Q&A: Caribou’s Dan Snaith on ‘Our Love’ and Embracing Emotional Dance Music

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There’s a point on “Mars,” the eighth and most sprawling track on the new Caribou album Our Love (out tomorrow on Merge), that offers a sonic snapshot of where Dan Snaith is now, six albums and one side project after his first EP release as Caribou (formerly Manitoba) in 2000. The track is all polyrhythmic drums and a sparse, staccato flute sample — minor key, more than a little foreboding, building to something, though it’s not quite clear what. It’s a sound and style that is instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with Jiaolong, Snaith’s 2012 release as Daphni, and his subsequent subtle rebranding as a Serious DJ — the kind of DJ who does seven-hour sets in London and whose name is spoken in the same breath as Jamie xx and his longtime friend and collaborator Kieran Hebden, a.k.a. Four Tet. But just when it seems like “Mars” has to explode into an apocalyptic breakdown, a warm, almost sentimental keyboard progression creeps in. The beat continues as relentlessly as ever, but it’s now supported by something warmer, more human. If Caribou and Daphni were in fact two separate people, this would be the sound of them duetting.

Our Love is both a continuation of everything Snaith started with Jiaolong and a return to the florid, deeply emotional palette he’s been developing with Caribou, perfecting on 2010’s unimpeachable Swim. It’s also one of my favorite records of 2014. I spoke to Snaith about his most direct release yet, his mind-set after a whirlwind four years, and staying true to himself in the ever-image-conscious dance music scene.

Listening to this album was the first time it occurred to me that Caribou could really be a pop production outfit, in a way. You have a track, “Second Chance,” with Jessy Lanza on the vocal, and I think that’s one of the first times I’d ever heard you working with a guest vocalist on what is, structurally at least, a pop song. What do you think Caribou’s relationship with its pop side is at this point?

Well, my first instinct with this record, before I knew what I wanted it to sound like or what I wanted — was that having the reaction to Swim be as amazing and overwhelming as it was made me want to communicate more and think more outwardly. Making music for the people who are gonna hear it, communicating as directly as possible with them, hiding less behind layers of effects. And that’s what’s wonderful about pop music: It’s concise; it’s to the point; you have to keep only the parts that matter. If you want to compress a piece of music into that kind of length or format, or play with those kind of ideas, you have to just keep the essence of what you’re doing, and that definitely appealed to me.

But also — and this didn’t end up happening, really — but when I first started making the record, I was really excited by the contemporary sound of R&B that’s everywhere now: this kind of hyper-digital, hyper-glossy, transparent kind of sound. Obviously, loads of other people have been, too, because it’s everywhere; every new record that comes out references those kinds of sounds. So I’m kind of glad it didn’t end up going totally in that direction. There are still elements of that in there — maybe the track with Jessy and the one right before it [“Dive”] — but there’s warmer, kind of analog sounds in there as well. But part of what I loved about that sound is its directness; it’s kind of this very contemporary framing for pop ideas.

In a way, pop music and dance music are both going for a very specific reaction, whether it’s making people want to dance or getting a song stuck in your head. And it seems like you’re now able to play with both of those kinds of ideas.

At the same time — and you’re definitely right that there is a kind of functional aspect to both those ideas of what music should be — but the people that I love play by those rules a little bit, but then also bend the rules a little bit. You know, so like, weirder dance music — somebody like Theo Parrish or Moodymann — where there’s enough of a framework there, enough of a rhythmic element, that it makes you want to dance, but everything else is really eccentric; some things are running counter to what you’d expect. They’re not building a huge crescendo; they’re sort of toying with those kinds of feelings.

The thing I don’t like in pop music is when everything’s sharpened to too much of a point where it becomes totally one-dimensional, and you lose that sense of humanity or whatever. You lose that depth of feeling. Like, you know, classic Phil Spector productions; they’re, like, two minutes long. Or Beach Boys songs that are two minutes long but still have an incredible depth to them. Or Sly Stone or Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder, that kind of conception of pop music where it doesn’t have to come at the expense of a kind of depth of emotion, of a depth of idea — somehow to compress everything without losing anything.

