To all the folks who slyly popped Pause (Domino, 2001) into the stereo in anticipation of a little late-night tonsil hockey, to all those who ever sipped an overpriced drink while the DJ slipped on a yet-to-be-released remix and to all the disinterested hipsters who bobbed their heads ever so slightly to the sounds of Rounds (Domino, 2003): Brace yourself. Kieran Hebden, reluctant champion of the “folktronica” sound and London music scene it boy, is set to shatter his docile, shoe-gazing image with Everything Ecstatic (Domino, 2005), a rambunctious, occasionally bowel-shaking new record that's equal parts acid-house throwback and future-music manifesto.
The 27-year-old's rise from precocious post-rocker (in Fridge, a band he formed with friends Adem Ilhan and Sam Jeffers in high school) to established tastemaker is well-known to followers of experimental and leftfield electronic music, but the release of Rounds brought him within reach of the mainstream — and certainly well within the scope of alternative and independent publications across the nation and in his native UK. Yet what's clearly evident from listening to Hebden's music is its stubborn resistance to categorization. In nearly ever respect, Hebden is the quintessential musical paradox: He's a producer whose fervent belief in computer wizardry is incongruous with his rudimentary studio setup; a self-taught musician whose distaste for retreading the past is contradicted by his sincere homage to the glory days of acid house; a performer who can't read music but controls a dozen separate musical lines on his laptops; and, really, a curious musical anomaly who, though wary of the rapidly developing production technology, pushes what he has far beyond current expectations of what digital music can and should sound like.
Whereas Pause and Rounds were carefully constructed and deliberate, Everything Ecstatic is joyful, exuberant and spontaneous — celebratory, almost. Listening to an oddball mix of gamelan, Derrick May records and classic rock, Hebden absorbed elements of each, from feather-light bell sounds to searing TB-303s and reverberating bass. One could say that Everything Ecstatic is Hebden's cathartic release, a bubbling over of pressurized emotions and compacted sonic ideas. “I had this idea the record would be more edgy and fierce than the last one, but I didn't imagine it'd have these links to rave music,” explains Hebden, who completed the album in about two months. “I guess it was an element of rebellion that was pushing me [because] I was starting to get a bit irritated with this whole folktronica thing all the time. I was more secretive about this record than any other I've ever made. I felt like everyone was waiting for me to deliver this thing at the beginning of the year. I was trying to get it done really quickly, but it was quite a good sort of pressure, I think?”
Such pressure not only expedited the translation of his ideas to hard drive but also opened his eyes to a new aspect of sound that he hadn't previously touched. The result is an album of barely controlled chaos, broad distortion and unexpected juxtaposition. The sensitive, delicate embellishment he's known for does crop up, but for the most part, Everything Ecstatic is a mad, flailing dash. “I felt like making this record was a whole constant surprise,” Hebden says with a chuckle. “If someone had told me six months ago that the record would have all that sort of [techno] stuff in it, I would have said, ‘Really?’”
This evolution, in Hebden's case, developed from a setup that has changed little throughout the years. His primary piece of equipment is a standard Pentium-processor 2.7GHz Windows computer (with 512 MB of RAM) that he built himself — “the sort of thing you would get from Dell,” he says. Far from a technophile, he uses no outboard gear, mixing desks or studio monitors, and he's hooked up his recording rig to the hi-fi stereo that he's had since he was 14, complete with Sony speakers he bought for about $140. He still uses the microphone that came with the Creative Live soundcard inside, and his recent Boosey & Hawkes vibraphone acquisition from eBay occupies any space he might have had for additional equipment.
For sound design, Hebden is a big fan of AudioMulch, citing its similarities to Cycling '74 Max/MSP. “It's a really basic, simple version of what MSP can do,” he says. “[MSP] is the kind of music software that has no limits in terms of what's possible, but AudioMulch, I like because it's got that kind of ethic, but at the same time, it's so incredibly simple to use and so quick. You don't really have to put any thought into it at all, and it just comes together.”
Besides the vibraphone, the only new piece of equipment that figures on Everything Ecstatic is the Elektron Machinedrum he borrowed from his pals in the band Hot Chip. Hebden also keeps a sample diary on his computer desktop, to which he adds beats pulled from vinyl, recorded conversations from his camcorder and vocal snippets off DVDs. When it comes time to make music, he rifles through the file and selects a handful, all of which undergo various twists, turns, phasing, edits, backward runs, pitch adjustments, tempo changes and anything that suits his creative whims, using native EQs from Cakewalk Pro Audio 9 and Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro (now branded as Adobe Audition) on practically everything. Hebden mashes the synthetic beats of the drum machine with sampled breaks off records and slices of snare drums and hand claps.
His bass lines work in a similar fashion, with one or two sampled notes from, say, an electric or acoustic guitar undergoing a series of transformations. After isolating segments of a particular sample, Hebden adjusts the pitch of the bass frequencies and programs the notes in his sequencer, and in doing so, he casts the sound into that hazy space between analog and digital. Even his vibraphone does not survive unmolested. “I'm not really interested in humanly played instruments very much at the moment,” he says with a shrug. “Especially with the stuff I do as Four Tet. You'll hear a vibraphone, but it's been messed with on a computer in ways only a computer could. A lot of it is sped up or slowed down, reversed and chopped. I quite like that impossibility that's there in everything.”
