Four Tet - Biography
Four Tet is the solo project of Kieran Hebden. Emerging from the mid ‘90s post-rock scene, the British producer embarked on a distinct solo career. The Four Tet sound is defined by a synthesis of hip-hop breaks, folk inspired acoustic instrumentation, textural electronica, jazz, psychedelic rock and, more recently, minimal techno. Warm, melodic and groove oriented, Four Tet’s work is extremely accessible and engaging while maintaining a sense of experimentation made obvious in Hebden’s attention to detail and thoughtful production aesthetic.
Born in 1977 in London, Hebden directed himself toward music early on. As a teenager he formed the band Fridge with Adem Ilhan and Sam Jeffers. Forging a cinematic sound the instrumental post-rock band signed with Trevor Jackson’s Output label in ’96. The band went on to release Ceefax and Semaphore with the label in ’97 and ’98 respectively before moving to the Go! Beat imprint in ’99 with Eph. All three albums are inventive, krautrock inspired sets of abstract rock that share traits with the post-rock of Tortoise and other Chicago bands of the time. Fridge toured as the live band for Badly Drawn Boy in 2000.
Concurrent to Fridge’s activities Hebden started work on the first Four Tet singles, “Thirtysixtwentyfive” and “Misnomer.” Released on Output in ’98 and ’99, both 12”s explored downtempo beats and experimental electronics with a focus on warped jazz samples. Dialogue, the first Four Tet full-length, also saw release in ’99 on Output and covered a similar sound. The record’s intriguing ambience, warm and organic samples and solid beats hint at the sound Hebden would perfect on his second record.
After a few singles and an excellent collaborative remix EP with crackling dub techno producer Pole, Hebden signed with the Domino Recording Company to release Pause in 2001. Immediately more refined than his debut, this album marks the beginning of Hebden’s extensive use of acoustic instrumentation and samples. Pause infuses his warm beats and shimmering electronic ambience with folk tinged acoustic textures with arrangements for harp, guitar and strings. Four Tet’s drum programming has always felt “live.” His beats are organic and jazzy with layers of additional percussion. Here the melodic elements match the drum sound as the acoustic textures carry much of the tunes. Pause is an inviting, infectious record that set Four Tet far apart from many of his abstract electronica peers and introduced him to a wider indie rock audience.
After a few more singles and a DJ mix, Hebden released the third Four Tet record in 2003. Rounds is arguably his masterpiece. Rhythmically these songs are his most complex, seamlessly melding the abstract polyrhythms of free jazz with funky hip-hop breaks and trance inducing minimal grooves. The melodies are utterly captivating, again centered on acoustic instrumentation but enhanced by a deeper sense of electronic production techniques and signal processing. There is a real sense of classic musique concrete in the mix on Rounds as vibraphone, harpsichord and piano weave around car horns, backwards electronic noise and distant footsteps. At times densely funky, at times beautifully melancholy, Rounds achieves a timeless quality that reveals Hebden’s talents as a producer and a writer. The album gained Four Tet its biggest success yet and 2003 found Hebden touring the project far and wide, culminating in an opening slot for Radiohead on the band’s European tour.
In early 2005 Hebden teamed with legendary avant-jazz drummer Steve Reid for a series of improvisational shows. The collaboration proved fruitful and the duo released two albums of electronically enhanced free-jazz titled The Exchange Session Vol. 1 and The Exchange Session Vol. 2 in ’05 and ’06.
Also in 2005 the fourth Four Tet album, Everything Ecstatic, was released. The album is a conscious move away from what the music press termed “folktronica.” Boasting harder grooves and a darker sound these tracks reflect a bigger influence from both techno and free-jazz as the songs often alternate between polyrhythmic clatter and uptempo lock-groove minimalism. Overall the album feels more electronic, relying on synth lines and dirty bass to provide the melodic content. It’s also more overtly psychedelic, incorporating dissonant textures and deep, swirling ambience.
The following year Hebden released a mix for Studio !K7’s famed DJ Kicks series. An eclectic mix featuring tracks from Curtis Mayfield, Animal Collective, Model 500 and Gong, the release shows Hebden’s extremely diverse set of influences. 2006 also brought Remixes, a 2CD set of Four Tet’s remixes of other artists and other artists’ remixes of Four Tet. Hebden has always been an avid remixer and his mixes for Radiohead, Madvillain, Aphex Twin and Bloc Party all feature here. The favor is returned with excellent remixes of Four Tet songs by Battles, J Dilla and Manitoba among others.
After a brief hiatus Four Tet returned with perhaps its biggest departure yet. 2008’s Ringer EP is a gorgeous, shimmering set of minimal techno. The tracks largely eschew Hebden’s use of organic sounds in favor of a Kraftwerk inspired synthetic sound. The EP ranks as some of Hebden’s most intriguing work and points toward a new direction for the producer. The following year a secret collaboration between Four Tet and media-shy dubstep enigma Burial was released. “Moth / Wolf Cub” is a pulsing slab of ambient house and reduced dubstep.
2010 sees Hebden realized these new influences on his best record since Rounds. There Is Love In You is a stellar, consistent set of tracks deeply informed by classic house and techno. Evidently Hebden developed many of these tracks during his time as resident DJ at the London club Plastic People. You can hear the influence the dancefloor has on these songs. Boasting much use of a steady 4/4 pulse, processed and warped vocal samples and heavy bass grooves, this album feels quite far away from the acoustic melodies of early Four Tet. Hebden’s personality shines through in the innovative textures and while the melodies are more restrained and minimal, they also radiate Four Tet’s signature. There Is Love In You solidifies a new direction, showing more influence from classic minimalism and techno.
Hebden has always strived to push Four Tet in new directions. Through his early, airy work with folk tinged hip-hop, his improvised free-jazz sets to his recent focus on streamlined electronic dance music, Hebden has maintained a sense of accessibility and experimentation that other producers never achieve. Throughout a career defined by quality and progress Hebden has created one of the most engaging bodies of work in recent electronic music.