Four years have passed since Swim, Dan Snaith’s third album as Caribou, but don’t call it a hiatus.
In the meantime, he’s put out an album of dance music, Jiaolong, under his Daphni alias, and dealt with the public enthusiasm for ‘Swim’’s big-hearted, gently psychedelic electronica by taking the Caribou band pretty much everywhere where they might find a stage. “We did 200 shows in a year,” he grins, sat in the back of a coffee shop in his adopted home of London’s Stoke Newington. “Some website automatically adds up the number of miles you’ve travelled, and we were number two in the world. Everyone looked at each other like…” And he looks slightly pained.
The new Caribou album, Our Love, is a collection of intimate, demi-club music that, if anything, enhances the move towards minimalism on Swim, placing Snaith’s voice front and centre. Snaith’s sideline as a DJ has certainly rubbed off – there’s a R&B snap to ‘All I Ever Need’, some devious syncopations to the flute-flecked ‘Mars’ – but also a sparseness and focus that places them just at the edge of the dancefloor. Owen Pallet contributes violin throughout, while Jessy Lanza appears on album centrepiece ‘Second Chance’. The Hyperdub diva will also be heading out on tour with the Caribou band, although Snaith promises the schedule will be dialled down somewhat. “I can’t travel that much now I’ve got a daughter. But we’ve still got, like, 60 shows.”
FACT speaks to Snaith a couple of days after his return from Dimensions Festival, where Caribou played in a Roman amphitheatre, and Snaith took to the decks shortly after Detroit techno pioneer Moodymann.“I’d actually never seen him before, he was just so crazy and weird. He used this horrible filter on the Pioneer DJM-900 mixer, like [makes grating noise]. Everything was contrary to the way you should plan a DJ set, but in a brilliant, idiosyncratic way. I loved it – the last thing you need is another seamless Detroit DJ mix.”
Are you DJing a lot at the moment?
I’ve kind of cut down on taking DJ bookings, it’s the most pragmatic reason is that I lose my voice. If I’m out in clubs, talking to people over music, it just fucks up the next day’s show. If there’s a few days in between you know you’ll be OK, but there’s definitely been some days where I’ve been, like, oh man – I shouldn’t have played Panorama Bar last night. And the other guys in the band are looking at me like, yeah, that was a really smart move, Dan…
Can you tell me a little about your relationship with London? You moved here in 2001 to study, but I’m wondering why it feels like the right place for you now, what you get from the city.
Well, my parents are both English, and I always had a British passport growing up. I was born in Canada, but the UK was always like the place I looked to. My older sister moved to London to do her studies over here eight years before me, so I used to come over here and visit, go out to parties, get Time Out and see what was going on. There are very few places in the world that are as cosmopolitan, in terms of people from all over the world living in them. The community I live in, it’s like 50 percent Muslim, 50 percent orthodox Jewish. And then a few middle class pretenders like myself moving in and ruining everything.
Still, it’s funny, when I moved here in the mid ‘00s, it didn’t feel like a particularly exciting place. The exciting music was coming from the States – Black Dice, Lightning Bolt, Animal Collective. But Swim was an album about being in London and being excited by pop culture, meeting James Holden, Floating Points, Joy Orbison, Pearson Sound and the Hessle guys. Daphni came out of that too.
So was that when you got sucked into London’s club culture.
I always have a slanted perspective on the club world, because I don’t drink and I don’t do drugs. I have a friend who’s a mathematician – I’m an ex mathematician, he’s genuinely a mathematician. He’ll go, Dan, I’m going to Fabric at 6am tomorrow to see Villalobos play. By which he means, I’m going to wake up at 5.30am and go straight down there. We’ll arrive and it’ll be total carnage, but we’ll just be getting into the music. Having totally a different experience to everyone else, I presume.
It’s interesting that both interpretations can exist and be valid. This is music that’s flexible in its appeal.
Exactly. In these last few years I’ve been to Plastic People, a whole lot of times, and it’s exciting whether you’re there’s to DJ, you’re there with a bunch of friends, or you’ve gone to check something out yourself. I’m totally conscious of the fact I’m 15 years older than most of the people in the clubs these days, but it doesn’t bother me.
Having concentrated on DJing and the Daphni stuff over these last few years, has that changed what Caribou is in your head?
A couple of things have reshaped it slightly. It took me a long while to wrap my head around the reaction to Swim. It wasn’t an album I expected to connect with people the way it did at all. I mean, I’ve been releasing music for a while, but it was definitely like, wait, there’s something different here. Now we’re playing on the main stage, rather than the second stage, or now we’re suddenly headlining the dance tent.
What quality did Swim have that appealed to people? Did you do your market research?
