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Caribou's Dan Snaith Discusses Daphni Project & DJing Approach
‘70s funk is catnip for DJs: the music is deeply layered, and each component has zip and a warm, lively presence; the songs are often long, with a keen, contagious sense of pace and drama. At a recent Wednesday at the club Output in Brooklyn, Daphni was teasing one of the finest tracks to emerge from that remarkable decade – Eddie Kendricks’ “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind” – and the dancefloor was dense and boisterous.
Daphni is an alias for Dan Snaith, who has made music under several monikers during his career: starting as Manitoba and picking up Caribou when he was threatened with a lawsuit. Daphni reared its head in 2012 to great acclaim with Jiaolong, a club focused album that often paid homage to music from Africa. Performing as Caribou, Snaith would be onstage with a band, but Daphni allows him a different luxury – manning the decks at New York’s premiere sound system for more than five hours.
Responding recently to questions via email, he still sounds slightly surprised by this opportunity. “The [Daphni] tracks were just made using samples of things that were exciting me at the time,” he noted. “It’s fantastic that the music collected more broadly though, and I’m glad I released an album. I’m not making music to be willfully obscure.”
Snaith started DJing his own parties in college. “We basically attracted students from the university but played pretty weird stuff considering the audience,” he remembered. He described the success of his parties in self-deprecating fashion: “the parties blew up because they were better than whatever other shitty thing kids on campus were used to going to.” Recalling his selections at the time, he suggested, “I would still play about half of the tunes I played back then.” His only hint about the duds: “I played way more hip-hop – that’s the 50% that I’m not embarrassed about!” Though there were plenty of funky breakbeats from hard-to-recognize sources at Output, hip-hop was in short supply, at least during the first half of the evening.
According to Snaith, the musical knowledge he acquired through his work in Manitoba and Caribou is mostly irrelevant to the craft of manipulating dance floors. “I learned more about being a DJ from being an obsessive music fan than from being a musician,” he noted. “That’s still very much the way I approach DJing: sharing music with people.” He also credited others with inspiring him to improve, especially those he witnessed behind the decks during pilgrimages to the now defunct London club Plastic People: the idiosyncratic Detroit DJ Theo Parrish, Kieran Hebden (who makes music as Four Tet), and Sam Shepherd (who records as Floating Points).
While his life in bands didn’t necessarily overlap with his life in the clubs, Snaith’s recording habits have definitely been impacted by his DJing. This is discernible even to a casual listener: Caribou albums gradually incorporated more and more songs blatantly interested in hip-shifting. “Odessa,” which appeared on Swim in 2010, was a raucous slap in the face compared to the placid tracks next to it; by the time he released Our Love in 2014, highly danceable pop was the norm, rather than the exception.
Snaith attributed this change to his experience controlling the ebbs and flows of club nights. “DJing made me more confident about the way I pace the music I make,” he explained. “[I’m] willing to make people wait longer or feel the moment from the perspective of someone dancing to it, rather than someone hearing it on the radio.” Working dancefloor gear also influenced the technical aspects of popular Caribou tracks: for example, the beginning of “Can’t Do Without You” is “looped and filtered in a way you’d treat it in a DJ set.”
But Caribou was unable to contain all of Snaith's increased interest in dance music, so Daphni was born. “I was getting more and more excited by club culture and club music,” he recalled, “and have more friends that make that kind of music than people who are in ‘bands.’” “I had these tracks I’d made just for the purpose of playing them in my DJ sets,” he continued, “so I thought it would be fun to press them up and release them pseudo-anonymously under a different name. I didn’t really realize the extent to which tracks like ‘Ye Ye’ and ‘Yes, I know’ were going to become big club tunes.” They’ve stayed that way: when he played “Yes, I Know” at Output, four years after it did the rounds on blogs, cries of recognition greeted the selection, and the dancing became more focused and more earnest.
Snaith played a lengthy set at Output, manning the decks from 10:00 P.M. until the small hours of the morning. He said he likes to go into these situations unprepared to force experimentation and instinctual decisions. “If you’re playing for 6 hours you can’t have a sense of what you’re going to play or plan it out,” he declared. “You just have to go with it. If I play a one hour festival set it’s tempting to think, ‘ok, what’s the first track going to be? What’s the big track near the end going to be?’ I’d much rather go to a club with a big pile of music but no idea what I’m going to play or when.” “You have to be willing to risk things going wrong,” he added. “I like hearing DJs fuck up mixes every once in a while -- it means they’re trying to do something different.”
This same sort of urgent, in the moment spirit led to the creation of the first Daphni songs. Snaith says he has more music in the works for the side project, though he’s not sure yet when or how he’ll distribute it. But fans longing for a follow-up to Jiaolong should be heartened whenever Snaith embarks on a DJ tour: “the best thing I can do to make a new Daphni track is book a gig and start working on it the day before.”