“Everything I do, I see myself as a bit of an outsider, I'm not strictly within the dance music world, I'm not strictly within the indie songwriting world, it's always really exciting and gratifying to see how it fits in for other people,” says Dan Snaith, aka Caribou. You can say that again.
Caribou is a rare creature indeed. His journey to dance music stardom has been about as far from the norm as you can get. Despite having made six albums, it was only with his fifth and breakthrough record 'Swim' that he stepped tentatively onto the dancefloor for the first time. But the man born to British parents in the small town of Dundas in the province of Ontario, Canada has been making music since he was a teenager, and released his first long-player on UK leftfield label Leaf back in 2001, under his previous moniker Manitoba.
'Start Breaking My Heart' was the wonderfully wonky start to a parade of records as diverse and different, brilliant and confounding as can be dreamed of, though each is evidently the work of one man and his fertile, febrile imagination.
From beginnings in lush melodic electronics indebted to Warp, Planet Mu and post-rock, through breakbeat-laden shoegaze indie, soaked in heady fuzz and psychedelic rock whimsy, to pitch-bent, sun-stroke woozy synth freakiness, each moment was a reinvention that only someone possessed of Caribou's canniness and unwillingness to compromise could ever get away with. But 'Swim' was the most audacious emergence from the chrysalis yet, the moment in which Snaith would become a leftfield club icon and with it be acclaimed as one of the most exciting and original artists in the modern music world.
He's toured the globe with his band supporting Radiohead, DJs alongside the likes of Four Tet and Floating Points, tops festival line-ups reserved for more purist dance acts and enjoys that rarest of appeals, uniting discerning indie kids, techno snobs and serious music collectors in their appreciation. It's into this welcoming atmosphere that his new album 'Our Love' is to materialise, one of expectation and a fan-base used to a more danceable version of Caribou, cemented by his increasingly high profile DJ sets and records as freaky techno pseudonym Daphni.
As we find out when we meet Dan one sweltering afternoon midsummer in a cafe in London's Stoke Newington, it's as much of a surprise for him that this new incarnation of his long-running solo project has been embraced.
“The response to ‘Swim’ was so overwhelming, I didn’t expect it to connect with people the way that it did,” Dan admits. “I had been listening to all this club music and had been influenced by Theo Parrish or whoever, thinking in those terms, but I didn't know if people would hear it in those terms as well. So the way that people would tell me in Ibiza the sun came up and they were playing 'Sun', that was a track I never thought would be played in a club ever, and it took on this whole new life that I didn't expect at all.”
Sat opposite DJ Mag in the quiet post-lunch lull of the cafe, Little Dragon playing low in the background, Dan is a refreshingly honest and frank interviewee. Friendly and humble, dressed in a low-key green t-shirt and wearing the prescription glasses he removes for photos, he's an engaging presence who listens carefully to our questions and answers thoughtfully, sometimes at length, sometimes more succinctly.
Considering his stardom, there's no arrogance or self-regard evident here. Instead, Caribou wants to engage with the world, wants to open up. With 'Our Love', he's set out to make the record he feels that his fans want, and that he's been working towards with all his albums to date. “'Swim' was the first time, which seemed funny after so much time, that I felt there were all these people waiting to hear what my next album is gonna be like. I felt I should be trying to talk to them as directly as possible. I don’t just mean in the lyrics, I mean musically. Put as much of myself [into it]. That’s the only thing that I started with for this record, that I wanted to shorten that distance between me and them as much as possible, make a record that was explicitly for sharing with them and had as much of myself in it.”
The opposite of the 'I made this record for me and if anyone else likes it it's a bonus' kind of standard response so common from artists, then. “That was my clichéd answer for years!” Dan grins. “It just didn’t reflect how I felt anymore. All these things were happening in my life, I was becoming more sentimental and valuing connections with people more as I got older, so I thought, if I’m gonna do that in personal life then the music I’m making should reflect that.”
'Swim' touched on the dance influences which had only indirectly inspired his music to that point, delving deep into his wide knowledge to create something fresh, weird and wonderful. 'Odessa' which opened the record bubbled with squelching machine-elf bass, funky guitar twangs, and endless subtle touches, machine screes and calls of exotic birds, a lolloping elephantine rhythm, while 'Sun' was one of the most unlikely, welcome underground house hits of recent times, its pitch-bent synths melting like a multicolour waxwork in green fluorescent fire, finding favour with DJs of all kinds.
