Keiran Hebden, June 2007

[Forgot to record at the start, so this begins partway through him talking about how they’ve been received at festivals. Also, I’ll write up an intro later. I’m lazy, and it’s late.]
…We even played this folk festival called the Green Man in Wales. When there’s all these other bands playing, I think we come across as kind of refreshing amongst everything else. And even though there’s a lot of improvisation in our set, it’s still quite a good time. There are quite solid rhythms that people can dance to. It’s not totally abstract. The festival environment seems to generally work really, really well.

You’ve made it clear that you’re more of a fan of acts that push the envelope, like Aphex Twin and Missy Elliot, than of nostalgia acts like Jet. Do you think musicians are rewarded at all for pushing the envelope these days?
Bands are rewarded more for being celebrities these days, and for performing in a certain way, and being able to be marketed in the right way. I think it’s a shame that people don’t seem to get quite as excited by the innovation in music quite as much as they used to. I think times have changed. In the 60s and 70s, you could put synthesizer on your record, and it’d be the wildest exciting new sound. And people were excited about things that seemed modern and futuristic. But I don’t think people are excited about things that are modern in quite the way that they used to be. It’s been so fashionable over the last ten years or so to look back. I think there’s a good way of looking back and a bad way of looking back. I think hip hop’s got the right way of looking back–it looks back and steals stuff and destroys it and makes it into something new. But I think if you just look back and just copy something from the past and put it on a pedestal, it’s kind of unhealthy.
You can tell, people used to watch science fiction and imagine by the year 2000 we’d all live on the moon, and only listen to synthesized music, and things obviously haven’t turned out like that. I don’t think people look towards the future with the kind of excitement that they used to. I think they just imagine us melting from a combination of heat and radiation when they think of the future.

Given your passion for the history of music, when you’re hanging around with Steve, does it feel like an equal relationship, or do you ever feel more like the fan trying to wheedle one more story out of him?
He’s a fascinating person to be around, but we’ve spent so much time together over the last couple years that… He’s obviously older than me, so he tells a lot more stories from his past than I do, but I think we chat away like any friends do. It’s just that he’s got these stories up his sleeve that are totally mind-blowing for me, about touring with Wilson Pickett and playing with Bo Diddley and hanging out with John Coltrane and going to see Art Blackey for the first time, and seeing Hendrix live, and all these various things. It’s wonderful to listen to him. He’s been there for so many interesting moments in music, and also taken part himself. He’s followed a slightly different path to a lot of other musicians. He hasn’t just done jazz, he’s always been involved a lot in soul music as well, and spent a lot of time in Africa. So hearing these things, and also being able to learn from him as well, he respects and understands music so well and is able to explain to me why certain things from the past work and other things didn’t, and what makes certain moments great.

Steve’s said before that he feels you two have a relationship like Miles and Coltrane, or Diz and Bird. Is it intimidating to have someone of that stature describe it in those terms?
I guess on one hand, if I think about it too much it is, but also, knowing Steve, he lives life so enthusiastically and passionately. He enjoys things so much. We make music together, and I can see it in his face how much he’s getting into it. You can tell how much he’s into it. He says for him, it feels this exciting to him, this great kind of musical relationship, and I enjoy it that much as well. I feel the same way. Him making statements like that is to just express what a good time he’s having. And he’s someone that’s met some of those people as well, and saw them play. He seems to search for those kind of magical connections in music. I think he thinks that those are the absolute substance of great music, musicians having strong connections like that.

Were you surprised at how quickly and strongly that connection established itself?
We both were. It was really a successful and exciting first concert and first recording session, and I think we were just both enjoying it so much straight away that it didn’t take us long to figure out that this was something we wanted to pursue more. We did a couple of shows and a day of recording, and hung out together for a weekend, and I just know that for me, after that weekend it felt like everything had changed. A whole new musical world had opened up to me. It was at a time where I was really looking for something new, as well, something that would push me more as a musician, and it was just suddenly there. From then on, there’s been no looking back. It’s just seemed obvious to do as much of it as possible.

When you just started the project, were you ever worried that, just given the equipment you use, you wouldn’t have the freedom to improvise to the same extent as someone using more traditional instruments?
We’re not really worried about it being all out improvisation. The fact that there’s so much improvisation going on in the music is something that people tend to notice straight away when they hear about the project, but we don’t use the improvisation as a motive in the music. It’s not the concept behind the music. I wouldn’t describe it as “improve” to anyone. It’s more just the method we use to make the music we want to make. We both feel that we get a lot more excitement in the music and all the magic when it isn’t really planned out, when we’re just allowed to play and follow our instincts. But if you come to the show, you hear the same kind of tunes and basslines each night. It’s not about creating something that’s completely different every night. It’s different every night in terms of the dynamic and the composition, but we play the same songs.
We like to improvise because it allows the music to endlessly evolve. You can start a tour and one song might be… for instance, we’ve got this one song on the album called “Our Time”, and at the beginning, when we first started playing, it was more of a mellow ballad with harps and very sound-tracky, and it’s become a more minimal techno thing now. It’s evolved into this really different thing. To me, having music evolve in front of a crowd through recording and live performance rather than slowly working on it in a studio for months and months, that’s a really exciting and interesting thing. When you’re coming up with your new ideas in front of a few thousand people, it puts a different pressure on you.

Have you ever thought about adding more elements to the sound? Making it a quartet, or experimenting in that way?
We quite enjoy having just the two of us. It definitely works with Steve being in control of all the rhythmic elements and me being in control of all the melodic elements. But Steve’s got his own ensemble as well. It’s more a traditional jazz set-up, where it’s him and double bass and saxophone and keyboards, and I play with them every now and then. They just go under the name Steve Reid Ensemble. So we have the experience through them of more of a group sort of thing. We also went to Africa earlier this year, to Dakar and Senegal, and we worked with a lot of African musicians there. It was the two of us, and a keyboard player Steve works with from Russia, and then four African musicians, and that was a very different dynamic. It was totally new experience for me.

Will those sessions be coming out?
I’ve just finished mixing them, and we’re compiling them into an album at the moment. I don’t know what label’s putting it out, it’s all being worked out at the moment. We’ve just got the record finished, the music and artwork together, and now we’re going to find someone to release it, but that’s definitely lined up. It’ll be the next Steve Reid Ensemble album. He did a release on Soul Jazz a while ago, so this will be the follow-up to that.

Improvisation is something that’s been missing from popular music for so long, do you think that a large audience would accept it if it were brought back?
I’d like to think so. For me, I think it’s a huge problem in music. I remember really noticing it when this DVD of Led Zeppelin came out a few years ago, of them at the Albert Hall in 1970 or something. They were at the peak of their power, Led Zeppelin II is out, and they’ve got these massive tracks. They’re playing these huge hits they’ve got, and they’re playing 20 minute versions that are completely bananas. I saw that and I thought, people wouldn’t get with this nowadays. They’d be slated for doing that these days, if a hot new band came out, the Arcade Fire or whatever, and started doing 25 minute versions of their big hits. It just wouldn’t really go down.
I thought, this is what’s really missing. People go to a concert these days wanting to hear a record re-created. Bands go to these enormous lengths to try to get it sounding as close as possible to the record when they play live, and I think that’s a real shame. But it’s a different time. Musicians’ concept of what musicianship is has changed. Guys from Led Zeppelin were musicians who believed in the concept of being able to play their instruments in a more blues and jazz sort of tradition, and would want to play with everyone they could. Nowadays it’s more about forming a band. There are good sides and bad sides to both ways, but I want to see bands develop within a performance, and go and see two shows in a year and have them be completely different. Things like that really interest me, and it’s definitely something I’ve been trying to put into my music over the past few years.

Punk music did some great things in terms of stripping music down, but it did seem to put a stigma on actually being able to play.
I don’t think punk was just about re-creating an album night after night either. I think it’s quite a bad combination of the stigma with musicianship, and moving away from punk and people trying to do something more ambitious but just recreate it perfectly every night is less than ideal.

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