Interview

Q&A: Caribou On The Inspirations, Experiences, And Complex Emotions That Define Our Love

When Dan Snaith named Caribou’s new album Our Love, he knew people might initially picture some kind of fairytale sentiment. But nothing is ever that simple, least of all love, and Snaith not only knows that, he’s used that complexity as his main inspiration. The singles “Can’t Do Without You” and the title track have made Caribou’s first album in four years fiercely anticipated. Since the breakthrough success of Swim, a risky personal record that led to an opening slot for Radiohead, Snaith shifted gears and rediscovered his love for club music, building the DJ persona Daphni from a goofy side-project into a powerful entity of its own. But a lot has happened over the last few years: Snaith had his first child and gained a new perspective on everything happening in his life. Moving forward from both Swim’s bare emotion as well as Daphni’s dance-music groove, Snaith began forming his new album. Our Love is a record as complicated as its namesake. Snaith can evoke feelings of startling vulnerability and fear, excitement and romance, over arrangements that can be close and intimate before swelling to booming dance-inducing climaxes — and he’ll often accomplish all that in a single song.

When I began speaking to Snaith, he actually asked the first question: “Pynchon?” he said, pointing to a tattoo on my arm, taken from an illustration in the author’s The Crying Of Lot 49. Snaith had been introduced to the symbol during his tour with Radiohead (a band who co-opted much of the imagery from that novel), and he later read and grew to love the book. In our discussion we touched upon the fluid evolution of his music, how long-lasting love can be as dysfunctional as it is functional, and reminiscences of his friendship with James Holden, whose shift from Britney Spears-remixing wunderkind to experimental electronic composer inspired Caribou’s own evolution. That Pynchonian spirit was evident throughout our conversation. Much as the iconic writer was more interested in building a web of mysteries than providing any solutions, Snaith never tried to find a defining answer to Our Love, showing instead that it is that unknowable complexity that makes life worth living.

STEREOGUM: So there was the Daphni album in 2012, but this is technically the longest you’ve gone between Caribou albums. How has it been moving back to that after about four years?

DAN SNAITH: There was a sense of getting back to it because so much stuff happened. We toured for so long, I had a baby. That’s the good thing about the album and touring cycle — it was kind of like, ‘OK, I want to make a Caribou record now.’ It’s kind of more getting back to stuff I’m really into rather than adapting stuff that’s kind of functional, dance-music focused, or whatever.

STEREOGUM: How old is the baby now?

SNAITH: She’s just about to turn three. During this interim, she’s born and has grown up to a certain degree.

STEREOGUM: I think it’s interesting you mentioned the Daphni stuff, because when I was at FYF Fest you were doing both Daphni and Caribou sets. Daphni always seemed like this alter ego, but in the last couple years, it’s become much more visible. Do you try to keep them separate?

SNAITH: I don’t try and keep them separate. The distinction for me is more about intention and the way I work on them. The Daphni album wasn’t really made to be an album, I made it the day before I did the DJ set. I wanted some new music to play in my set, and I made something really quickly and spontaneously, and then I was like, “Oh my god there’s 45 minutes of music here, why don’t I put this out? There are a lot of people who’ve been buying the 12-inches who’d want to hear this.” I was proud of it, but with the Caribou stuff, it’s so much more labored-over and meticulous. It’s supposed to represent more of everything I’m into and everything I’m doing. That’s the distinction for me. One’s kind of frivolous and fun in the best possible way, and the other thing is … not serious, but it is trying to capture my life in some way.

STEREOGUM: It sounds very symbiotic. They must help each other.

SNAITH: For sure. And it definitely was really nice to put out — after Swim had been quite a big thing for me, relative to other records I’d put out — it was kind of busy and full of planning and touring. The Daphni stuff was whatever. I’m not going to promote it really, just do some DJ gigs. To release it was really spontaneous and fun, but after it was done, I was really ready to do something. It sounds funny, but I’m excited for the whole process. I know this whole process — of doing interviews and shows and everything — pretty well. It builds up an anticipation in me, just as much as it does in people who are waiting. They’re like, “Why can’t we hear the album until October?!” and I’m like “Why can’t they hear the album until October?!”

STEREOGUM: When did Our Love begin to form in your head?

SNAITH: There had been little snippets of music that would later turn into tracks long ago, 2011, 2012. But I didn’t have much time to work on it. I had the baby, and was going on tour with Radiohead. I’d only be home for a few days and have a couple of days to work on things, and wouldn’t have time after that. The last year and half I was like, “OK now I’m not taking any gigs.” But I wanted to stop and focus on this thing. Some parts of it start to make sense as you go along, but some things only make sense in retrospect. You’re like, “Oh, this is why the album sounds this way,” and, “This is what it represents in my life.”

STEREOGUM: This album is lyrically and emotionally direct. With “Silver,” at first, I was focused on the sound, but then I paid attention to the words and realized, “Holy shit, this is really sad.” Was that directness something you had in mind going in, or did that kind of reveal itself?