I still don’t really know. For me, it was my most idiosyncratically ‘me’ album. I look back at my past records and think, why was I trying to sound so much like albums from the 1960s? But Swim was an attempt to make a record that sounds like my life, the environment I was living in. It wasn’t me trying to be contemporary, but I was trying to avoid references from the past. I felt was a pretty weird album, but it connected with people in some way. It gave me the vote of confidence to make a record that was personally about me, and would identifiably sound like me. I like that people would hear it and go, that’s Dan’s music. But Daphni… I think that changed things. I’m no longer hung up on making this distinction between the two things. Daphni was specifically me making music for my DJ sets, to play in clubs. It’s got a very specific purpose and intent. While a Caribou record can have anything on there. But the music I’m into, that I’m excited by at the moment, is club music, and so that is going to be reflected.
Because Caribou can be anything, it’s coloured by this experience.
Exactly. I guess the Daphni record does this in a very specific way, but the Caribou record, I want it to be like a photo album of my life, both musically and non musically.
It feels minimal and uncluttered. There’s a lot of space to it.
That’s something I’ve always liked about music, but in the past I’ve found it hard to leave that sort of space, I’ve always been cramming things into music that I’ve made.
When I was writing notes on the record, I wrote down the word “simplicity”, but then crossed it out, it didn’t feel quite right. There’s a lot of parts but they’re all pointing in the same direction.
Right, right. That’s my take on it too.
Were vocals a starting point?
They’re never a starting point, I tend to need something to start from. But the themes in the lyrics, yeah. I’ve had a daughter since Swim came out, and the rhythm of my life – which used to be wake up, go to the studio for 18 hours, say hi to my wife, go to bed – has totally changed. Now it’s like wake up, take my daughter to nursery, get a couple of hours work in, pick up my daughter. Everything is so broken up. The consequence of that is that everything I need to, or want to write about, is right there. It’s not like I spend a long period of time making sure I separate myself, get into my little sound zone.
Where your lyrics before could feel emotionally fraught, these feel like they comes from a place of comfort.
A couple of songs, it’s just one phrase repeated over and over. I used to write lyrics that were just kind of fanciful, like I need some words, and they sound good together, it feels like a song. Now it feels like it needs to be something that relates to me.
From the point of view of someone who DJs a lot, there’s always a lot of discussion about what a bassline does to a crowd, or a drop. But what do vocals do when you’re DJing. Do you think a lot about what effect they have?
That’s a good question actually, and I play a lot of music with vocals – soul and disco records where the vocal is the key element. The obvious answer is that is personalises the experience – you feel that not only is the person singing to you, but that the lyric is presenting the state of mind of the person that is DJing. It’s like they’re trying to communicate something to you, and a big bass drop, or whatever, doesn’t communicate that in the same way. You know, I never thought I was going to have singing in my music. I’m not a trained singer and I still don’t really think of myself as a singer in that way – I have this warbly, amateurish voice. But after a while of making instrumental music – and there’s a llot of instrumental music I love – it felt like that was something missing from my music, something irreplaceable. I like the way a vocal can shoot something really direct, really hit you, in a way that other things can’t.
When the Daphni record came out you put out a press release about that mentioned “the EDM barfsplosion”, which quite a lot of people latched onto, and you’re probably sick of getting asked about…
[laughs] No, go on!
It seemed funny at the time.
Yeah, and increasingly less.
I’m asking in regard to the fact Our Love has quite a minimal aesthetic. Do you get anything from that sense of sonic maximalism? Or is it more the corporate side of EDM, the business side, that you find objectionable?
Yeah. I don’t really find the music objectionable at all, actually, although it’s not really to my taste. It’s kind of interesting. It’s all the things that we’re familiar with from Daft Punk records just cranked up high. The thing I’m interested to see, what happens now? If you’re an 18 year old in Denver, how do you get to the next level of cranked-upness? It’s not music that speaks to me, really… I wonder why.
I mean, in ways that maximalism – in ways it’s not that far from what Black Dice or Lightning Bolt were doing with rock. That crazy, saturated sound.
I wish it was more crazy. It’s crazy in a formulaic way! It’s extremely functional music, and I prefer music that’s functional by accident. But it was definitely the corporatization of it – at that point there were hedge funds investing in these things. I find it funny because – when I moved to Toronto in 1997, ecstacy had finally got to Toronto. There was this conference centre that would hold 60,000 people, and there would be a rave in there, every weekend – sometimes two, a drum’n’bass one and a trance one. There was a huge rave and club culture in the city. And of course I know the history here. But did it happen then in America?
