Interview

Dan Snaith On The All-Consuming Suddenness Of Caribou’s New Album

If there’s one moment on Caribou’s upcoming album Suddenly that boils down its elastic essence, it’s the transition from verse to chorus on second single “You And I.” Initially, the song floats on pillowy chords, a twinkling lead melody, and a persistent midtempo beat, instantly recalling the spaciest moments on the last Caribou album, 2015’s Our Love. There’s one difference though — while Our Love was less happy-go-lucky than its title or lead single “Can’t Do Without You” suggested, its depictions of love’s bumps and bruises always gave way to hope. The “You And I” verses — with lines like “Now you’re gone/ And I’m left here waiting” and “It feels like there’s a hole inside/ That just won’t go away” — don’t exactly resonate with the promise of reconciliation.

Then a drum fill abruptly cuts in, giving way to trappy hi-hats, far more disorienting synths, and vocal samples chopped and pitch-shifted to the point of incoherence. The lyrics mirror the abrupt transition: “You can take your place up in the sky/ I will find a way to carry on down here.” The song’s not about a breakup; it’s about death. It’s not melancholic synth-pop; it’s cathartic, post-dubstep, industrial indie trap-pop… or something.

The five years that have elapsed between Our Love and Suddenly are the longest gap between Caribou albums since Dan Snaith began the project — originally under the name Manitoba — in 2001. It’s easy to see why. Snaith, Caribou’s sole constant studio member, manages to cram a million different, seemingly incongruous musical ideas into under 45 minutes. Stately compositions give way to chopped-up samples of R&B and hip hop. Bleating synths rise up from tranquil organic soundscapes. House beats share space with boom-bap, trap, and ambient. Guitar lines drive songs until they’re warped beyond the point of recognition. There’s a reason Snaith decided to call this one Suddenly.

Like Our Love, the album’s very clearly the product of the most powerful human emotion, but as is clear on “You And I,” it addresses love from very different angles. Snaith’s a happily married father, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise on heartbreaking tracks like “New Jade” and “Like I Loved You.” The key is that Snaith’s either writing from other perspectives or to specific people, namely extended family and friends. The past five years have brought a series of abrupt, life-altering changes upon those around him, and the album reflects his attempts at responding and offering comfort. Again, there’s a reason he decided to call this one Suddenly.

To wrap my head around the album’s all-consuming suddenness, I got on the phone with Snaith to talk about the inimitable emotion of wordless vocal samples, blending the familiar with the unfamiliar, making 900 demos for Suddenly, and finding joy in listeners misconstruing his work.

STEREOGUM: Suddenly feels like the most intensely personal Caribou album, and you sing on nearly every track. But it’s also got more unintelligible samples of other artists’ vocals than any past Caribou album. Not that these are necessarily at odds, but how did your most sample-heavy album end up also being your most intimate one?

DAN SNAITH: I’m the kind of person who won’t know the lyrics to my favorite song. I listen to the instruments, I listen to the production, I listen to the voice, but I don’t listen to the words so much. That doesn’t mean I have any less of an emotional response to the music, or feel any less moved by it. I just get that feeling from the harmony or the melody or the character of their voice. These disembodied, chopped-up, or atomized bits of other peoples’ voices on the record — when I’d use those samples in making a track, it often gives it some emotional heft or character that would be hard to find with other instruments. xEven when said voice is used like an instrument, like it is in most of these instances.

STEREOGUM: Sometimes the vocal sample very much matches the tone of the rest of the song, but then you’ve got, say, “Sunny’s Time.” There’s that tranquil grand piano melody and then all the sudden a gruff rapper’s chopped-up voice interrupts everything.

SNAITH: That track is inspired by the contemporary sound of hip-hop and R&B production these days — that wooziness, spaciness that’s ubiquitous now in the wake of OVO Sound, Post Malone. It’s everywhere. I came up with that piano line and thought it had that floaty, weird manipulated quality, but also had something in common with classical music, Debussy or Satie. So it straddled that world in a weird way, and I thought, “What if it had this moment that got it much closer to the thing that inspired it?”

So 808 kick drums come in and that atomized hip-hop vocal — which for legal reasons, I won’t disclose whose a cappella that actually is — it’s much closer to that world, though still not in that world. This was another thing that kept cropping up for me: the things that I was most happy with, most excited about, were the tracks that had the familiar and the unfamiliar sitting next to one another. That grand piano sound is just so familiar to everybody, but then manipulated in a way that it’s seasick, and then [there’s] an 808 beat and an MC, but it’s chopped up and treated in a way that isn’t familiar, that’s disorienting.

STEREOGUM: What are some specific hip-hop or R&B producers or songs that have recently piqued your interest?

SNAITH: There’s so much music in that world and I find it really hard to keep up with it in the way that I would’ve in the past, but I compile a list of things that I find interesting or exciting while I’m making a record. This guy Gunna, and his track “Speed It Up” from last year — the vocal’s almost totally incoherent, and it’s floating, there’s almost nothing grounding the track. Just nice little fragments of melodies.

