Dan Snaith of Caribou Wants to Minimize the Distance Between Him and the Listener

The musician with a PhD in mathematics talks about touring with Radiohead and being accidentally commercially successful.

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Oct 6 2014, 6:55pm

Dan Snaith is many things: a Polaris Music Prize-winning musician, a father, a husband, a Canadian, a Londoner, and a doctor with a PhD in mathematics. But perhaps more than anything, he is one of the most genial, thoughtful people you could ever hope to interview. Over Skype from the basement studio in his London home, Snaith and I tried to recollect previous conversations, while acknowledging each other’s Hamilton, Ontario-based lineage. We swapped anecdotes about fatherhood with been-there-done-that head nods, but eventually moved on to his rather brilliant new album, Our Love, which naturally was heavily inspired by his life as a family man.

The album is also about showing love to his fans. Not just the ones that have been there since 2001’s Start Breaking My Heart, but the ones that made his last album, 2010’s Swim, a commercial success. “I was thinking all about making a record to minimize the distance between me and the listener, making the connection as direct as possible,” Snaith says. And while Our Love continues his streak of releasing music that is meticulously layered, remarkably earnest, and blindingly luminous, it once again sounds like another bold step forward for an artist whose ideas are boundless.

After rediscovering his love for club music by pursuing his Daphni side-project in 2012, for his next Caribou album Snaith chose to extend this pursuit and combine it with Swim’s more fluid and organic sounds. As a result, Our Love is the most comprehensive Caribou album to date. Says Snaith, “Everything that I’m into, everything about my life, my personal life, my musical life at the time that I’m making it should be in there.”

Noisey: Do you keep track of the Hamilton music scene?
Dan Snaith: I do, but only through Hamilton’s #1 ambassador, Jeremy Greenspan (Junior Boys). I see Jeremy and Jessy all the time; two days ago, and every week this summer. I know pretty much the full line-up of Supercrawl through Jeremy telling me all about it.

By Jessy I am guessing you mean Jessy Lanza?
Yes. And Jessy sings and co-wrote “Second Chance” on my record. And then the only other collaborator is Owen Pallett, who did a variety of string arrangements all over the record.

Is it just a coincidence that both of the contributors are also Canadian?
I’ve only ever collaborated with five people on record: Owen, Jessy, Luke Lalonde (Born Ruffians), Jeremy, and Koushik. And all five of them are Canadian. It is a coincidence. It’s not like a rule or anything. And it’s not like I only have Canadian friends. Collaboration is so much about a personal connection for me. I don’t just hire somebody who’s good at what they do. It’s more close friends that have some amazing skill that would be great to work with. Out of the four of us in the live band too, three of us are Canadian. One is American.

I know you have a daughter. How does that affect how you work and how often you work?
She’s three, but it’s really just been the last 18 months that I’ve worked intensively on the record. Before that, a lot of the reason I wasn’t working on the record aside from other things, was that I had a newborn baby in the house, and I was sharing the responsibilities of looking after her. But even now a big reason why the record has the most personal content lyrically is that I used to work in the mode where I’d disappear for up to 18 hours a day. I’d come out quickly to eat something and then go back in again. And I’d be so immersed in that world, where I’d just disappear down the wormhole. Now it’s more like go to the park, then she has a nap and I have the baby monitor next to me, she wakes up and I go spend some time with her, then my wife looks after her and I come back downstairs. So my life is so much more mixed up with her life, but also all of my friends and family because people are in similar situations. It’s not like I was ever a hermit, but I was effectively a hermit because I was working so much a lot of the time. It just means that I’m not only more connected with my daughter and my wife but everybody in my life because the pace and the day-to-day part of my life has changed.

I guess your daughter has heard your music. Has she taken an interest?
My studio is in the basement of the house, so she hears everything through the floor and then comes down to the studio during the day. But most of the time she’s not interested because it’s so constant that I’m doing this. It’s just like, “Oh, whatever.” She came on tour with us when we toured with Radiohead. She was eight or nine months old, but she responded to the crazy LED walls flashing at her, but it was kind of abstract and meaningless to her in a lot of ways. But we just went to Croatia and we played in this huge, 2000-year-old Roman Amphitheatre. It was a crazy show that blew me away. It was incredible we go to do it. And she hadn’t been to a show in a long time, and first of all, she was up way past her bedtime, so she was in this hallucinogenic state to begin with. But she was like, “What is going on here? What is my dad doing?” And she has trouble separating the music I make and other’s people’s music. Like she’ll ask if something on the radio is one of my songs when it sounds completely different. Her experience with music is so limited, and it mostly is from me thumping away in the basement. So she has a very partial understanding of what’s going on, but in an interesting way.

Does the album title, Our Love, have to do with family?
I wanted the album to be as comprehensive of all the things that matter to me in my life. They’re all manifestations of love and relationships in some ways: the one with my daughter, the one with my wife, and family and friends. I’ve had these amazing last few years since Swim came out where I feel this intense way in which that album connected with people. And so the primary impulse on this record was to make something that was generous in the sense that it was for everybody, not just for me locked in a studio by myself. It’s about making some kind of connection, thinking about all the people that have made my life wonderful the last few years by investing my music. Also with Our Love, my connection with music, part of it is being there, it’s a similar relationship that’s in somewhat related to something I love, and I’m so passionate about. It’s good and bad and problematic at times. So it’s all of those things I guess.

I think if someone played me Our Love without telling me who it was I wouldn't have necessarily guessed it was you. I felt the same way with Up In Flames, and how different it sounded from Start Breaking My Heart.
Definitely with Up In Flames, that was the case because it was so different from the last one. My interests had moved on. I tried to make another record like the first one but it didn’t work. I couldn’t find the enthusiasm to do it. But with this record, the cacophonous drumming has definitely disappeared from the mix a bit—even though it’s still a part of the live show—and I think it’s because I’ve done that so much.

