A Conversation with Caribou

We chat with Dan Snaith about his plans for 2015, listening to music out of context, and the art and science behind Our Love.

Brendan Frank chats with Dan Snaith about his plans for 2015, listening to music out of context, and the art and science behind Our Love

Dan Snaith has no use for constraints. In his fifteen years recording as Manitoba/Caribou, he has navigated through IDM, kraut, psych, folk, deep house and numerous others, expanding and deepening his sound with each release. His latest effort, 2014’s Our Love, is his brightest and lushest work yet. A record of few words, Snaith’s take on a heavily scrutinized theme can be looked at from any number of angles, which is just the way he wants it.

Though he grew up in rural Canada, Snaith now calls England home. “I’ve been here for 15 years and I’m trying to hold out on the Anglicization of my Canadian accent,” he laughs. Even though Our Love represented the longest wait between studio releases in his career, he’s busier than ever. He has built a home studio, started a family, and begun releasing music under other monikers. We had a chance to chat with Snaith about his plans for 2015, listening to music out of context, and the art and science behind Our Love

So you’ve had pretty big 12 months. What’s the plan for 2015?

Well we’re in the midst of a huge tour at the moment, and we’re doing a ton of festivals over the summer. We’re not going to tour this record endlessly, although it kind of seems like we could. I’m kind of conscious of the need to be at home more because I have a daughter now, so I think that’ll be the end. It will be a good time to get back in the studio as well. If I’m at home, I’m recording.

Have you thought about what direction the recording is going to go? Caribou or Daphni, or something else?

There’s no real rush. Daphni tends to happen once I’ve booked some DJ gigs and I feel the need to play something new. I’m sort of always working on Caribou stuff. If I’m at home and I’m making music I always have that in mind. But I have no deadlines, which is how I’ve always tried to do it. But to me, just seeing what happens means spending every conceivable hour in the studio.

But in the meantime, you’re still touring with the band?

Yeah, when we play with Caribou it’s always a live band, and the key for me is that it’s always the same musicians. I made the records predominantly by myself. But Ryan Smith, Brad Weber and John Schmersal, we’re all Caribou, and they have as much input into the process of pulling the songs apart and making as live version as I do. It’s genuinely a band and an equal endeavor, and I think that translates. It’s not just someone doing something that’s pre-programmed, we’re actually playing the songs and making things up on the fly. I think for me that’s what’s exciting about the shows, getting to play with musicians that I’m really comfortable with. I think that’s why it works as a live show and not a rehash of what’s on the record.

Let’s talk about the record. You described Swim as “underwater dance music.” How would you characterize Our Love?

Caribou 2-min

I don’t have anything snappy for it, unfortunately. The production style of this record comes more from the intent, and the intent was to make a record that’s warm and reaches out to connect with people. The production has a lot of my usual ticks and habits in there, but the big production decisions came out of the desire to communicate that sense of directness and closeness. There are still some of the same elements from Swim here and there, but it doesn’t have the same kind of sonic calling card. There wasn’t a production idea that followed the whole way through.

The record is direct, but portions of it are also very open-ended.

Yeah, that’s something that I really like in other people’s music. When I turned on the mic to sing songs like “Our Love”, I just started singing and that’s what came out. The fact that it’s repeated like a mantra, I think for me that has always been really alluring. It’s ambiguous but it’s insistent. For me it means a variety of different things, but I really like the fact that people can read into it in different ways. That also happened with Swim, which is still my most personal record. There are things on there about my grandparents dying and my relationship with them, and people just took something completely different from those references. I really enjoy that, it’s almost like the music isn’t even really mine anymore once it’s out there. Even though it has a specific meaning for me, to me that’s wonderful, it’s not something I should try to minimize or control.

I’ve heard people say “Can’t Do Without You” is about your daughter or someone else or music in general.

For me, it’s all of those things. It’s definitely for the audience, because that’s a huge part of what’s made my life so wonderful is the fact that I get to play music to a crowd of people who’ve heard it and connected with it. I’m not just making songs in a vacuum. Then there’s that sense of dependence with myself and my daughter, in both directions. It’s also about, perhaps more sinisterly, the way that dependency shapes people’s relationships after a certain time. I see it in my parents’ generation a lot, for example, where they’ve been together for so long they just can imagine being apart. You don’t even know if their relationship has anything to do with the way it was in the beginning. They’re just knitted together in that way. I like the fact that it can mean any of those things.

It is very broad for a song with about 20 words in it.

