Like quite a number of the young guys in his peer group, 25-year-old Londoner Kieran Hebden plays guitar and gets an enormous amount of enjoyment out of screwing with the 4-track recorder he’s owned since childhood. In high school he formed the band Fridge with two mates, Sam Jeffers and Adem Ilhan, to give a formal shape to the post-rock noodling he was doing while not doing whatever it is that young British guys do in high school; the band’s 1999 album, Eph (reissued in the U.S. last year by Portland indie Temporary Residence), sounds like the score from Sonic the Hedgehog as played by three stoners with weekends and old Can records to do with as they please.
When the three stoners went off to university separately, Hebden found that musical inspiration was striking him at a pace with which monthly Fridge get-togethers couldn’t keep up. He found himself with a new computer, too, so he started thinking of the machine as his band, feeding all manner of media into it — samples from secondhand records, crackly field recordings, ribbons of acoustic guitar, snatches of TV effluvium — then spending hours processing the sounds and patching them together into new compositions. It was something to do while not doing whatever it is that young British guys do at university.
“But I got really into it,” Hebden laughs on the phone from his London home a few days ahead of his current North American tour. “And before I knew what was going on, I was making all this music and then playing it to the guy who was putting the Fridge stuff out.” That’d be producer/remixer/ graphic designer Trevor Jackson, owner of the superhip English label Output. “He was like, ‘Yeah, that’s really, really cool. I’d like to put that out as well.’ And then very quickly I had another project on my hands that has now evolved into the main focus of what I’m doing these days.”
Listen to Rounds, Hebden’s third album as Four Tet, and you’d find it hard to believe otherwise. Like his previous discs, ’99’s Dialogue and 2001’s Pause, it’s a meticulous tapestry of those sampled and processed sounds: sliced-and-diced stringed instruments weaving through nimbly funky beats, trebly bells sprinkling down from above, warm ambient hum filling in the negative space. Hebden says he made the album in his usual way, selecting entries from the “sound diary” he keeps on his hard drive and carefully running them through his software, tweaking and retweaking until barely a glimmer of the original sound remains.
Pause drew acclaim for its so-called “folktronic” aesthetic, with adherents praising its marriage of organic tones and mechanized beats, of human instrument-playing and computerized fuck-with-ing. Rounds reaches for a similar frisson, though Hebden’s work seems subtler here, less concerned with forging a style than with refining it.
“My music seems generally confusing to people,” Hebden admits. “They can’t quite work out what’s going on a lot of the time — loads seem to think it’s a live band, loads think it’s all samples. I like the fact that you listen to the record and it sounds quite live, and then a couple more times and you start to realize that everything going on is humanly impossible — the way all the drums work and the guitars work and everything. Suddenly a little burst will be backwards and glitching and all sorts of things that just wouldn’t work in any conventional human situation.”
Both CDs also toy with the notions of nostalgia and futurism bound up in a lot of electronica. Hebden cops to a deep-seated passion for rock- and folk-based music from the late ’60s and early ’70s, an inclination that lends a certain sepia-toned sweetness to many of his songs. (His current production work with English songstress Beth Orton should prove a perfect demonstration of this.) But his sprightly, complicated programming isn’t far from the cutting edge of computer-based composition; when he drops a jagged jungle break into a forest of picked acoustic guitars, it can be a thrilling juxtaposition of different eras and disparate sensibilities.
“I’m not interested in making music that could’ve existed 15 years ago,” Hebden says. “I want to show those influences, but I don’t want to re-create that stuff from the past. I want to take the mood of it and do something that doesn’t sound like anything that’s ever existed before. It’s important to me that the music is very now.”
Four Tet plays the Echo on Saturday, June 7.