Caribou opens up on Our Love
“Do you know Aphrodite’s Child? 666?” Dan Snaith jerks his body forward. Heat beaten headrests leech to his light pastel shirt. Brief camera flashes flare against his heavyset specs.
Before any chance of rebuttal, Snaith explains: “That Vangelis project from the late sixties.” We learn that 666, the third album by Greek psych-prog outfit Aphrodite’s Child, was an illusory retelling of the Book of Revelation; an abstract soundtrack to the End of Days and one of the first concept records ever made. Midway through the LP, the song Infinity features actress Irene Papas growling the words ‘I was, I am to come.’ Her projection is schizophrenic and unsuppressed. “The story goes that the band locked her up in a room and fed her crackers that had been soaked in LSD under the door. They then mic’ed up and recorded the results”, Snaith tells us while his facetious grin emerges, clearly revelling in the folly of the fable. “I don’t believe it for a second. But you won’t sleep after listening. It’s the most out there shit you will ever hear.”
Talks away from Snaith’s own musical feat sees the humbled polymath simmer with passion. With Caribou, his chronic modesty seems unique. Drab ballyhoo and PR savvy pitches are totally void. He’s not one for empty exhibitionism. Instead, Snaith nestles himself conveniently on a sagged sofa in the back of a prim Bethnal Green studio space. Despite the tyrannous heat, he carries himself with almost unbothered composure. He shrugs off the day like he has all the time in the world. Snaith is here to talk about his music, but would doubtlessly prefer to discuss Vangelis’s back-catalogue.
“The criticism I give to my music in the past is the lyrical content”, Snaith begins with castigation. “They’ve always just been fictional sketches that evoke the mood of the music. Sort of like words pasted on afterwards to suit the sounds. I started thinking ‘What’s the point of this? Why can’t I write about me or what’s going on in my life?
“Through Caribou, my confidence has been forced to grow and has actually enabled me to talk about things that are important. My family and friends for example. And thanks to that, I’m more engaged in my personal life. I’m less locked away in the studio all the time. I’m more integrated. I’m closer to everyone.” Snaith’s newfound warmth mirrors the feverish density muddying the midday air. Four years trailing the fruits of the excellent album Swim has done anything but dampen Snaith’s sonic pallet. Aptly titled Our Love, the Canadian-bound producer is hoping for the followup to his 2010 classic to be a tender term of endearment. “The response to Swim was so wonderful and overwhelming that it made me think for the first time about making music for others.
“It sounds silly, but the Our Love record is the first time I’ve really considered the people that will be listening to it. I’ve always just done it strictly for myself. Obviously, nobody has a say in what I do exactly, but the goal now is to be warm and generous and share as much of myself as the people that are listening to it. It’s as much for me as it is for them.”
Four years is enough for any artist’s reputation to wane and wither. Yet, Snaith’s grindstone work ethic has purely accentuated his rhythmic footprint. Since Swim, the full-band incarnation of Caribou has circuited the globe from club venue, to theatre, to stadium. Side-projects for band members such as drummer Brad Weber’s Pick A Piper, John Schmersal’s Crooks On Tape, and Snaith’s own club-centric Daphni have emerged. A worldwide tour with Radiohead happened. An itinerary as aggressive as Caribou’s has seen time evaporate. “It feels nothing like four years,” Snaith recollects his thoughts, “we’ve had so many contrasting experiences during that time. I’ve had Daphni. Also having a child has taken up a lot of my time. And all the touring.
“I’m not really interested in any kind of careerist ideology or the concept of moving up a ladder, but every time we go anywhere now the experience just intensifies. We’ve done lots of things we’ve never done. The thing that keeps it interesting for me are the people. I don’t think it’ll ever get boring performing to 200 people or 2000 people. Supporting Radiohead is the prime example of this. At first, we were just thinking ‘how do we translate our music on such a large scale for their audience?’ How does it work when you’re playing to that many people who are totally indifferent to you?”
A scholarly control over their instruments has remained constant in Caribou’s live incarnation. Snaith as the amenable ringleader manifests an opiate of synth runs schlepped alongside his fragile falsetto. His electronic dexterity translates neatly from studio to stage. What’s more problematic, is Snaith’s prolific output. “I find it really hard bringing things together because I record everything. I never make music without the record button turned on. That’s why I generate so much of it”, he confesses.
“The problem becomes 800 different half-started projects on my hard drive and trying to get some kind of perspective on it all. It’s overwhelming trying to remember the takes that were good from the takes that weren’t any good. It’s like I can’t see the forest for the trees sometimes. For Our Love, I got to the point where I was half- finished on the album and there was just so much stuff.” Snaith pauses and shakes his head as if comprehending the extravagance of his craft. “It’s like ‘Where is the album within this?’”
But, of course, from all the half-starts and blueprints stemmed Our Love; a crisp and compact collage of contemporary electronic music. Intimate RnB overtones smooch up with Detroit techno and scrupulous synth sampling. It sounds like the future, which is exactly Snaith’s intention. “Contemporary RnB and hip-hop production is a fundamental influence on where I started out with making this record.
“Mostly the instrumental side of Our Love’s production was coming from that world. That kind of hyper-digital, glossy, glassy, two-dimensional synth sounds and drum sounds. That was the jump-off point. Of course, the addition of strings and analogue synths changed it. And obviously my vocals are different from the contemporary RnB vocal treatments, but they’re inspired from that movement.”
