Dance

Caribou's Dan Snaith on His New & Most Personal Album: 'I’ve Just Begun to Realize How Fortunate I’ve Been'

Thomas Neukum

Caribou

Out tomorrow (Feb. 28) Caribou's fifth studio LP, 'Suddenly,' comes on the heels of a tumultuous five years for Snaith.

Dan Snaith speaks with a quiet passion, his love of music abundantly clear. Exceedingly kind, genuinely curious, and careful to never interrupt, Snaith is almost the perfect stereotype for Canadian congeniality.

Calling Billboard Dance from his London studio, he’s an open book -- quite opposite from his music, which, from album to album, is shifty and mercurial. The Ontario-born musician and producer has found acclaim from the electronic world as Caribou, spending the early part of his career marrying the acoustic richness of live band performances with digital textures that veer towards the dancefloor.

As his discography has deepened, though, Snaith has sharpened his focus onto electronic and house-inflected productions, never relinquishing melody in the pursuit of a perfect groove. His last two albums, Swim and Our Love, arrived in 2010 and 2014, respectively, a period that feels an eternity ago with the way modern music consumption now viciously discards anything past a perceived expiration date.

But with the pair of beloved and critically acclaimed albums, Snaith predicted many of the forms modern dance music would make, emphasizing glossy synths and pop structures to bely his subversive approach to experimental songwriting, which comes through even more strongly on his new album Suddenly, out tomorrow (Feb. 28) via Merge Records.

Our Love was the most glossy, condensed, and shiny version of my music [that] I could make. It was the most pop formulated of my style,” Snaith says. “There is some of that on Suddenly, but I hear those kinds of things everywhere these days. There are software and hardware ways of making really rich sounding, synthesized textures. I was like, ‘ I've got to get away from that.’”

So to challenge himself in a new way, Snaith turned to obsessive sampling and unpredictability, populating his newest songs with Gloria Barnes samples (“Home”) and compositions dictated by invisible structures that effortlessly glide into place (“You & I”).

“When I found the loop of the Gloria Barnes track I used on ‘Home,’ that was a result of me searching for music as a listener, not as somebody trying to make something out of it,” he says. “Just hearing that loop at the beginning of her track made me say, ‘Oh my God, this is a perfect loop. Let's make a beat out of it.’ I wasn't setting out to be like, ‘I wish I could get more soul samples.’”

The result of this organic approach is Snaith’s most personal record to date, with Suddenly playing like a mixtape you’d present to a new partner, filled with deep references and subtle nods to a burgeoning feeling.

The album comes on the heels of a tumultuous five years for Snaith, during which a series of life challenges made him realize how fortunate he’s also been. Everything, he says, has happened suddenly, hence the title. It’s a simple concept, but like everything Caribou does, the album is presented with an entire world beneath its surface. He explains more to Billboard below.

When did the shape of the new album start coming into form?

I've been working on it to some degree since I finished the last one, but the last three or four years, I’ve been working on it almost exclusively. For so long, though, it was just a collection of little bits and pieces. That's how I work. I generate tons and tons and tons of little rough ideas and it doesn’t head anywhere for so long. Even at the beginning, with Suddenly, it was finished in August last year and it was maybe March or April that I started to be like ‘Okay, this might turn into an album at some point.’ I've done it enough, I kind of just trust that it'll cohere at some point.

Is it possible for you to articulate when that switch occurs -- where it becomes less a collection of individual bits and starts to cohere?

I'm always focused on just having enough songs that I like. In the beginning, I've only got two finished tracks, or sometimes none at an early point in the process. That's not an album yet. But then I can get up to the number of fingers on my hands, up to around 10, and I begin to fit them together. Particularly with this one, because it's so diverse, I was amazed by the way it feels like a narrative that goes the whole way through. I was worried about that, because it’s so diverse in its musical styles, but the way they fit together is almost mysterious to me.

You do much more singing on this record, too. Can you talk about the development of your voice and how you grew comfortable with using it?

