On Four Tet’s Good Taste

by Thomas Brett

“It’s very rare for me to use instruments or synths or anything like that.” – Kieran Hebden

I have long felt that the electronic musician Four Tet (aka Kieran Hebden) has good taste. He makes what critics once labelled “folktronica” music, a term that probably came about in an effort to describe how Hebden deftly combines the best of the acoustic and electronic worlds. What gives him good taste though, is something more subtle. It’s his sounds, sure–nothing too exotic, and always invigorating. But also his arrangements that lean towards song forms, as well as the proportions within them–how, for instance, things repeat, but repeat just enough. Things don’t exactly loop Hebden’s world, but rather continue for a precise time. In a word, the music is considered.

For example, in “She Just Likes To Fight” from his 2010 recording There Is Love In You, we hear a 4/4 kick drum, some cymbals, languid electronic guitars (that sound like a gentle take on Malian popular music), a little analog synth and faux strings/pad sounds, an African gankogui iron bell playing in 12-beat meter and a few stick drum samples (maybe a Ghanian kidi drum sample?). There’s at least seven sounds in the texture, yet everything stays unified, understated and calm like a happy sports team on their way to a big game, their positive tension building. You hardly notice that the African 12/8 bell pattern doesn’t line up with the 4/4 kick until after the kick has played twelve hits.

“Circling” is another satisfying Hebden track. It too has a 4/4 kick, but this time with harp, more electric guitar (loops played backwards and forwards from the sounds of it) arpeggiating away, plus a few more abstract pulsating synth sounds. Hebden does little things to make the track hum and stay interesting. For example, the guitar loop is six bars long (instead of the expected eight)–long enough to be compelling, but slightly truncated to keep you on your toes. And once that six bar loop has been in motion for a while, Hebden further plays with its length by repeating just sections of it. As you listen you sense a logic of considered musical decision-making in play, making it feel that nothing is ever plain old repetition. Maybe the key here is that Hebden plays with his materials meaningfully, not relying on technology to make things easy but rather to make possible interesting shifts of texture and proportion.

The other unusual thing about “Circling” is its meter: the piece has a 12/8 meter feel (like the African bell in “She Just Likes To Fight”), each main beat divided into three instead of four pulses as would be the case in electronic dance music’s more conventional 4/4 meter. So even though there’s that steady 4/4 kick thumping away, it’s the three-ness of all the other sounds that gives this aptly titled track its circular vibe.

In this YouTube clip, someone has assembled some old footage that makes for a nice visual counterpoint to Hebden’s piece:

If you are intrigued by Hebden’s music, check out this video from Future Music magazine where he describes his use of the Yamaha Tenori-On, a portable sequencer: