Whereas most programmers divulge their equipment choices with the usual “Mac, software synths and plug-ins,” Four Tet's Kieran Hebden builds his own PCs, loads them with software that he finds for free and creates music that sounds like a mix of Massive Attack's Mezzanine and The Beatles' “Revolution 9” spliced with fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm.
“All I use is a PC and nothing else,” Hebden explains from London. “I run AudioMulch, Cakewalk as my sequencer and Cool Edit for sample editing. Most of it is free. I prefer PCs because I can build them myself and put whatever I want in them. When I began, I used all pirate software, which was easier to get on PC than Mac. There was more freedom to manipulate files.”
The songs of Four Tet's third album, Rounds (Domino, 2003), are at once fused with rhythmic noises, bell-like melodies and psychedelic and ethnic folk riffs. Samples of live instruments spin in fast forward, loop backward and move in slow motion. “And They All Look Broken Hearted” matches kalimba (thumb piano) and harp. Meanwhile, in “She Moves She,” a Chinese banjo wails a stuttering blues lament, its tranquil mood dropped dead by blasts of noise that sound like an electric drill shorting out. And “Spirit Fingers” features a speedy gamelan orchestra (consisting of Balinese string and percussion instruments) and broken harp figures that try to keep the pace.
“The gamelan uses a different scale from Western music, so to get it in tune, I had to speed it up until it matched the key of the track,” Hebden says. “The harps [also sampled] are being played at three different speeds: the actual speed, half-speed and double-speed. Then, every single track of harp has been put into random reorder plug-ins, then chopped up to make all those weird stuttering effects. It sounds like a loop, but it never repeats itself in the same way.”
Hebden's previous Four Tet release, Pause (Domino, 2001), was another study in sound manipulation. “On Pause, the bass sounds were made by slowing down all the other instruments and then chopping them up. For Rounds, I wanted to use only three or four sounds, pushing them in every possible way I could think of to keep the track interesting, rather than layering things to make it interesting.”
Hebden also plays in a conventional band called Fridge, and along with his current duties producing Beth Orton's next album, he has remixed Aphex Twin, David Holmes, Cinematic Orchestra, The Doves and Badly Drawn Boy. These varied artists come to Hebden for his singular ambient sound.
“I was listening to lots of psychedelic rock when I was making Rounds,” he replies. “I love Miles Davis and Can and The Band and Aretha Franklin. Those records sounded fantastic; the songs were amazing — such a great era. Those musicians were trying to be progressive. I want my music to have the sound and atmosphere of those old records but be forward-looking and futuristic.”