Making an album about love, which is a very clichéd and overexplored topic, my experience with it is that it takes on so many different forms in so many different types of relationships. There’s so much diversity in the expression of it and I wanted to pack all of that in, because it’s often treated as this single perfect, simplistic, romantic idea.

I wanted to talk to you about your 1000-song mixtape. Where’d the inspiration for that come from?

I kind of feel the need to do that. I love the way my music has been heard by people all over the world. When you play a concert with people and you see them holding one another or kissing one another, I mean it’s corny in a way but it’s also fantastic. I’m making music for people who are waiting to hear it, which makes me excited to make more. I feel a debt of gratitude that I want to repay. The mixtape was just one way of doing that, from one music fan to another. When I’m DJing people will come up to me all the time and ask me for the name of a song. There’s an appetite for it, especially in the current music climate where we can share extremely rare, forgotten music. Twenty years ago I’d hear a song at a set and the DJ might have told me what it was, but I’d never be able to hear it again because there was no way to dig out that one 12”. Or you’d hear a song on a radio show and that’d be it. We have access to all of that now. Sharing seems to be the best thing that we can do, and it’s still a relatively new concept. We can unearth music from the past now, and to me, as a fan, that’s a really exciting thing that I can share with people.

What have you been listening to lately?

Aside from keeping my eye on new music, there’s a house producer called Mr. G who had a ton of output in the 90s. I went through his whole discography. I’ve been digging through a ton of old spiritual jazz records, which I thought I’d exhausted, but I guess not. I’m also looking forward to the reissue of a record from this no wave band called This Heat.

Dance music now seems to be as much about the culture as it is about the music itself. Is it important to you to try and keep those separate now that you’re writing more dance based material?

I think my view on this really comes from growing up in the country as a kid in Canada. There was no scene of any kind. I never had that experience. There were scenes that I would have identified with had I lived in a big city, and it would have been as much about the culture. But I was listening to weird music completely out of context. I’d hear a jungle record and have no idea who made it or why they made it, I’d just think it was the craziest shit I’d ever heard. So I take a pretty context-free approach to music most of the time, which actually may be a fault sometimes. But I hear dance music and I hear it as a collection of musical ideas. Even if I’m aware of the drug and party culture associated with it, it’s interesting, but it’s not of primary of interest to me. What I find fascinating is the way a song is constructed and the way that the parts of a song interact and how they’re presented.

caribou four tet

You’ve cited Kieran Hebden [of Four Tet] as a huge influence. I know you two are good friends, and it struck me that your sounds have sort of evolved concurrently. Can you speak to that?

Well to say Kieran and I are good friends is an understatement. I talk to him about music more than anyone else, so it makes sense to me. Our tastes are evolving in parallel, and the music we make is also evolving in parallel. Other than my wife, he’s usually the first person that hears the music that I make, and vice versa. We’re going to the same shows and playing in the same clubs and the same festivals. We broke from that a bit in the middle of the 00s, were I was doing more psychedelic, krautrock and he was into improvised electronica, but we were still really into what the other was doing. But Swim and There Is Love In You was sort of where we matched back up again and ended up doing shows together and people thinking of us in the same bracket. But we couldn’t be more closely related all the time. We’re always providing feedback and input on each other’s work.Kieran was the one who actually helped me get my music released in the first place. I gave him a demo and he listened to it and sent it to the Leaf Label. It was pretty obvious right from the start that we were incredibly similar people and we’d be lifelong friends.

Why did you start singing in falsetto?

Well I’m not a singer, so anything that I do is just sort of trial and error. I’ll have an instrumental loop going and start singing and harmonizing and just see where it goes. The thing about singing in falsetto, especially for men, is you hear that it’s a range that best transmits emotion. I wasn’t thinking about it that consciously though, it just sort of happened. It actually ends up being a nightmare sometimes once we start rehearsing and I realize I can’t actually sing what I’ve recorded. I get to do as many takes as I want in the studio but then I have to do it on stage in just one. Some songs we’ve had to transpose them down so I can sing them more reliably. It’s gotten way easier though. The first time I sang on stage was terrifying. I’m such an amateurish singer that it was a massive hurdle for me. I’ve improved a lot over the year just by virtue of singing all the time but I’m still pretty terrible.

I wouldn’t say that. 

Well thank you, but you get to hear the finished product on the album. Over the years I’ve gotten a good idea of what I can and can’t do with my voice and I play to my strengths more. But I like the fact that it’s fail and flawed and not a professional sounding voice, it makes it feel more personal.