strength to me, so I’m wary of getting out of it.”
He hasn’t need for a specially treated room simply because his biggest mix problems have never been solved by acoustics or expensive gear. “Some of my best mixes are on rubbish speakers, and actually the thing that works for me is listening in all sorts of places,’’ he says. “There was one track that just wasn’t coming together and it wasn’t until I worked from my laptop speakers that I realised there was actually a resonant frequency that wasn’t in key,” he says.
Over the years, he has worked in many highly esteemed studios such as SARM West or RAK Studios, and had his records mastered at the likes of Abbey Road and the Exchange, but after 13 years of attending over a hundred mastering sessions he decided to give up on the process altogether. “Instead of having more clarity about what works, my feelings were: ‘This is chaos! It’s all over the place!’” he says. “Everybody’s got these different opinions and methods and they’re all inconsistent.”
A common feature of Kieran’s tracks is pairing something pretty with something rough, and that’s a trick he credits to reading an interview with Björk. Another is two melodic sequences talking to one another: “If I’ve created a melody with MIDI in the piano roll and it’s playing a soft synth, it’s so tempting to put that in another synth and reverse it, or shorten it, and see how these things can play off each other.”
It’s a device learned from Steve Reich, whom he has studied in great detail and whose philosophies are often at the heart of what Kieran is trying to achieve with his music. “I’m quite interested in understanding the theories, and applying them to what I do can be very fruitful,” he says.
His journey into valve‑driven hi‑fi started with hearing a friend’s setup in California. “The thing that flawed me was how three‑dimensional it was..."
Analogue Versus Digital
Kieran’s current research quest is to understand differences between analogue and digital and the possible ways they can crossover. It’s a process that has made him question his attitudes towards sound and mixing, as well as much of his back catalogue.
His experiments take the form of two speaker setups in his house. The first is his studio room with Dynaudio speakers that he says “sound fantastic for listening to a techno track”. In another room is an all‑analogue EMIA setup with low‑Watt valve amplifiers equivalent to hi‑fi equipment from the 1940s or ’50s. “There are sounds that can be achieved that just floor me,” he says. “Some of the greatest music and recording I’ve ever heard. But then I can play electronic music which sounds fantastic through the Dynaudios but through that valve setup it sounds terrible.
“It’s just blown everything wide open for me in terms of my philosophies on mixing, sound and what works and doesn’t work,” he says. His journey into valve‑driven hi‑fi started with hearing a friend’s setup in California. “The thing that flawed me was how three‑dimensional it was,” he remembers. “I couldn’t believe how much I felt I was inside the music and it turns out that some of the people making the greatest valve hi‑fi equipment were really near me in upstate New York. When he went to visit EMIA he experienced “maybe the greatest sound I’ve ever heard.”
He began furiously comparing notes between the two systems. “I’ve played something like Pink Floyd’s ‘Meddle’ and the quality was phenomenal but then I played my music through it and it sounded shit. I was mortified. This realisation that this music I’d made was working in one context but didn’t have the potential to work in this other, it spooked me.”
He needed to understand if there was anything he could do to make his music sound brilliant on his valve gear or if he should let go of it and see them as separate avenues. “It made me reassess all my mixing I’ve done over the years, and I had a real eureka moment that really changed my direction.
“My mixing isn’t something that’s consistently getting better, and there are records which I was sure I’d nailed but I now think of as one of the weakest mixes I’ve done. It made me realise the thing that makes the greatest mixes are bold confident mix decisions carrying the soulfulnes of the piece of music.”
871 consists of music made in the mid‑’90s, recorded onto a four‑track recorder. As a result of going back through the music, he started buying old four‑track tape machines to see if he could improve the quality of his own music on his valve setup. “All of these techniques have started weaving into each other,” he says. “I’m recording a bunch of stuff on the four track and putting it into the computer and making loops out of it, and the mixes I’ve done on the four‑track machine have just got a different feel and approach than I would ever get from the computer.
“I feel like I’ve woken up somehow to focusing on the big ideas and realising the rules that I keep thinking apply, just don’t really exist.”