Four Tet’s Top 50 Remixes, and How They Provide a Key to Understanding His Music

Four Tet (nee Kieran Hebden) has said that he wants his music to tell the story of his life, and his tracks do occupy the same psychic space as a certain class of Instagram pictures: the sun-dappled portrait taken on a mountaintop, or the early morning shot of the steam rising off an alpine lake. These are the sort of moments that are too slippery to adequately capture in a caption, though, invariably, we try. A lot of musicians spend their career chasing a sound, and while Hebden does have a certain sonic palette — one that is inordinately taken up by anything that chimes — the listener gets the distinct impression that, more than anything, the British producer is in search of a feeling.

This is true of the work he does on remixes. Hebden is not only one of the most prolific remixers of his generation, but also one of the most catholic. He’s remixed Riri as well as the Australian avante-electro-jazz quartet Tangents. And while his remixes generally correspond to the stylistic shifts and whims of his own work, there are times when they precede his own transformations, seemingly blurring the subject and object. In many ways, these remixes provide an alternative history of Hebden’s own music.

One thing you’ll notice is that while Hebden’s sound is unmistakable, he rarely transforms the tracks he remixes, at least not entirely. There is an occasional bit of brinksmanship with the source material — for Bonobo’s early track, Pick Up, Hebden takes the originals dusty breakbeats and adds a stuttering, polyrhythmic pounce; and the fact that he would remix half of Madlib’s Madviliany album feels somewhere between an homage and a dare — but, for the most part, Hebden’s remixes are retellings of the original, albeit a bit refractured.

Hebden latches onto a specific idea, melody, vocal line, or beat in the source material, and tweaks that according to his own muse. He’ll add a bit of electronic swirl to the spacial post-rock of The Drift, draw out the pinging keys of Matthew Dear’s “Deserter,” or tuck a thumping disco beat and skronky sax line beneath Nenah Cherry’s after hours swinger “Dream Baby Dream,” though, ultimately, the focus of that remix remains on Cherry’s smokey voice.

Similarly, his remix of The XX’s 2002 “Angels” adopts the original’s chimy key drops and maintains the vibe of post-coliatal emotional surrender, but Hebden flips the melody and adds in airey textures that make the track more tender than sensual. It feels as if two artists are viewing the same scene — lovers, naked, intertwined, near daybreak — and coming to slightly different, though complimentary conclusions.

Hebden is also very savvy when it comes to selecting the tracks he remixes. It’s easy to understand why Radiohead commissioned him to remix “Scatterbrain” from the band’s 2003 album, Hail to the Thief. With its spare, hypnotic guitar figure at its core, the original sounds like a daydream — albeit a particularly dark one — and in many ways it matches with the more pastoral, delicate electronic music that Four Tet was making at the time. But Hebden has mentioned that he very quickly came to resent the folktronica tag that critics and fans applied to his 2003 album Rounds, and he quickly pivoted to a new sound. This remix could be a early indication of that transformation  His remix takes the track into an entirely different direction.Thom Yorke’s vocals are sliced and reprocessed, and paired with a jittery drum pattern and (towards the end) atonal, skronky sax outburst, which hints at the IDM-tinted free jazz experiments of Hebden’s middle period work.

As Hebden’s own sound evolved, from the more acoustic/organic work of Rounds to the dancefloor-ready tracks of his later work, his remix work gained a fuller, more bass-heavy sound. A great example of this is his remix for Scandinavian nu-disco DJ/producer Todd Terje.  The track starts out with a swell of chiming synths (of course), and the motif pops up repeatedly through the track, but the song soon settles into a four-on-the-floor dance groove, giving the track an immediacy that balances out Hebden’s more delicate tendencies.

In some ways, Hebden’s work as a remix is just as satisfying as his own solo work. Yes, the latter feels more high-stakes and substantial, but his remixes are oftentimes more playful and experimental, as if Hebden is testing out ideas and aesthetic masks. Yes, to an extent, the payoff for these are his full length albums, but, as with many things in life, the journey is oftentimes more fascinating than the destination.