There’s another track — and this is not an endorsement of [the vocalist], again, I’m listening to the beat, the production — but it’s an XXXTENTACION song called “Moonlight.” It’s got a sound that I would associate more with my world, maybe a Four Tet track or something, this pitch-bent marimba. That’s probably one of the specific inputs into making all the pianos on the album be woozy, disorienting, and seasick.

STEREOGUM: Again, on those tracks, a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

SNAITH: There’s also more of the sound of ’90s hip-hop records on this album — “Home,” obviously, the beat on “Like I Loved You.” Those reference that world, and people who know me were like, “Oh, that’s cool to hear represented in your music,” because that’s such a bedrock of my musical taste and those are the records that I grew up with. But I never really put those influences into my music, and I think the reason was that I thought of that music as untouchable. A Wu-Tang or Tribe Called Quest record or a Madlib production, I’ll never make a beat like those guys.

But now, the little world that I’m in with underground electronic music producers and the world of mainstream hip-hop and R&B production, you know, I’ve got various friends who’ve worked on Kanye records, Solange records, Tyler, The Creator records. The worlds are much closer than they used to be, so maybe that’s why I felt comfortable referencing or doing my own take on that kind of thing.

STEREOGUM: This is the longest it’s ever been between Caribou albums. Did this album take longer than usual, or were you just occupied by other projects?

SNAITH: It’s a bit of both of those things, but mostly the former. One way I have of knowing how much went into each album is the stuff that gets left behind, the rough drafts that don’t make it onto the album. They’re like, 30-second-long loops — a beat tape kind of thing. The vast majority of them don’t have singing on them, maybe some of them have me humming a melody. I make one or two of those every day. This time there were 900-and-something, and last time there were 600-and-something, and the time before there were 400-and-something. It’s escalating, it’s getting worse and worse each time.

STEREOGUM: Do any of those drafts that don’t make it out eventually end up as Daphni songs or songs on future Caribou albums?

SNAITH: This is actually the first time it’s ever happened. When I’m listening to finished albums I’ve made, it always seems impossible starting again like, “How did I get from zero to there?” So I went back and listened to the Our Love leftovers to reassure myself like, there are stepping stones along the way to getting a finished album. It’s hard to see the whole thing in one leap. Then I came across this little instrumental, the Fender Rhodes loop that’s the song “Magpie” on this album. I was like, “Oh, I remember that. I really like it.” It just didn’t seem right on [Our Love], but it feels more at home on this album, more in line with the emotional tone of this record.

STEREOGUM: When you’re talking about the emotional tone of your albums, or how something fits on a particular album, do you enter into that initial demo-making process having those things in the back of your mind, or does that only take shape after doing, you know, a few hundred of those?

SNAITH: Even after that, it’s something I have a hard time putting my finger on. It was later on while making Our Love, for example, that I felt like that “Magpie” track wasn’t right for the album. But in the early stages of making this album or any of my albums, I’m just fumbling around and experimenting. Because it’s all being made around the same time, because of the things that are common in my personal life around that time, or common in the instruments and techniques that I’m using. That’s what glues them all together, rather than some kind of intentionality about it, or a sense that I know what I’m doing, or that I am heading towards some coherent place. It comes out of them all stewing together.

If I listen to a bunch of these 900 loops, they aren’t the same — they don’t have the same chords or the same melody — but they have a similar sensibility about them. For example, there were a bunch of ones for this record that had this grand-piano-with-a-pitch-bend sound. That’s there on “Sunny’s Time” and the “Filtered Grand Piano” snippet. I had a whole bunch of those. Something about them resonated with me. It was coming up again and again, but I knew I wasn’t going to have a bunch of these on the album, so which one is the best of these? Let’s finish that track.

STEREOGUM: Was there one track in particular where the overall sense of Suddenly clicked for you?

SNAITH: I’ve gotta say, my sense of this whole record was that even when it was done and I finally settled on a track order I was really happy with, I couldn’t pin it down. The record labels were like, “OK what’s this album about? What does it sound like?” Every time I thought, “Oh, it’s about this” or, “It has this kind of a sound,” I’d realize that half of the tracks on the record didn’t have that thing. It does have a sense of hanging together and having a narrative thread, but it’s elusive. None of the three singles represent a bunch of what’s on the album, which I actually really like about the record. It’s not straightforward or easy to categorize. Hopefully, that’s a strength of it that will keep people listening to it.

STEREOGUM: It was more lyrically than musically, but after listening to the singles, some of the album cuts like “Sister,” “New Jade,” and “Like I Loved You” really surprised me. I was like, “Shit, is this a breakup album?” But then I read that many of the songs were written in perspectives other than your own.