It's been a long process. My first album had no singing on it. The second album had some singing on it, kind of shrouded in as much reverb as I could put on there. When we toured, I didn't sing live at all. Gradually, I've become more comfortable. When we toured for Andorra, I was singing every song every night.

I'm not in any way a natural singer. I'm the person who's embarrassed. Karaoke is my nightmare. If somebody asks me to sing a song that I've never sung before, somebody else's song, I'll butcher it. People will be literally laughing out loud to me when I try and sing songs, because I don't have a singer's voice.

The samples on the record really blow me away. Did you always plan for this record to involve a lot of samples, or did you stumble upon one and go from there?

My listening taste is pretty diverse. I come across records with really weird, interesting sections of sounds that I would not think to or have the capability of putting together. So sampling has always been a way for me to take something into another place. I had a sense that I wanted to have more samples to add textures and stuff like that, because I wasn't hearing that so much in pop music. It's obviously a common thing, but I sensed that there was some possibility to do something exciting there.

Thomas Neukum
Thomas Neukum

Is it ever difficult for you to turn off the discovery side of your listening?

That's a good question, because that's changed so much for me over the years. When you're a teenager you just listened to music endlessly and just sit there and soak it in and really absorb it. Now I'll get sent music, either new or old, and I'll listen to the first 30 seconds and I'll skip forward. We're all doing that. But part of it for me has a professional aspect. I'm like, "What are the ideas here? Could I do an edit of this if it's some old track to play in a club?"

There are different ways in which I listen. If I had an infinite amount of time, I'd love to just sit in a room and listen to records start to finish the way I used to. But I should say that it hasn't squeezed the excitement and love of music out of me. I still like finding a track that I haven't heard that I am excited about. To love a new song is still just a huge, huge thrill and I'm always on the search for those things.

Can talk a little bit about the Daphni project and the DJ work you do? How does that inform what you do as Caribou?

Around the time I was making Swim, in 2008 and 2009, it all of a sudden felt like there was something really exciting happening in underground club music, in dance music. It was centered around London. Plastic People, this kind of now-legendary little club, had people like Theo Parrish playing there all the time. Floating Points and Kieran of Four Tet had residencies there.

I was going there all the time, and everybody was playing lots of new tracks by London producers or British producers like Joy Orbison [and Floating Points]. The whole scene was really, really buzzy and exciting and I was totally energized by it. The album Swim was very much influenced by Plastic People and by the whole thing that was happening around that time.

And then off the back of that, that album kind of resonated with that world. I was getting asked to DJ a lot off the back of that, which is something I'd done since I was a teenager, but people didn't really think to ask me based on my previous albums, because it didn't sound like club music. I started making Daphni music for that purpose, not to be released, but just to be played in my DJ sets. Then some of the tracks got a reaction, so I decided to release it on my own little label.

You sometimes refer to each of your albums as a snapshot of a period in time. What does Suddenly say about you, your career, and where you're at now?

This album really is my most personal album and encompasses very specific things that happened in my life. The reason that the title Suddenly makes sense to me is that I'm 42 years old, and I’ve just begun to realize how fortunate I’ve been. There were very few big upheavals. I didn't move houses a lot, I didn't have a death in my family when I was very young, there wasn’t any divorce. I had a very stable childhood and young adulthood for which now, in retrospect, I'm so grateful for.

But inevitably those kinds of changes in your life, the kind of changes that from one day to the next shift your whole perspective on things, will catch up with all of us. In the last five years that has happened over and over and over again. I mean, with respect to a friend passing away, a member of the family passing away, a divorce that was really difficult within my wife's family, and my dad going through a health crisis. On top of that, my daughter was born in the back of a car.

I felt like the title captures the tone of the past five years. These events have shifted the lens through which I see the world, but also, collectively, we've had a lot of those moments where we have to reevaluate. I'm not living in the world that I used to imagine for myself and my family. My perspective has had to change. It has.