interview feature for the skinny (revised)
"I thought everybody was going to hate this album," Dan Snaith aka Caribou tells The Skinny over the phone. Incorrect, red pen, cross. Show your working! "I've never been one to play it safe or want to not-rock the boat, but this is a big left-turn, there's much more dance influence, there's much less in the way of poppy songs." OK, so you follow up an award-winning breakthrough album with something very different, and you risk alienating fans. But no-one's going to hate Caribou's magnificent new album Swim.
Snaith is a very open and articulate talker. After half an hour's chat, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that his brain responds to music in a mathematical way. Partly that's because his back-story involves a lot of maths and it's hard to resist a good narrative, but partly it's because of the way he talks about music: like a song is a set of problems that can be solved, expressed in sound instead of numbers.
Dan Snaith's back-story (involves a lot of maths)
The Snaith family could hardly be described as multi-talented. "My dad was a maths professor, my mom was a maths teacher, my sister's a maths professor, my grandfather was a maths teacher, my brother-in-law is a maths professor." According to Wikipedia, his sister Nina works in random matrix theory and quantum chaos; just so you know. Dan himself has a Ph.D. in maths from Imperial College, London, where he now lives.
The very talented Snaith family were based in a little Canadian town called Dundas, in Ontario, population 25,000. Without a music scene, Dan's musical education lacked the constraints of received wisdom. "When I was in high school I was listening to Plastikman and Yes. Maybe if I'd grown up in New York or London or somewhere there'd have been a sense of context to the music, like 'oh yeah people are part of a scene here'. For me it was just like: this sounds exciting, I dont care if it was made fifty years ago or yesterday, I dont care where in the world it comes from. I didnt have any context for anything I listened to, because there was nothing musically going on in the little shithole town where I grew up."
About ten years ago Snaith began releasing glitchy, Warp-like electronic music using cut-up and re-worked samples, under the name Manitoba, but he had to change the name after a legal threat from the lead singer of The Dictators, Handsome Dick Manitoba. "Manitoba is a Canadian province, so it was irksome being told by an American asshole that nobody could use the name of a Canadian province apart from him! So Caribou is the North American name for reindeer and as a word it evokes the same kind of things and places as Manitoba does, to me." It has nothing to do with the Pixies song. "No, I was into Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and really horrible, terribly unfashionable progressive rock when I was a teenager!"
Manitoba's second album Up In Flames (2003) was the first to catch a prevailing wind, because it contained more accessible melodies smudged by reverb and echo, exactly as the bright, blurry cover art suggested. Having approximated his aesthetic, The Milk Of Human Kindness (2005, as Caribou) improved on it, and Andorra (2007) was better again, winning the 2008 Polaris Prize, the Canadian equivalent of the Mercury. Continuing the pattern, Swim is even better again, though it's far more based on rhythms than melodies. As he said.
The way Dan Snaith talks about music
Stuff like this: "I'm influenced by hearing someone else's music and thinking 'How the fuck do they do that, technically?', and trying to do my own take on it." If you add these notes, and these sounds, in this order, at this tempo, do you get this emotion, every time? And this: "I'd already settled on what I wanted to do for Andorra, I wanted to figure out how to write pop music, how to compose and arrange it," as if pop music is a quantifiable thing, a science that can be learned, with right and wrong answers at the end. And this, about lyrics: "Rather than on Andorra just sketching some hypothetical scene of two people falling in love, say, just this kind of format for lyrics to mirror what was going on musically in the song, this time it just felt kinda natural that the lyrics had more to do with things going on in my life." If I'd misheard that word 'format' as 'formula', it wouldn't change the meaning, would it? This is what a pop song looks like, now see if you can solve it for x.
And this all begs the question: is that how more of us, or all of us, respond to music, even if we don't realise it? Some people hear a power ballad and recognise the melody as being dramatic and emotional, and then feel the emotion and feel the drama; others hear the same melody and recognise the same formula, but refuse to be led to the same conclusion. What causes these opposite reactions? In an interview last year with Eye Weekly.com, Snaith said "Once I feel like I can do something, it becomes less interesting to do it again." He's found x.
"In high school I was in an indie rock band and all my friends were into that kinda shit but I hated it" Snaith says. "I didn't see the attraction to it until I got to university and then it totally changed, it became this very creative, abstract, more imaginative thing." OK, I cheated there. In the first quote he's talking about music. In the second quote he's talking about maths. Where do you draw the line?
Swim isn't about maths, at all. According to the press sheet, he wanted to make "dance music that sounds like it’s made out of water rather than made out of metallic stuff like most dance music does". "The last track on Andorra [Niobe] is essentially an attempt to rip off James Holden's music," he said on the phone, "to figure out how it works, music where elements seem to breathe and grow and then fall apart. It's a very non-machine-like process and I couldn't figure out how he did it, but I loved the idea".
"On a song like Kaili, all the synthesisers are constantly washing around, nothing sits still, everything's moving, appearing and disappearing. So there's this back and forth idea of musical fluidity." So that's why this record is called Swim? "And also just for the totally naive reason that I became obsessed with swimming over the last year, which probably had an influence on me wanting to make the music sound liquid."
So is the clanging percussion on Bowls really made with... bowls? "They're Tibetan singing bowls," he says. "You know you can run a stick around a glass with water? I picked up these bowls while I was in Asia cos I'd always liked the sound of them. I did this kind of thing a lot with this album: I sampled the sound of these two bowls individually and then played them on a keyboard as if they were the starting point for a synthesiser, changed the filter, changed the envelope. So it's kind of a hybrid between a bowl being hit and it being a synthesiser."
Even when Snaith shows his working, he still gets remarkable results.