SNAITH: That [directness] is the thing I had in mind right from the start. Because of a few things. Swim was received so well by fans, and I had started to put more of my personal life in Swim. And I realized the first thing I wanted to do was make an album for the people who wanted to hear it. In the past that’s never ever been even a tiny piece of what I’ve done. It has this afterlife, but the music in the studio is, “Close the door, this is my thing.” It was just for me. So the first thing I wanted to do is make this thing for you, whoever’s going to hear it. And the other side of it was that my personal life and musical life are so much more integrated now. I’m not a crazy workaholic like I used to be, closing the door on the studio and disappearing — none of my friends or family would see me for a week. Now I’m out with my daughter, talking to our friends who are going through fraught times in their relationships because they also have young kids and things are complicated in their lives. And all of that — that’s my life. That’s the context of my life, and that’s what ended up being the lyrical content. I wanted to capture as much of that complexity as possible. I’m glad you feel like it translates, because that was definitely the idea. Swim was very miasmic — I’ve always made music where I hide my voice behind the music. And this album is for the person who’s listening to it — I want to make the distance between me and them as small as possible. I want it to transmit directly.

STEREOGUM: It’s interesting, too, the way you talk about your personal and work lives being integrated, because the album kind of has that sense musically. There are things like Swim, where it has that more personal stuff. But some of the songs will have that, and then could also be played in the club. “Julia Brightly” and especially “Can’t Do Without You.”

SNAITH: Making “Can’t Do Without You” in one way is about the people at the shows that I’m going to be singing to, so I imagine playing that to a bunch of people at a festival. That was the impetus when I was making the track. It definitely has that, but it’s also intimate, things about my personal life.

STEREOGUM: What are those things?

SNAITH: Kind of the dynamic between myself and my daughter — how reliant and dependent she is on me. It’s a euphoric song, but there’s also a kind of melancholy note in the sentiment … it’s almost dysfunctional. This line is repeated over and over again about obsession and dependency. I see people with relationships that have lasted longer than a few years, they become dependent on each other. One thing I reflect on a lot is people in my parents’ generation, they become so knotted to one another. Not always in a fairytale love way, but the context and texture of your lives become knotted together in a way that’s both functional and dysfunctional. It’s like you just kind of get the roots of two trees knotted together.

STEREOGUM: It seems to be the kind of thing that happens when you meet “that person.”

SNAITH: It’s definitely very much an album made by a thirty-something person. It’s about this complexity and density and seems to kind of characterize my life and the relationships in my life in the moment. But also I hope it’s something that’s universal in some way. Because those things really aren’t things that are specific to that age. It is personal to me, but I feel like everybody encounters those things.

STEREOGUM: “Can’t Do Without You” has that duality, and throughout it feels like nothing is ever meant to be simple. With every song, there is at least one moment when something drastically changes — that big volume sweep, or the way “Silver” has that moment when it gets so bright near the end. And “Mars” has that vocal loop. It’s all these feelings at once.

SNAITH: Well I knew when I was going to put ‘love’ in an album title, people were going to be like, “Oh yeah, love, like prince and a princess living happily every after.” And that’s nobody’s experience of love, or the feelings in their lives. So I wanted an album that was much more about conveying that complexity. But also for me it’s about loving and celebrating that complexity. That’s the central thing about existence for me — that everything is always complicated, and it’s about enjoying how wonderful and rich that makes everything.

STEREOGUM: The songs must go through a lot of forms and changes.

SNAITH: They definitely do, all the songs have gone through a lot. The way I work is, I make loads and loads of ideas for tracks, probably seven or eight hundred drafts of little 30-second loops, and I choose the ones that connect with me. And then the ones that I do work into some kind of song, with this album particularly like the track “Our Love,” I had both kind of parts — it’s mellow in the beginning and there’s the big house-y bass line in the second half — I had both of those right from the start. A sense of momentum and anticipation, tension-building. Those things, I just try endless different variations. And a thing about working by myself — you get some kind of “That feels good,” but if I come back a couple days later I think, “I let this part go way too long! It’s super boring.” Where if you were in a band, maybe like the bass player would be like, “You gotta trim this down.” So it requires time. I can get a more accurate read on something if I work on stuff, leave it, and return to it a few days later. That’s a big part of the process for me.

STEREOGUM: That’s interesting because this is the first time you haven’t been working entirely alone.

SNAITH: Definitely, this is the most collaborative thing I’ve ever done. That was a big part of the record.

STEREOGUM: Fans were excited long before the album announcement, because there was that Daphni and Owen Pallett single. Was that done at the same time?

SNAITH: We actually made the A-side of that three or four years ago. I kept playing it at my DJ sets, and it would just go off. It was one of those tracks that worked better than I thought it would in the club. I liked it at home, but then liked it better playing in the club. It’s got so much more sub to it. People would go crazy. And I’d send Owen texts, pictures, like, “Owen, we gotta make a B-side.” We recorded “Julia” in Toronto over Christmas. And I was like, “Owen, let’s just book a studio for a day and make some dance music.” It was when I was doing Daphni stuff and we recorded that. And when we recorded that, we were having so much fun. He works in such a different way from me. He was like, “Dan come on, you gotta let me do something on the new Caribou record.” And I was like, “Of course, why hadn’t I thought of that before?”

