Learning to swim

Caribou’s Dan Snaith talks about his new album and life in London

Dan Snaith (a.k.a. Caribou) a Canadian living in London has been making beautiful dance music for more than a decade since the release of his People Eating Fruit EP. Call it what you want — folktronica IDM electronica — Snaith creates music with the same amount of thought that one would assume went into his 2005 doctoral thesis in mathematics Overconvergent Siegel Modular Symbols . His latest offering Swim continues on the shining path that came into focus with his Polaris Prize-winning Andorra but where Andorra offered his kaleidoscopic take on the pristine pop of bygone eras Swim takes listeners on a auditory journey through the fluidity of a swimming pool. Fast Forward Weekly caught up with Dan on the phone in Los Angeles before his Calgary show this week.

Do you consider your albums bookmarks in your career and if so how have things changed for you since Andorra ?

In some way they are documents of what interested me musically at the time. I’m always wondering if I’ve learned anything or gotten any better because every time I start an album I feel like I’m starting all over again. Every album is a new start. This time around I had an idea of making music that was more fluid or more liquid-sounding before starting the album. So the idea preceded making the music and then everything followed through. Every other time I’ve tried to do it the idea has kind of fallen flat. It feels good that 10 years in I have something that worked.

How did frequent swimming lessons factor into the creation of this album?

The idea preceded the swimming lessons actually. The swimming lessons were a coincidence really and were given to me as a Christmas present from my wife. Since I ended up spending all my time swimming when I wasn’t in my studio it reinforced the idea. It played a big part in the way the album sounds.

In terms of your process I read that for Andorra you planned and wrote out structures whereas with Swim you recorded bits and pieces of things you liked and then waited to see what stuck. Did that actually pan out?

Andorra was really the first time that I had written things out and planned things before recording them. With Swim it was a little of both. My process was loop-based in that things developed as I went along but then coupled with planned elements. Andorra feels to me like I struck out to do a very specific thing but with Swim there are things that I decided to do consciously but it’s also a sum of all the things I’ve attempted.

I really like your guitar loop on “Found Out” which sets up this feeling of juxtaposing rhythms. With that and the track “Bowls” are you thinking mathematically and applying an academic process to it or is it purely organic and intuitive?

It’s definitely intuitive. With “Found Out” it was listening to a loop and then picking up an instrument and just seeing how the two things could fit and work together. “Bowls” features these Tibetan bowls that I got when my wife and I spent a month in southwest China last year. Somewhere along the way I bought these bowls. The sound you hear is the bowls being hit sampled and then their sounds played through a keyboard when I’d play certain notes. It’s kind of mapped out onto keyboard and actually there’s a lot of that on the album — this kind of hybrid between playing an acoustic sound but having it performed on a synthesizer or keyboard.

I read that for Swim you were influenced by your reintroduction into the DJ culture in London. Is Swim a product of where you live or is it a product of a conscious endeavor to revisit dance music?

London is in an exciting time for dance music again and though Swim isn’t necessarily influenced by any current trends in dance music I’m really interested in the concept that “the club” as it were is a unique public audiophile space where people are going to dance — obviously — but apart from that they’re not coming to watch a performance. They’re coming to listen to music in a really hifi loud sound system. I think it’s interesting making music for that environment. It’s appealing especially when you think about the fact that most people will otherwise be listening to your music on headphones out of their iPhones. With dance music it really is the audiophile genre. It’s the type of music where people are concerned the most about sound reproduction and making sure they get the highest quality and thinking in those terms when you create music for that environment means that its not geared towards the listener who is just going to hear your music on their iPod and miss all the details.

Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) is a big part of your musical life and though he doesn’t appear on the album he plays a strong role in this album. Tell me about your collaboration.

Well though it’s been incorrectly reported that he worked on this album with me it’s not actually true. That’s not to say that Keiran doesn’t play a pivotal part in my music as a whole. We’re best friends and besides my wife he’s the first person who hears my music as I’m recording it. Similarly with his music it’s reciprocal where I play the same role for him — sharing the excitement for a lot of dance music checking out each other’s sets at clubs and even though he doesn’t actually appear on any of the albums he’s such a big part of my music. He’s the reason my music got released in the first place.

In performances I’ve always thought that the more technology between me and the sound I’m attempting to create onstage means there’s a higher chance of technical problems. I also find I have to work harder to connect with the audience in front of me. Your shows are such a cool amalgamation of both traditional instruments and technology — how do you marry the two onstage?

It was a big question when we first started figuring out how to perform my music live as a band: How do we integrate all these technologies into our performance yet still have the ability to improvise and be intuitive? In the past that would have been problematic but the technology has changed so much in the last few years it’s just not a concern anymore. Things that were impossible to do aren’t anymore. All the problems of interfacing between traditional instruments and more electronic stuff has just disappeared. At least that’s my impression. There are more opportunities for interesting things rather than dealing with any kind of limitations.