But 'Our Love' goes further, the product of all those DJ sets and increased confidence in his idiosyncratic, psychotropic club beats. 'Can't Do Without You' is a soaring lovelorn thing of gorgeousness, looping up that “can't do without” vocal, Dan's own falsetto voice direct, honest, heart-wrenching. When the synths and the drums crash in, it's a chills-down-the-spine moment, that keeps building bigger and bigger into a phased, psychedelic and yet entirely accessible epic, at home on radio playlists, dancefloors and most of all in the headphones where it takes on a real poignancy.
But even the fans that came to his music via the funked up Daphni project or became acquainted via his DJing will be shocked by the title track, a slamming, raw analogue house caper that progresses through tough 4/4 drums and percussion, majestic live string work from revered orchestral arranger Owen Pallett, to raw, warping bass and big Inner City style Detroit synth stabs. It's easily his biggest banger to date.
'Julia Brightly' has his trademark brain-scrambling contorted keys, a pipe organ dissolving into vapour over skipping 4/4 garage drums and vox cut-ups; while the profoundly eerie cyborg flute of 'Mars' hovers hauntingly over freaky, kind-of Afro drum patterns and sub bass rumbles, a close cousin of his Daphni material — you can definitely hear Ben UFO or Scruff dropping this one.
It's his most personal and definitely best full-length to date and really seems destined to tip him further into the public consciousness, and its dance directness is quite deliberate, says its creator, who wanted to shed some of the obfuscation and unnecessary drapery of his previous work in favour of something that went straight for the emotional jugular — as well as the dancing feet.
“It is a distillation,” Dan says. “A lot of the music that I made was intentionally sloppy right back to [second album] ‘Up in Flames’. I put loads of stuff in, the beats not being exactly in time or whatever. But with this record the idea of wanting to transmit as directly as possible to people meant that I wanted to make it as clear and put everything in the right place so there was less ambiguity. ‘This is clearly intending to transmit this’. A lot of the music also comes directly from the music I’ve been listening to. Club music is definitely that direction, the Daphni record, that plays into it.”
Emboldened by the success of 'Swim', which for the first time saw him bare his soul lyrically as well as delving into dance music, 'Our Love' is more personal still, a result of the epiphany that listeners welcomed a more direct Caribou, found the music more emotionally engaging and easy to relate to. “All the music I’ve loved the most whether it’s instrumental music like free jazz records, Pharoah Sanders or Albert Ayler, or a Beach Boys song, or a techno track, is when you get the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, it makes you feel something really intensely," Dan confesses.
"That’s how I know when I make a piece of music [work], is if I get some kind of emotional kick from it. I think my records are getting more personal and more emotional because I’m getting more confident about sharing myself with people and putting more of myself into the music, I’m less guarded in the way I’m approaching the music. I’ve always wanted to do that, it’s just been a question of opening up to doing it more and more.
“Listening back to [fourth record] ‘Andorra’,” he continues, “I’m proud of it and it speaks to me of the time that I made it, but a lot of it is referencing the 1960s and I thought, 'Why am I doing that, making music that is so beholden to the past?' The lyrics on the record don’t have anything to do with me, they’re just sketches to do with the tone of the song. It really made me think, on ‘Swim’ and on this record even more so, what are the important things that should be in my music? And I guess I thought it should be about me, it should about my life. It should be me.”
If his songs before tackled his own feelings for the first time, 'Our Love' sees him take on probably the most hackneyed subject in popular music, love. But it's a far more thoughtful meditation on the topic which looks at what love really means, and the different manifestations of it from the perspective of a man whose forties are in sight and who has experienced life enough to know that the idealised image is often far removed from the reality.
“I’m getting to an age in my life where I have a young daughter, I have lost friends and family members in the last few years and people in my life that are good friends have been through good relationships for a while and they’ve either got in a relationship that’s complicated or compromised in some way, and not the kind of love that you idealise as a teenager, like 'I’ll fall in love and it’ll be perfect'. Some of my friends have got divorced and got back together again. All of the important things in my life, that are important to me personally, are all manifestations of love, in this complicated, textured way, not in a way that is straightforward and simple.”
Love can mean any number of different things, thinks Dan, not just the first flush of idealism but also a deep bond for people who've been in a relationship for a long time — and the conflicting emotions that can embody.
