Caribou interview: “The love in my life.”

02.10.14

It’s been three years since the release of 'Swim', Dan Snaith’s last album as Caribou. Since then, he’s kept active both as a DJ and as a producer, playing clubs and festivals around the world and releasing an album of dance tracks under his Daphni alias. He’s also had a daughter, something that has changed his attitude towards his own music and made him re-evaluate what he wants to convey with it.

All of these things feed into Snaith’s newest album, 'Our Love'. The pulse of the dancefloor runs through it more overtly than on any other Caribou record, while its spirit is much more optimistic and embracive than some of his older, more introverted albums. In this spirit of inclusiveness, Snaith also brought in some outside collaborators to help on the album: Hyperdub-signed R&B singer Jessy Lanza, who sings on Second Chance, and Owen Pallett, who plays violin on a handful of album tracks.

With Snaith living in London, we met over a lemonade at a café near his home in Stoke Newington to talk about 'Our Love', his working process, and the influence of hip hop and R&B on the album.

When did you first start thinking about making the record?

Caribou: "The feedback to 'Swim' – the way that it took off in a way that I wasn’t expecting – was the thing that made me want to go back to making a Caribou record. It changed my perspective on it, making me want to make something that was more outward looking – whereas in the past, I’d always made music for myself. I guess that was in 2011.

"I didn’t know what the record was gonna sound like. It was only until we finished touring with Radiohead, which was at the end of 2012, that I had some time to start figuring out the record. I had this idea that I wanted it to be somehow more generous or more outward looking, but in terms of how to realize what it’d sound like, that was just a process of recording every day."

The album starts sounding quite muted, with the intro to Can’t Do Without You, before building up and exploding. That makes me think of that the transition from inward to outward-looking.

Caribou: "The minute I started making that track, I was immediately thinking about playing it at a festival. It’s just one big crescendo. The song barely makes sense if you’re playing to a room filled with 50 people, like we used to. It definitely comes out of that experience of playing big festivals and thinking, 'This is so amazing, sharing this with everybody.'"

Was there any one song you had initially that ended up informing the rest of the album?

Caribou: "I make hundreds and hundreds of little draft ideas for tracks. I know which ones I like more than others, but I don’t know how they’re gonna fit together as a record. Can’t Do Without You is definitely a song where, halfway through, I was like, 'This is pointing in the direction I want it to go.'

"There was actually one night… I had Can’t Do Without You and a few other tracks in draft form in January this year – and the album was finished in April or May, so at that point it was quite close to the end, but I still didn’t have a really good picture of what it’d be like – and there was one night where I was going to sleep, and it was like, 'That track can have this happen!' And I’d run back downstairs – the studio’s in the basement – and I’d record it. I always worry that I’m gonna lose it. That’d happen two or three times in the night, and by the time I woke up the next morning, I was like, 'This is much more like an album.' Substantial things, like what the chorus is gonna be like."

Do you often find inspiration hitting at random times, or do you have more of a regimented studio schedule?

Caribou: "It’s become much more regimented in that I have my daughter. But it’s also become more flexible in that I might have to take daughter here at this time because she’s sick. Or she’s not going to nursery, so I have to be with her all day. 

"It’s just more integrated; it’s more fit in to the rest of my life. Whereas it used to be that I’d wake up in the morning and I’d work until late at night, with a couple of breaks in between. And I’ve had to change that – which is a good thing, for a number of reasons.

"But I’m kind of jealous – and also sceptical, thinking, 'Does this really happen to people?' – when they go, 'Oh, I just wait, and then I go sit outside', and then go, 'Oh, there’s a song.' Is it really that easy for anybody? I find that so hard to imagine, because for me, it’s all graft."

And as you said, you end up going through hundreds of different sketches. Is it important to keep working until you hit on something?

Caribou: "It sounds crazy, but if I’ve been working on an album for two years, roughly, and then I make three little ideas a day, it quickly adds up to that number. I’m working on it every day, because I love doing it. I’d want to be doing it, even if I wasn’t making a record. 

"There could be a month in that period where nothing good happens at all. Some people would say, 'You should stop, you should get on your bike, go for a ride, do something else.' But my experience has always been that I’ve got to work through that stuff rather than wait."

The album seems to consolidate some of the ideas on recent records – like the sound of 'Swim', the club influence of Daphni, and the big arrangements of 'Andorra'. Is it fair to say that it's bringing a lot of your past ideas together?

Caribou: "I’m glad you’ve said that, because a lot of people have been like, 'Oh, there’s a house beat on it, this must have come out of the Daphni record.' And that record, to me, is influenced by dance music, but it’s much less composed and arranged. Those ideas came from working on 'Andorra' – that was the time where I worked on figuring out song structure, and arrangement, and those kind of ideas. And I totally agree with you; for me, it ['Our Love'] synthesizes all the stuff coming from 'Andorra', then from 'Swim', and from Daphni having more of an influence from dance music and from synthetic sounds. 

"It’s funny, because sometimes when I make music, I feel like I’ve learnt nothing over the last 15 or even 20 years now. I still sit down and half the stuff that I make is total garbage. How have I not learned all this time? But when I listen back to the finished album, then I hear, 'Oh, I figured out how to do that at that point, and this at this point.' It seems cumulative, in the end."

"Sometimes when I make music, I feel like I’ve learnt nothing over the last 15 or even 20 years now. I still sit down and half the stuff that I make is total garbage." – Caribou

A friend of mine actually said a similar thing about the Daphni influence – he said he liked the Caribou songs, but wasn't keen on the Daphni ones. But I don't see the album as being that clubby in the way that Daphni is. It wouldn't really work in a club.

