Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid: Intersecting Influences in an Urban Environment

[Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Fucked Up, the 34th installment of ALARM and first in our transition to books.  Since that time, Steve Reid passed away following a battle with cancer.  We are saddened by his passing and hope that his many projects will leave an enduring legacy.]

Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid: NYCKieran Hebden & Steve Reid: NYC (Domino, 11/4/08)

Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid: “Between B & C”

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London-born Kieran Hebden is the man behind the jazz/folk/electronic project Four Tet. Steve Reid is a seasoned jazz percussionist who has contributed to the sounds of jazz juggernauts for decades. Together they’ve found a way to bend instrumental opposites into a single outlet for whatever kind of music they want to make. It’s a fusion of two unique musical perspectives and identities, across different generations, that makes Hebden and Reid pioneers across a diluted musical landscape.

A 20-year-old Hebden was first exposed to Reid when British-based Soul Jazz Records released a compilation album featuring the song “Lions of Judah.” Eight years later and a few solo endeavors under the alias Four Tet led him to search for a drummer to work with. A mutual friend mentioned Reid, and the two were introduced in London.

The duo recorded two EPs in 2006, aptly dubbed The Exchange Sessions, and a full-length LP in 2007, Tongues. With Tongues, Hebden and Reid took to the road recording in different locations and absorbing the sounds of those places. “We went to Senegal and did some recording,” Hebden says. “I think we got it in our heads, recording in different places…Steve’s been going on about doing a record in New York.”

On their fourth album, NYC, the pair did just that, heading back to Reid’s hometown to lay down another session of genre-defying music. “Nothing is bigger than New York; it’s a small representation of planet Earth,” Reid gushes, spouting contagious laughter every so often.

Likewise, Hebden and Reid’s musical tastes have always been a melting pot of sources, and their music reflects such an assortment. “The music I make is really different from the music I listen to,” Hebden says, citing several obscure blues reissues by off-the-radar record label Mississippi Records. Yet however varied their influences, the two often find themselves at the heels of the “free jazz” categorization.

“It’s about a commitment to your art. The money will come; the money will go. You can’t depend on the money. Depend on the talent and make it the best you can.”

When used in reference to the music that Hebden and Reid make, it’s hardly adequate, grasping blindly at the periphery of the duo’s eclectic sound. “I used more guitar and synth,” Hebden says. “Playing guitar and sampling it in the songs…I think it’s the least jazz record we’ve ever done.” The songs bellow with Reid’s drum beats and Hebden’s sequenced sound effects. Album opener “Lyman Place” is a layered crescendo of what sounds like an airplane readying for takeoff. The song climaxes with a jam session of water pumps, car alarms, wooden sticks, and chirping birds.

Lyman Place also happens to be a street in the south Bronx where Reid grew up, just a few doors down from renowned pianists Thelonious Monk and Elmo Hope. Each six-minute instrumental epic on NYC — “1st and 1st,” “Between B & C,” and “25th Street” — was named after other key locations in the 10-day recording session. “Places where we visited,” Hebden says. “The street where [Reid] grew up…we spent 10 days there and were in those spots. The album was supposed to be a document of our time there.”

“Between B & C” was named for an area popularly known as Alphabet City on New York’s Lower East Side, which houses the city’s only mono-alphabetic streets, Avenues A through D. As Reid recalls, it was also an epicenter for great music. “It used to be a lively place, not just for jazz but a lot of the music in the ’70s,” he says. “CBGB, there used to be a lot of clubs like that.” CBGB has since closed its doors, as have a majority of the venues that once populated Alphabet City. Reid laments, “In all the cities in the world, there are fewer places where there is a window for things that aren’t commercial.”

In contrasting degrees, both men have seen the landscape of music change. They impart their combined knowledge about the passage of time into their music, exploring history and tradition without a reliance on nostalgia. Reid maintains a positive perspective on the future of music despite his criticism of the present.

“It’s unfortunate that commercial music took such a large display,” he says. “Calypso was commercialized into reggae. Mambo was commercialized into salsa…and when that happens, it’s a watering-down. That’s why they’re bringing back the old guys.”

After four albums, the two are still making music together, collaborating as equals and feeding off of each other’s artistic polarities. Reid speaks with an inherent optimism about their partnership. “He started as a guitar player and not just a computer guy,” he says of Hebden. “He had a musical foundation. He had some background. It’s still about playing an instrument well.” Hebden responds with the same degree of reverence for Reid’s talents and spirit. “He’s very youthful in a lot of ways,” he says. “He’s not trying to get back to anything. He’s always changing things up.”

Their dedication to a lifetime of music unites them. They aren’t doing anything tactical to change the face of music; their goals are humble. They’re simply playing it the best they can. And in the tradition of a drum-wielding priest, they act as a guide, leading this community towards longevity. Reid believes that many artists get sidetracked by the economics of the music industry.

“There are very few musicians left; most of them are bankers and businessmen,” he says. A grandfather of seven, Reid asserts a need for the next generation to have access to an array of sounds as well as a renewed spirit for the craft. “It’s about a commitment to your art,” he says. “The money will come; the money will go. You can’t depend on the money. Depend on the talent and make it the best you can.”

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