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Kieran Hebden appears to be a normal 25-year-old living in London's Camden Town who spends a lot of time at home. He's a guy who wakes up when he wants to, watches television as long as he likes, and spends most of his pocket money on records, stumbling out to local shops like the other urban Ewoks buried in hoodies. But most cats his age living in the edgy and sometimes greasy youngster's neighborhood haven't gotten the attention of musical luminaries, from cutting-edge hip-hoppers to amphitheater-rock gods, with recordings made on basic equipment in their small flats. Nor have they come this close to being nominated for the 2003 Mercury Prize (awarded to the U.K. album of the year).
For someone who might work clad in pajamas with a bowl of cereal at hand, Hebden's work ethic is anything but lazy. He's busy working on new material for his fourth album under his solo project, Four Tet, and his fifth album with childhood friends Sam Jeffers and Adem Ilhan as the postrock trio Fridge. He's also producing albums for James Yorkston of Athlete and Beth Orton, as well as the occasional remix and one-off single. All the while acting as his own manager and booking agent.
Hebden is able to get so much done because it doesn't feel like work to him. "I like it at home a lot," he says via telephone from the cozy confines of his flat. "I feel hidden away in my own world and that no one knows what's going on in my quiet little space. I'm not really fussed about going to enormously flashy studios, but studios with unique old equipment appeal."
His studio doesn't have flashy gear ("Much of it lagging well behind the cutting edge," reports one British audiophile magazine). Basically there's just a PC, some samplers, and thousands of records. From the way Hebden tells it, his collection sounds extraordinarily broad, something you might expect crate diggers such as Pete Rock and Large Professor to have. Paying homage to classic beatmakers and their reverence for technique has helped Four Tet win fans in the hip-hop community, including Detroit's Jay Dee, who recently remixed Hebden's "As Serious as Your Life."
Hebden has enough sense to not subscribe to the "popular equals bad/underground equals good" ethos that often divides snobbish music aficionados. He has a gift for finding beauty in almost any record, even if it's an obscure Italian band that calls itself Sound of Shit (a used platter he couldn't help but pick up for the group's name). If a song he hears just absolutely rubs him the wrong way in terms of its content or vibe, there still might be a sound or instrument on it he can appreciate. An open ear has helped him produce songs that connect with a wide range of listeners.
Among his more famous fans are revered groups such as Stereolab and Super Furry Animals, both of whom he has toured with and remixed tracks for. He has also captured the heart of one of the biggest bands in his country. The members of Radiohead proclaimed Four Tet's most recent album, Rounds, to be their favorite album of last year, and they invited Hebden not only to tour with them but to remix one of their songs ("Skttrbrain").
Concurrently, Radiohead's massive success is a powerful model for Hebden, whose oft-stated Holy Grail is making challenging and futuristic records that people can still relate to and feel.
"They've become friends and a great support of what I'm doing," he says of Radiohead, with equal parts awe and humility. "They're really, really helpful. The impact they have is just huge. People really listen to what they have to say. It's been a fantastic thing to have."
Of course, there comes a time when you have to take the show on the road, and though Hebden loves the comfort of being at home, he's no agoraphobic hermit. He spends a fair amount of time performing live all over the world. Besides North America, he is scheduled to travel to places like Turkey, Taiwan, and Australia this spring before hunkering down in the studio at the beginning of summer.
Unlike a number of traveling electronic acts, Hebden insists on keeping his live performances spontaneous. "The live shows are a lot more aggressive and chaotic than the albums," he says. "There's a lot of room for improvisation and for things to go out of control and still be OK. If I did the same thing every night, I'd die of boredom really quickly."
Hebden has devised a way to keep the material fresh, since he has been performing tracks from Rounds for more than a year (and numbers from his 1999 debut, Dialogue, and its 2001 follow-up, Pause, for much longer). He now views the songs as starting points for a big, open-road adventure that may end up as maps toward creating the next album. "The songs would constantly evolve as I toured, eventually to the point where they became [new] pieces of music," he explains. "Some of them have drums that have become much more rhythmic; others are becoming more ambient."