Kieran Hebden, better known as Four Tet, has been one of the most durable and influential electronic producers of the modern era. Over eight albums since 1999 his sound has been flecked with folk, dubstep, sampledelica and house music, never quite settling into any one sound. He's collaborated with an eclectic cast that includes Thom Yorke, Madlib, Burial, Miles Davis drummer Steve Reid and, as of this past April, Skrillex. His latest album, Morning/Evening, is by far his most ambitious statement yet. Drawing on both classical Indian music and early electronic music, each of its two tracks double as a 20-minute journey. We caught up with Hebden, who told us about the gorgeous new album, the role of his Indian heritage, playing jam band festivals and frantic Skrillex sets.
Earlier this spring, you did a DJ set with Skrillex in London, which seems like an odd pairing. How did that happen?
I've been in touch with Sonny [Moore, a.k.a. Skrillex] for a while. He approached me to do a remix and then we wanted to work on some music together. We haven't gotten around to finishing anything but then he came to London and had a free day in his schedule. So we chose this unlikely venue in London, this metal club I hadn't been to since a teenager and it was undeniably fun. The crowd went crazy. It was nice to get a sense for what its like for him to play, to see the reactions he gets, to see that from his perspective. There were these young kids worshipping him, just going bananas for the entire set. His style of mixing is really fast and frantic, which was new for me. But it's the way people used to play garage and jungle, in that same spirit.
How different is it from playing alongside Jamie xx?
Jamie and I play eclectic, slower stuff when we get together. The set with Sonny was full-on. He was probably playing more mellow than normal and I was playing harder than I've ever played before.
After a decade on Domino, you began to self-release your albums in 2012. What led you to take the reins?
Well, I wouldn't have been in that position without all the help and groundwork of Domino building me up. I wanted to release There Is Love in You on my own but I wasn't set up for that. The main reason is clichéd: I had a child and time became very precious to me. I needed to eliminate the things that weren't efficient: marketing stuff, interviews, strategy, promotion. I didn't want to worry about that anymore. I just wanted to create the best possible stuff I could for the most hardcore and devoted fans. I could achieve so much on Twitter and social media that all that energy going to getting on the racks at Barnes & Noble was so trivial.
I want to present my music in a simple way, in the least condescending manner possible. I don't want to send out a press release or dumb it down in any way. In making my last record, Beautiful Rewind, I wanted to make a new age record but made out of old pirate radio broadcasts. Everybody dwelt on the pirate radio samples, thinking that old rave culture was my reference. It was made with total disrespect. I'm into people making art with complete disregard to its background and where it comes from. I was using pirate radio in a context that was so wrong.
What was the organizing principle for Morning/ Evening?
The main narrative behind the record goes back. When I was 10 years old, my grandfather passed away. He was a Hindu on my mom's side and he had a collection of about 20 records. My grandmother gave me his records when he died since I was the one in the family into records and so I put them away on a shelf in my collection and I never thought about them or checked them out properly. About three years ago, I stumbled upon them and thought I should check them out. They were Hindu devotional hymns. I got into some of them. When I get into certain kinds of music, I frantically collect as much of them as possible. I bought a lot of Indian religious music and some of them were very psychedelic.
There's another aspect to this. When I was making Beautiful Rewind, my grandmother passed away and that entire generation of my family was gone. I made "Ba Teaches Yoga" for her. Around then, I checked out those records more. That generation was gone now, my Indian heritage no longer connected, so what did I know about my Indian upbringing? My grandma made my favorite roti and now she was gone. So with my daughter, we started making our own rotis. I found myself acknowledging this element of my life. What are the cultural things I want to hold onto and pass on? Cooking was an obvious thing, but it made me want to tap into that music and reconnect to it.
Last summer, I had no intention of making an album, just clubby singles. But in the evenings, I would mess with samples from those Hindu records. One was of this famous Indian singer Lata Mangeshkar from an old movie soundtrack and I just got this loop going. I just remember this "eureka" moment, envisioning the track as really long, like 20 minutes long, with this structure similar to ragas. Over the next few days, I could imagine the whole record mapped out in my head, beginning to end, even though there was only three minutes of music so far. The next six months I spent making it. The pieces were so long it was hard to get perspective on the larger picture, to make sure the dynamics were there.
As opposed to making a song or club track, what were the difficulties of scale and structure?
I wanted to be this narrative, 20 minutes per side of the record. I still think in terms of records, making that dynamic work. Getting the end of "Morning" just right took awhile. I didn't want it to be a devotional record or religious in any way. My idea was to take that off into my own world, to make that work in dance music. All of the artwork is from India and I'm half-Indian and grew up hearing Indian music in my household. But I've only ever been there once, as the Indian side of my family migrated from Gedra to South Africa. I have no family left in India.
What made you break the album into "Morning" and "Evening"?
India ragas pertain to certain parts of the day and I liked that concept. That this music could set up and end your day. It started as my own music to enjoy to find peace for myself and using that concept seemed fitting. This is music to begin and end your day.
There's the Indian influence but then there's everything else: early electronic records like [Morton Subotnick's] Silver Apples on the Moon, these long narrative pieces. I wanted it to have this story to it. The mix was complicated, in that I wanted it to sound simple and lo-fi but then I wanted moments to be hi-fi, somewhere between old Indian records and an Autechre record. Instead of it being retro, I wanted it to sound futuristic at moments. At the end of the second side, it goes into this clubby moment. The evening is so related to DJing and clubs and I wanted to end it with the most hectic, percussive part, but I wanted it to fade out, to implicate that the music went to infinity.
Did you ever play this music in a club?
For the first time ever, I played at Electric Forest Festival in Michigan near Grand Rapids. It's an EDM/jam band festival. The main acts were the String Cheese Incident, Skrillex and Bassnectar. I'm into those types of jam band events; it's so unpretentious. People are engaged about enjoying music as much as possible. It's 70,000 people and I knew I could play this 20-minute Indian-inspired music and it would go down with them. And it did.
Do you see yourself going back to shorter tracks?
I have no idea what I'll do next. I want to try anything. I feel very liberated, no worry about where I'm going. There's a sense of curiosity about what I'll do next. What I've done hasn't been expected. I just try to let go as much as possible. Not predict where I'm going, just get on with it. The key is to have as much of my heart and soul in it.