From the Commune to the Dancefloor
by David Holmes

The music of Dan Snaith, first under the moniker Manitoba and now under Caribou, has always been a thrilling push-pull between electronic music and ’60s psychedelia. The psychedelic influence, which usually floated in the background of his songs in a nostalgic haze, was pushed to the forefront on 2007’s Andorra. The result was his catchiest and most popular album to date, earning him the 2008 Polaris Music Prize awarded to the best Canadian album of the year.

Many artists would follow-up a breakthrough hit like Andorra by adhering to the same successful blueprint, but Snaith isn’t the type of guy to stay in one place for long. Swim (out April 20 on Merge) leaves behind the happy hippie sheen of his past work and instead embraces the intricately layered sounds of trance, chill-out, and other micro-genres of the London DJ scene. Although Snaith’s biggest influences have shifted three or four decades ahead, he still employs his unique songwriting approach, which consists of wrapping brilliant melodies around volatile bundles of organic and processed noises.

I recently caught up with Snaith who had much to say about his upcoming tour and the reasons behind the sudden stylistic change.

The new album sounds like a departure from Andorra in a lot of ways. Was that intentional or was that just how the record turned out?

Dan Snaith: There were a couple things that were intentional. Over the last year, I’ve been more excited by dance music than I’ve been in a lot of years. I’ve been going out to see people DJ more than I’ve been going out to see bands, and I’ve been DJing more myself. When I started making this album I was thinking, “Okay, I’m going to make some dance music just for fun, but it’s not going to be Caribou. It’s just going to be for me to DJ with, and then I’m going to put the Caribou album over here.” And the two things just ended up mixing together.

The other conscious thing was that the last album, Andorra, was more about songwriting, arrangements, and compressing all the ideas into pop songs. The only thing that frustrated me was that, obviously, it was produced with a ’60s pop vocabulary. I didn’t like the idea that people were like, “Oh I get it, this guy’s just figured it out. He’s one of those ’60s guys. He wants to make retro-sounding music,” which wasn’t the intention, and definitely not what I want to spend my life revisiting. I want to do something exciting and new every time.

What dance artists were you listening to while making the album?

DS: I guess lots of different things. Probably the artist that got me most into dance music is James Holden. He got me into this idea of making dance music that sounds liquid. The kind of music he makes really breathes and swells and falls apart in an organic way. Also lots of Villalobos tracks that are some weird loop for 45 minutes. That idea I really love. And I went to see Theo Parrish DJ in London every month for the last year whenever I was in town.

I just heard the remix to “Odessa” by Nite Jewel. Have you heard that, and if so, do you like how that turned out?

DS: Absolutely. I love Nite Jewel’s music and I was really excited to have her do a mix. I loved the way it turned out. And there are a bunch of remixes from this album, all from people whose music I’ve been excited by while making the record. Another nice aspect of this album being somewhat closer to the dance world is being able to interact with those musicians and say, “Hey, I’ve been really loving your music over the last year. It’s been a part of what made me want to make this album. Would you like to do a remix of it?”

You have a PhD in mathematics. Does your expertise in that field feed into the way you write music?

DS: It’s definitely not my expertise. I mean, I’ve forgotten everything I was doing anyway so I don’t know how much expertise I have anymore! The closest thing I can say is that maybe there’s a similar reason why I was attracted to both of them. Mathematics becomes much more abstract and creative and imaginative than people imagine from high school math or whatever their experience is. It’s almost a completely different subject. I mean everyone’s bored in high school, especially when it’s taught poorly. But when I came to university, it became this whole other thing. It’s very much a solid “living inside your head” thing, trying to puzzle things out. The way I make music is by sitting in a room by myself, tinkering around with ideas and sounds. It’s very much the same kind of process.

Were there any aspects of your upbringing that brought you to discover music?

