Caribou (In the Studio)
Melody Days Are Here Again
May 23, 2012
Dan Snaith, aka Caribou, has long melded embryonic, frazzled electronics with grizzled garage melodic instincts. He's consistently dazzled, uncannilly improving incrementally with each release over the past decade plus, but Snaith's greatest achievements have been his past two flat-out superb efforts—the sun-bleached sepia drizzles of harmony imbuing 2007's superb Andorra, and the crepuscular, electro pulsations of 2010's Swim, with its copious melodies buried like encrusted jewels on a dilapidated urn, requiring multiple listens to crack their submersed brilliance. So needless to say, Under the Radar acceded with alacrity when given the opportunity to find out what Snaith is planning for a follow-up to those career pinnacles at this early juncture.
We caught up with Snaith on break from his band's tour with Radiohead to discuss his breakneck spate of activity since the release of Swim, his formative influences growing up in suburban Canada, and why a PhD in mathematics doesn't necessarily translate to an enhanced musical acumen.
John Everhart (Under the Radar): So I'm calling you at a U.K. number. Are you there now?
Dan Snaith: I'm at home at the moment off tour.
Oh, I thought you lived in Canada.
I'm Canadian, but I've lived in London for a little while now. Ten years, doing a PhD in mathematics.
Do you feel like that impacts your music?
My PhD has been of no direct use to me, but that's always been a part of my makeup, my mathematical tendencies.
Interesting. I didn't know that about you. I guess I should've done more research.
No, no, no. [Laughs] You shouldn't know the majors of everyone you interview. [Laughs]
Are you recording? It's been a couple years since the last Caribou album [Swim].
The time has kind of flown by. We've toured so much, and I spent quite a lot of the last year recording under the moniker of Daphni, which is more kind of dance music stuff. But when I've been home I've been working away pulling together ideas for a new Caribou record. I guess I'm always working on it. It's not like I'm finishing it off. It's more like I'm trying to understand what the theme or characteristics of the album are going to be rather than finishing one last track or song. So it's rather the beginning than the end.
Do you have preconceived themes, or do they emerge as you go?
Things happen as they go. It's a question of having to work through it and generate a lot of music and see what points to an interesting direction. I'm jealous of people who can imagine something and do it. If I try to do that it ends up being a terrible shadow of the idea I wanted it to be or imagined it to be in my head. Like, "Oh, it was going to sound like this, and it sounds like a parody of that." The most interesting things happen in the process by accident.
Have there been any surprising processes thus far that you can recount?
I looked at how many sorts of sketches of tracks I've made thus far just the other day, and there are over 300 already. So there's a lot of stuff, and part of it's making sense of all of it and putting it together. It's not easy to describe. It's not like I can say, "Oh, it's going to be a country record this time." It's definitely not going to be a country record this time. [Laughs] But in ways it's going to lead on from Swim, because that seemed different from the previous albums, and there were a lot more ideas that could be developed from there. And then I don't want to feel like I'm doing the same thing again, so it's a question of how to start from there and go somewhere else.
Andorra was kind of the pinnacle of your pop fascination to most, but Swim is just as pop to me, but it's buried more, and it takes more listens.
I totally agree with that. The pop elements just carried over from writing pop melodies on Andorra, but on Swim I was thinking more about the production stuff. But it's an interesting synthesis for me, and the question is what to do next.
All your records have been well-received, and you have a large fan base, and you're on a great label in Merge, but it seems like you've never sudddenly increased your audience. It's been very incremental.
It's funny, because Swim in the U.K. was unexpectedly that breakout record. All the albums have kind of developed in terms that a few more people have found out about them. I don't particularly envy friends of mine that are playing huge places after their first song. I know people in that position, and I think that things have developed nicely and naturally for me. Each album has been something new but not intimidating or weird. But Swim, which I didn't think of accessible, has connected to more of a dancey culture in the U.K., so we've been playing some 2000 capacity rooms, which is pretty amazing.
Wow, I can't imagine having that happen in North America right now, but you never know. Opening for Radiohead could possibly open some doors for you. It has for others.
Well at the same time, with the British music culture, we could be back to playing 300 capacity rooms if we don't fit the same Zeitgeist, whereas in North America, there are definitely people who have come to all of our shows for the last three, four, five albums, and they connect in our music in certain ways, so it felt like a really nice development everywhere in fact. But to your question about Radiohead, this is something completely different for us. We just did two shows in Mexico City, our two biggest of the year. 55,000 people a night. So it kind of prepared us. It was just mind-boggling. We now know what the experience of playing to that many people is, which is something we hadn't experienced thus far.
And now you move on to the small rooms, the 20,000 seat arenas. [Laughs]
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs]
I know Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, who opened for both Radiohead and R.E.M., was doing an experimental set while opening for R.E.M., but had to change it to a rock set because he felt like it wasn't going over well in Europe. I can't imagine you'd have to do that.
I think, and I'm sure this is true of R.E.M. fans to some degree, but Radiohead fans are pretty open-minded. I've had friends who have had terrible experiences opening for huge bands. I thought that could happen possibly with us, but Radiohead fans are largely music nerds, and the Mexico City shows were just amazing. The crowd was great. We're not playing a long set, and we're playing the most kind of explosive songs we have. It's kind of the most fun way to do it. We don't want to intrude upon everyone. We want to make it a good atmosphere, and we just started touring with a lighting engineer, and at that scale it's very crucial so the people in the back can see. The people in the back can see Radiohead, because their images are projected, but we don't have that, so the only way they're gonna see it is with the lighting, and the guy doing it is amazing.
