Between beats and clicks


By David Todd

Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid bring ‘NYC’ to NYC

London-born Kieran Hebden—also known as Four Tet, his primary vehicle—started out playing guitar in the post-rock group Fridge, who debuted with the album “Ceefax” in 1997. He quickly moved into producing his own electronic albums, beginning with “Dialogue” in 1999 and leading up to his sublime “Remixes” in 2006. Still in his late 20s, Hebden’s side work includes producing the latest album, “Fire Escape,” by American freak-collective Sunburned Hand of the Man. When Sunburned’s John Moloney called Hebden “the biggest music fan I’ve ever met,” there wasn’t much reason to argue. The range on Hebden’s 2006 “DJ-Kicks” mix alone—which shifts from Gong to Madvillain to Curtis Mayfield—suggests an ear that’s permanently open.

New York expat Steve Reid’s list of references is longer still; as a drummer, he’s played with everyone from Miles Davis to James Brown over his nearly 50 years in the jazz/R&B world. A few decades older than Hebden, he comes in from the organic side of their equation, sitting behind his kit while Kieran mans a table of electronics. As a duo, their first two albums—“The Exchange Session Vol. 1” & “Vol. 2”—were recorded at a studio of that name in London, but could just as easily have been titled for the musical tradeoff which goes on among them. After releasing “Tongues” in 2007, they’re back with “NYC,” which pays tribute to the turbulent, smothering New York from which Reid originates.

DAVID TODD: How did you hook up with Steve Reid, and how did you realize there was a connection there worth pursuing?

KIERAN HEBDEN: Well, [after] the last Four Tet album came out, I wanted to do something different, maybe with a drummer, where the drummer would play live with me doing real-time electronics. I mentioned it to a friend of mine and he contacted me a few weeks later and said, “I managed to track down Steve Reid, how about meeting up with him?” So I met up with Steve and we did the first show, and the first show was really exciting, it just seemed to jell really quickly. Then a couple days later we went into a recording studio. At that point, I knew that this wasn’t just going to be an experiment; it was something that I was going to end up doing loads of.

Since you and Steve each have covered so much musical ground, I was wondering how you found your style together. Was that a process or did it just click?

I think when we first got together we both understood that the most common meeting ground was spiritual free jazz. The first session we did was very Sun Ra/Don Cherry, all that type of stuff. But once we began playing more, we started playing more and more [different] music for each other. Steve would send me a CD of Theo Parrish, and be like “I’m really into this at the moment, what do you think?” And then we went to Africa together and listened to a lot of African music around that time. You know, we’re as likely to listen to Sly Stone as we are to Coltrane; it’s not just a jazz thing. I think the record that’s just come out, “NYC,” is not very jazz-sounding at all. That’s little parts of it, but I think the music we’re doing is as much soul or even dance music or techno.

So you were interested in getting away from a strictly jazz concept, or strictly anything, from the beginning?

Yeah, totally. We wanted to do something that pushed us both in new directions. And for me, it was really liberating.

After playing with Steve for a few years now, how do you think he’s affected you?

I think I’ve been getting a comprehensive education in rhythm from Steve (laughs). Because he’s part of the African-American drum tradition that’s existed through blues and soul and funk and jazz, through to hip-hop, that for someone living in London was always something that felt out of my reach. I think Steve’s one of the best living examples of that kind of drumming style and rhythmic feel, he’s so good at holding down an incredible rhythm and messing around with it. I feel like I’ve been learning a lot from him.

To me, one of the challenges in making an album called “NYC” is the difficulty of capturing the city as a whole. Not that you and Steve are presenting this as a definitive portrait, but was there something you felt New York boiled down to in a musical sense?

Well, when I first met Steve, we were playing in Europe, and he was like, “We’ve got to back and play in New York.” And straightaway we got to New York and he started playing different, more aggressively and with more of a funk edge. And he said to me, “Yeah, it’s a different rhythm here.” Then after we’d done another record in London, Steve was like, “Let’s go to New York to do the next record because it’ll give it a different sound.” We went to look for a studio, and the idea suddenly went beyond just recording in New York and turned into this whole thing where the record was going to be about New York. It was supposed to be about our experience of the city, its impact on us and the type of music that seemed to make sense while we were there. I think particularly with the kind of rhythmic ideas that Steve was using, [if] he had an idea and was like, “No, this isn’t the type of beat that’s from New York,” he wouldn’t use it. Steve was like, “Let’s make the most New York record we can.”

The opening song, “Lyman Place,” refers to the neighborhood Steve came from in the Bronx. I found the synthesizer on that to be very intense, very resistant being pushed into the background. Is that an effect that you were going for in terms of a New York feel?

That was a song that started evolving through [our] live shows. The bass riff is quite heavy, and I wanted to make it ever more intense, you know, and I found that this synth noise just pitching up and up, this kind of permanent crescendo, [would] really excite the crowd. And then we recorded it for the album, and we had all the tracks sitting there, and Steve was like “That’s the first track!” And I was like, that’s the heaviest, maddest track, you want to open with it? And Steve was like, “Yeah, we’re going to come in with the most intimidating thing we’ve got.” Like you’re arriving in [the city]. I think that was back to his New York thing, big and intimidating straightaway.

As much as there is that intense feel to the music, it seems like there’s also another side that’s more celebratory or joyful. Is there a celebratory element as you see it?

Completely. When I did the last Four Tet album, “Everything Ecstatic,” I had this idea that a lot of the music I loved was reaching beyond just making a record to levels of happiness or spirituality. If I listen to a gospel record, say, they’re not just singing for fun, they’re talking to God. It’s got this extra level of intensity. And I think when I met with Steve, he seemed to be tuned-in to that concept of making music that created a sense of euphoria or celebration. I think both of us are committed to the idea that music is an important, magical thing, that really helps people and does wonders in the world. I feel like music gives me some kind of purpose, and it makes everything make sense. I want to make music that isn’t just to be taken lightly in the background, that makes life worth living.