Four Tet Looks Back on 'Rounds'

'I realized that I needed to get more of my soul into it somehow,' DJ/producer Kieran Hebden says of his 2003 breakthrough album

four tet Kieran Hebden bilbao
Jordi Vidal/Redferns via Getty Images
Kieran Hebden, a.k.a. Four Tet, performs in Bilbao, Spain.
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"It feels like more than a decade has gone by," says Kieran Hebden. That's how long it's been since the English DJ/producer, better known as Four Tet, released his breakthrough album, Rounds, which is getting a 10th-anniversary reissue today. "It feels like so much has happened since. It definitely feels like a long, long time ago. But I remember it all pretty vividly."

Rounds was his third full-length LP as Four Tet – a warm, flickering bonfire of sampled sounds that drew in fans from Thom Yorke to Bruce Springsteen. Looking back, Hebden remembers feeling frustrated with the work he'd done up until that point. "I was a bit critical of the records I'd released previously at the time – the records were becoming too much a product of influences," he says. "I realized that I needed to try and make something more unique and get more of my soul into it somehow."

Hebden recorded the 10-track set over 10 months in his small North London flat. "I had a lot of free time – it was quite nice," he says. "I'd get up in the morning and work on music a little bit, and eat some cereal and then work on music a little bit, and hang out with friends and then come home and work on the music a little bit. I felt like the best music I'd made on the previous records had happened in these intimate moments – maybe in the middle of the night, where I'm feeling a bit more reflective or emotional or something."

His recording setup was simple. "I just had an old, clunky Dell PC or something," Hebden recalls, "hooked up to a regular home hi-fi." He spent hours searching for inspiration in his "sample diary" – a huge file full of found sounds that he started assembling in 1997 and has maintained up to the present day. "I was working in the same way a hip-hop producer was," he says. "I was sampling a little bit of flute off one record, and a little bit of guitar off one record, and then a bunch of drum machine sounds I found on the Internet, and then some piano that was on a DVD or something. Making collages out of loads and loads of sounds."

His major influences at the time included avant-garde producer Jim O'Rourke ("He put out this record called I'm Happy, and I'm Singing, and a 1,2,3,4 that really blew my mind") and hip-hop and R&B hitmakers like Timbaland and the Neptunes. "Rodney Jerkins actually was the most influential for me," he says, citing the producer's work on Whitney Houston's "It's Not Right, But It's Okay" and Brandy and Monica's "The Boy Is Mine." "The fact that one was led by a thumb piano and one was led by a harp, and he combined those things with very crisp electronic rhythms – at the time, I thought of him alongside Aphex Twin as being on the cutting edge of electronic music. If you could make music that was very experimental but really connects to people on an instant level, as well, then you have the power to change the course of music forever."

With those examples in mind, Hebden labored over each sound on his new record, twisting and teasing the samples into novel shapes. "A lot of the sounds you hear on Rounds are kind of misleading," he says. "You might hear something that sounds like a bass, but it's actually the sound of a guitar or harp or something that's being slowed down a lot and reversed and then manipulated. I was really interested in making music that was completely humanly impossible – something that no human could ever play."

In the summer of 2002, midway through the recording process for Rounds, he joined Radiohead as their opening act on a tour of Spain and Portugal – the beginning of a lasting friendship. "They had always been a band I'd really admired, and I got the luxury of watching them night after night," he says. "It made me think, 'Yeah, I want to tour, actually. I want do to stuff like this.'"

The new reissue of Rounds includes a bonus disc documenting a live gig that Hebden played at a Copenhagen club a year after the album's original release. "I think it was free to get in for the crowd, because it was on a weird night of the week – a Tuesday or something – and it was sponsored by a radio station, which is why it happened to be recorded," he says. "It ended up it was the highlight of the tour. The crowd was wildly enthusiastic."

Hebden likes to keep his eyes on the future, and he says he wouldn't have agreed to a 10th-anniversary edition of Rounds if he wasn't also working on vital new music. This year, along with production work for Syrian singer Omar Souleyman and Neneh Cherry, Hebden has been deep in sessions for his next album as Four Tet. "I'm kind of in the middle of that," he says. "I have no idea when it's going to be done or anything."

A decade after Rounds, Hebden remains one of electronic music's premier auteurs. While he'll never be mistaken for a Top 40 act like Calvin Harris, he says he's been pleased to see EDM take off as a commercial force in the U.S. "I went and saw Skrillex play in a club in New York," he says. "It was very easy for people to be, like, 'Oh, God, this is so trashy.' But at the same time, the guys with laptops are headlining festivals! Once something like that happens, it inspires other people and changes everybody's perspective. It was very visible at Coachella – all the electronic stuff had the biggest crowds by far. That's something I've been looking for in America for a long time."

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