“People of our parents' generation, you look at their relationships, what does it mean to be in love when you’ve been 50 years together? You bicker all the time but you’re dependent on one another, it’s functional and dysfunctional at the same time. Just thinking about all these kinds of relationships. My relationship with my daughter is amazing but it’s been difficult at times. It’s made me think about how much complication and texture there is in love.”
'Our Love' is also not just a declaration of love for his fans, but also about his own love of music, and his sometimes ambivalent relation to it. “My relationship with and love of music is this thing that’s always been there with me but it’s also sometimes difficult. There can be months and months where I think, 'I can’t make another record', it’s really frustrating.
And then something comes together and there’s this amazing excitement and also this feeling of warmth and connection with people who liked ‘Swim’ that I never felt in that way before, mainly cos we were playing different kinds of shows like festivals, or I would talk to people more after shows or they would connect with me on Twitter, they’re not even talking to me but they mentioned me, and I see the way it’s in their life.
It made me think about that relationship and about how I can make something that’s generous and loving in some sense rather than, 'OK it’s my record, I don’t care if you like it or not', and make something that’s explicitly about sharing.”
Caribou's new directness and overt house, techno and garage influences aren't the only new things in his bag. The airbrushed, deliberate sheen of modern R&B — and all the robotic qualities and alienness of it, at once soulful but hugely synthetic — also finds its way onto 'Our Love'. “I became interested in those really slick digital textures, feeling transparent, really glassy synth sounds.
That’s such a lovely frame for a voice, something really human and warm in the middle of it,” enthuses Dan.
The slow jam beats and Dan's own vocal delivery on 'Sliver' reflect off ghostly glimmering machine surfaces; the profoundly emotional, dark smoulder of 'Back Home' reverberates with the late night creep of R&B, but the lyrics subvert the mood into a tale of dejected love — “where did it all go wrong?” — while the chorus melody has the glowering triumph and cold power of a John Carpenter score.
That gnarled R&B flavour is the setting for one of the two collaborations on the record, Jessy Lanza draping her gorgeous voice over the swerving, staggering shoegaze synth and android soul of 'Second Chance'.
Jessy, whose own debut album 'Pull My Hair Back' on Hyperdub was one of the best records of 2013, is also from Dundas where Dan grew up, and came to work with him after being introduced by Junior Boys' Jeremy Greenspan, who co-produced her album.
“Because Jeremy is such a close friend, I was hearing those tunes two or three years before they were released. He was like, 'I'm working on this project with this woman Jessy, who is amazing, you'd really like it'.
He was playing the demos to me and stuff. The first time I heard it I was like, 'This is amazing. It would be so great to work with her'. And I got to know her and become friends with her. All the people I've ever collaborated with have been close friends as well, so that's as important to me as anything else, knowing that I can have a really open dialogue.
“Particularly with the Jessy track, it just transformed the whole thing. This little instrument, a loop, I didn't know what to do with it, I didn't know where the track was going. I came back and it's got this killer pop hook. It was so exciting and such a gift for me as someone who's worked by myself all the time, to have something that I've worked on over and over again, got to a dead end with, to just have this new life breathed into it.”
It's the juxtaposition of seasick electronics and clear, beautiful vocal that makes 'Second Chance' such an arresting track, and Dan agrees that it's the marrying of such unlikely parts which gives it its potency, which he reckons is why collaborating can be so fruitful.
“You want to collaborate with someone who can do something you can't do or you wouldn't think of,” he points out.
“It's something neither of us could have made separately. That fizzy textured synth is something that I love and I've used other times and appeals to me, but her vocal is something totally different that would have never come about any other way.”
The second guest that breathes another kind of vitality into the new album is Owen Pallett, a string arranger and orchestral genius who regularly works with some of the biggest acts in pop and rock, from Arcade Fire to Last Shadow Puppets. A good friend of Dan's for years, his contribution to the record has brought a completely new perspective, a way of thinking about the construction of the music so different to the usual Caribou way of working. As well as adding his own mellifluous strings to tracks 'Our Love' and 'Your Love Will Set You Free', Owen helped oversee some of the other tracks too in a way that opened Dan's eyes to the possibilities of collaboration.
