Everything ecstatic: On the evolution of Four Tet

Published in Thump, 1 October 2015

On April 5, 2015, in a grimy basement club in Camden, Four Tet – jazz lover, knob twiddler and militant wearer of nondescript t-shirts – went b2b with Skrillex. Announced casually about a week before the show, the pairing of electronic music’s most bombastic showman with its most unassuming nerd left many fans stumped. Many of Skrillex’s fans, anyway. Anyone watching the trajectory of Four Tet’s career could have guessed that’s where he’d end up.

If you remember Four Tet (aka Kieran Hebden) from his earliest records, it’s unlikely you’ll think of him as an author of bangerz. His debut album Dialogue (1999) was a muddy haze of post-rock laced with squealing brass; an atmospheric trip, sometimes wilfully unpleasant. It was followed in 2001 by Pause, which saw the steady creep of melody and feeling into his music. With the exception of the hellish singsong refrain of No More Mosquitoes, it was album of gentle cinematic drifts and chilled beats; of subtle, sweet, dense layers.

I first saw Four Tet at The Corner in Melbourne in 2004, just after he released his third, breakthrough album. Rounds came in the wake of IDM, in the wake of Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher and Boards of Canada. There was an established scene around this experimental electronica and it rarely involved dancing. The beats were too irregular to really harness the audience, save for the odd hippy wobble and a lot of chin-stroking. Hebden’s performance slotted in neatly; a work of art that was interesting, but insular. Hunched over two laptops, staring intently at the screens, he wasn’t playing for us so much as he was playing with sound.

Looking back on that era, Hebden says he was misunderstood. He despised the “folktronica” label that was applied to his music – a well-intended attempt by the media to describe the warm digital aesthetic. What was missed, Hebden complains, was the context. Raised on his father’s jazz and already a devoted crate digger, Hebden’s early albums were inspired by hip hop and free jazz as much as anything else. However dreamy or cerebral, they were constructed entirely from vinyl samples. He cited R&B producer Rodney Jerkins as a major influence on Rounds, as well as Joni Mitchell, but the breadth of his musical vocabulary had somehow gotten lost in interpretation.

Hebden’s reaction to being pigeonholed as a twee electronic artist was to embrace bigger beats. The opening track on Everything Ecstatic (2005) was a maniacal iteration of Propellerheads, with heavy bass swimming in and out of skittering percussion. Though the BMP was still a little slack, there was a promising rhythmic pattern in Smile Around the Face, a dopey-sweet repetition dressed in electronic blips and cymbal crashes. Elsewhere on the record, live drums samples made almost-dubstep rhythms and high hats snapped out pulses of funk. You still couldn’t dance to Four Tet, but this album made you want to try.

Four Tet returned to Melbourne to play the Spanish Club in 2006, to a much bigger audience. Still, they expected a performance rather than a rave up, and that’s exactly what Hebden delivered. Fixated on jazz improvisation, he stretched and teased album tracks to epic distraction, through ambient fuzz and multiple colliding rhythms. It was a beautiful, rich and head-wrecking show, artful in a slightly combative way.

Between 2006 and 2008, Hebden went down the Steve Reid rabbit hole. He met the legendary jazz drummer in a Paris record shop and they went on to make four albums together, including Tongues (2007) and NYC (2008). Much of Hebden’s touring schedule during this time was taken up with live improvised performances with his new partner in crime, the value of which was lost on most everyone but the artists. At best chaotic, often completely unlistenable, their music drifted into that murky realm of hardcore free jazz that sounds like trolling to the untrained ear.

Thankfully, something else was brewing during this time, largely out of sight for Australian audiences. Hebden’s first recorded outing as a DJ was in 2003, but DJ sets became a regular fixture in his touring schedule some time in late 2006. That year, he released his first real club-styled mix, a Four Tet contribution to the DJ Kicks series. Though many of the cuts were still laid back – infused with hip hop, krautrock and world music beats – this is when Hebden started talking publicly about dance music as something he aspired to make.

