Dan Snaith left Canada over a decade ago, but the country’s accent has yet to quit him.
It comes out in “dude” and “about”, as you might expect, but it’s most obvious in his pronunciation of “been”, which is stretched into a “bean” that lasts half a beat longer than its American counterpart.
The continuation of this sociolinguistic tic is only fitting – Snaith’s music has long been associated to a degree with our northern neighbor. He was introduced to many listeners in 2003 as Manitoba – via its dizzying ’60s pop collage Up in Flames – and when the threat of legal action from Handsome Dick Manitoba forced Snaith to give up that provincial stage name, he landed on Caribou, which, again, isn’t particularly subtle in its invocation of the life above the wall.
But the musician and producer has resided in London since 2003, and it was from the U.K. that his parents emigrated just before he was born. “The only places that I’ve ever lived are Canada and the U.K.,” Snaith shared last week, calling from his basement studio in London. “I’ve definitely always felt Canadian, but when I was a kid, I also felt a little English. Canada is country composed almost entirely of immigrants, so everybody has some story of being from somewhere else.”
“There have always been two poles geographically for me, and I’ve oscillated between them,” he went on. “If you’re going to say, ‘Where’s your home?’ Then it’s obviously in London. But if you’re going to ask me, ‘Are you Canadian or English?’ I’m definitely Canadian. I’m kind of split between those two places still.”
Catching Snaith at home on this particular evening is more luck than anything else. He hasn’t spent much time in London recently, and he won’t again for a while. Snaith is at the end of a European tour with Caribou, and there’s a pair of North American tours around the corner – with a trip to Asia and Australia sandwiched in between for good measure.
It’s good to be Dan Snaith right now. In fact, it’s never been better. For starters, his recently released Our Love is one of the year’s best reviewed albums. Remarkably, this sort of adulation has become almost standard for Caribou. Snaith is actually so consistent that his unimpeachable track record of LPs is taken for granted instead of being treated as the absolute rarity that is.
What has changed is how many people will hear his music. Caribou has crossed over and found an audience in a way that is even more remarkable than his string of critical successes. It’s been a heartening story to watch unfold. I remember seeing Snaith and two drummers play a Caribou show in 2005 – in support of that year’s incredible The Milk of Human Kindness – with an attendance that could generously be estimated at a dozen people. Cut to a decade later and Caribou has just added a third show at Los Angeles’ Fonda Theatre after the first two sold out. And these concerts are in March.
There is a distinction to be drawn between Caribou as a recording artist and as a live entity. In the studio, Caribou is wholly Snaith’s province. He collaborates some – most notably with Owen Pallet and Jessy Lanza on Our Love – but Andorra and Swim and and Our Love grew first from his restless imagination. Live, their songs take on a different shape, performed by a band that features Ryan Smith, Brad Weber, and Vertical Scratchers’ John Schmersal .
“Dan makes the records – they’re his affairs – but it’s very democratic in terms of how it’s interpreted live,” Schmersal told BYT this spring. “It’s a great to feel like you might be the dumbest guy in the room. You feel like you’re swimming upstream.”
That’s probably not an uncommon feeling for those with Snaith in their lives.
Did the success of Swim change how you approached Our Love? Did it add any sense of pressure?
There wasn’t any pressure. The real shock of Swim was that I never intended to make popular music. I never conceived of myself as popular music. I mean, I’m not at all popular music.
All of my musical heroes have always been the most niche people – people who are only appreciated many years after. That’s not to say that’s going to happen to me, but those are the musicians that I always loved growing up – people that are out on the fringes and doing something weird.
I never thought that my music would cross to a bigger fanbase. After Swim, whether it was opening for Radiohead or playing bigger festivals, people would come up to me and be like, “Oh, yeah, me and all of my friends went on holiday and partied to your record on a beach in Thailand while the sun was going down.” I would hear stories like that and think, “This isn’t where I imagined my music ending up, but in a wonderful way, this is kind of incredible.” It just shows how little I thought about what would happen to the music after I released it.
That really kind of moved me – people’s stories about what the record meant to them or other musicians’ reactions. These were people that I met at concerts or people that messaged me online. It made me think, “This is what I want to make music for now. I want to make music to share with all of these people who are waiting for it.”
There were lots of people sending me messages, like, “When are you going to make another album? Hey, dude, it’s been three years. What’s going on? Where’s the next Caribou record?” This was the record’s impetus, which never was the case before.
Does finding such a sizable audience later in your career enhance your appreciation of it?
For sure. Absolutely. It’s really crucial, actually. I know lots of musicians who have taken different paths. I know some that have made a first record that blew up straight away, and they were in the middle of some kind of A&R media storm with labels bidding on that record, and then the second or third record comes around and the momentum has dropped away. That can happen to anyone, obviously. But it becomes harder to deal with, because they’ve taken that success for granted.
When Caribou goes on tour – and we’ve all played in other bands for years, too – we’re all of the ethic that you get in a van and you do everything yourself: You hump the gear and you sell the merch and you do everything related to getting in a van and touring North America. We’re still doing that.
You appreciate things more when you’re on that level as well – when you’re actually meeting people and not just disappearing behind a curtain after the show ends. Having done that for so long, you really see how it grows. You’re like, “Wait a minute. We’ve played this venue four times, but never sold half the tickets, and now it’s sold out a month in advance and we’re adding another show.” We just added our third show in L.A. in March. I’m just like, “What is going on? This is something else.”
