JIAOLONG, the debut album from Dan Snaith’s Daphni alias, is arguably this year’s most anticipated side gig.
Snaith began his musical life in earnest as Manitoba, producing technicolour loop music flecked with acoustic touches and glitchy detail. By 2005, Manitoba had morphed into Caribou, and Snaith’s music had become increasingly pie-eyed and psychedelic. After a pair of dreamy pop albums (2005’s The Milk Of Human Kindness and 2007’s Polaris Music Prize winning Andorra), Snaith erupted out of his cosy niche with the mesmerising Swim. That album’s strange, sinewy “liquid dance music” saw Snaith warmly welcomed into the club firmament, and he’s remained a regular presence in record boxes – and, as a selector, DJ booths – ever since.
As Snaith’s demographic has shifted towards the dancefloor, his work as Daphni suggests that his priorities have tilted in a similar direction. Properly inaugurated in 2011 with the Afrocentric Daphni Edits Vol. 1 12″ for Resista, the Daphni project has been responsible for a string of jubilant, house-indebted singles. Four Tet’s Text label put out debut calling card ‘Ye Ye’ as one half of a split 12″, and Snaith’s own Jiaolong label – also home to hobbyist side projects by Chaz Bundick (Toro Y Moi) and Jeremy Greenspan (Junior Boys) – has offered an outlet for further Daphni releases.
JIAOLONG is Daphni’s first full-length statement, and it’s a robust set. No polish here: these tracks are decidedly granular affairs, characterised by hissy analogue leads, rough-edged drum programming and an unapologetic emphasis on dancefloor magick. There’s always been a nebbish dimension to Snaith’s work, but JIAOLONG sounds surprisingly bold and brash – brassy, even. FACT chatted to Snaith about digging in Honest Jon’s, new Caribou material, and EDM’s ignoble hordes of “guys with electronic toys”.
“Hearing Plastikman or the Chemical Brothers just blew my mind, because it was something unlike anything what was going on where I was growing up.”
You’ve talked very eloquently about the revelations you’ve had in “small, dark clubs” – I wanted to know if you’ve always been immersed in contemporary club culture, or if it’s been a recent discovery (or rediscovery) for you?
The impetus for me starting to make music – or record music, anyway – was in high school. I grew up in a small town in Canada, not knowing anything about electronic music, and then a friend probably introduced me to a very early Chemical Brothers record, or Plastikman or something like that very early on. And that was the beginning of me thinking, ‘Oh, I could have the means to record music. It doesn’t mean necessarily going into a studio’. So that was what kicked off my interest in making music. It just blew my mind, because it was something unlike anything what was going on where I was growing up. So, ever since then, I’ve been a very big fan of dance music.
When I was younger, it wasn’t like I was able to go to clubs at all when I was growing up, because there was no such thing anywhere near where I was living. And then when I moved to Toronto, in my late teens/early twenties, we had to put on our own club night – it was the only way of there being a club night that kind of related to the music we were interested in at the time, my friends and I. But I guess already at that point I was already coming over to visit Kieran [Hebden] and Leaf and the people that were putting out my music then. I was really spending a lot of time buying records, black market 2-step garage records and stuff, when I came over here. So it’s something that I’ve always listened to. I was DJing back then as well.
“When DJing I always like that surprise of two worlds colliding.”
Raising DJing is interesting, because it seems that one of the defining projects of the Daphni project is that you were producing the work quickly. In a way, that’s comparable to DJing – you’re making compositional choices on the fly…
“I guess almost all these tracks were made on a Friday or Saturday afternoon when I was DJing that night, or for a specific DJ set that I was like, ‘Ah, I don’t have any new tracks to play this week, or haven’t got enough records this week. I’m just going to make a track’. And so the tracks were made with that in mind. Necessarily they had to be done quickly, because I was going to be playing them that night. Also, a lot of them are specifically a collision of an organic sounding sample or a soul/disco kind of sample against a synthesiser part of something – which is very much the kind of mode in which I DJ anyway. I always like that collision, or that surprise, of those two worlds colliding when DJing, so it was a natural thing to do when I was making this music, in a way.”
“I was really surprised at how coherent it seemed to me as an album, as a body of work or whatever.”
If, as you say, a lot of tracks were created on an ad hoc basis, do you see JIAOLONG as a coherent piece, or is it more a compilation of works in a similar mould?
“Well, it’s funny – it wasn’t until recently that I thought about putting together an album at all. I mean, some of these things came out on 12″ for the label that I started, or as a track on Kieran’s label, and that was kind of going to be the end of it. It was only recently when I put them all together and listened through them and I thought, ‘This actually, for some reason…’. The tracks are quite diverse and distinct from one another, but they also seem to sit together – to me, anyway – really well. Maybe because they’re all made with my DJ sets in mind, and there’s a kind of particular thing – I’m DJing quite diverse stuff, but I’m mainly looking for the same sort of thing that jumps out at me about the track. So maybe that’s why they sit together well. I was really surprised at how coherent it seemed to me as an album, as a body of work or whatever. It wasn’t until then that I thought, ‘Well, maybe this should be an album’.”
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In terms of shared genetic material across all the tracks, there’s a real Afrobeat strand, which I know you’ve explored on the 12″s (and in your Sinkane remix as well). What is it about that music that particularly speaks to you?