LAPTOP TONES ALL ALONE
His live setup is just as computer-reliant. During performances, Hebden sits onstage, staring intently at his two laptops and pushing buttons with a look of measured calm — in other words, exactly as the clichéd laptop performer would look. He uses AudioMulch on one laptop to run the rhythmic content and Cool Edit Pro on the other for editing samples on the fly. Both computers feed into a Pioneer DJM-600 mixer with a built-in sampler and bpm counter, allowing him to grab loops perfectly in time, form a rhythm, sample it on the mixer and start playing it back again; Hebden repeats the procedure until he builds multiple layers that run on top of each other. To satisfy his inner rock star, Hebden connects a Boss SP-303 Dr. Sample to the mixer. “It's got rubber pads on them that have lots of sounds and drum hits on there, so I can play along on percussion,” he says. “That's quite good for having sounds you can use in a more physical way.”
Truth be told, Hebden feels no need to amplify his live performances with much more than his music. Given the defection en masse from live laptop shows toward more traditional rock and pop conventions — if not aurally then visually by setting up full bands for live shows — Hebden seems to be the last of a quickly dying breed. “You face so much criticism if you're doing shows just standing behind computers,” he says. “It's still, for me, the musical ideas behind everything that are important, you know? Not trying to be like a rock star or anything, I'm trying to do things no one has imagined or heard before, and I certainly don't feel I'm going to do that with a guitar around my neck.”
Despite advocating digital technologies, Hebden remains curiously attached to the same software programs that he's used for years, insisting that his satisfaction with them is so complete that he doesn't even upgrade editions when prompted. Although he learned to use Digidesign Pro Tools and a variety of studio gadgets while producing fellow Domino act James Yorkston and the Athletes' Just Beyond the River (2004), Hebden is still far from inspired by the capabilities of such software and is, on the contrary, quite wary of it. Instead, he pushes the limits of his longtime favorites, delving ever deeper into their intricacies and utilizing them as an extension of the inner workings of his brain. Whereas some producers might feel hemmed in by even the suggestion of boundaries, Hebden thrives on them. “I think constraints are a good thing, usually, when making music,” he insists. “Keeping it simple and focused like this lets me concentrate on my ideas and not waste my time playing around with bits of equipment.”
Fans who have seen Hebden perform live might be taken aback by the new album's divergence from previous efforts, but they will definitely not be surprised. The live shows have honed Hebden's tastes — the hiss, crackle and rattling bass of supersize sound systems altered the direction of his musical vision, and Everything Ecstatic falls in the middle of where he's been and where he plans to go. “I got over the fear of trying for perfection with live electronic music,” Hebden says. “I think the audience actually cares about that a lot less than you think. People want to hear something, usually, that's kind of noisy and exciting, something that's got a bit of life to it. If you miss a couple of beats here and there or something drops in out of time, that's kind of the least of anybody's worries. Most of them are going to be drunk and not notice, really!”
Hebden is keenly aware that electronic music often lacks the all-important human element supplied by vocals. Admittedly short of a decent set of pipes himself, he compensates by grafting voices onto his songs in often barely recognizable form. “When you're making instrumental music, it's hard to provide some sort of narrative to it, humanize it a little bit,” he says. “There are moments when you really want to draw people into the intimacy of something or remind people that there are humans involved.” From Alvin & the Chipmunks-esque offerings (on “Smile Around the Face”) to unexpected interludes of conversations stacked upon each other, Hebden employs vocals as a glimpse into his own life, too; thus, the man behind the machines pokes through ever so slightly.
Yet interwoven into the glut of mechanical noise and digitized sound is Hebden's own interpretation of intimacy and warmth. The closing track, “You Were There With Me,” captures the sound of life itself — albeit with the help of his trusty vibraphone run through a plug-in that wobbled and shifted the sound to mimic a record cut off-center. “I wanted the music to sound as though your head were kind of inside your body — like all of a sudden, you'd swallowed your whole head and it slid back down your neck and you could hear everything inside,” he explains. “To me, that's the most intimate, personal-sounding track on the record, maybe one of the most intimate-sounding things I've done.”
It's hard to say where Hebden will end up next as his side projects pile up and another round of touring looms just on the horizon. What is certain is that nothing is certain. “I try to keep an open mind and see what happens and not feel too bound to anything,” he muses. “You've got to be open-minded. You wouldn't want to be stuck in any sort of method. That'd bore me to death.”
Although Four Tet's Kieran Hebden has used Digidesign Pro Tools while working on others' records, he's certainly not in any hurry to use it on his own. “I think with current rock records on generic radio — overproduced indie bands who probably can't even play their own instruments — you just hear it with every single drum hit,” he says. “I think Pro Tools is used so much just to tighten things now; people don't leave the rough edges of it anymore because they know they can sort it out later, which I think is a bit of a shame a lot of the time because, sometimes, it's those rough edges that give the music a real kind of dynamic, you know? I think — particularly on mediocre, sort of run-of-the-mill rock bands — the Pro Tools thing has a kind of slickness there because people want this slick perfection so they can get it played on radio and stuff. It's a bit of a shame, really.
“I think [mainstream] record companies always underestimate what people are ready for and what they want to hear,” he continues. “People care about sound quality but less than they realize. You can only really make sense of what's happening, what's working, what's not after some time has passed. It might be in 30 years time, we'll be like, ‘Ah, the classic records at the turn of the century, with the beautiful Pro Tools edits everyone was using!’ the same way now we're all like, ‘Oh, what wonderful tape-echo effects they use on those Beach Boys records.’ Things need to stand the test of time, but I just know from my taste that superpolished sound where everything's been hacked around the computer — everything's been quantized and put perfectly in time — doesn't really work for me. It removes the soul a lot.”