Published May 13, 2013It was Pause, Kieran Hebden's second album as Four Tet, that first got him attention in the UK, but it was Rounds, released in 2003, that made the British producer famous internationally and cemented his reputation as both an electronic producer and songwriter to watch out for. A decade later, Domino are re-issuing the album to commemorate the occasion. We spoke to Hebden while he was on this side of the pond to revisit Rounds and to talk about the logistics of making sample-based music, working with jazz legend Steve Reid, how he was influenced by '90s hip-hop and why he's taking a break from remixes.
Looking back to a decade ago, when Rounds was first released, your style has changed quite a lot. It's less downtempo these days and more outright danceable.
Yeah, for me it's always got to change. I think the stuff before Rounds was different and the stuff after it was different. I think as long as I'm putting out music, the music's gotta keep moving on. One of my personal rules is that there's no need to repeat myself. When I put out a record, I'm not trying to improve on the last one, I'm not working towards a perfect record. It's more a document of my musical interests and my musical journey in my own life. Because of that each one's got to move on and I've got to move on as well.
Your music in recent years doesn't come across as quite so heavily sample-based as something like Pause or Rounds. Is it still made in the same way?
Yeah, it's pretty much made in the same sort of way. Rounds has got a very strong hip-hop aesthetic to it. It's definitely in debt to '90s hip-hop producers and their whole style of taking loops from records. The music I've been making these days doesn't really have that at the forefront as much as my music used to. But the general techniques I use are pretty much the same. I just make the music on the computer. I haven't moved into some big studio with loads of mics and synths and that type of stuff. Nothing like that's going on. The way I've got of working really suits me, it's quite simple and allows me to focus more on my ideas rather than being too technical. I'm not the sort of person that spends days plugging in wires and things to get a sound going. I want to get my sound going quite quickly in a more simple and direct way.
I saw you play live with Fridge a couple of times. I feel like you and Adem have gone in almost different directions since the Fridge days.
Yeah, definitely. You're in a band with people and what makes it works is each member of the band is bringing a different ability or talent to the band and the combination of those things makes it good. For me it's not surprising at all that we make very different music now because we were all into quite different stuff. In Fridge, Adem was an amazing multi-instrumentalist. He plays a lot of instruments and I was always more into the production, finding interesting ways to make things sound good and record it. More interested in finding ways to capture it.
It seems like there are a ton of samples in Rounds but very few are identified. There's so much in there. I'm guessing it was turning into a Paul's Boutique kind of scenario with clearing samples?
[Laughs] Yeah, none of them are cleared but there's probably like 200 samples on that album. At the beginning of it all we went to clear one of the samples — there was a Tori Amos sample that I wanted to use — and the whole thing fell apart dramatically. It became this very long drawn-out process and I had to re-record one of the bits of the track and made the whole thing a mega-problem. From that point on I said "Look I just wanna put the record out and see what happens with the sampling thing." It's a real minefield. You can end up getting into a situation where the music ends up not coming out because it's tied up in paperwork trying to get it all sorted. The bulk of the samples on there have been messed with and manipulated to a point where they're not that recognisable anyway. I think a lot of people hear it and don't even realise what bits are samples and how they've been used. There are some people who are really fascinated by the sampling side of it and wanna track things down and know the background to it and that's a side that interests me as well but it's different angles for different people. If you go onto whosampled.com when a Madvillain record comes out people are so clear about the way it's been made and they wanna track down all the tracks and that whole side is interesting to people I think. That was less of the point with Rounds. I was taking the sampling to much more extreme levels where the original stuff I was working with was becoming almost irrelevant. There was one loop on there where the person I sampled got in touch with me and we got it all worked it out.
There are only a few key melodies that are probably actually recognisable anyway, right?
Some tracks you have a main line in there that sounds quite natural but it's actually chopped up from different parts of things — bits that have been sped up and slowed down or played backwards. Something will sound like a bass line but it's actually something else that's been slowed down a lot so that it's hitting bass frequencies. I mess with stuff a lot to make it into what I wanna make it. I think the difference with a hip-hop record or something is maybe you sample something because you want to directly reference the thing you sample. You want to use a James Brown sample to reference James Brown in some way and show those connections. Whereas what I was doing with Rounds was once the sound was off the record and inside the computer, I didn't care about where it came from anymore. It was just a piece of sound for me to manipulate and play with. It was just electronic sound for me, once it was in there. That was my mentality — I set out to show absolutely no respect to the sound but remove it from the original place that it came from and treat it as something new that was just a digital thing that I could turn into the other thing that I needed.
What kind of hip-hop were you most influenced by at that time?
Just all those great '90s producers like Pete Rock, DJ Premier and all those digging-in-the-crates guys. All that stuff was a really big deal for me. They were sampling all these records and showing an incredibly broad knowledge of music, putting together things that you hadn't really imagined together — a bit of a jazz record and a disco record and adding a drum machine and turning it into another thing entirely. That style of production and that way of working just appealed to me being a big record collector myself. I liked the idea of hunting out weird records for sounds. It was just a very natural and obvious way for me to work. Ever since I got into that, and sat there with a pile of records and a computer, it's been my favourite way to make music ever since.
And the samples on Rounds were pretty much all taken from vinyl, right?
