Caribou interview: “I always feel like I am fumbling around.”

17.03.10 Words by: Charlie Jones

CARIBOU AKA Dan Snaith just keeps evolving. Since releasing his first EP ‘People Eating Fruit’ as Manitoba in 2000, he hasn’t stopped learning, working things out – reinventing himself.

Ten years of releasing music, four albums under his belt and with ‘Swim’ on the way in April, Snaith has played a pretty reticent role within modern music. A bright-eyed and industrious bedroom producer (not forgetting his PHD in mathematics from Imperial College London in 2005), he has emerged as one of the Experimental Pop’s silent heroes. Growing up in Ontario off the beaten track from “fashionable” music, listening to his parents’ Grateful Dead records or the odd Detroit Techno record that a “clued-up” friend would show him, Snaith’s rise to muzo recognition has been a gradual one.

Friendship with Kieran Hebden helped gain access to a record label. He then gained wider acclaim when he won the 2008 Polaris Prize for his last album, ‘Andorra’, and in January this year he landed Odessa; a clanking, industrial masterpiece influenced by decades of brilliant music – from Arthur Russell, DFA Disco to Krautrock. It’s arrival came as a perfectly timed stamp on dance music. Sending a message out to anyone who thought that Caribou had disappeared.

And here he is, sitting opposite me in a Turkish Cafe on Holloway Road on a Thursday evening in March. A super-polite Canadian guy in this early 30s who obviously thinks a lot about music. However he says he isn’ t very analytical.

“I am not into the deconstruction of social context and ideas or whatever,” he says. “That is not what I am interested in. Although that is interesting, what gets me excited are the ideas that are harder to articulate. That is the interesting thing about music. If I was to make a track one morning and phone you up and try to explain why I was so excited about it, I would not be able to communicate why. The ideas are intangible in themselves.”

An eager-eyed, almost obsessive urge to generate sound in a new and interesting way is what drives Dan to create. Uncompromising self-criticism. Dissatisfaction with the mediocre and the dismissal of failure in pursuit of perfection. According to Dan, he made 600 tracks in preparation for this album but only nine made the final cut.

“When I am making an album, I make an absurd amount of music,” he says. “The songs just pile up and everyday I just start more ideas and most of them are totally mediocre. Sometimes I am like: “Just fucking hell, I have been doing this for so long enough, I should be able to write a good track”. And then I sit down and make something terrible. But at the same time that is what makes it always interesting. If I was like: “Oh I’ve cracked it!” There wouldn’t be that thrill.”

For Dan, the ability to produce 10 tracks and select every one for an album is an enigma – an unattainable skill – yet something for which he admires close friend and Jeremy from Junior Boys (who helped mix ‘Swim’). Instead for Dan, unrestrained experimentation allows the space to lose himself completely. Allowing himself to open the creative floodgates and truly let go of his inhibitions takes the pressure off. It allows him to go further. “The thing is about making tracks is that none of them really matter. If one is not going well, who cares?” he says. “I like doing something totally counterintuitive and it working for some reason.”

Despite such enduring exploration into music, a panacea for musical creation still remains elusive to Dan. “The thing is that after all these years making music, it is just as opaque as it was at the beginning,” he says. “I still have no clue, it is just endlessly fascinating. I always feel like I am fumbling round.”

Listen to any Caribou record and the last word that’ll spring to mind is “fumbling”. In Odessa there is wildness and a sense of abandonment, sure, but it is certainly not out of control. Every Caribou/Manitoba album has focus to it. A carefully considered vision. Put on ‘Andorra’ and you’ll hear Devotchka holding hands with The Shins in a sunny swirl of 60s nostalgia. On ‘Start Breaking My Heart’ (released under the name Manitoba in 2001 but re-released under Caribou in 2006), Aphex Twin and Four Tet meet in a understated world of ambience. ‘Swim’ sounds completely different altogether. There are elements I have never heard in Caribou before. It’s a truly important album that sounds best at night.

“The key thing for me was that I didn’t want all the sounds to come from the same place,” says Dan. “‘Andorra’ was very 60s sounding and that wasn’t really the point for me. It was about arrangements and composition. People heard it and they were like: “Oh I get it, this guy is like a 60s guy. He wants to make things that copy the 60s” or whatever and that irritated me a bit. I want everything to have my own sound. Maybe one sound is reminiscent of one thing and another of another but I wanted it to be a combination that doesn’t come from a particular era.”

Despite existing as the “record that has taken place most inside a computer,” there is a newfound depth to ‘Swim’. Its production swells, flooding your ears with thick reverberations and echoes. Snaith’s constructed universe is deep and spacey. Tantilising in its melody. “Stuff that is made up of synthesised sounds often lacks that. You don’t ever hear any acoustic space. It ends up just sounding digital and clean,” he says.

Sampling a note from a Musique Concrete track by Bernard Parmegiani and playing it as a globular bass note in Odessa was one way of injecting some life into the production. So was sampling a pair of Tibetan Bowls in a track quite aply entitled… Bowls. “I sampled one note of each and then through the computer mapped it out on a keyboard,” he says. “It is a hybrid. Samples played like they are instruments or whatever.”

And at the moment it is the prospect of playing ‘Swim’ live as part of a four-piece that excites him most. Something made more capable through access to new technologies that were not at his disposal in the past. “We would not have been able to play this album in the way we would have wanted to five years ago,” he says. “There will be four of us on stage and it will be the same instrumentation – there are two drum kits, keyboards, a bass and two singing. But everything is integrated together. Triggering some sound or playing some note will trigger something in the visuals, set off a strobe and control or put effects on a sound that someone else in the band is playing. This live show feels like the culmination of all the things I have always wanted to do I guess.”

Like I said, Caribou is always evolving. Adapting to his surroundings. Or, as was the case in 2004, changing his name due to the threat of legal action by an American man named “Handsome Dick Manitoba”. With a name like that, he doesn’t deserve it. “You’re telling me,” says Dan. “The thing that ran most cold was that Manitoba is a Canadian province and here was this American guy saying that he had exclusive rights to it.”

What ultimately strikes me most about Snaith is an air of confidence around his current project. But this is certainly not mistaken for arrogance. He still feels he has a long way to go. “With every album I think that this is the album that people are going to think: “Oh I don’t care any more” and I am going to go back to being a maths teacher again,” says Dan. “I feel like I have improved with each record but it feels like the universe of music is THIS big (makes big gesture with hands), I am HERE (points down to his left) just fiddling around and that’s the great thing about it.”

Well, keep on fiddling, Dan. But whatever you do, don’t go back to being a maths teacher. Make another album!

‘Swim’ is out on 19 April

Dan and his band are playing at Corsica Studios with GOLD PANDA and HOUNDS OF HATE on April 20. We interviewed both (HERE and HERE)