My perception is that it did. I have this book Rave America which documents all these very drug-fuelled mid ‘90s parties. But I think it was very underground, a subculture, whereas in the UK club culture rubbed right up against the mainstream. Acid house was written about in The Sun, it was totally overground.
Right. I guess so. At the time it seemed dance music was the predominant music culture in Toronto. It may not have made it to America, and that may be a lot to do with licensing – the police would just shut those things down. It’s funny, though, I get asked about EDM only in American interviews – occasionally by someone like yourself, who’s into the meta-analysis of it. But in America I get asked about it as if I am EDM [laughs]. They’re like, ‘so you’re like a DJ, you’re part of this EDM thing going on’. Of I do something in a weekend newspaper magazine, they’re like this is an EDM guy. To me it refers to this very specific, explosive phenomenon. I feel it doesn’t apply to what I’m doing at all. It’s in the public consciousness, though, with mums and dads. It’s strange.
Let’s talk about the idea of intimacy in club music. It seems a strange thing, almost paradoxical, to make club music that makes you feel alone in a crowd.
It varies for me. When I was making ‘Can’t Do Without You’, I was imagining playing that at a festival in the summer, sun going down, in front of a big crowd. That was very informed by experiences we’ve had since Swim. It felt like a communal thing. But some of the half tempo, slower songs – stuff like ‘Silver’ – feel very intimate. When I was making it, I was explicitly imagining one person sat there beside me, and communicating with them. When I finished the record, I was like, am I going to play any of these tracks in my DJ set? And with the exception of the flute one, ‘Mars’, I don’t think I can play any of them. None of them are functional enough – they’re sort of half dance music. That’s fine for me, but I can imagine DJs flicking through like, ‘Can’t play that one, can’t play that one, I can almost play this one, but then it goes into a weird bit’.
The two guests on the record are both Canadians – Jessy Lanza, and Owen Pallett. Is that in some way intentional?
[laughs] I’ve known Owen for, like, 12 years – I met him in Toronto, I lived in the same house as him for a while. Jessy is from the same hometown as me, and I know her through Jeremy from the Junior Boys, who co-produced her album. He was playing me her music before she finished the record, and immediately I was like, I’d love to work with her. It’s funny, I’ve only collaborated with Canadians, and I don’t know why. I know it’s important that they’re friends. But I have a lot of non-Canadian friends. I know why these two work in particular. Owen has such a different perspective on music to me. Both were listening to drafts really early on, on all the tracks, and giving me lots of feedback. Owen would be like, why don’t you move the end of this song to the beginning? This one song, he was hearing the downbeat in a completely different way, and he was like, why don’t you phrase it like this? He writes everything as a score. We did this Daphni and Owen Pallett song together, I was jamming out my parts and he was like [mimes scribbling notation]. It’s so interesting, I don’t know anyone like that outside the classical world.
Have you often gone to him for an ear?
This was the first time, actually. He had to suggest he get involved in the album. We recorded a Daphni and Owen Pallett track a while back. I said to him I was going to be back in town visiting over Christmas – why don’t we book a studio and make some music? But he contacted me before this record, like ‘Dan, why don’t you get me on a Caribou record?’ I lose perspective on my music quite quickly, and the two people who are most good at giving feedback are my wife, and Kieran [Hebden]. Kieran should be credited as some kind of a collaborator, as everything from the mix to the mastering to ‘this section goes on a bit’ or ‘this feels like it loses momentum’ – all that stuff is invaluable. I fulfil the same role for him – I’m the first person who hears a lot of his stuff. But I lose perspective so quickly. I’ll hear something six months later and be like man, that’s terrible. But one day later, I’ll have no clue. Kieran has terrific acumen. I think that’s why he’s a great remixer. While I’ve quit remixing entirely. I’d get so frustrated. [laughs]. I’d be like, I don’t like anything about this track except that one hi-hat sound, and I’d turn it in and they’d be like, what the fuck are we supposed to do with this?
Finally, it seems appropriate to ask: what did your wife make of Our Love?
Her and Kieran agree remarkably often. The first thing that happens is that she dismisses a majority of tracks, which is great because otherwise I’d spend weeks, or months, working on them.
You go down a rabbit hole.
Exactly. The ones that connect with her are always the melancholy ones, like ‘Silver’ and ‘Back Home’. And Jessy’s one. That track started as just this little keyboard loop, and the minute Jessy sent over that vocal, for both of us it was just like, woah – what the fuck just happened? Back when we used to live in a one bedroom flat on Caledonian Road, my studio was literally half of our bedroom. She was working from home at the time, and I’d be in the corner going ‘doof, doof, doof’. It was intolerable [laughs]. She still hears it through the floor, but at least these days she can come down with a fresh pair of ears.