“The thing that resulted in that was the fact that I’m always buying loads of records, and I’m specifically buying records from Honest Jon’s or shops like that that stock reissues. I’m a record collecting guy, who’s always been looking for rare records from different parts of the world. At the moment, the amount of reissues , and the things that are being reissued, has just reached this insane level. Limited runs of things that you’d never think there’d be enough interest to even press up 500 copies of – some really obscure African record, or some Middle Eastern record of a guy playing solo Oud for an hour – the things that are being issued is, for me, really exciting. Because it’s music that I haven’t heard, that’s new to me, but it’s also quite remarkable that there’s a – limited, I guess – fan base for all that music. Sample sources for me often just come from the things I’m excited about listening to, the things that I encounter while I’m sifting through lots of music, so it’s natural that if I hear a loop on something I’m listening to, it’ll end up in a DJ set, and end up on a track.”
“It’s natural that if I hear a loop on something I’m listening to, it’ll end up in a DJ set, and end up on a track.”
I wonder if it’s exciting for you to be part of the same process that people like Honest Jon’s are engaged in. When you sample a Cos-Ber-Zam record, you’re giving unheard buried treasures the chance to be rehabilitated and heard in new forms. Is that a responsibility that you’re aware of?
It’s definitely a responsibility. Sampling obscure music made by musicians in different parts in the world is something I think about. You have a responsibility to communicate that and, wherever possible, to get them involved in the process. That was a great example, the Cos-Ber-Zam track: it was just something I made with that loop, but it was reissued by this awesome label Analog Africa, who clear everything, because actually a lot of the stuff that’s reissued is issued without the knowledge of the original musicians, because it’s too hard to track them down and the labels don’t care or whatever. But Analog Africa travel all over the world collecting these records, but also making sure that everybody is involved every step of the way. I think it’s the first time they’ve ever cleared a track for sampling or for use in another way like this. The first time that label’s done that, the first time that artist’s done that…so that is really exciting for me, to be able to be a part of that process, and for the original artist to be aware that it’s happening and give their approval that it’s happening and stuff like that.”
“I guess Caribou isn’t a particularly macho endeavour either.”
You’ve talked about the Daphni record being more feminine, more “fluid”, than your previous work, and you’ve gone for a gender-bending alias as well. Do you see Daphni as an expression of your own feminine side, in a way?
“Musically, not particularly, apart from that. In a way, it’s primarily a reaction to the worst of dance music, the dance music that I dislike the most, or really don’t find myself connected to at all, is the really macho, super-saw bassline, like the EDM, super-populist stuff, that’s just super-aggressive. I’m also really aware of the whole tradition and trajectory of dance music that I love coming out of predominately gay clubs in New York or Chicago or wherever, and that whole history being lost and bulldozed over by it turning into this shooting match of guys with electronic toys. I don’t feel any relation to that. I do feel, definitely, a relation to the tradition of dance music that I know. But I guess Caribou isn’t a particularly macho endeavour either, so I more set it up in that way to be a reaction to the larger climate of dance music, rather than anything particularly personal to me.”
“It definitely started off as being indistinct where the line between the two was. So, a couple of these tracks on the record were made around the time that I was finishing off Swim. At that time, I was making stuff that was heading more towards dance music territory anyway – is it worth having a whole other alias, or is all the stuff that I’m making a new alias, or what was I going to do? I think that’s typical of me when I’m working on something, I’m not really clear what’s going on. In retrospect, it seems to me now there’s a pretty clear natural distinction between the two projects, but also some of the same things are informing both. Definitely the Caribou stuff I’m working on is still informed by dance music, by the same kind of sounds that ended up on Swim, so they’re not a million miles apart, maybe, but I see distinct personalities in the two.”
Moving on to the label, it’s been a really interesting roster so far: if you look at the Jeremy Greenspan/Toro Y Moi releases, it seems that Jiaolong is almost developing into a halfway house for established artists looking to experiment with more conventionally dance music-based forms. Has that just been a happy accident? Is that something you want to continue cultivating on the label?
“I definitely have no plans to cultivate anything with the label. It really started as a fun, quick, immediate way for me to put out the music that I was making, and nothing more than that. I really enjoyed it, the idea that I could make a track one day, play it that weekend and then have it pressed up and in stores as soon as possible, because Caribou releases are planned months in advance.
“Jeremy’s a very old friend, and probably one of the people who in high school got me into techno records and stuff like that. He’s always had an encyclopaedic knowledge of that stuff, and that’s not something that people necessarily associate with him. Both him and Chaz were both just looking for the same thing: a hassle-free and fast way of releasing music that maybe didn’t fit with their main persona. They’re more interested in producing dance music and stuff these days. It is a happy accident, that wasn’t a plan at all, and there really isn’t one. If a close friend comes to me with a track they want to release, then that’s something that seems like fun and I use the label for, but it’s my worst nightmare to have a big roster of acts. I don’t want to spend my time managing people’s dime and stuff like that.”
“I’m really aware of the whole tradition and trajectory of dance music that I love coming out of predominantly gay clubs in New York or Chicago or wherever, and that whole history being lost and bulldozed over by it turning into this shooting match of guys with electronic toys.”
What are you currently working on now? Is new Daphni material a priority? Is Caribou taking up your time?
“This year was actually supposed to be spent exclusively recording a Caribou record, and in the end we did, and still have coming up, quite a lot of touring with Radiohead. That’s been something that is a once in a lifetime opportunity, something that’s just been so much fun. So I’ve been away from home for that. I’ve been doing a fair bit of DJing with Kieran which also seemed really fun, so there’s something I wanted to do. I’ve been making Daphni music. And in the end, I haven’t had that much time to work on a new Caribou record, so I’m kind of just clearing my calendar from the end of the year onwards.”
“I’ve started a bunch of stuff, but that’s the focus for me from now on: working on a new Caribou record. The Daphni stuff, because I make it so quickly, and it’s just in the moment – or of the moment – it just will happen or it won’t. If I’m still DJing, I’ll probably be making Daphni tracks, but it’s not something that I work over in the long term like a Caribou record.”