Hebden did a much-discussed Australian tour with Caribou in 2009 and released the absolutely stunning, almost-pop album There Is Love In You the following year. ‘Pop’ for Hebden meant tighter structure, steady beats and more repetitive loops, but there was still a sweetness and light in his music that made it not-quite-danceable. No doubt the tracks were making an appearance on his now-busy schedule as a DJ for hire, but they were surely too timid to carry a crowd through the small, sweaty hours of a proper club night.

He wasn’t a dance producer yet, but it seems he was gearing up to it. Hebden was DJing, he was making connections and he was collecting records. He made regular appearances at the iconic East London club Plastic People and later talked about it as a formative influence. The club, which hosted the first ever Daft Punk gig in London, became a haven for Four Tet and the other progressive DJs of Four Tet’s era, including Floating Points, Daphne, SBTRKT and Theo Parrish. Dubstep, grime, jungle, house and UK garage were in the mix at this venerated nightspot and they eventually found their way into Four Tet’s sound. The repetitive locks of dance music were all over his album Pink (2012).

It wasn’t until February 1, 2014 that Four Tet made his first appearance as a DJ in my hometown. Hastily announced off the back of his Laneway Festival appearance, the show was a b2b with Jamie XX, crammed into the heaving upstairs sweatbox that is Boney. I was by this time in deep love with Hebden’s 2013 masterpiece, Beautiful Rewind, which was unmistakably bass music. Opening with the jungle-fuelled intensity of Gong and slipping into the stutteringly beautiful subsonic thump of Parallel Jalebi, through the garage-flavoured tick of Kool FM to the languid house rolls of Your Body Feels, it was a record that made you move. And yet it didn’t prepare me for the hammering, trance-like beats of Four Tet’s DJ set. Earlier in the day, in a headline spot on Laneway’s Red Bull Stage, Hebden was master and commander. A lone shadow against a field of stage lights, he toyed with the audience as much as the sound. Familiar vocal hooks from his album were paired with monstrous bass booms and he had worked a huge, teasing drop into his set. It was magical. By comparison, his DJ set at Boney was an unmodulated hive of noise, hypnotic but colourless. It was exactly what you remember about 3am the night before – a dark and shapeless sea of beats.

I saw Four Tet play another eight times that year, running my own tourist world tour parallel to his. With every set, my understanding of who he was and what he played had to adjust. He did a Boiler Room session at SXSW in Austin that opened with Hindi playback singer Lata Mangeshkar, included his remix of Ellie Goulding’s Burn and closed with the African-fused art rock of the Owiny Sigoma Band. At Sonar Barcelona, he played a warm up set of spectral house, dub, reggae and Afrobeat, and a free jazz track that seemed specifically designed to fuck everyone’s shit up. He reset the time signature with every track, creating impossible mixes from contrapuntal time signatures – difficult, but always compelling us to dance.

Four Tet’s live performances grew steadily bigger, peaking with his headline slot on The Park Stage at Glastonbury in 2014. Like always, Hebden’s eyes were trained on his laptops, though he seemed to glance up at the audience more often, checking its pulse. He cut a slight figure against the strobing stage lights and his face was studiously neutral. But the sheer weight of those beautiful beats, the fat drops of feeling and the universe-bending scale of the sound – those things made him a superstar DJ. He was playing to a packed field of delirious fans who were all in the palm of his hand.

Later that night, Four Tet tweeted at Skrillex, who was playing his own much larger headline slot on Glastonbury’s Other Stage:

watching you and eating donuts. massive.

A decade earlier, it would have seemed odd – an underground artist reaching out to a massive commercial DJ. But in the trajectory of Four Tet’s career, in the pursuit of bass music, it made absolute sense. Of course he wants to work with Skrillex, I thought. Where else does he go from here?