The 2010 Polaris Music Prize Long List was released a couple weeks ago, and it is a long list. At first, I thought I was reading a list of all the albums released in this country over the last year. Not surprisingly, Swim, the latest release from Caribou, the moniker used by expatriate canuck and 2008 Polaris winner (for his 2007 LP Andorra) Daniel Snaith’s electronic orchestrations, made the list. I don’t expect the jury will award him the honour again, not that it wouldn’t be deserved. With Swim, Snaith has deviated from the course established on The Milk of Human Kindness and taken to its most euphoric on Andorra, veering for a darker, more nuanced sound, that remains fundamentally Caribou at its heart.
In anticipation of catching Caribou live at Sasquatch! Music Festival, we caught up with Snaith on his cellphone before a show in San Diego to talk about being a Canadian making placeless music, why Snaith works alone (except on tour), and the city-cum-genre he looks to most for musical inspiration, Detroit.
Justin: Can you talk a bit how being Canadian has shaped the trajectory of your musical career?
Dan Snaith: Generally, I kind of feel like I’ve made music that is geography-less, that it doesn’t really have a national identity. I’m not particularly interested in making Canadian music. The music that I listen to comes from all over the world and I want the music that I make to sound like it could come from anywhere in the world. On the other hand, I guess the thing that challenged or changed that perspective was the Polaris prize a couple years ago. You know I work in an isolated way, so I always thought of myself doing my thing over in this corner, you know in my own little apartment, my own little world. Being included in the community of Canadian musicians and being able to meet all the other people who were nominated was really nice, really affirming. Pretty much all the musicians I collaborate with are in one way or another Canadian, just because of the kind of personal connections growing up living in Canada.
Justin: Right, so maybe it’s shaped you less artistically in more in a structural or practical kind of way?
Dan: Yeah more personally definitely. I mean despite the fact that I live in London I’m very much – obviously I still feel like I’m a Canadian. Most of my friends still live in Toronto or somewhere in Canada and those connections – Luke from Born Ruffians playing on the new album and Jeremy from Junior Boys producing it, and the guys in the band with the exception of one rogue American who somehow snuck into the band – those kind of personal connections are definitely still Canada-centric.
Justin: You’ve completed a Ph.D. so obviously music has not gotten in the way of your academic pursuits, and given the success of your albums so far, your academic pursuits haven’t held you back from your music. How did you balance those two aspects of your life?
Dan: Well, actually music very much got in the way of – I managed to finish a Ph.D. but as I was finishing I was realizing that music was a thing I could maybe viably do full-time, and if so that’s what I wanted to do. As soon as I realized that, I was like “well it’s been great doing a Ph.D. I very much enjoyed it.” Even when I was doing a Ph.D., music always got first priority because it’s been what I always wanted to do most.
Justin: The new album is less lyrically dependant than previous ones?
Dan: I kind of actually feel – I mean there’s more instrumental tracks, so it’s true in that sense. In some ways I feel like it’s the most personal in the sense that the lyrics there are – in the past I’ve just been making up fictional sketches whereas these songs are really about things going on in my life even if they are in an oblique fashion. They are kind of personal and also the way the vocals are produced, it really is my voice rather than on previous albums I’ve kind of layered it on and disguised the sound of my voice. This really is, more than ever before, the sound of my voice and lyrics that are personal to me on there.
Justin: To me the album has a much closer, kind of darker feeling. Whereas, Milk of Human Kindness and Andorra to me seemed very sunny and organic. This one feels a little more mechanical like I might be in a factory or a dance club, but there’s almost something sinister about it.
Dan: No, I definitely agree, it’s clearly more influenced by dance music, I’ve been listening to almost exclusively dance music for the last couple years while I’ve been making this. But also I like the idea of making sad, or melancholy dance music, it’s definitely not a new idea but it’s not what people think of first when they think of dance music, and like you say, I’ve made a lot of music that’s really kind of sunny and euphoric. The thing is, it has something to do with the kind of topics in the lyrics as well, but as a concept I like making dance music that’s melancholy.
Justin: I feel like a lot of it to me sounds like it’s borrowed from dub-step, not rhythmically but a lot of the texture of the sound. Some parts of it remind me of listening to Burial. Is there a link there, to dub-step or your time in London DJing?
Dan: I consciously tried to avoid being – no, I didn’t want to make a dub-step album. You know what I mean? I didn’t want to take things directly but it’s undeniably – like I was saying previously, with all my previous records I wanted to make music that didn’t have a place at all that didn’t have a connection to the geography of where I was. It’s just taking place in my head. I think this has been an exciting time in London in the last couple years for dance music, particularly, amongst other things dub-step and all that kind of stuff. I think that has inevitably infused, I didn’t want that to be the point of what I was doing, but some of that character has come into the music for sure.