“He never makes anything that could be classed as dance music, but I know he likes and listens to that kind of music. I was like, 'Why don't we rent a studio one day when I'm in Toronto and record some dance music?' So we did that, and that was the Daphni and Owen Pallett 12” that came out [as 'Julia']. That was the first thing where we started collaborating, and we had so much fun.
It was immediately obvious he had such different ideas than other people I would talk to musically. For one thing, before he plays a note he writes everything down on a score. Nobody does that! (laughs). We did that and had such a good time, and he was just like, 'If you're making a Caribou record, I should definitely be involved in that' and I said 'that's a great idea'. He and Jessy were involved really early on. I sent them really early sketches of things. You can hear his violin arrangements on the record, but his influence is much more fundamental.”
MUSICAL ADVENTURES BEGIN
Caribou's musical adventure began when he was at high school in Dundas. A small but liberal place with a stoner subculture, it was musically stuck in the '70s when Dan was growing up and his early listening was the prog rock of Pink Floyd and Yes, a typical musical diet in the town. It was his friend Koushik Ghosh (who's made psychedelic hip-hop for Stone's Throw Records) who played him modern electronic and dance music first, bringing back tapes of ambient techno and jungle that he'd bought at London's Camden Market when visiting family in the UK.
"That stuff just blew my mind," Dan remembers. "His brother [who recorded as Himadri] actually released a few records on [Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva’s techno label] Plus 8, and was coming over here to do gigs and stuff. He was a secretive character, and interesting guy, but he would feed me little bits of stuff. I’d be like ‘what is this music?’ It totally flipped everything for me, just the things it valued and appreciated.
It was the polar opposite of what people were looking for in the music that I liked at that time. It was repetitive and minimalist. I was in the paradigm at that point of learning to play instruments really well. This was like, ‘I don’t even know how to make this record’, I didn’t know what the person did. I was very naïve, it was electronic music 101 for me."
Turning his back on the musical virtuosity he'd prized to that point, Dan nonetheless recognised that he at least knew something about synths, which had appeared in the '70s records by the aforementioned prog behemoths. It became his mission to somehow fuse the grandiose keys of Floyd with rudimentary dance beats.
He nicked a weird primitive sampler from his high school that was gathering dust in a corner of the music department, begged his folks to buy him a cheap synth, got a simple four-track recorder, and then proceeded to put those parts together, using an early home computer to sequence his tracks. “The music I was making was this weird hybrid of really progged out stuff, but influenced by dance music. It was really strange!
“My dad is a math professor, so there were computers around. I had a little Mac Classic, the little one-piece thing with a black and white screen. It was really basic, you could sequence everything via MIDI. You could have a few things going on at one time. In some ways it's not too different from what I’m doing now. The music’s different, the technology is way more unlimited, but it’s the same, I’m still recording at home by myself.” He may be embarrassed for anyone to hear these early recordings now, but they lit the touch-paper for what was to become an extraordinary and distinguished career. While studying maths at university in Toronto, his productions improved and began to take shape into something more discernibly his own. During summer holidays he would come over to the UK where his parents, after his dad accepted an academic job, were again based, and do work experience in Bristol at computer company Hewlett-Packard.
It was a fortuitous meeting during this time that set him on the path to releasing his first tracks. “One of those years I would read maybe DJ, the NME and stuff and I would look at what was going on musically before I would release any music. I went to the Big Chill cos it was near-ish Bristol, but I didn’t know anybody, I was hanging out with these mathematicians who didn’t have any interest in going to festivals.
I was on my own culturally out there, so I went to this festival by myself and started talking to people. I had just got into [Four Tet/Kieran Hebden’s first band] Fridge, the first album, and I saw them just playing this board game in the grass at the festival, and I went up and started talking to them like a total mad person would (laughs), and we got on really well. Just around that time I made the first track I was really happy with, when I went back to Canada. It was a track called ‘Anna and Nina’ which was on a compilation on Leaf, I sent that to Kieran and stayed in touch with him a little bit, and he sent it to a couple of different labels and Leaf were interested, he was in touch because he had done a release on Leaf.
‘Anna and Nina’ had a soul-feeding Alice Coltrane spiritual jazz aura, filtered through ambient techno electronics. That vibe was to influence ‘Start Breaking My Heart’, a melodic, emotive electronic masterpiece. Listen to ‘Brandon’ or ‘People Eating Fruit’ from that record, and you can hear certain sounds, the tinkling resonant bells, melancholic mood, and multiple layers, not to mention drum tattoos, and funky electro basslines, in his music now. But his follow-up and first breakthrough ‘Up in Flames’ took a sharp left turn in sound, signalling Caribou’s first transformation and characterising the shapeshifting approach that would come to define him.
