Four Tet Discusses Making Music And His inspirations In A New Documentary [Exclusive]

Using an unusual technique that involves animating still photographs, Dan Wilde's film looks at Kieran Hebden's creative process and inspirations.

Sep 10 2013, 5:45pm

When you're talking about seminal electronic music acts that have come out of the UK in the last ten years or so, musician Four Tet (aka Kieran Hebden) will be one of the names on your list. From remixing Aphex Twin's work to collaborations with legendary jazz drummer Steve Reid, Thom Yorke, and Burial, to his own celebrated albums, he makes genre-defying, emotionally-imbued electronic music. It's music that's enjoyed by everyone, no matter what their personal musical tastes—all shaped by a back catalogue that takes in everything from hip-hop to techno, jazz and folk. 

But what of the man behind the music? What are his inspirations? What drives him to make music the way he does? In an exclusive documentary, produced by The Creators Project, Dan Wilde shows us how Hebden's personal life—his wife, his sister—impacts on his records and also his all-encompassing approach to creativity: which is essentially "music as life"—the two, for him, are one and the same.

It comes in a special year for Four Tet, because not only have Domino re-issued his classic album Rounds for its 10th anniversary, but also the new album from Four Tet, titled Beautiful Rewind, will be released soon on Text Records.

Photo: Shelly Corbett/ Courtesy of KEXP

What's also remarkable about the film is the photographic technique used to illustrate Hebden's stories. Pioneered by artist Yorgo Alexopoulos, and used when he was visual effects supervisor on The Kid Stays in the Pictureit involves animating still photos—using software like After Effects and Photoshop—adding effects and graphic design, embellishing them with an added dimension.

To find out more about the technique and his own relationship to Four Tet, we sent director Dan Wilde some questions.

Describe your personal relationship with Kieran and his music. Did you meet him or his music first? 
Kieran and I have been friends for ten years. The first Four Tet track I heard was "Everything Is Alright"—it was on a mix CD that a friend made for me. This led me to his album Pause, which I really liked, and I sought out his other music. Around that time, I was working on a feature film, and I contacted Kieran to write the score for that film. That project fell through in various ways, but we remained friends, and shortly after, he asked me to make a music video for his track "Smile Around The Face".

Photo: Charlotte Zoller

What is about his music, specifically the album Rounds, that speaks to you? Do you have a favorite song? Do you have a memory associated with that song?
The thing I've always been drawn to in Kieran's music is the emotional warmth. Four Tet shares certain musical qualities with other masters of electronic music—heavily manipulated samples, impossible rhythms, and so on—but the thing about Kieran's music that distinguishes it from that of, say, Aphex Twin or Autechre (both of whom I also love), is the human heart that permeates his music. The way that he is able to generate that warmth from ones and zeroes is a rare kind of alchemy.

I like too many Four Tet tracks to pick a favorite, but from Rounds, I've always loved "My Angel Rocks Back and Forth". The melody is so pretty that it never gets old to me. I actually played that track at my wedding. While the guests were arriving, we played "My Angel Rocks Back and Forth" and one of Brian Eno's variations on Pachelbel's Canon—just those two tracks on a loop. It worked very well.

Photo: Oliver Walker

What's the lasting legacy of the album?
I don't think it's really my place to assess the musical or cultural legacy of the album. I certainly don't think the legacy of the album has anything to do with "folktronica"—the label stuck on the record by a (lazy) music press at the time. I think Rounds owes as much to hip-hop and experimental jazz as it does to folk music, and that perhaps is a legacy of the record that I can identify—it announced Kieran Hebden as a seriously talented producer, and it showed a wider audience a glimpse of what was possible in electronic music.

Describe how this concept came to be from inspiration to execution?
Kieran asked me to make a film about him, and gave me very little direction otherwise. He said it could commemorate the ten-year anniversary of Rounds, but it didn't have to. He also said it could be completely impenetrable if I wanted. I decided to record an interview with a wide range of questions and just see what came up. We talked for two hours, and I most liked the sections where he talked about his personal life and how it intersects with the act of making music. I think our friendship allowed him to talk about these more intimate topics, and I'm glad he did, because it's always fascinating to me when artists are honest about their lives and creative process.

Keiran and his sister. Photo: Kieran Hebden

What about his music lent itself to the photo technique you used?
It wasn't so much the music that led to that idea, but the subject matter of the interview. Animating still photographs seemed a good way to solve a storytelling problem—how do we show "footage" of these events from ten years ago, without that footage existing? When it came to deciding how to animate the stills, however, the music was very instructive—we often took our cue for the direction of an animation from the tone or tempo of the underlying music.

Do you have a favorite photo?
That tank guy in Tiananmen Square? You mean from the film… I really like the three shots at the end of Kieran as a boy, putting the record on a toy record player. That's really great for obvious reasons.

Keiran and Steve Reid. Photo: Domino Records

What were some of the technical challenges you encountered in the post-production process?
The main technical challenge was the absence of photographs! Apparently, Kieran hasn't taken any photos of himself or his life for the last ten years, so we were seriously restricted by what we had at our disposal. We had to scour the internet for pictures taken by random fans—we also made good use of stock libraries, and even had to pull stills from video footage. It felt at times like we were trying to make a silk purse from a sow's ear, but I'm very pleased with what we achieved—a silk purse is a silk purse.

Photo: !K7 Records

How would you describe him as a person?
I would try to avoid doing so, if possible. He's very nice.

As a creative person, was there any insight into his process that you found relevant or inspiring?
I'm very impressed by his productivity. Because he's always engaged with the process of making music, he makes a lot of it—far more than he ever releases. One thing he said in the interview (that didn't make the film) was that he often finishes an album too quickly, and has to find ways to slow himself down. This is not a problem I share. This is the first film I've made in eight years.

You can follow Dan Wilde on Twitter @wildedan

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