What was your personal gateway to dance music and electronic music?

Well, it came totally out of context, because I grew up in this tiny little hippie town in Canada, where everybody was listening to Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead. And pretty much, that was me; I was listening to psychedelic music from the ’60s and ’70s, progressive rock, stuff I would be embarrassed of now. But I had a small group of friends — and I’m still close friends with all of them today — that were interested in anything. Anything weird that we could get our hands on. And one of the guys — Koushik, who actually released some music on Stone’s Throw for a while — he used to travel to the U.K., and he’d bring back stuff. He’d bring back, like, early kind of jungle tapes that he bought at markets, or kind of Warp-y stuff, or even earlier stuff, like the Orb or early Plastikman records — that early/mid-’90s British dance music that was happening at the time.

And it was just so different from what I valued about music, what I listened to otherwise. It was such a complete reversal of all the things that I thought were good about music. I was like, “This music is totally repetitious, but that’s its strength.” It’s the opposite of listening to a Yes album, or whatever I was listening to at the time. And that really blew my mind; it really changed everything for me, for sure. Also, the fact that a lot of these acts were, like, one person making it at home, as far as I could tell, with some cheap equipment; that kind of equipment was still cheap back then. And that’s what inspired me to think, “OK, well I can start recording music, then. If these people can do it, you know — they’re not in a million-dollar studio; they’re in their basement.”

There’s a commonality, I feel like, between your first couple EPs and Our Love, and the “psychedelic” albums [2003’s Up In Flames, 2005’s The Milk of Human Kindness, and 2007’s Andorra] are in the middle of the sandwich. Do you think about that arc at all, as far as where your interests have been over the years?

It’s funny, actually, I think Kieran [Hebden] of Four Tet was the first person — when I was making Swim and I gave him the track “Bowls” off of that album — and he was like, “It’s funny, actually, because this track has a fair amount in common with a track like ‘Paul’s Birthday.’” If you described it on paper, it’s like, big harp sample plus dance music. It’s exactly the same formula. It’s kind of a different take on the whole thing. “Bowls” stays still a lot more; it’s got less of a glitchy, IDM thing going on, but it is closer.

I see a progression there, definitely; though there’s a lot on the newer records, like songs and singing and all those kinds of compositional things that weren’t there on the first one. I mean, it does make the kind of psychedelic records seem like they stand out more or don’t fit in or something like that. But it’s so personal, because I look back on that time in my life, and I was listening to Madlib and I was finding all the rarest records I could to sample — and a lot of them were kind of psychedelic rock records — and I was making a real kind of sample-collage type thing in relation to what I felt like people like Madlib were doing. And so, it all makes sense, in the context of my life. But the thing that I’m most happy with now — and I don’t know if this is fair — but these last two records, I feel are more my own musical turf. They’re less “Oh, this is somebody’s take on the 1960s.” They feel like my own territory, like somebody would be able to say, “Oh yeah, that’s definitely Dan,” if they listened to some of the tracks.

There’s not an easy catchall way to refer to Swim and Our Love. I don’t know what word I would use to describe this album, especially.

Yeah. That sounds good to me. When I think back about Andorra or something, which for me, was definitely more about composition and arrangement and songwriting and all those things, it kind of rankles me that somebody — accurately — could just be like, “Oh, yeah, that’s a psychedelic ’60s record.” Like, I’ve got to do better. If this is really gonna be my music in some sense, I’ve got to make it as distinctively mine and as personally mine as possible.

It does seem like quite a bit of your work on Daphni rubbed off on this one as well. What is the mind-set you adopt when you go back to working under the name Caribou, and working with a band — after having spent a while doing more purely DJ-oriented stuff?

Well, it actually felt really, really good. And the Daphni thing was also, like, a nice relief, because it was so spontaneous. It was never even intended to be for release; it came together so quickly. It’s the only album I’ve ever made that I didn’t agonize over for months and months. But then I started to miss the sort of sense that I was immersed in the music and kind of inhabiting the music. And with the Caribou records, I spend so long trying to figure out if this section could lead into this section, ideas about composition, ideas about packing as much emotional kind of heft in there as possible.

