The last time he granted a big interview, Kieran Hebden was an underground darling playing clubs so small you could smell the loos from the cloakroom queue. In the eight years since, his career as Four Tet has undergone what he calls “a steady buildup” – and here he stands at its apex. This weekend, he will play to tens of thousands in a solo set at Finsbury Park in London. He is also the backbone of a roving dance-party trio alongside the EDM giant Skrillex and the everyman superproducer Fred Again – the most in-demand electronic outfit on Earth.
When I talk up the trio’s sold-out show at Madison Square Garden in New York, or their triumphant set closing Coachella for 100,000 desertgoers, Hebden waves it off. “That concept was coming at me after Coachella – ‘He’s finally getting the success he deserves’ – but it didn’t really feel like that,” he says, peering into a webcam, eyes circled by late-night rings, video-calling from the deck of the Woodstock cabin where he lives. “I did Coachella and the next gig was a three-and-a-half-hour set at my daughter’s 13th birthday party to 20 teenage girls, who I felt looked at me deeply unimpressed the whole time.”
Originally from Putney in London, Hebden, 45, lives a life full of such contradictory forces. His first great album, 2003’s Rounds, sprinkled harp and thumb piano into crashing, glitchy productions. Critics dubbed it “folktronica” and sometimes overlooked its hip-hop roots, reflecting a time when bands rather than beatmakers were in vogue. Hebden pulled the other way. In 2005, the superclub DJ Timo Maas coaxed the fledgling DJ out of the studio to spin at his London residency – a foot on a ladder that led, 18 years later, to the US’s biggest stage.
“I was about to say I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything like Coachella again,” says Hebden, who spoke to me a fortnight ago. “But me and Sonny [Moore, AKA Skrillex] are headlining Hard Summer in LA for 75,000 people.” He is unfazed and amused, a giggling participant in a prank being played on himself.
Hebden is sheltering from a summer rainstorm thrashing the wild Catskills woodland. He has a warm intensity; although historically unafraid to tell journalists that he finds interviews a waste of time, he speaks affably and sets no subject off-limits. Yesterday, he says, he hosted a family dinner for guests including his sister, Leila, who manages Shania Twain and contributes to Hebden’s broadly independent business operation. His mum, Navlika, is in town celebrating her 73rd birthday. Like Leila, she is a fixture of Four Tet shows, often travelling with him to party, dote and offer constructive feedback along the lines of: “You were too indulgent, too noodley.” Hebden laughs. “Her favourite DJ is Ben UFO,” his friend and sometime tourmate. “She’s always like: ‘Ben crushed it.’”
Hebden has a charming knack for cultivating DJ bromances, although he insists upon the Kurt Vonnegut term “karass”: a network of kindred spirits who fatefully stumble into your life. His first karass, in the 90s, was Fridge, his experimental rock trio. One day, Caribou’s Dan Snaith noticed them playing a board game at a festival and instinctively joined in (textbook karass). When Hebden’s father, Paul, died in 2018, Snaith and the rest of the Four Tet karass rallied around. Paul, Hebden remembers, “would come to all the shows” – hitting it off with Skrillex and Floating Points, manning the DJ booth with Madlib. Pleasing crowds can be a lonely occupation, but “the people I’m working with are my best friends”, he says. “All these things are connected.”
Skrillex concurs. In 2022, he cancelled major shows due to mental health struggles. The subsequent partnership with Hebden and Fred Again (AKA Frederick Gibson), he says, “was pure friendship … just us during this pandemic sharing a hope and vision for the future in that time when the universe felt so unorganised. I don’t know if those guys know how much their friendship meant to me at that time in my life, but I couldn’t imagine what things would be like now without them.”
