Keiran Hebden's latest album blends structural complexity with the rhythms of the globe-trotting DJ.
Success can be a mixed blessing for makers of edgy, experimental music. On one hand you want as many people as possible to experience the work that you laboured over for many months. On the other, wider appeal can take your material into areas that may not be entirely suitable: television, for example. "My stuff gets used on a lot of gardening shows," says Kieran Hebden, slightly ruefully. "I think the BBC have just got a couple of my albums on the shelf. It gets embedded especially in daytime TV. I hear about it afterwards, people will be like, 'I watched Country File the other day and all the music was from your album.'"
It's a good indication of the extent to which electronica has infiltrated the mainstream in recent years. Hebden, aka Four Tet, now finds his creations recycled as a sort of post-millennial muzak, which must be a little perplexing given the actively uncommercial manner in which he pilots his career. The London-based producer has been conjuring a musical magic act over the last decade, making records of admirable complexity that also appeal, it seems, to the sort of people who enjoy TV shows about flowers and farming.
Perhaps the new album, There is Pastora in You, will scare off a few older listeners, as it takes its cue from modern clubland. Hebden decided to "have a break and do some really different things" after his last Four Tet LP, 2005's Everything Ecstatic, and spent much of the next few years DJing. After four years travelling the globe with a laptop full of other people's tunes he began work on the new record, but the travels continued and the two worlds began to merge.
"I was trying out tracks while DJing, which is a pretty traditional way of doing things for a dance producer but quite new for me," he explains. "It happened without me even thinking about it, I started making new tracks and realised that because I was DJing loads and loads and listening to so much, when I started working on the music I couldn't resist throwing in rhythms and stuff." During that lengthy break from the day job he also forged an unlikely but ultimately very rewarding partnership with a New York soul/jazz legend. Steve Reid drummed for Motown Records, Miles Davis and James Brown as well as one of Hebden's favourite boundary-pushers, Ornette Coleman, and agreed to perform a one-off gig; Reid providing improvised riffs, Hebden manipulating them electronically. That performance proved so productive that they entered a studio a few days later, and would eventually collaborate on four albums and several tours. Such lengthy exposure to Reid's technique left a lasting impression on the younger man.
"I think it changed the music I made forever," he says. "Alongside the DJing that was the huge thing when I started working on the new album - my understanding of how drums work and how to use rhythm in a track, my sense of composition has changed really dramatically. There's no going back. It's been an amazing musical education." Not that Hebden could ever be accused of lacking inspiration. The record that introduced him to a wider public was 2003's Rounds, a glorious collection of organic-sounding electronica that became a word-of-mouth success and ultimately a popular soundtrack choice for cosmopolitan coffee shops. Unfortunately it also saw Four Tet crowned king of "folktronica," a term that would crop up regularly in subsequent interviews and make the usually placid producer uncharacteristically agitated.
The follow-up, Everything Ecstatic, appeared to be a reaction against that acceptance, as he upped the beats per minute, dispensed with the folky instrumentation and took things in a more abstract direction, with nods to krautrock and free jazz. If so, it was an unconscious decision. "It's only retrospectively that I realised how mental Everything Ecstatic was," he laughs. "I mean, I thought Rounds was a lot more crazy than everyone thought it was, and that Everything Ecstatic was a lot calmer than everyone thought it was. So you don't really understand your own music. It's just the way things are. It's only after a long, long time that you get any sense of how people heard it."
And yet even those "mental" tracks contain moments of sublime melody, all the more affecting due to their placement in such a complex musical context. Four Tet records are aural collages, with a vast and varied array of sampled sounds combining to create a coherent whole. Several offerings from There is Love in You may sound like relatively traditional techno, for example, but turn out to be the result of a painstakingly complicated process. Take the opening track, Angel Echoes, on which a tearful-sounding female vocalist repeatedly intones the album title: closer inspection reveals a more elaborate arrangement.
