In the Key of Life with Dan Snaith, aka Caribou

Blake Gillespie

Photo by Matt Draper

After the crossover success of Swim in 2010, Caribou was no longer a psychedelic pop project by Dan Snaith. Sure, the neo-folktronica of the Andorra record won him the Polaris Music Prize in 2008, but by pushing that sound into a hybrid that relied heavily on deep house, his music was traveling well beyond the critical praise. Swim was a record that broke so large, late arrivers were confusing it for his debut rather than third since a moniker change from Manitoba.

When tracks like “Odessa” and “Sun” have brought you into the critical discussion of “Best Records of An Unfinished Decade”, the possibility of a second voyage on that Icarus flight begin to seem overly ambitious. Four years and a side project called Daphni later, Snaith wrote “Can’t Do Without You”, proving Caribou is forever a project in flux and still capable of delivering anthemic hits that will resonate beyond claims of “Song of the Summer 2014.”

Given the abstract tinkering of his past works, the generosity of “Can’t Do Without You” and the long player of Our Love can be perceived as a drastic departure. His increase in deejay gigs dating back before Swim, continue to shape his next move. And while I initially misread his latest as being structured as a deejay set, I wasn’t far off the hunt. Snaith wrote the majority of Our Love with the intent to connect, a desire he’s developed since the birth of his daughter, since he started deejaying more as Daphni, and since his fanbase swelled large enough that he stopped creating purely for self interest.

Listening to this record I feel like deejay or dance night experience is more present than on Swim, and I’m wondering if that was intentional?

Between the last Caribou record and this one I released the Daphni album. That’s like the most deejay focused thing because it was literally created for me to play in my deejay sets. Even starting before making Swim, I was more interested in what was happening in dance music than in other band related things in the last few years. That’s still the case. I’m more interested in production ideas I hear in r&b than guitar based music. Whereas Daphni is something specific for clubs and the deejay thing, I want the Caribou record to be everything I’m interested in.

You’ve talked about the difference between an hour deejay set as opposed to a nine hour deejay set. Was that in your head in terms of how you sequenced the record?

I’ve still got a real attachment to the album as a format. All my Caribou records are nine or 10 tracks, 45 minutes—the classic kind of album length. With the Daphni record I didn’t think about it being an album at all, I was just banged a bunch of tracks together that work for playing a club.

With [Our Love] I thought about how this song would fit into the next one. But the difference in the way I thought about the other ones is that I tried to make a journey.

With that idea of the journey, for you how do those transitions work? Is there a methodology?

It happens by accident. There’s so much more that doesn’t end up on the record; all I’ve made over the last year of my life. I can feel the same moods recurring, the same kind of music ideas and lyrical ideas from my personal life. Those are the kind of things that stitch it together for me. Even though they might be made at different times, they’ll still have the same kind of inflection and synthesizer sounds I’ll arrive at over and over again.

In the way that you sample yourself and juxtapose certain lyrics to create cyclical refrains that complicate the meaning of the lyric. Where did you pick up on that technique because it feels like a familiar techno trope that I can quite place?

Like taking on lyric and repeating it over and over, then repositioning it?

Yeah that definitely comes back to my love of early Daft Punk records, even the really cheesy pop trance hits from the early 2000s, late ’90s. I felt like for example I really love the Daft Punk album that everybody hated.

Human After All.

Yeah. They were like this is the essence. They boiled it down to “emotion” or “make love.” One lyric, one chord sequence, and then build some sort of meaning or texture out of that. I felt like that’s a really contemporary idea, distilling a whole pop song down into a pair of words or one word. I think it comes from loving that idea. It still feels contemporary to me.

Is there anything you did differently in making this record as opposed to your process with Swim?

The big difference with this record Well, two big differences. After Swim, the reaction was so much different from my previous records. It changed my whole perspective on making music. In the past I just made music for myself. I didn’t even think about anyone listening to it apart from me. It was totally a selfish thing.

My life over the last few years has been the happiest of my whole life and a lot of it is because of the way that album connected with people. People would come up and tell me how it meant something in their life. So with this record, even when I started… I knew I wanted to be a record for everybody and not just for me. I wanted to make something to share with people. It’s kind of stupid that I’ve been making music for 15 years and I’m just figuring out that people are listening to it.

It just changed my perspective.

My life over the last few years has been the happiest of my whole life and a lot of it is because of the way that album connected with people.

It’s easy to see why Swim would be made with that mentality. You can’t strive for that first, making music for everyone. It’s got to start internally.

For me, Swim was a pretty weird record. It was a very eccentric thing. I didn’t expect it to connect with people the way it did. That was really affirming and so I followed my instinct.

For you, were there any records you looked to in making Our Love? Since you said you made it with a classic album structure in mind, was there any album you were modeling it around?

Not modeling around, no. I also had a daughter in the last few years. I spent a lot of time listening to music with her. She’s a baby and I’m spent time thinking what music do you want to hear not long after you’re born.

Not thinking about making a Caribou record, but just in my personal life for her to here were the classic Stevie Wonder albums, Music of My Mind and Songs In The Key of Life. That classic period. I only realized until after I finished this album how much they affected the process of making it. They’re totally the quintessential albums that are about making music that’s really personal to share. When you listen to those albums you feel like Stevie is in the room next to you and he cares about you. That’s why I think they’ve endured so well.

It wasn’t conscious and it wasn’t intentional, but looking back on it I can hear specific instruments… not that I copied from him, but I started making a digital sounding record and listening to those classic records made more warm on the strings, I used more vintage keyboards, and the way I sung the lyrics and the way the lyrics were personal to me, all those things came from thinking like him. Obviously I’m not trying to compare myself to him, but this seems like the best thing you can do with music. Have something that connects with people.

Artists often talk about—well and people in general—offspring changing their mentality. Did you feel like your music needed to be different?

It did and it didn’t. It does inevitably change your perspective. But this isn’t like an ‘oh, I had a kid’ record. It’s not for her in that singular sense. I think what a lot of people say is that you have a moment. Everything kind of stops at that time and it’s obviously a new phase of my life. So you think what’s important? What am I doing music for? What in my personal life is important?

When I look back on some of my old records, like where the lyrics are abstract or didn’t have anything to do with my life, it was like why was I singing that? I want everything that I’m doing to connect with my life somehow. These albums are like photo albums and so when I look back I know that’s what my life was about at that time. I’m not trying to hide that from people.

Did you determine anything from looking back on those old albums?

I didn’t actually listen… [laughs].

Well, yeah. Was there anything you learned about yourself just by considering it?

The amount of singing on my albums has increased over the years. Aside from that, I’d say it’s been a slow process of building confidence in myself as a musician. I used to have to show off and make it really complicated so people would be aware I could do something. Then, on the Daphni record, for example, some tracks are just a big loop from an old track with a beat under it. I’m like, well that’s fine if it works on the dance floor.

I feel more comfortable letting the music be what it wants to be without having to worry about showing what I can do.

Do you feel less ego driven?

That’s part of being able to share more personal stuff from my life in the lyrics. I feel comfortable. I can stand in front of a room people and sing, which is something I couldn’t do 10 years ago.

Caribou’s Our Love is out now on Merge. For more on Our Love, read the review.

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