Interview: Florian Obkircher, Foto: Jason Evans
In an excerpt from the only interview accompanying the release of his latest album Beautiful Rewind, Kieran Hebden explains how he managed to break free from the traditional model of promoting records. Hebden also reflects on how Steve Reich influenced the creation of the album, confesses his love for UK garage and opens up about the urban myth that he and Burial are the same person. The unabrigded German translation of the interview is now available in the current print edition of Groove.
You haven’t done any magazine interviews yet in order to promote your new album „Beautiful Rewind“. Why is that?
Becoming a father a few years ago made me re-assess what I was doing. I had the idea to eliminate the things that seem stupid and get in the way of either making music or being a parent. [On] top of the list was: press. One in 50 interviews has any purpose, the rest of it is just meaningless. Nowadays, to do an interview that covers anything that’s not on my Wikipedia page is rare. It was just meaningless, this endless regurgitation of the same information again and again. I decided to move away from all those things so I could free up time.
„It was just meaningless, this endless regurgitation of the same information again and again.“
Is that why you prefer answering your fans’ questions directly on Twitter? And do you think social networking indicates a revival of DIY culture in pop music?
Maybe in some ways. For me it is very efficient being able to run everything from Twitter. I think depending on the type of music you are making, there are different methods that work for different people. Everybody is too stuck in trying to find one model to promote music. I like the idea that people find different approaches to the type of music they release and their audience.
Your albums aren’t available on Spotify. What do you think of streaming services?
I managed to get everything taken off Spotify. I got a lot of stick for not being on there, because of this notion that there is only one way to do something. But I don’t identify with Spotify. I don’t use it, I don’t feel particularly attracted to it and I decided to opt out. People get in such a flap over saying no to big companies nowadays. But for me, this is quite normal behaviour. I turned down an Apple advert. Nobody says no to Apple but I don’t really care so much. I just need to follow the things that feel right and true to me. I don’t believe that not being on Spotify makes music less valued.
„Beautiful Rewind“ is the first proper album you’ve released without the support of your former label Domino. What are the advantages of independence?
Having released a lot of music with Domino, I was getting into that traditional album cycle: album, press, tour. It still works, and you sell records, but I’ve done it a bunch now. I don’t need to do it anymore. I was looking forward to doing everything at my own pace. It just felt really refreshing. When Pink [2012; a compilation of tracks that had already been issued as 12-inch singles] came out there was no CD release. I haven’t bought a CD in a few years and I don’t feel a particular connection to them. They are just going to be landfill in a couple of years. The distributors thought I was crazy. But I’m running a label where I remove the concept of trying to sell records. It gives you enormous freedom to make very bizarre decisions. The quantity of records we sell is not the priority of anything at all. The priority is my sanity and peacefulness in life. I didn’t even send out any free promos of Beautiful Rewind. That way there was no possibility of an album leak, which was really nice. I really hate album leaks, not because you lose sales but because you work on a record and the way you present it to everybody is part of the whole thing for me.
„I’m running a label where I remove the concept of trying to sell records.“
Most of your new album was recorded in the small town of Woodstock in upstate New York – do you spend a lot of time there?
My wife is from America, so that’s why I spend a lot of time there. We were living in New York for a year, and then decided we were much happier in Woodstock so we started spending time there instead, and now I find myself living there part of the year. I’m staying in an isolated cabin in the woods. That’s where a lot of the record got made. It’s a really productive place for me to be. In two months there I make as much music as I make every year in London. Also, I travel so much that it has become normal for me to work on planes. I sit with the laptop, headphones, Ableton Live and I write melodies or program drums. Then I come back home and turn those ideas into finished tracks.
You don’t use any recording hardware – is that also to do with your desire for independence?
Everybody I know that buys modular synths stops putting records out essentially (laughs). That’s the situation. Because it takes a week to get a sound out of it. I have a pair of speakers in London and a pair in Woodstock. Everything is just on my laptop. None of my tracks have been mastered in five or six years.
Really? No mastering at all?
I would spend seven or eight months working on a piece of music and then it just didn’t make sense to hand it to someone who just adds three decibels of treble. It has worked for me in the past when I’ve done traditional studio things recording on tape. Then mastering makes sense. But nowadays, listening to my finished versions at home, I feel they sound perfectly acceptable and so I decided to remove mastering completely.
In an interview last year you said „I have been living in New York for the last year and all it did was remind me how wicked London is.“ Do you still feel that way?
The grass is greener on the other side. When I’m in London I’m checking out who is playing at Berghain. When I moved to New York I suddenly thought, „Woah, what is going on in London?“ Instead of listening to Rinse FM once every couple of weeks, Rinse was on all the time. When I am away in the States the music is much more under the influence of London and when I am over here I am making something to escape from London. My wife was telling me the other day that the music I make in London is much more beautiful and feminine. She thinks the new record is my „angsty boy“ record. I said, maybe it was because I was in Woodstock.
Is your location also reflected in the way you approach your music?
Originally I was trying to make a New Age record. I had been collecting American New Age music for a long time. In Woodstock everybody is wearing tie-dye Bob Marley tshirts and people are probably making records with bamboo flutes and synths in the houses and I thought, what am I going to do?
