Caribou's Dan Snaith On Being a Dance Music Misfit
The mathematician turned production maestro talks about being an dance music outsider.
The development of Dan Snaith's creative output may seem to have mirrored trends in mainstream music, but it's taken place in an entirely unique fashion and totally outside of convention. His earlier releases under the Manitoba and then Caribou monikers were lush adventures in psych-pop – The Milk of Human Kindness and Andorra are masterworks in left-of-center, millennial indie music. Around the turn of the decade, though, a certain understated oomph became more pronounced in his work.
The signs were there before his seminal 2010 album Swim, though. "Niobe", the closing track on Andorra, has a latent rave aesthetic to it and Snaith has never felt fully at home on either side of the electronic/organic divide. "I remember there being a time when you had to make a choice between the two," he says. "Even at that time, I didn't. I was so interested in both things – but it was definitely like if you had a guitar, you couldn't listen to a house record or whatever, you know? I came across that mindset a lot and I always thought it was ridiculous."
His workflow has always been to write music on the computer and bring it to life with a full band. "We started playing when the music that I was making sounded a lot like a band, even though it was made on a computer," Snaith explains. "It would've been ridiculous for me to stand up there behind a laptop and perform. I started out doing that, but thought 'this is frustrating…this isn't fun…I don't know who's enjoying this, but I'm not" .
"I guess we kinda don't fit in anywhere in the live circuit," Snaith continues. "We come across dance music acts that look at us strange because we have a guitar on stage, or we're playing next to guitar bands and we come up with like a synth arpeggio and everybody's like, 'what's this?' We still have that thing where we don't really fit in, but that's the thing that I love the most about the show. We're kinda this hybrid thing that managed to straddle a few different worlds."
Snaith's unique musical perspective makes more sense when you find out that he moved to London fourteen years ago. In fact, early UK garage was a big influence. "The first time I heard those 2-step records, they really blew my mind," he says. "That sensation has never left me. I've always loved those records, all the stuff on Locked On, Dem 2 and Todd Edwards. They always sound fresh and exciting to me. That like super swung deal, it's always been something I really loved."
It was towards the end of writing Andorra, released in 2007, that he felt a pull towards electronic tones. "I started to get more back into dance music and going to clubs more," he says. The story goes that a turning point was seeing Theo Parrish at London's tiny darkroom of a nightflub, Plastic People. Snaith continues, "I just became friends with more DJs and saw the club as an exciting place to think about music." It wasn't his local pub DJs that were his mates, though. It was guys like Kieren Hebden (Four Tet) and Sam Sheperd (Floating Points). Not bad company if you're thinking along the lines of lefty electronic music.
What followed was Swim, an album performed by a full band (with two drummers!), that earned #1 on both Resident Advisor and Mixmag's 2010 end-of-year lists – Two distinctly electronically-centric outlets.
The whole thing was written with an outsider's sense of wonder. That's part of what gave it such character. "I was excited by dance music and started to make music that was dance music influenced," he explains. "But I didn't know whether anybody who was into dance music would respond to it…So when I saw Carl Craig tweeting about it or heard people were playing the songs in Ibiza or whatever – I mean it was a revelation to me. I didn't know if it would actually connect with the 'proper dance music world."
Unfortunately, nobody's ever bedecked Snaith in kandi and shown him the wonders of rave massives., though. "I'd love to go to kind of a big EDM Ultra or Daisy carnival as a spectator," he says. "I mean, I have no problem with that music. It's serving a function of like, hyped up kids on a lot of drugs – which is great. There should be a music that serves that purpose. But I'm not sure if my music is very good at serving that purpose!"
Although his purely dance alter-ego Daphne is in full effect, Snaith's already moving away from club-driven music with Caribou on his new album Our Love. He explains, "I listened to classic Stevie Wonder records loads while I was making this record, a lot of contemporary R&B production and those super kinda glossy synths…With the new one it's not explicitly supposed to be dance music at all."
Despite all the mystery behind his motives, there's more of Dan Snaith in Our Love than any prior Caribou record. "I wanted to make a record that kind of communicated with people as directly as possible and put as much of my life in it with the intention of sharing it with everybody else," he explains. "I mean, it's a very conventional idea of what a record should do. It's more stripped down and direct because of this idea of wanting to shorten the distance between me and the person listening to it"
So all this heady talk about dance-or-not inspired me to ask. How are his moves on the dancefloor? "Pretty goofy," he laughs. "That's why I like the dark club with no lights on."
Jemayel Khawaja is THUMP's Managing Editor in Los Angeles - @JemayelK