Caribou: "There are a few house tempo songs on this record – and even those, when I’ve been DJing out this summer, I think, 'Can I play these tracks out?' Our Love, you can play the second half out – but the first half? The Daphni tracks I made specifically to be played in clubs, so they should all work."

I also think that the house music thing is fairly surface level, because one of the things that I picked up on was the influence of R&B, and hip hop – a song like Dive for example sounds like a hip hop production from the last couple of years.

Caribou: "Yes, absolutely. And this is actually a good illustration of how, in the beginning, I had a different idea of what the record was gonna be. I was excited by the hyper synthetic-sounding, glossy, digital sounds of R&B and hip hop production of the last few years, and I thought that the record was gonna be much more like that: transparent-sounding, super polished, super unreal. With tracks like Dive, and a couple of other places, you can still hear it.

"But alongside that was a desire to make the most personal, most connected thing that I’d made, and I found it really hard to square those two things together. In retrospect, I was actually listening to more classic soul music, like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Curtis Mayfield with my daughter when I was just hanging out with her. That’s what warmed the record up."

"In the beginning, I had a different idea of what the record was gonna be. I thought that the record was gonna be transparent-sounding, super polished, super unreal. But alongside that was a desire to make the most personal, most connected thing that I’d made, and I found it really hard to square those two things together." – Caribou

Speaking of soul music, I was looking at some of the song titles – Can't Do Without You, All I Ever Need, Our Love, Your Love Will Set You Free – and thinking that they seemed to be a reference to classic house or soul song titles. Music from a gospel tradition, almost. But actually, talking about it with you now, it seems that it's a much more personal thing than a referential thing.

Caribou: "There are titles of songs and lyrics of songs in this album that a few years ago I wouldn’t have felt comfortable writing. I’d have felt they were too saccharine and too personal, or I would’ve felt too exposed putting them in my music. Part of it’s just getting older and being more reflective, thinking, 'What is it that I want to have in my music when I look back on it? What are the things that matter to me?' And they are clichéd things: the love in my life, whether that be my family or my friends.

"When we played songs off of 'Swim', I’d talk to people after shows and they’d be like, 'This songs means a lot to me.' In the albums previously, the lyrics had nothing to do with me – they’d be like, 'Oh, I need some words, let’s sketch out something.' And then if somebody comes up to me after the show and says that a song means a lot to them, I’d feel kind of fraudulent. The music itself, I feel like it’s in there, but the lyrics are not coming from a genuine experience."

How did you overcome a fear of putting yourself out there?

Caribou: "I’ve been doing this for a long time, so it’s been a very gradual process. If you look at my records over the years, there’s been slightly more singing each time. That’s a symptom of the same thing."

"Part of it’s just getting older and being more reflective, thinking, 'What is it that I want to have in my music when I look back on it? What are the things that matter to me?' And they are clichéd things: the love in my life, whether that be my family or my friends." – Caribou

Did you write with Jessy Lanza and Owen Pallett in mind?

Caribou: "They were both involved really early on. Owen I’ve known for a long time. Jessy is from the same town where I grew up in Canada; I know her through a friend. I knew they were people I wanted to collaborate with, but I didn’t know on what song. I was already thinking about it before I approached them, because it doesn’t make sense to go to them and be like, 'Let’s collaborate – I have nothing to show you and no idea what it’s gonna be like.' So I waited until I had little chunks; 30 second versions of some of the tracks. I sent them over, just to get their opinion, and the ones that resonated with them were the ones that were like, 'Okay, let’s do something together on that.'

"I didn’t have a good idea of what it’d be like. For example, the song with Jessy – I didn’t have any clue that it was gonna turn into this big pop/R&B melody because it was just this woozy synthesizer loop that I sent her. She just totally flipped that song on its head with the parts that she wrote.

"With the songs that they didn’t record anything on, they still had a big input on. Just like, 'I don’t like this part.' 'There’s something wrong with this.' 'You’ve gotta switch this around.' I lose the plot so easily when I’m by myself."

Did you envision having the whole of Second Chance being given to Jessy? Having just her lone vocal rather than your own?

Caribou: "I thought that that track was maybe gonna be instrumental. I didn’t know what to do with it. I’d actually tried singing on it, but it didn’t work.

"We have complimentary, but different, tastes on music, and I hear her sensibility on the parts that she did and I hear my sensibility coming at it from a different angle. So neither of us would’ve written that track by ourselves. I wouldn’t have written that melody, she would’ve maybe never programmed the synths in the same way. Her stuff is more pristine."

I think that it’s such a key song on the record. For an album that's all about love it's important not to be this one-sided thing. It makes it a lot more feminine.

Caribou: "It is key, for sure. That’s kind of been the thrust of my music, especially with the Daphni record – to make music that’s less macho."

Wrapping up, is there anything that you want people to take from the record in particular?

Caribou: "Some songs that have connected in the past, or have been personal to me, people have taken in a totally different way to what I intended them to. I think that some people – maybe an earlier version of me, 10 years ago – would have been like, 'No, no, no, this is my idea and it has to be like this.' But I’ve become more comfortable knowing that once it’s released, it’s not really mine anymore. The fact that it connects with people is wonderful, and if it connects with people in a totally different way to what I expected, that almost even more wonderful."

City Slang release 'Our Love' on October 6th 2014 (pre-order).