The night of 19 April, shortly after collecting his daughter from a theatre rehearsal, Hebden was at home noodling away with Fred Again when the phone rang. Their booking agent, practically combusting, announced that, with Frank Ocean out of Coachella’s second weekend, they and Skrillex had the gig. They were barely listening. “We both got the giggles,” Hebden says. “Can you imagine a booking agent making that call? It was this combination of adrenaline and testosterone, like something out of Jerry Maguire.”
Four Tet courting EDM crowds would once have been unthinkable. When the genre cannonballed into the early 2010s, the UK underground scoffed at its bro-heavy bastardisation of dubstep. Even then, Hebden was unbothered. Instead, he says: “I tried to get my head around it.” He visited mega-festivals likesuch as Ultra, deducing that EDM appealed to “people who grew up with Metallica, who want to hear the loudest sounds they’ve ever heard”. Although unswayed by the music, he recognised the “cutting-edge sound design and ideas” – and the potential for unifying spectacle.
I ask if he had concerns about tapping into that crowd. “I never worry about that,” he says. “It’s funny: we’re in an era of thinkpieces about inclusivity in dance music, being respectful of people’s race and culture. And all that shit is hugely important, but you’ve got to really stick to your guns. If a bunch of lads want to come out and hear me and Ben UFO, that’s fucking brilliant. I’m not gonna be like: ‘This is all wrong now the lads are showing up.’”
A once unlikely duo, Hebden and Skrillex met in 2015, during the era when Skrillex and fellow superstar DJ Diplo, as Jack Ü, were collaborating with Justin Bieber between DJ sets in a hydraulic spaceship. Skrillex says: “The reaction people had of us playing together was so polarising, which is hard to imagine now.” During Hebden and Skrillex’s first set that year at Camden Underworld in London, Skrillex “stopped everything and played the Lion King theme tune”, Hebden recalls, laughing. “Since then, we look at each other like: ‘Nothing you could play would be too chaotic to mix out of. Try me.’”
Ten minutes into the Coachella set, Hebden did just that. He started with a feint, looping the intro of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Just as the drums crashed in, he crudely pivoted to Country Riddim, a monster EDM anthem by the French producer Hol. The footage is divine. Hebden, usually composed and avuncular, flings down his hands and squats as the beat drops; the crowd shrieks, headbanging in half-time, so vast you see the euphoria ripple across its mass. The subsequent memes were legion. “I actually had an out-of-body experience,” says Hebden. “Absolutely lost my marbles. It was like knowing I’ve got the funniest joke in the world and 100,000 people are about to lose their minds. It’s one of the most powerful feelings I’ve experienced in my whole life.”
After Coachella, Hebden returned to his characteristic quiet. He released Three Drums, a questing, pastoral chillout epic unlike anything in his catalogue, then a similarly languorous single with the Americana guitar maestro William Tyler. Hebden has completed more than half of a new Four Tet album, but he is happy for now to put out tracks such as these, plus purpose-built ones for his sets such as last year’s sleeper hit Looking at Your Pager. He can afford to release at his own pace, through his own label, Text, which also put out a collaborative album in May from Fred Again and Brian Eno. A byproduct of independence, Hebden says, is knowing exactly how much money streaming brings in – which is how, in 2021, he came to sue his former record label.
Hebden discusses his legal battle with Domino with wild-eyed excitement, but the case’s high stakes threatened to overwhelm him – he was taking on not just Domino, but the record label model writ large. The dispute concerned how labels calculate streaming royalties on record contracts signed before the advent of streaming. Domino’s position was the industry standard, so if Hebden won in court and set a legal precedent, labels everywhere would reel.
“I can imagine being in their shoes; it was a chaotic situation,” he says. “I was really close friends with people at Domino and to fall out on that level was intense.” The turning point was the label’s decision to take down three Four Tet albums from streaming services – a move he believes swung public sympathy in his favour. They settled not long after, on terms Hebden had proposed: £57,000 in backdated royalties, plus interest and his legal fees. This was similar to a 2021 offer, but crucially, his lawyer noted, this settlement was public. Now, everyone knew it could be done. “It was a brutal thing to go through, but at the end it was kind of a career highlight,” he says.