„Beautiful Rewind“ doesn’t sound much like a New Age record though.
Well, with the new record I started referencing London in this different way. I had these cassette boxes of garage club nights. I had this crazy idea to record a couple of these full cassettes of live performers and MCs into my computer and sample it.
What was the idea behind that?
There is this Steve Reich book, a collection of all the writings that he did. Every time he had a piece coming out, he would write an essay to accompany it. There is this whole thing about him being influenced by Gamelan and African music, two things that are also big influences to me. He says that however much he loves and is inspired by that music, he felt that using any of the instrumentation from that world is untrue to him and would risk his music becoming exotic and trivialise some of these elements. He always worked with traditional western orchestral music because he says that is where he comes from.
And is garage another part of your musical heritage?
It was this idea: Here is a sound I have known ever since I had the radio on growing up in London. Here is something I could use as an instrument, that is not a traditional instrument, but I can use it as a sound that isn’t exotic. It is such an unlikely thing to use as an instrument, but it was a turning point in the record. I wanted to make this New Age record and also use recordings of pirate radio sounds as an instrument.
Swearing MCs and rough break beats don’t seem like typical elements of the Four Tet universe. What kind of feedback did you receive at first?
I was naive when I put the record out and thinking about some of the track titles such as „Kool FM“, people leapt on the jungle thing in such a full on way. I was stupid. I should have thought about it more and realised that it was going to be an instant thing for people to talk about. Everybody’s like, „Kieran is doing this jungle revivalist thing, this is his most clubby record yet“. And for me, this is the least clubby record that I’ve made in a long time. It is not about clubs or dance music in that respect at all. My idea was to use dance music as a sound palette. I didn’t put all the pirate radio samples in there to try and get back to the rave days and relive them. It was more about the sounds that were part of my culture that I could use in the most unlikely possible way.
Stream: Four Tet – Kool FM
So maybe you should give interviews after all – to get your point across …
No, I’ve been doing interviews for years, it doesn’t make any difference (laughs). The fans get the record completely. The problem are these casual reviews. The current situation reminds me of the time when I released Rounds and journalists said, I was trying to do something with folk music and labeled it „folktronica“. And I was like, well, I am trying to do something with folk music – and jazz, and techno, and hiphop. There is a lot more going on. Same as now when they say I’m making a jungle revivalist record and I’m like, hang on, there are all these other things going on too!
There’s a lot of pitched vocal loops on the album, too. Is that a declaration of love to garage?
I was in my early twenties when the garage thing happened in London. I really loved it because that is the moment in London dance music that resonated with me most. Not only was it very experimental and edgy, it was also very loved up. One of the things that I loved most was what they did with the vocals. These rugged rolling dark tracks with sweet female vocals. Everybody laughs at me when I play something like „Sweet Like Chocolate“ today, but I love those records! I started making music with Burial a few years ago, and he is so into that, too. I had just done „Love Cry“ [a track on his 2010 album There Is Love in You] and we would sit together and start trying to edit vocals. We both have this love of garage records at this point it has become a very obvious thing to do. It’s just so effective (laughs).
Speaking of Burial, how often do you get asked if you are him on a weekend these days?
Hundreds of times, to the point that it has become the most annoying thing ever. I don’t know what to do about it! This maniac who runs a comedy website did the story and from there the rumour spread. He has apologised to me because he never in a million years thought the thing would go viral. The two people I blame the most are Dan Snaith [alias Caribou] and the Guardian newspaper. Dan escalated it beyond belief by asking me on Twitter if it was true. Then the Guardian ran a story on it. In England it was a joke, not much of an issue, but the real problem happens when English is people’s second language. So now when I go abroad is when the nightmare starts. I was in Spain on the weekend and hundreds of people were either like, „Oh, I knew it!,“ or „I was so surprised you are Burial!“ It is really out of control.
What’s your standard answer?
I just say no. And then they are like, „But I read this article!“ I have to explain that he is a friend of mine and we both making our own records. I think me and Kode9 are the only two persons in the world that people feel they can approach to get in touch with Burial. So we just have to endure these complete idiots all the time. They are the worst! They are interested in a way that is insulting to him. It says a lot about the world that our society now can’t cope with someone who wants to be anonymous. However cool or open minded these people think they are, they can’t actually function with the idea that somebody doesn’t care about being famous, and he doesn’t want to make money. These two things go against everything in modern society, and he is so casual about those things. There is no way to get in contact with him. Festival promoters will get in touch with me instead and offer these amounts of wild money for a Burial show, and my response is always, „What are you talking about? This has nothing to do with me!“
„It says a lot about the world that our society now can’t cope with someone who wants to be anonymous.“
How does Burial deal with all that?
He has removed himself from all this because he can’t deal with it. And I’m there in the middle of it (laughs). I’m out there DJing every weekend. I’m not the sort of person that hides backstage, at the club I am on the dance floor because I like meeting people. But I definitely don’t want a hundred sweaty guys bombarding me every night (laughs).