Yeah, I think so. I remember around that time I used to have my TV wired up to my computer so as I was watching TV I could record stuff coming in and take sounds out of that. But coming from that hip-hop thing, I was working with vinyl a lot for sure. It's still the same now. I still buy loads and loads of records and still work a lot in that way. When I'm working on music I'm not really sampling stuff at that time, it's more like I have a sort of sample archive that I work on all the time. If ever I'm listening to a record or watching a movie and I hear some sound, or find a sound on the internet that's useful to me it just gets put in a folder that's been set up for that month on my computer and I've got folders and folders of everything I've found going back to '97! So when I go to work on a track I'm not sitting there with piles of records and all this stuff, I'm just sitting there with archives of sound and just dipping into that and I can search it. So I can put in "guitar" and every little guitar sound I've found over the last 15 years is there so I just try to find a bit that fits with what I'm doing.
In that case, can you even remember where some of the samples come from?
No! Yeah, there's load and loads of stuff that I have no recollection of what it came from at all. Especially with drums — I've got an enormous archive of drum sounds and drum breaks and things like that and I use a whole combination of those to construct drums for a track. Who knows where half of those bits came from originally? I don't wanna rip anybody off or for them not to get the credit but at the same time it's a complicated world that whole sample clearance thing. Sometimes I'll sample some weird thing where it's really difficult to track down anybody who was involved and takes an enormous amount of time that might hold the record up so I think a lot of times people put the records out and deal with it further down the line.
I remember an interview with you from around the time Rounds came out and you said that your equipment was pretty much out of date. Is that still the case, or have you upgraded since then?
Yeah, I don't really care about having the newest stuff that's out or the latest upgrade or the newest synth or any of that stuff at all. It's meaningless to me. I just gotta have something that allows me to filter through my ideas. If I hit a wall where I can't do something I'm trying to do and there's equipment out there to do it I think "Okay, I need to get hold of this that allows me to do it," but it's a waste of time. I could spend ages learning new software and new toys all the time and not actually make any tracks! For me the focus has got to be on actually making music and finishing it.
What is your set-up these days? I'm sure there are some fanboys/fangirls out there that would be curious.
For recording I use just Ableton at the moment but the older records were made with Cakewalk and not even Cakewalk Sonar but Cakewalk from the '90s. I used that for years and years and then I used ProTools for a while and recently I've been using Ableton, which does a lot of different things. I don't like using it as much as ProTools for mixing and editing. I used to use a combination of the two but ProTools doesn't run very nicely on a laptop and Ableton runs really well. For the live set-up I have two laptops — one running Ableton and one running Cool Edit, a couple of samplers, a little controller that I use as a drum machine that runs into a mixer with effects on it and stuff.
This term hasn't been used in a long while, but what did you think at the time of being labelled folktronica?
It was just stupid. I think the fact that you've just said you haven't heard it in a long time is because it meant nothing and then it went away because it didn't mean anything. [Laughs] The music press come up with whatever hype they can to try and be vaguely relevant when they're discussing records all the time and I think if you look back at the music press, it's always embarrassing how shit it was at the actual time. You can look a record ten or 20 years down the line and talk about it with some sense about what it meant and what influenced it and what influence it was. No one's gonna talk about it now with any kind of meaning like "This record's folktronica." People are only gonna mention it like "Ha ha, wasn't it funny it was called that at the time?"
It was weird term to describe Four Tet — there's as much jazz as there is folk on Rounds for example.
Absolutely. There's as much hip-hop and as much funk and techno amongst all these things but the folk thing worked well for Mojo magazine or something like that and then everyone went "Ooh, this is the new electronic folk music" or whatever. It was quite lazy and definitely misunderstanding what the focus of the record was because it definitely wasn't all about folk music. But as a result of that I ended up working with a lot of folk musicians. I really enjoyed working with those musicians but when I look back at it now it's kinda weird, I ended up working with Vashti Bunyan and Beth Orton and all these people. It's quite a weird set of circumstances. I produced James Yorkston's second album and when Vashti Bunyan came out of retirement, or hiding or whatever, I was the person that put some musicians together around her and put together the backing band for her first appearance at the Royal Festival Hall. I also performed with her at the Barbican later on.
You did several collaboration albums and live performances with the late jazz legend Steve Reid as well. How did that come about?
I met him through a friend of mine in France. I told him I was interested in working with a drummer and he got in contact with Steve and found out that he was based in Europe and he connected the two of us together. We ended up doing a whole bunch of records together, all on Domino. For a few years I worked with him and that was the focus of what I was doing. Then when he passed away and I decided to go back to doing stuff on my own.
Your work since then has been getting progressively more dance-floor friendly. What inspired that gradual shift towards club music?
I was just DJing a lot and playing a lot in clubs and just got more interested. I think when you're DJing a lot and then sit down to make something I think I just naturally wanted to try and make something that I could play while I was DJing.
What are you working on next?
I don't know at the moment. I've been making music and maybe it'll turn into an album or maybe I'll put some singles out. I'm always making music and when I've got something ready I'll put it out.
Any more remixes?
I'm taking a break from remixes for a bit so I can make my own tracks. Some years I look back and I did 12 remixes and if I hadn't done that I could have made an album. I think I've got about 90 released remixes. I don't know what it means in the great scheme of things [laughs]. I don't know whether we need these remixes or not — everything seems to have a lot of remixes — but I've definitely explored that world! I quite enjoy doing it though because you work on something quite quickly and it comes out and it takes the pressure off and it's a way of collaborating with somebody without having to get together in the studio.