Though it still featured heavy drum breaks, bursts of electronic dissonance and a freewheeling cut and paste approach to sampladelia, tunes like ‘Hendrix with KO’ were more like shoegazing psychedelic rock, midway between '60s harmonic pop and the fuzzy messiness of My Bloody Valentine and their ilk. “I was already collecting hip-hop and into sampling culture, when I was in high school we’d be buying records at flea markets for a drum break. That leads you down into funk and soul music but also psychedelic rock because there was a lot of that where I was growing up.
I was getting more and more into that old music, and around that time I discovered the first couple of Mercury Rev albums. I finished ‘Start Breaking My Heart’ and tried to make another record that was very much the same because people seemed to like that, because it’s what people wanted... I totally failed and made an album I just didn’t like at all, and I shelved the whole thing.
I was more excited by these bigger, more maximalist shoegazing rock sounds, and putting that together in sampled music, and at that time I was also listening to a lot of Madlib and Jay Dee [later known as J Dilla], they weren’t making that kind of music per se but they were making heavily sampled music that sampled from lots of different things.”
TRUE TO HIS ART
This insistence on being true to his own art was a risk, but it was a risk that paid off. Dan admits that the way ‘Up in Flames’ was loved and more popular than the first album, despite being so different, gave him a boost of confidence that allowed him to keep doing his own thing, not pandering to what people expected. “I feel tentative about something, and then the response galvanises me, and makes me feel good about it. Also I feel like I’m unable to not change, that’s what happened when I tried to make another album like ‘Start Breaking My Heart’.
I just have to follow my nose. If I’m not excited by it then I can’t make it come together.” Bringing his own voice into the equation and singing on tracks from ‘Up in Flames’ onwards took him closer to the rock world — while ‘The Milk of Human Kindness’ cleaved close to its predecessor in style, it was arguably less electronic. The fourth album ‘Andorra’, which won prestigious Canadian award the Polaris Music Prize, was more an exercise in authenticity, and painstakingly recreated late 1960s psychedelia, albeit filtered through a modern ear.
But Dan’s inspirations were already returning to the dance music sounds that first inspired him, and the latest mutations that were emerging in the late 2000s. “When I was making ‘Andorra’ I heard James Holden’s stuff for the first time, that’s when ‘The Idiots are Winning’ came out, and it blew my mind. When we were touring ‘The Milk of Human Kindness’, we toured with Junior Boys, and they are encyclopedic disco connoisseurs, and that was when people were getting into Italo, going back to Daniele Baldelli’s mixes, that was when I started getting back into it.
That was when Carl Craig was turning in his middle period of totally classic remixes, ‘Falling Up’, Gavin & Delia Russom, Junior Boys.
“Subsequently when the whole bass music production thing happened, I started to know those guys like Floating Points and the Hessle Audio guys, Joy Orbison and stuff.”
He’d been a DJ when he was living in Toronto, had put on parties with friends, hosting Kieran Hebden’s first international DJ set, and had done a kind of half DJ set, half live set when touring his first album. But as his music changed he moved away from it. When his own sounds pursued that direction again he returned to playing out, and began to garner a serious reputation as a leftfield club DJ par excellence, able to cut the mustard with the heavyweights.
The Daphni project was a direct consequence, Caribou’s outlet for pure club tracks designed to hit dancers with head-trip vibes, danceable beats and voluminous bass. Anything but tracky though, these sample-heavy productions have a very distinct and freaky sound, ‘YeYe’, with its tribal chant, techno drums and synapse frying synth becoming a huge left-of-centre club hit.
“With the Daphni stuff I was more conscious a DJ could play this track, cos that's explicitly why I made it. But again it took me by surprise, tracks like 'YeYe', I'd play it and people would respond, and I'd be like, ‘I didn't know that that many people knew this track or had heard this track other places’.”
Gearing up for loads of live dates with the full Caribou band, he’s set to earn a wider audience than ever at festivals and his own shows. It’s remarkable how many hats Caribou is able to wear and how snugly they all fit. Where he goes next is impossible to guess, but there’re no doubt more of us than ever waiting for the results with baited breath.