Caribou: Interview
“People have always been fascinated with making watery-sounding music, I guess.”

Dan Sanith has outlasted British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Sorta.

The London, Ontario-born electronic-composer (/Canuck) moved to the original London (across the pond) in 2007, but was unable to vote in England’s early May parliamentary elections because he was, at that time (furthering some paltry irony), touring through New England. From May onward, Snaith has been touring with a trio of multi-instrumentalists under the moniker Caribou, a masthead that encompasses Snaith as a songwriter, DJ, electronic music composer, releaser of now three full-length LPs, and, when out on the road, also ensnaring his three dedicated collaborators as a veritable “band name.”

Snaith (as Caribou and as Manitoba until 2006) has fluctuated from twinkly clink and bleeped computer-heavy atmospheric orchestrations to incorporating flavors of hip-hop and Krautrock to Andorra’s psychedelighful dream pop. But now, after crafting his own bombastic, techno-tinged dance tromps for some casual DJ gigs, he decided to start creating his most personal album to date. Snaith chats with Tiny Mix Tapes from his van, somewhere in the middle of nowhere between Georgia and on the way to Baton Rouge LA for some “oily shrimp cocktail.”

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How’s your 2010 going? Same ol’ same ol’, or, anything in-particular striking your fancy?

No, it’s crazy this time around. It’s been really exciting, all the shows being packed and people seem really excited. We had our first proper stage invasion, with a bunch of, like, collegiate local hype people on stage the other night. Some girls who wanted to get up and dance and a guy who wanted to tell the audience that they were a bunch of stiffs and needed to get into it more. Even though, they were already way more into it than our usual crowds. That’s a novelty for us, so I was definitely enjoying it.

You’ve been touring Swim for a while now – can you tell us about the players joining you out there on the road, on the stages; has your collaborating clientele changed much since Andorra?

Well, just recently John Schmersal from Enon joined the band to play bass and sing. But, then, there’s Brad (Weber) whose played drums, we’ve been playing together for 3 years, and Ryan Smith, who does guitar and keyboards, I’ve known him since I was 10 or 12 so he’s been playing with us forever. The whole idea is it’s not just me and it’s not just hired guns, the live show is its own thing and they’re a proper band, in the sense that we’re all equally part of it.

And now you have stage storming!

Well … I’d like to encourage it.

Can you talk more about the idea behind Swim as a concept album – or, water’s symbolism throughout the songs?

Well, it’s the only time there’s ever been some kind of concept tying the music together and with this album I had this idea of: each of the elements in the mix were kind of a wave or behaved like a wave, like a fluid. Everything’s kind of washing around each individual sound, behaving like that – so that you get the sense that everything is possibly shifting around on you, each of the bits in different speeds, in different ways washing from one place to the next.

And, just to reflect on “classic” electronic music, Kraftwerk, perhaps, those early records conjure cold, calculated mechanical feelings: Metropolis, robots, mannequins, etc. etc. – whereas your “electronic” music has always conjured natural imagery or earthy-feelings…

There’s probably a reason that Kraftwerk or, whatever, early Derrick May records and lots of early electronic music had those qualities. For one thing, it seemed much more futuristic to have the idea of making music electronically, I guess, but, also the technology they were using could only really operate in those ways. It was very much on or off; everything was kind of binary in that way, but now the process of making electronic music is obviously much less restrictive, much more capable of doing varied things. You can do anything you want. I’ve always been excited by the idea of having acoustic sounds next to digital sounds, kind of colliding those two different qualities of instruments or sounds. And, also, yeah, it feels like if you were to make really militant electronic music in 2010 you would be doing that as kind of a statement. It seems like the natural thing to do is to kind of incorporate everything together now. Everything is on equal footing.

“A few years ago it seemed we were kind of tethered to the computer, following along with the computer whereas now it is very much the opposite, we are kind of dictating how the technology is incorporated, it follows us rather than us following it.”

Right, instead of music made by or for robots – it’s like the robots have entered the forests, built huts on the shores, robots are swimming now and it somehow feels natural. Going back cross the 10 years or so you’ve been making music, was there someone back then that inspired you to start implementing acoustics into electronic music?

Fairly predictably, the answer is, my good friend nowadays, a guy who helped me get my music released in the first place, Kieran Hebden of Four Tet. When I heard that first Four Tet record, it seemed very exciting to me and you couldn’t tell if this was a band playing or if it was … it slid along this spectrum so easily and that was definitely a big turning point for me.