It took so long to get to the point where I could even start recording this record, because we were kind of endlessly on tour, and then the Daphni record came out, and then I had a daughter, and then we did another tour with Radiohead, and so by the time all of that was finished, I was just desperate. [Caribou] is more comprehensive of all the things that I want to do; it contains much more, for me. The Daphni record is this one very specific thing that I love and am interested in — and it’s something that’s in there, in the Caribou records — but the Daphni thing is much more just a limited kind of thing. Whereas the Caribou records can draw from any musical idea that kind of is exciting [to me] at the time.

The title, Our Love — which came first, the title or the intention behind it?

The intention, definitely. The intention, like I was talking about, of making music that was kind of warm and outward-looking and kind of giving something back for how amazing the last couple years of my life have been. The last few years have just been incredible due to [the success of Swim]. I’d see people tweeting at me all the time: “Dan, come on, when’s the next record? We’re dying; we want another Caribou record!” And I really felt like I wanted to make that record for those people who were asking. And so that was there before there was any music; that was there right at the start.

And “Our Love,” that track, came about just — I’d had the beat and the chords and everything in the first part of the song, and I just opened my mouth when I turned on the microphone, and that’s what came out. And it took me a while — I’d kind of realized that that track was gonna be called “Our Love,” and I was trying to figure out a title [for the album] that kind of encapsulated all these ideas that I was talking about — but I was being remarkably thickheaded or something. I just couldn’t see that that was obviously the title that encompassed all the things that I wanted the record to be about.

A lot of the tracks start in a more melancholy, minor-key place and work themselves out. It’s sort of a recurring musical theme, and there’s something very uplifting about that.

I think you’re right, and I think, lyrically and thematically, I guess, the record’s kind of about the love relationships in my life — not just my wife, but also my daughter, my parents, my family, my friends. People close to me have been through divorce in the last few years, and it’s actually been good in the end. And my experience of all those relationships is they’re complex and rich and contradictory and encompass lots of different things; melancholy and happiness next to one another. It’s not just this kind of one-note simplistic kind of thing.

That was the danger of calling it Our Love, I guess, is that people could [mistake it for a] Disney kind of fairy-tale idea. But I mean, nobody has that simplistic experience. I don’t think anybody has that.

I doubt anyone thinks you’re at risk of doing anything that easy at this point.

OK, maybe. Part of it also is that in this album, I’m much more open and much more direct about all those things than I’ve been in the past, and that’s been kind of a question of getting over the insecurity or the ego and letting yourself be that direct, without wondering, “Are people gonna think this is too cliché?” And I guess I’ve been doing it long enough, that I just had to have faith that, well, the best music that I love doesn’t have those worries about having to hide behind something or not exposing yourself emotionally in that way. I just have to have faith that I can do it and hopefully that it will resonate with people.

Yeah, in so much electronic music today, especially in the subset of it that you work in, there can be an unspoken value on keeping things as chilly or emotionless as possible.

Sure, or cool. I wanted to get rid of all of that. For one thing, it’s just clearly not me. It’s so funny, now — I’ve never really been on the cover of magazines before, but starting with this album, here in the U.K., [I’ve been on] a couple dance music magazines that normally have some dude on the cover looking super serious and with the most expensive haircut you can imagine. And now it’s like, me, looking like my kind of dweeby self, totally unassuming, just a normal dude on the cover. And I kind of love that; I kind of embrace it. A lot of the people that are covered by dance music media are very much image, image, image all the time. And I do everything I can to not participate in that — just kind of out of interest to see, like, “Will people let me get away with this?” Or will some editor somewhere be like, “No, look, we can’t have this nerd on the cover of our magazine.”

Well, it also builds trust in a way. It’s like, “If that guy looks that boring, then the music must be amazing.”

[Laughs.] Well, that’s a nice way of looking at it.

Our Love comes out October 7 on Merge Records.

Filed Under: Music, Electronic music, Dance Music, Caribou, Dan Snaith, Daphni, Our Love, Swim, Grantland Q&A