Yeah, big shows have to be a completely different experience for you.
I never go to big shows, so it's amazing to watch Radiohead play every night, and see how music works at that level, because it's rare. I sometimes go to a festival, but I'm normally at tiny little shows.
A lot of fun for me is just seeing these kids responding to the music. They get really excited. It's just a huge deal for them.
There's been one particular person tweeting at us, at first, "I'm going to see Radiohead and Caribou in 180 days," and then after that, "I'm going to see Radiohead and Caribou in 179 days," and on and on. It's so amazing for us that someone's that excited, apart from us, who are also that excited. [Laughs]
Wow. That's amazing. But back to your music, I've always admired how you take these Nuggets-esque elements and combine them with sort of esoteric electronic elements.
A big [part] of what guides our music is being a big music fan and record collector. I grew up in a hippy kind of town, and alongside techno records out of Detroit we were also listening to any psychedelic records we could get our hands on in high school. So there was always that weird combination in the water where we grew up. I grew up where we didn't identify with one particular genre. There weren't people listening to Nirvana, which what was popular at that time. There were people listening to The Grateful Dead, and then listening to a Metallica record. There was cross-pollination in the music I listened to. But just taking two disparate things and combining them is so interesting to me. We didn't do it intentionally. I just have really wandering taste. A new record can sound exciting, but an old record can sound equally exciting, so those things can seep into the records I'm making.
Where are you from originally?
Dundas, outside Hamilton, Ontario.
I'm from Detroit originally, so I knew a lot of those areas. We had a lot of Canadian radio stations, so I got exposed to a lot of Canadian artists. But referring back to the melodic aspects of your music, I feel like they're often a bit buried and underappreciated.
Well they've always been a big thing for me, and it's also been a big thing for me to be an electronic artist and producer, which I consider myself to be. Andorra was all about writing melody for me. I had the psychedelic thing down. The '60s pop symphonic thing. And the whole focus was on writing melody and harmony to accompany it, and that's something that's...I love lots of music, but it's always music with a strong melody that I return too. It's stuck with me, and has always been a challenge as well.
Yeah, incorporating it with newer music. We talked about Detroit. Were you interested in Detroit techno?
Well, we kind of had...I don't know if we were cool enough to understand the scene, but there was Richie Hawtin and Plus 8, and Richie would come play Hamilton. And friends would go to the U.K. in the summers and bring back records, and that was often the way I got Techno records, because Dundas didn't really get them. So that was the way I was introduced. There were guys using a couple electronic instruments, and it was really, really exciting, but I was too out of the loop or really didn't understand what was going on, so I got a really got a limited slice of it.
I wasn't into it at the time, but I really appreciate the culture behind it. I love how well they do in Europe. It's amazing.
Yeah, it really is.
Growing up in Canada, what did the scene in Detroit mean to you beyond electronic music. The proximity was such that I'd assume it influenced you.
A huge influence for us was Funkadelic and Parliament records. I didn't have a great sense of geography, even though we were only a couple hours away from Detroit. It was only later that I pieced together that all this amazing music came out of this place and the socio-economic context of it. But I felt isolated. Listening to music for me was the same as listening to music from Tokyo. Everything felt far away. We lived in this bubble. And there were all these interesting things happening down the road. If we'd only had our driver's licenses a year earlier and gotten in the car or something.
The mythology of Canada was big to me. Arcade Fire, The Organ, Hidden Cameras. It felt so insulated to me.
It was funny to me, because right after I moved from Canada all this attention was paid to Canadian bands. I was asked all these questions, just all these A&R guys, but I feel like Canada's always been a great place to play music whether it's been internationally popular or not. Toronto and Montreal, when I was in university, were inexpensive to live in and had a great community of musicians so you could work part time and be in a band but they didn't feel like they were too hyped.
I agree. They were almost parochial bands. I'll never forget how Hidden Cameras were gonna headline over Arcade Fire in NYC right after Funeral was released, but that got switched quickly. But it was always interesting. The bands were all over the spectrum. I remember getting into your band when you were in Manitoba. Did you interact with Daniel Kessler when he was running Domino right after he started Interpol?
Yeah, I met him when he first started working for Domino, but then things started going crazy for Interpol.
I'd just started writing on music and he gave me your record and The Notwist. I still remember him working out of his apartment.
He'd just started working with Domino and I'd just signed, and then two months later, he quit because his band became this world-conquering thing. [Laughs] But he was wonderful to work with.
So I'm really excited to see you play with Radiohead. I've seen so many great bands open for them over the years over the years, and yours will be no exception. What's your target for a new record release?
I don't know exactly when. I'd like to say next year. I'm working on it like crazy whenever I'm home, and I'm super-excited about it whenever I'm not doing something equally exciting like this tour.
Well, I hope this tour helps you in North America. Opening for Radiohead has helped a lot of bands, like Sigur Rós and The Black Keys and Clinic, so I hope it does the same for yours.
Well, thank you very much. We're looking forward to it.