SNAITH: I’m fortunate I’ve got a happy marriage and kids who bring me a lot of joy. My life’s quite stable in that way. But in the last five years there have been lots of things within my family — my parents, my siblings, and my wife’s family. “New Jade,” for example, is about a super explosive divorce in my wife’s family. One of the big, sudden, Suddenly moments in the past five years was that devastating news, and then that ricocheting through our family.

My dad also had a health crisis that totally rocked all of us and required us to draw together. Thankfully it’s being managed and, fingers crossed, he’s okay for now. But it required me to grapple with his mortality in a way that I haven’t had to in the past, or have avoided doing and ignored in the way that we’re all very good at not facing those things until we have to.

STEREOGUM: So that aspect of the album feels almost inevitable.

SNAITH: For sure. I can’t imagine how I would’ve made an album that didn’t have those things in it. But in all of those situations, myself and my wife were in a position where we were supporting other people, comforting them, and helping them find some kind of positivity and reassurance in a really difficult circumstance. Obviously these things are affecting us as well, but often our main role is to support other people in these situations.

I hear that in all the tracks, and I think that’s why all of the songs are written either to the people — like “New Jade” is written to my sister-in-law going through the divorce — as a vote of confidence or affirmation, or written in their voice in other instances. And that’s also why, although there’s lots of difficult subject matter, a lot of these songs sound positive. They’re trying to make something comforting or affirming out of something difficult, rather than wanting to or being able to wallow in it. The attempt was to come to peace with it and make something positive.

STEREOGUM: I saw that you described some of your previous music and lyrics as “imagination-only” and that being very much opposed to Suddenly. What are some of the challenges, as a writer, moving into something much more real and dramatic?

SNAITH: It’s much easier to write the lyrics when they’re about something real than when you’re making something up. There were particular things that felt they needed to be said, and if a line didn’t feel honest or truthful, it had to be replaced by something else. That gave me a direction in writing them. The difficult part is then imagining writing these personal things. Although I know they’re not specific enough that people will listen to the lyrics and know what or who I’m talking about, the people who the songs are about absolutely will, and my friends absolutely have when I’ve played them the record. So there’s insecurity and a fear about sharing this personal stuff.

There’s this spontaneous process of making these rough loops to begin with, and then later it’s condensing them into an album somehow. In that first stage, I would just convince myself, “Today it feels like I need to make a song about this, but this song’s just for me, I’ll never release it. Don’t worry about the album right now, just make the music that feels important to make.” And then inevitably, those would be the ones that stuck with me, that resonated with me and other people I played them to, because they could tell there was something more genuine in them. Those were the ones that ended up being the most important to put on the album.

STEREOGUM: Once that became clear, did you feel the need to reach out to members of your family to alert them about the album’s content? Like writers do when they’re including very personal details about their life in their work.

SNAITH: It’s interesting you’d say that. Things are so busy and crazy at the moment, but one of the things that I have to do is pick up the phone and talk to one of the people in my wife’s family that a song’s about. My wife has been like, “Of course she’s going to be okay with it,” but I think it’d be quite moving and emotional for her to know that I’ve written this about her. It may be something she’s not entirely comfortable with. It’s a thing where it’s public but also somewhat private.

You’ve noticed I’m not naming any names or being as specific as I could be to give that degree of anonymity. It’s enough that it’s about somebody real. I don’t have to disclose all of the details. But still, when she listens to this album, she’s gonna know what the song is about, so it is important that I talk to her [before the album comes out]. It’s funny, this is something coming up mostly with journalists–

STEREOGUM: Yeah, something we have to think about more often than you, probably.

SNAITH: But once the music is out in the world, it’s specific to me when I listen to it, but it’s vague enough that I feel like people might project other things in their lives onto it, which has happened to some degree in the past. I’m interested to see if these songs, which are much more real and personal for me, whether they’ll also have that connection with people in very different circumstances, but who are reading their own situation into it. We’re all good at that, we all want to see our own narrative reflected in art.

STEREOGUM: Totally, you map your own experiences onto the music you love. You think a song’s about x and then you read an interview where the artist says it’s about y. It shows you how selfishly intertwined we all are with the music we listen to.

SNAITH: When I first started releasing music — I guess my first album was instrumental, so it wasn’t about the lyrics — but I wanted to control the context in which it lived out in the world. Maybe through insecurity or inexperience, I wanted to be like, “No, no, this music is for these people, people like me, nerdy music people.” I wanted it to stay in that box or be thought of in this way.

That’s important to lots of musicians I know — they get upset when a reviewer misunderstands what they’re doing. I’m much more at peace with it being not mine to a large degree anymore, once it’s been released. Even something as personal as this, it’ll always mean those things to me, but I think it’s beautiful and lovely that people come to me at shows or on social media and tell me, “This song meant this at this time in my life.” I feel very fortunate that my music connects with people in that way.

Suddenly is out 2/28 via Merge. Pre-order it here.