STEREOGUM: What was it like bringing someone else into what you’ve been doing all by yourself?

SNAITH: I’ve done little bits in the past, little bits and pieces. Both Owen and Jesse [Lanza] had more of an impact on the record than you actually hear on the record. If you listen, you think, “Oh Owen’s just playing violin on a few tracks,” but I sent him music really, really early on. He came to London a bunch of times for touring reasons and he’d come over and we’d work on stuff, talk over email. Jesse was the same — there was this real dialogue. They both influenced the record in a much more substantial way than you hear. It’s not just Jesse singing here and Owen playing violin there. Their impact on the record was much broader than you would think. Owen would send me suggestions like, “This part needs to be deleted, this needs to be moved around…” I think that’s the best kind of collaboration for me — someone who’d suggest something I would never ever would have thought of. Jesse’s track, for example, wouldn’t have even been on the album in any form without her. All I had was this cycling synthesizer loop. And I sent it to her and she sent it back with a massive pop verse and chords on it. And I hadn’t even thought of the song going in that direction. It was such a gift for me, someone who works by myself. Those are the parts of the album I enjoy the most, the parts with those two. Because I can really hear them. It’s a treat for me.

STEREOGUM: I was looking at an old interview from maybe four or five years ago, and you mentioned that you were really influenced by James Holden on the last track of Andorra and throughout Swim. Since then he’s had The Inheritors come out, and he’s remixed one of your songs and you remixed “Renata.” I’m curious how that came about.

SNAITH: The Inheritors. That was my favorite album of last year. He’s a really, really special guy, a special musician. I met him through Keiran — Four Tet. There was a club in London called the End. And James would play in the main room and Kieran would play all night in the second room. It was a time neither of us were doing much DJing. I was making Andorra and was much more into psychedelic rock. And his really idiosyncratic take on dance music changed my perspective and opened me up to being more into dance music on my records. And it’s interesting because his trajectory is kind of going the opposite way. At a time when Keiran and I were like, “Yeah let’s book some clubs!” James was just like, “I’m so tired of dance music.” [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: Like he was just trying to get out of the shadow of the Britney Spears remix.

SNAITH: Exactly, yeah. That whole world is something people still identify with him. It’s like, finally with Inheritors it’s something he shook off. People know what to expect. I don’t know if you’ve seen him play live?

STEREOGUM: No.

SNAITH: It’s so amazing. But if you didn’t know he was the James Holden of the past, you wouldn’t think it was dance music at all. We became good friends and I asked him to remix the last track on Andorra because it’s influenced by him and he was like, “The problem is, I don’t want to change it. I like it the way it is,” which I thought was a very nice thing to say. And he started playing it in his DJ sets even though it has no beat! It has no bass. He’s such a daring DJ. And then we did this expanded live thing which was called the Caribou Variation Ensemble with ten or eleven people playing in the band. He played live modulars and synthesizers. And I think that was really the first live show James did. And when I saw him play live, I was like “James that’s amazing,” and he said “Well I’m glad you like it, cause it’s your fault you got me into it.”

STEREOGUM: You are heading back that way, too. How is some of this going to translate to a live band?

SNAITH: The key thing is that even though they don’t play on the record, it’s always the same four of us in the band. And the way we translate the songs into playing as a live band, it’s not me telling everyone how to do it. We do it totally collaboratively. We’re so used to this process and we’ve got such a flexible setup on stage now where we’re playing keyboard and a controller that can sound like anything and control anything. It’s worked really, really well. The songs are sounding great, even though your first instinct would not be to think, “Oh that’s a band.” I’m so glad that I’m doing this, rather than me up there with a laptop. I think that’s what makes it so special for me, and to some degree I feel that with the audience. They can see us working hard up there, working to create something, see us interacting and things going wrong and us figuring out, and things changing on the go. I feel like that connects with people. They can feel that.

STEREOGUM: You previously mentioned you were little nervous about how people would respond to Swim, especially after Andorra. But it was a huge success. What was it like coming back now, having done that? Do you feel more uninhibited?

SNAITH: Yeah, that was the thing that sort of framed my whole mindset making this whole record. With Swim I wasn’t really sure how people were going to feel about it. And then it was like, “What happened? This is amazing.” And it was so affirming, I really wanted to make a record for just everybody. And that’s where I got all the energy from — this kind of, “Wow, I just did what I felt and it connected with people.” It was just such a great vote of confidence, it set me up to think about being confident about doing what I wanted to do, but was about sharing. It very much affected my mindset. I’m so lucky. I couldn’t be in a happier place, genuinely.

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Our Love is out 10/7 on Merge. You can stream it now on iTunes.

Tags: Caribou, Daphni