Talking With Caribou
By: V. Rachel Weldon
November 3, 2010 – Toronto, Canada
"Music is an emotional thing," Daniel Snaith, the man behind the mammal, explains from a 416 area code. "It's being intuitive and getting an emotional response. That's why I love music and I'm pretty sure that's why everyone loves music." He and the performing members of Caribou had played their first North American tour date the night before in Toronto, where 10 years earlier Snaith had attended the University of Toronto as a student in mathematics.
Many would think that because of his academic life or the way his albums sound that the sole songwriter and musician behind Caribou would approach music-making analytically—like a math equation. "I can see why people would imagine that's the way I would do things, because I have kind of a mathematic personality, but those kind of things aren't what I use to make music at all."
Though he may keep his analytical and creative hemispheres distinct, it begs the question of whether or not Caribou would be as celebrated in his community if his albums lacked that mathematical structure.
Following the national acclaim over his 2008 Polaris Music Prize winner Andorra, Caribou's latest release, Swim, was undoubtedly one of the most highly anticipated albums of the new decade. Snaith's newest effort offers a response to the present-day fixation with music that makes you move—Swim's fluid energy will do just that.
The album's sonic liquidness contrasts with the techno tendency to have a progression that's rigidly formulaic. The fluid melodies combined with the structural ebb and flow evokes Snaith's own creative balance between aesthetic and mathematic structure. Its layers of syrupy synth, propulsive bass and explosive percussion call for total dance-floor domination, a turnaround style departing from Andorra's psych-pop charm.
"The exciting thing for me in the last couple years has been lots of young dance music producers. Like, a lot of club culture, which informed this new album of mine," the London, Ontario-born and London, England-dwelling Snaith says about what inspired and fixated him throughout the time of Swim's conception.
Snaith moved to the United Kingdom in 2001 to attend Imperial College London for his PhD. The last decade spent in the UK's hotbed of music and culture exposed Snaith to volumes of new styles. "Bands are always coming through town. There's always things going on," Snaith says of his new stomping grounds. Delving into the city's dance scene, both on the dance floor and overlooking it as a DJ, gave way to his new songwriting style.
"I was making dance music just to DJ with for the fun of it because I was excited about dance music," Snaith recalls. "What happened inevitably was the Caribou stuff ended up being more danceable, the dance music ended up being more Caribou-like and [Swim] just ended up somewhere in the middle."
While dancing influenced its energy, Swim's unique sound and concept was born of an entirely different sort of movement. Snaith wrote and recorded the album while learning to swim.
"I actually had a pool growing up in Dundas, [Ontario], but I never had swimming lessons," Snaith remembers. "I could swim. But barely. I was terrible at it." After getting swimming lessons as a Christmas gift two years ago from his wife, Snaith started from scratch. "Over the course of that year I learned to swim and became kind of obsessed by it. I was thinking about music that sounded totally liquid."
While Swim doesn't have much of a narrative, at least not a vocal one, Snaith calls it the first album he's made that has an "aesthetic concept".
"Conceptually I was thinking about what sounds would behave like if they were made out of fluid and if they washed around like a fluid. But also that idea that things sound different when you're underwater rather than listening to it through the air."
Many of the songs on Swim evoke images and feelings of submerged sublimity. "Sun" brings to mind the innocence and excitement of going under to escape the unadulterated heat of the day, unsure of whether it's water or sunlight melting around you. "Bowls" has a controlled chaos like treading water in indefinitely deep water, sort of like Radiohead's Kid A, and "Hannibal" and "Lalibela" move confidently through the sonic tides, finally mastering the movements. The album opener and single "Odessa", however, is the most frantic track; it's a frightened struggle, thrashing around with your chin just barely above the water, limbs slapping against the surface and demanding buoyancy.
"‘Odessa' was a happy accident in a way," Snaith recalls of the songwriting process. "I didn't think much of it. I went for a swim and came back in the afternoon and listened back to it and was surprised by how immediate it was and how well it worked."
While the single doesn't necessarily evoke the fluidity that the rest of Swim does, it opens the album on dancing feet. "It's a really erect, exclamatory statement about the kind of dance music influence on the album."
Following the lush and psychedelic "Melody Day", the single from 2008's Andorra, "Odessa" certainly was erect and exclamatory. "Melody Day" is accessible and hugely popular, and was a large factor in nabbing the Polaris Music Prize for Andorra the year of its release. The cash prize of $20,000 is awarded each year to an outstanding Canadian album from a short list of nominees. Even after being shortlisted, Snaith greatly underestimated his chances at winning the coveted award. "I never even considered [winning]! I came over to Toronto but I didn't even think of asking my wife to come along," Snaith laughs. "In retrospect, maybe I should have taken it a bit more seriously."
Snaith recalls the experience of winning the award as "extremely surreal". "I've always thought of my music as an individual pursuit, and if people are interested in it than that's great to be recognized in that way, as a part of a community of Canadian musicians," he says. While some of the prize money went towards recording and mixing Swim, Snaith also donated a portion of his winnings to Ecojustice and the Steven Lewis Foundation.
To achieve even half the things Dan Snaith has accomplished would be a dream come true for most people. A hugely talented, award-winning musician and mathematics PhD—he's not only able, but adept in both areas. Would he ever retire from making albums and - like his father, sister and grandfather, all math teachers—put that PhD to use? He answers without hesitation: "I don't want to do anything with [the PhD]. I did it because I enjoyed it at the time. If I never use it again, it's not a regret. I'm happy that I did it for the sake of doing it."
Making music through Caribou is Snaith's main focus these days. "It's always what I've wanted to do the most. And I'm ecstatic that I'm getting to do it!"
While those who can't, teach, those who can, do. Caribou's Daniel Snaith is an influence and an inspiration to countless musicians, both Canadian and not, and a trailblazer for unique and visionary styles in psych-pop, indie and electronica. Sometimes it is better to lead by example than to show them the way.
Video: "Odessa" by Caribou