The synthesis between previous Caribou albums Andorra and Swim treads a tangible path. For Snaith, it seemed the logical progression from 60s nostalgia to modish electronics. But Our Love is altogether something different. “I just wanted to make a record that sounded like it was from ‘right now’”, Snaith concedes to falling for the current trend, “RnB is the pop music of right now. For example, with Andorra I was looking to the 1960s idea of what pop music was. And looking back at it I was kind of frustrated at times. I was like ‘Why am I making music that sounds like it’s from the past?’ None of the artists I was drawing influence from were doing that. They were looking to the future. If I liked their approach and their conception of how they approached music production, why was I obsessed with this kind of ‘retromania’ in my own work?
"It sounds silly by the Our Love record is the first time I've really considered the people that will be listening to it"
“To a certain extent, Swim tried to capture the sound of its day. But when it came to Our Love, I wanted to make something explicitly contemporary. If it sounds dated in five or ten years, then that’s fine. I just want it to sound like it comes from where music is right now or where it will be next month or next year.”
It’s a precocious move for Snaith; one that outwardly alludes to the dominating gene of dance moniker Daphni being more of a driving force in the future. “The thing that separates Caribou and Daphni for me is the intent. The way of working. Daphni is made specifically to DJ with and always constructed really quickly. It’s never laboured over in any way. I literally just throw it down and see if it works.” As if avowing to a split-personality crisis, Snaith backtracks. “I’m not blind to the fact that musically they’re both me. Daphni is a particular aspect of me. But Caribou overlaps everything I do. There’s going to be some kind of crossover there, but I think it works so far. It’s weird, when I played the new record to our label, City Slang, they asked what I was going to do with the band because it doesn’t sound live at all. But when I played it to the band, they immediately knew what to do.
“Our setup is so flexible and we’re so used to living halfway between digital electronic club music and the ‘world of bands’. The guys in Caribou are so versed in both realms so it didn’t really phase us at all. We’ve been the same band for six years now and some of the guys like Ryan [Smith], I’ve known since I was 12 years old. That’s why it works. Musically, we know each other so well. If we hear a piece of music, be it live instrumentation or digital, we’re going to think about how to construct it live in the exact same way because we’re all on the same wavelength.”
A similar sense of solidarity appears to exist between Snaith and Our Love’s featured artists, such as the likeminded Canadian pop doyen Owen Pallet and alt-RnB songstress Jessy Lanza. On Lanza, Snaith beams with high regard. “I’ve never really collaborated with anybody that I’m not friends with personally. That’s a crucial thing for me.
“Jessy’s from the same hometown as me in Canada. Jeremy from Junior Boys is an old high school friend of mine and he introduced me to her. He’s been playing me Jessy’s music for the last few years. I remember him saying ‘Dan, I’m working on this thing. I need you to hear it.’ Right from the start, I knew she was such an amazing talent. Her song writing, her production, that voice of hers. It was so great working with her.”
"If the new sounds dated in five years then that's fine. I just want it to sound like it comes from where music is right now"
Snaith’s collaborations are minimal yet vital – see the return of sound engineer, David Wrench, who was entrusted with the final strait-lacing for Our Love. That’s where the aforementioned Aphrodite’s Child comes in. The two producers bonded instantly over the lunacy of the project. “We both love that record. The way it sounds. The way the drums sound. Immediately, you realise this is somebody you can get along with. David’s such a unique person.”
What becomes clear as Snaith pours out appraisals is that he is outwardly content. He has discovered fulfilment and seems intent on maintaining it. Maybe it’s his recent fatherhood. Maybe after 12 years of endless touring, he’s found some solace from his opposing aliases. He indentifies the work of Marshall Allen, 90-year-old grandmaster of free-jazz and current leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra. “Marshall is constantly touring. It’s amazing. He is one of those people that you’re not supposed to meet.
“Sometimes, you have the chance to work with your heroes and they’ll be jaded or horrible. You forget what you liked about those people. Marshall is one of the warmest, most amazing guys and is still making music for all the right reasons. When we played with him for the first time, he just didn’t want to stop. I hope I can be enjoying music as much as he does when I’m that age. That’s the most striking thing. It’s still the music he loves.”
For now, Snaith is following under one of his hero’s instructions, to love what you do. Snaith makes music and that’s his single resolve. “That’s the charm of the whole thing so far”, Snaith smiles infectiously. “It’s gone so well and I haven’t had any kind of plan. I meet musicians who wish they were playing in this bigger venue this year or this bigger stadium that year… I’m just like ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ My thing is just do the thing that I love, which is make music and play it for people. Everything else will just sort itself out along the way.”
Dan Snaith on…
…living in London
“I don’t feel British in any sense, but London’s just as much a home as anywhere having lived here for 12 years. It’s great, this morning I was just riding my bike and somebody yelled “Get the fuck off the road”. It just puts a smile on your face.”
“Supporting Radiohead made me realise something. Who else would Caribou want to support ever again? They’re such a special case. It doesn’t really get any bigger than that. The thrill of playing in front of 40,000 people is fantastic. But I do look forward to getting back to playing shows where people are there to see us.”
…avant-garde jazz veteran Marshall Allen
“Marshall himself is still touring all the time. It’s unfathomable. When we played with him the first time, he demanded to know why the performance was so short. He just wanted to carry on. This is a 90-year-old man.”
…mixing Our Love with David Wrench
“I met him through Kieran [Four Tet], so I knew him more as a resident for a studio in Wales at first. Things are going crazy for him this year. He mixed the Jungle album, the FKA twigs album, my album… he’s got a bunch of other albums I probably shouldn’t disclose, but I’m so excited for him. He’s such a talent.”
Our Love is out now via Merge/City Slang