"My wife sang some stuff on the record - she can sing but it wasn't like a human performance," explains Hebden. "I'd play the track and she would sing melodies and stuff over the top of it, and then I would go to those melodies and chop them up, speed them up. The vocals you hear on the album, they're all kind of humanly impossible. All very, very manipulated." Hebden bats away any suggestion that he might be taking music into radical new areas, and insists that his output is really just an extension of the work several mid-1990s producers were carrying out with then-new technology. "It's hip-hop, essentially. People have been taking it further and further. It was a massive deal when DJ Shadow sampled 10 records to make one record; now I can sit there and sample 150 records to make a techno record. It all comes from that concept, that collage. That's the origin of the technique and I'm still true to it."
Many of those samples are culled from recordings of his own guitar playing, and with his wife on vocals Hebden jokes that he can now make an album without having to "leave the house, or get dressed, or anything like that". The Four Tet project is very much the self-sufficient, non-compromising aspect of his career, then, but the man behind it is hardly the socially-inept computer geek that the music might suggest.
Hebden was a bit of a music nerd as a youngster, admittedly. Schooled in classic soul and jazz by his music-loving father, Hebden's head was turned by Nirvana in the early Nineties, and he became a confirmed grunge fan. That led to an appreciation of experimentalists such as Sonic Youth and more members of the European avant-garde, including Can. These explorations eventually precipitated the formation of his first proper band, Fridge. Along with a pair of like-minded schoolmates, Sam Jeffers and Adem Ilhan (the latter of whom has gone on to enjoy a successful solo career as a singer-songwriter), Hebden recorded several well-received albums of experimental post-rock with Fridge, all on old-fashioned cassette tape.
Meanwhile, Hebden spent his student loan on a computer and began his nascent solo career when another friend gave him some music-production software. Four Tet was born via a few low-key singles, but the dream of "total creative freedom" eventually lured him away from Fridge, with only sporadic reformations during the last decade. So does he miss the camaraderie of the group set-up? "Not really. I've had some really good experiences in bands, but I also got it out of my system a little bit. Around the year 2000, I was the guitar player in Badly Drawn Boy's band, the year he won the Mercury Music Prize. All of Fridge were his backing band, essentially, at the time. This was after Doves did it.
"Just for one summer, we did all the festivals, Japan, we played all those big festival stages with enormous crowds singing along, it was totally amazing. I'd been that kid at festivals looking at the stage thinking, 'I wonder what it's like,' and suddenly I was there, I had my own guitar tech and everything. But after that I thought, 'OK, it was fun, but this isn't my destiny.'" Hebden has satisfied his collaborative streak by working with a wide cross-section of talent since then, and covered many genres along the way. He was invited to tour with Radiohead in 2003, around the release of Rounds, before doing likewise with Reid. Then he moved into full-blown backpack hip-hop, working with several members of the US label Stones Throw's roster. A touch of experimental dubstep followed, in the shape of an EP with the formerly anonymous London producer Burial (who many had previously assumed was actually another Hebden alter-ego). Meanwhile, some modern classical soundtrack work saw his music reach a much larger audience. The latter track was for the latest James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, alongside the renowned score composer David Arnold.
"They finished the movie then they had this idea, 'Ah, it'd be good to get some different music for the end credits,' so their guy editing the film approached me," he recalls, with admirable nonchalance. "I met up with David Arnold and he played me all the multitracks from the score, and I could take away any parts I wanted." Hebden is a modest soul, but one wonders if his crossover success might prompt a little envy from his peers. Do electronica people ever venture out of their home studios to debate such matters: recent collaborations, technology gossip, the latest gardening programmes they've been featured on? "Actually we don't talk about that sort of thing at all," he smiles. "I think that's a secret rule between musicians: don't ask interview-style questions. We've all done it enough." Point taken. Back to the studio, then, Mr Hebden, your next collage awaits.