Despite boycotting the platform early on, Hebden now curates a Spotify playlist that features rising artists and historical curios; it makes an art of streaming’s soulless anonymity and superabundance. He sees the 171-hour playlist, which has 174,000 subscribers, as a sanctuary for “something creative within that world, on my own terms, that’s purely about music. Maybe it does something for Spotify in a way I don’t want, but I get a lot out of it.”
His fascination with innovation has gone beyond music, too: his recent Alexandra Palace gig at Alexandra Palace in London immersed fans in an installation of 42,000 dangling, multicoloured lights, with responsive displays pinging around the room in sync with surround-sound production. “For me to make a track that changes people’s perception of what’s going on in music is pretty unrealistic,” he says. “But I can put on an event that presents music to people in a way they never anticipated.”
For all that he covets integrity, it is Hebden’s adaptability and anti-snobbery that have charged his winning new era. In this respect, he and Fred Again are peas in a pod. They met two years ago, after some badgering from the younger producer. Hebden eventually agreed to meet for dinner. “I thought he was trying to make music in a very similar area to me and we’d be getting in each other’s way,” Hebden says with a laugh. When they finally hung out, “the music seemed almost irrelevant. I thought: ‘Oh my God, we’re going to be great friends.’ That’s the motivation.”
Fred Again’s blue blood (he is descended from the Earl of Dundonald) and mushy euphoria have invited scorn from some underground dance loyalists, but in Hebden’s view the Fred-powered trend towards saccharine melodies and voice samples taps into a wider need for “moments of joy without the baggage of cynicism”. Their collaboration Baby Again, also featuring Skrillex, is now Four Tet’s top track on streaming services.
“From where I’m sitting, dance music is so massive right now, on a worldwide scale,” says Hebden. “And the pandemic, the political climate [and chasing] digital stuff all the time” inevitably shifted the tone. He cites Fred Again’s hit Billie (Loving Arms), which samples Billie Ray Martin. “Years ago I’d be like: this is cheesy as hell! You have a big song and the hook is: ‘Put your loving arms around me’ – and everybody’s going to start hugging?” He laughs. “That’s like some terrible church event. But now, there’s a new audience that sees something like that with no cynicism at all.”
Skrillex says Hebden’s “north star is simple and profound: do what makes you happy and that’s it”. But Hebden hasn’t miraculously transformed into a shallow well of positive vibes. Part of the game is playing the crowd. “DJing is really addictive,” he says. “I like the competitiveness.” He admits that, like many great performers, his laid-back air coexists with a burning desire to win: to conjure the ultimate floor-filler guaranteed to dominate a room.
And so it was, a fortnight before headlining Madison Square Garden with Fred Again and Skrillex on Valentine’s weekend, that Hebden asked his daughter, a devout Swiftie, to propose the most romantic Taylor Swift song he could remix. She sat beside him, half-interested, as he tracked down an a cappella version of Love Story and programmed a fiendishly simple beat styled after “Romanian minimal techno”. He premiered the remix to a warm reception at Times Square; at Madison Square Garden, with his daughter in tow, it brought down the house. “She ran up and her and Fred were dancing together,” Hebden remembers, absent-mindedly placing a hand on his heart. “She knew I’d made it for her.”
Hebden says his musical partnerships, anti-sponsorship stance and tight-knit karass all serve to protect his authenticity – the only metric of artistry he observes. At the same time, he says, “being a dad is by far the most authentic thing in my whole life. It never even occurred to me that the Taylor Swift thing was some cheesy shit to do.” As the world opened up for Hebden on increasingly gargantuan stages – Times Square, Madison Square Garden, Coachella – the Love Story remix became his little pocket of home. “I stood there, like: ‘I’m doing something nice for my kid,’” he says. “I had this feeling that I can’t really lose.”