You get a sense of what’s different and what’s really exciting, because you’ve been through the cycle of touring and putting out records so many times. It’s not that I didn’t really enjoy and feel super excited about all of those other records that I’ve put out, but bands that start out straight out at big venues don’t get the sense of growth and the excitement that comes with that. With every album that I’ve released, something new and exciting and wonderful has happened. The fact that it’s still happening after fifteen years is crazy. It’s a crazy fortunate to be in that situation.
What characteristics do you look for in a collaborator?
There are the people that actually collaborate musically – Jessy [Lanza] and Owen [Pallett] on this record. They add their own original musical ideas to the record. And then there are people that give me feedback on stuff. From the latter group, honesty is the most valuable thing. It’s so rare to play music for someone and for them to have a really honest reaction. Those are the people whose opinion I value. It’s people like Kieran [Hebden] and my wife, and also Jessy and Owen.
But from Jessy and Owen, there’s this combination of being aligned musically in some ways and seeing things in a similar way, but also seeing things differently enough that when you put a song together, your instinct is not to reach for the same note on the keyboard at the same time. If your impulses are the same, then collaboration doesn’t add anything. Collaboration is for one person to be thinking, “OK, it could go this way,” and the other person to be thinking, “OK, it could go another way.” When you get ideas that are complimentary enough, but also different enough, it creates and synthesizes something.
When I listen to the songs with Jessy and Owen, I hear their take on music and their taste in music, because I know them quite well musically, as well as personally. I hear them so distinctly. I know that have a very inside perspective, because I know exactly what they did and when they did it, but I can really hear my taste and their tastes meshing together, making this thing that neither I nor they would have made otherwise.
Each of your records has diverged – sometimes subtly, sometimes more markedly – from what’s preceded it. When you’re progressing into new stylistic territory, is there a part of you that feels like you’re out of your element? Do you question yourself?
To be honest, whenever I start making a record, no matter what the genre, I always feel out of my element. I listen back to the last record that I made, and I think, “How did I end up making that?” It’s hard to see from the end product what the steps are, and I can’t remember because a few years have passed.
The same goes with regards to genre and stylistic things. I never thought that I would make anything with the R&B or hip-hop inflection of the stuff on this record – particularly the hip-hop influence. Having grown up listening to hip-hop and following the production since I was in my late teens and early 20s, I always felt like someone like Madlib or Timbaland was untouchable – like, you shouldn’t even go near something that references those same sort of ideas. I know from trying to do those things early in my career – trying to make something that sounds like a J Dilla beat – that it’s so just easy to get it wrong and so hard to get it right.
It was a surprise to me in working on this record that a lot of the tracks that I liked the most were at that tempo. A track like “Silver” turned into a song, but it started out being punched out on a sampler like a J Dilla beat – I had that sort of thing in mind. It surprised me that I dared to do that on some level, because rap music always seemed so untouchable to me.
Do you think there’s value in outsiders approaching a genre – that they won’t be beholden to its established conventions?
As far as I can tell, that’s a big part of what made people pay attention to Swim, particularly in the dance music and electronic music world. That record was inspired by going out to small clubs and seeing people like Theo Parrish and Moodyman DJ these wonderful, eclectic sets, and thinking, “There’s so much richness there. How can I compress all of this stuff into my music?” Swim is the sound of me getting that wrong.
I made this track called “Niobe”, which is the last track on Andorra – the album previous to Swim. That song was just an attempt to rip off James Holden. I was just trying to figure out, “How the fuck does he make his music?”
I hear some music and I’m like, “This is transparent. I can figure out how to make this kind of a track. I know this sound. I know that sound. I know how to program that kind of a beat.” But I’d listen to [Holden’s] music – or lots and lots of different kinds of music – and think, “I have no idea how to even begin making that piece of music.” With James’ stuff, that impulse led me to “Niobe”.
It’s a trap for me, as well. I’ve tried to steer clear of it to a degree. As such a music fan, I could spend forever trying to copy other people’s ideas and see if I can pull them off. But in the case of “Niobe”, it was fruitful, because I missed the mark by so much. I didn’t get it right at all, but it was something that I would never have made otherwise. It was kind of distinct and had its own thing going on, because it was such a weird misfire of a very specific thing.
How would you describe your relationship with the culture of dance music on the whole?
It’s changed over time for me. When I was finishing Andorra and making Swim, I was going to see James [Holden] DJ, I was going to see Theo Parish DJ, I was going to see lots of people who I didn’t know at all DJ. And I was loving that experience. When I was a teenager, I had been a DJ and a clubgoer myself, but I was enjoying it on this different level. I was there as this sober, older dude – just enjoying it as a totally musical thrill.
Now I’m much more immersed in it. Lots of my friends who are music producers are primarily DJs. I end up going to see them play the same way that you go to see you friend’s band play. We end up talking about, like, “Hey, what was that record you played halfway through?”
Do you enjoy DJing?
I really, really love DJing. That was something that came out of the aftermath of Swim, and fed into the excitement of making the Daphni record and [Our Love] as well. Live music is such an incredible thing, and playing with the band is so fulfilling, so I was like, “Oh I’ll do a bunch of DJing, but it’s always going to be subsidiary to the live thing.”
But it’s gotten to the point with me that they’re totally equal – although very, very different. I enjoy them both so much, very differently. I’ve had some of the best nights of my life doing both. They have different strengths and different things that appeal about them.