For me this record is like a sibling to Swim. I see the two albums have more of a different thread from the previous albums: Up In Flames, The Milk of Human Kindness and Andorra. I imagined people would hear this and think this sounds like the person who made Swim but with a different focus.

This is very much a dance record. Did making the Daphni record help influence making Our Love?
It has in a sense that even before Swim, on Andorra’s last track “Niobe,” which was kind of my take on James Holden’s music or something that was explicitly looking towards dance music. And when I was finishing Andorra in 2006, and due in large part to Jeremy, who has always loved dance music and fed me things, like James Holden’s music, ever since then I’ve been moving towards dance music. Swim was very much a record that was inspired by and excited by seeing Theo Parrish play at Plastic People here or there being interesting things happening in London’s underground dance music culture like Joy Orbison, Floating Points, the Household Audio guys, all of these things happening at that time. The Daphni stuff was about people saying after Swim, “this guy’s into dance music let’s book him to DJ.” So that music came from a feeling that I needed music to play in my DJ sets. I’d wack those tracks together really quickly when I had a DJ gig. And then way I see it in relation to this new album is that I’m not separating the two. It’s not like, “Okay Daphni is the dance music alias so Caribou can’t have a dance influence.” It’s more like Daphni is this specific, functional thing, where I’m making music for this specific intention. And then Caribou should be everything that I’m into, everything about my life, my personal life, my musical life at the time that I’m making it should be in there. And so it will cross over inevitably with the Daphni stuff but the intention and the way that I work on it over time is different for me.

You previously said that Swim was an all-encompassing Caribou record. Do you feel the same way about Our Love?
Where I am right now, for sure, but it is again a more explicitly pop record. I was thinking all about making a record to minimize the distance between me and the listener, making the connection as direct as possible. Everything is much more focused, there are fewer sounds at any time, my vocal has less affects on it, the lyrics are more direct and genuine sentiments instead of being hidden. I also made an attempt to make everything as concise as possible, which is something that I did on Andorra as well. Whereas Swim was this miasmic thing where all of the sounds were floating around, everything is hidden behind layers of reverb.

I didn’t realize how successful Swim was for you. It sold over 175,000 copies. How surprised were you by that?
It totally blind-sided me because I made no attempt on that record whatsoever to make it more concise, poppy, or appealing to a wider range of people. And it started slowly, like any one of my other records. We were playing the same venues on the beginning of our tour, and then the next year we’d book a show at a bigger venue and it’d be sold out, or playing a bigger stage at a festival. And then the Radiohead tour came up. It was just like, “Wait a minute, something’s happening here.” It slowly gathered momentum. When things happen like that, to me at least, it’s not because of some coordinated marketing campaign that precedes a record. It’s because maybe it genuinely connects with people, or they share it with their friends, and I’m talking to people at shows or online, those kinds of experiences, and hearing people ask when the next record is coming. All of those things totally changed my perspective about what is important when it comes to making music. How I can make it my own thing without compromising artistically, but with the intention that it’s for everybody and not just me. Not only did Swim sell more copies but it connected with people who were very different from me. With Andorra and previous records I’d play a show and look out and think the audience and I can talk about records by Can, the Zombies and the Boredoms because we have a lot in common and around the same age. But with Swim there were 18-year olds freaking out in the front row. I’m older, in my mid-30s and the whole thing was magical to me, that it shouldn’t have worked. It shouldn’t have connected with people, but it’s very affirming that I put myself into it and it did work in this way that I didn’t expect it to.

I imagine touring with Radiohead opened up some doors for you. How did you find doing that tour?
We did it because I’ve been a big Radiohead for some time, and I did a remix for them first. So I knew that was coming from the band. I met them when we played at Glastonbury and they were so enthusiastic and so behind the whole thing, so into Swim. That was amazing. I rarely have that feeling of being starstruck about people, but it was crazy. I was thinking we’d be playing mostly to people who’d never heard our music or never seen us live but we did it more because their music means so much to me and it felt like a wonderful thing. If I told my teenage self this was happening it would’ve blown my mind back them. They were so nice and welcoming to us, and the shows were really, really amazing. The Toronto show was obviously unfortunate, but it was a crazy experience. Someone the other day asked me who I’d want to do a support tour for in the future and I feel like that’s as good as it’s gonna get. There is nobody else that would musically get me that excited. Once you begin opening for bigger bands, often people get booed or heckled because the fans are so specifically into that one thing. And the Radiohead fans were willing to listen to us and be won over, which is great. Radiohead choose support bands because they’re into them. They say, “Hey fans, listen to this. We’re into it and you might like it too.” Which is a lovely sentiment to have. And that’s not always the case. Sometimes we get offers where we have nothing musically in common. They will just find somebody where the numbers line up, like with Twitter followers and all that.

You mentioned DJing earlier. Apparently you can DJ up to nine hours. How do you pull that off?
The time just disappears. It really just does fly by. I prefer when you get to build the whole story and go all over the place, playing different kinds of music. The longest set I did was at Horst in Berlin, and there they don’t let you stop, really. The time when you’re supposed to stop comes and goes. They’re like, “No, no, no. We don’t have curfews here. Keep playing till the last human being is alive in this room.” I had to stop because I had to get on my flight to London. The guy who booked me and owned the club said to me, “Dan, I’ve never had someone do the whole night without going to the bathroom once.” And I hadn’t even noticed it until at that moment, and then all of a sudden I had to go to the bathroom more than I ever had before in my life. That was insane, but it illustrates how I can get lost in it.

Cam Lindsay is a writer living in Toronto. Follow Cam Lindsay on Twitter.