Justin: You talk about making geography-less music, but all music- culturally, from London to Toronto there’s a difference in what people listen to. I always got the impression that electronic music is more mainstream in the UK and the rest of Europe. Have you noticed that at all has it affected your music?
Dan: Yeah that is kind of true of mainstream dance music, more than the UK, in continental Europe I think. But that’s not too relevant to me, because the people I’m always interested in, the musicians whether I’m interested in bands or dance musicians or DJs or whatever and generally all of the above, I’m always interested in the people on the fringes of whatever genre their on. I’m not interested in – I’m not buying Tiesto records, or I’m not buying the records of popular bands as much as the people kind of doing eccentric things around the edges.
Justin: In Canada, a lot of the electronic acts are less electronic… Holy Fuck or Woodhands are playing more of a live show and they go into the studio and record it that way, whereas you kind of go the other way around; recording and then bringing people together to do the live show.
Dan: Yeah, that’s definitely true. I really like the way both those bands you mentioned work. But something about the way I’ve always worked by myself, recorded by myself has always worked really well for me. I work so painfully slowly and you know it takes me over a year to make an album. I just make so much music and so much of it is crap. It really is a war of attrition in some sense. I fee l like if I collaborated with anyone else for that long it would just drive them insane. I think only I could put up with, or remain excited about the music I make for that many hours of working on it. It’s a luxury too because I’m not in a studio. I imagine Holy Fuck goes into a studio, well having talked to Brian [Borcherdt] a little, they go into the studio and record after jamming for a while. There must be a sense of being pressurized while you’re in the studio, you’re spending money, etc. That’s a good thing probably in someways, but I like that I just wake up in the morning every morning, wander into the other room in my apartment where I’ve got my pile of gear, computer, etc. and just make music all day. There’s no pressure, there’s no deadline, and I really value that. It’s just totally directed by me.
Justin: What is it like for you to play songs live that you’ve worked on in isolation, and playing them with other people? How do you feel that changes the material and what exactly is the process for making that transformation?
Dan: The way I’ve always looked at it, and the way we kind of feel about it is the live show is really a completely collaborative thing with all four of us and we kind of take the songs, pull them apart, put them back together in whatever way we want. They don’t have to be copies of what’s on the record. The live show has its own life, it’s kind of another creature. But it’s also something I like just as much. The recording process reflects a very kind of solitary, self-absorbed side of my personality. I’m not anti-social, I like being out and playing shows, and the interaction between musicians and meeting people as we tour around travelling. It reflects a different side of me I guess.
In specific, these songs, the kind of more electronic songs than previously, I’ve been amazed at kind of how the technology is there now that the shows kind of come together better than- I’m more happy with how this live show is going then with any kind of iteration before. I think all of us are really excited with how well the show’s been going. It just seems exciting I think. It’s great.
Justin: What about the physical environment where people hear your music whether it’s at home or you’re playing in a club or your playing at an outdoor festival do you think that alters the the nature of your music?
Dan: In the recording context, definitely thinking about the music being played in a club and sonically how they’re going to sound there, that definitely had a big effect on this record, and that’s where I was thinking of all of these tracks being played. Then when we come to the live show I think we’ve been really lucky in that our live show seems to work in a grimy rock club, it works when we play in a dance club and it works in a summery outdoor festival. I think we’re playing at noon at Sasquatch and I’m sure it will work just fine in that context as well. We’ve done lots of summer festivals in the past in Europe those are always really fun too. I feel like we’re lucky that it’s not too tied to a particular venue.
Justin: Is there anyone you’re looking forward to seeing at Sasquatch?
Dan: To be honest with you, I haven’t had time to look through the lineup closely enough and figure out who’s on what day and when we have to leave, we have to drive to Calgary you know pretty shortly after we play. I don’t want to get my hopes up and realize we’re not going to see whoever it is. I’m sure we’ll catch some good people and it will be a nice surprise instead of just a disappointment that we won’t get to see whoever.
Justin: What about just in general, who are you listening to right now, who do you think people should watch out for?
Dan: As far as live shows go, we’re touring with Toro Y Moi. Watching them play every night they’re really great, I’ve been enjoying that. I guess still most of the music that I’ve been checking out recently has been dance music, whether it be new dub-stepy people like James Blake and Ikonika or people like Motor City Drum Ensemble, new kind of deep-house thing going on or all sorts of people lots of the classic Detroit guys like Omar S and Carl Craig, all that kind of stuff.
Caribou plays The Quebec City Summer Festival on July 14th.