DS: I grew up with music around in the house. My dad played various instruments in an amateur, but enthusiastic, way, and all my sisters and I were encouraged to learn instruments. “Encouraged” meaning we were forced (laughs), which I didn’t enjoy at first actually. I stopped playing classical, which at that age, I found really dull, like a lot of children do. I had a music teacher that was more about how to describe and play popular music, and why a Beatles song fits together the way it does. That’s when music became exciting for me.

The other big influence was hearing electronic music for the first time when I was an early teenager. Koushik, who is now releasing music on Stones Throw, was a friend of mine in elementary school and high school. We lived out of the way in this tiny town, but he was always playing me stuff he’d heard from Detroit or the UK or wherever. That music really connected with me because it was so different from anything else that I’d heard, and it really challenged what I valued about music. Also, these records were being made by somebody on very cheap equipment in a basement. All of a sudden, recording music didn’t have to be something that involved spending a lot of money.

How old were you when you first started writing your own songs?

DS: I guess maybe 14 or 15. I had a synthesizer hooked up to my dad’s computer. That was the big thing that I saved up to buy. I knew once I had a synthesizer and... I later stole this sampler that was sitting collecting dust in our high school music department. Nobody ever noticed it was gone. It was this terrible sampler that I think literally could store eight seconds of sound. So it was pretty limited, but it allowed me to start layering sounds.

When did you first realize that music could be a career for you?

DS: I guess I always wanted it to be, but it seemed so impossible to make it happen. Being in high school and thinking, “I made this music, but how do I get anybody to hear it who has any connections?” My first record came out almost 10 years ago through Kieran Hebden (Four Tet), who I just went up and introduced myself to at a music festival. It happened really easily, but even then it took me three albums before it became financially feasible. Just as I was approaching my PhD, I thought this might be possible if things continue to go well and, fingers-crossed, they’ve continued to do so.

John Schermsal (of Enon and Brainiac) is now part of your live band. How did you hook up with him?

DS: That was amazingly lucky. We found out that Andy Lloyd, who had previously been singing and playing bass on the Andorra tour, wouldn’t be able to do it next time around. We just kind of spread the word to musician friends, and I think it was through Matt (Schulz), who plays drums for Holy Fuck and who used to be in Enon with John. We all got along and fit together really well. We only did a few shows last summer, and this is the first time we’re going to be spending a year playing together and touring together. But it’s just so amazingly lucky how we fit together so well. I hope that he’s as excited about it as the rest of us are.

I saw you in Columbus a few years back and you employed some really striking visuals in the background. How do you think video and images help to enhance the live experience for the audience?

DS: I’m not a very visual person. I’m not one of those people who is thinking of images when I’m making the music. So it’s always been exciting for me to—with the artwork, the music videos, and definitely with the live visuals—add that element and have somebody else have their take on what images we would associate with the music. Ryan (Smith), who plays guitar in the band, makes all the visuals for the show. We all want the show to be sensory-overload, as much going on as possible, so it really draws you in and induces a kind of trance-like state as much as possible. I think even though I knew I didn’t have anything interesting to say visually, I always wanted there to be a visual component to the show.

The video for “Odessa” is a great example of music and images working together. Were you involved at all in making that?

DS: No, but that’s a nice story. These guys, Video Marsh, are from British Columbia, and whenever we would do a show in Vancouver, almost right from the start, have been giving me videos they’ve made recently. On Andorra they made a video for “Irene,” uncommissioned, and it was amazing. It was nice after being in touch with them for so long to be able to finally say, “This time we’ll have you do the real videos,” real in the sense that there’s a budget. And you’re right, they totally nailed it. I love that video. It wouldn’t have been what I would’ve imagined for the song, but it works amazingly well.

So are you excited to go back on tour?

DS: Yeah, I am. It’s been a long while since we toured. After a break, it’s seems like fun again, whereas at the end of a year of touring or whatever we’re going to do, it’ll just be like, “Wow being at home would be really nice!” But right now I’m at the peak of being exciting about playing shows. I can’t wait.