Maybe you’ve had conversations with him regarding this next question, as it seems both of you have been pegged early on with this hyperbolic music press buzzword/label “bedroom composer”

The thing that’s always been exciting to me about the way that I make music, and it’s been the reason I’ve been able to make music since I was a teenager, is that it’s so accessible to make music in your bedroom now. That’s the exciting thing. It’s an open door into making release-able sounding music for next-to-nil money. I’ve always banged on about that because I feel like that would be an encouraging thing for somebody who’s 16 who wants to make music. It’s obvious now — that records can be made in that way, but it didn’t seem like that then, that seemed like a real revelation when I started to make music in that way. But the thing I don’t want to be associated with is a kind of unambitious kind of sound, like, “Oh, it sounds like it was made in a bedroom.” I hope that’s not the case, I think that’s not the case. The idea for me is the real potency of being able to work in this way is you make music in your bedroom and have it sound like it is produced in the most grandiose environment.

I think I was just being hyperbolic, guilty, like a lot of the music press, in trying to stir up claims of a strong “movement” in a quasi-bedroom-composer genre, be it early Sunny Day In Glasgow, or Neon Indian, or your recent bill-mate Toro Y Moi. “Chill Wave” is another label getting thrown around, which would match up with Swim’s watery sensibilities.

Toro Y Moi’s music, it definitely has a watery sensibility, it seems, but in a slightly different way. I like all of their music. I like the sense of using compression to mush everything together until it becomes one kind of consistency, all the music. The ideas I have I guess are more so infused with the idea of dance music, where you can separate out each idea but each idea, each musical element can be separated out and still remain distinct but they’re each washing around in that fluid way. People have always been fascinated with making watery-sounding music, I guess.

Can you talk about the evolution of your live presentations – album to album – when did you start bringing in collaborators?

Right when Up In Flames came out, I realized that I was already frustrated. I was doing live shows before that, in 2002, where it was me and a laptop. The music I was making was the music that was going to be on Un In Flames and it sounded much more like a band, much more like a psychedelic rock band than it did … I dunno, Aphex Twin or whatever. So I was already taking steps to change that.

“I’ve always been excited by the idea of having acoustic sounds next to digital sounds, kind of colliding those two different qualities …”

And from Milk of Human Kindness onward into Andorra?

It’s funny, with Andorra and the two before it, it seemed like I was always trying to, as a band we were always trying to convince people that, “No, we’re not electronic music, we’re an actual band.” And, now, this time around, I’m trying to convince people of the opposite thing. I think what we noticed early on with playing Up In Flames was the technology wasn’t really there yet to do what we wanted to do. We did what we could but it was a bit of a compromise in some ways. Then, Andorra, was really like, well, if the technology wasn’t there yet, then we’d just have to be as good a band as possible and rely as little on the technology as possible. But then, with this album, I really made this album without really thinking about how to play it live, but clearly, it’s overtly electronic-sounding so it’s gonna have to rely on the technology in some way. So, we went back and had to think through, how are we gonna do this? To my surprise, anyway, all the limitations we previously had have just kind of gone. We were able to do everything we wanted and it works in a very intuitive kind of spontaneous way. We’re able to improve and all those kinds of things. To sum up the scenario, a few years ago it seemed we were kind of tethered to the computer, following along with the computer whereas now it is very much the opposite, we are kind of dictating how the technology is incorporated, it follows us rather than us following it.

Can I shift towards your regard of lyrics, or whether the voice and the melody it follows just asks as another instrument or another element? I ask because there seems to be a recurring melody, over the chorus of “Kaila” and towards the end of “Labelia” …

That chord sequence, that harmonic thing occurs in a number of different places. The album, for me, seems like, I don’t know whether it is or not, but, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, the Neutral Milk Hotel album seems like it’s one song, and it’s the same song being played in different ways. I always thought that was a strength for that album, rather than feeling that every single track has to be completely different. I like that idea. It’s calming. That particular harmonic sensibility seemed central to me. Melody’s always been very primary for me and the lyrics never were, really, up until this record … I feel this record is the record where they’re not primary but they are equal. Lyrics always seemed like this awkward addendum, like there had to be lyrics. In many ways this album is the most personal album for me and the lyrics were definitely part of that.

And now, future plans?

I wish I knew.

More stage storming?!?

Yeah, haha. I’m gonna find that guy who was at our show in Chapel Hill and get him to hype up the next album. That’s gonna be the first thing on the next album is just-him. But, I wish I knew … at the same time I’m glad that I don’t know. I always like coming back and having the sense that I’m starting from scratch each time. It gives me space to do something different each time. We’re gonna be touring until, literally, the end of the year, till 2011, which is exciting. Again, the two things have equal weight to me: making records and then playing live – it’s an equal part.