Caribou on Singing, Love, and Vangelis

Caribou mastermind Dan Snaith guides us through the many twists and turns that have colored his career.

Dan Snaith is an interesting specimen in the world of music. He resembles your average high school geography teacher and has a PhD in Mathematics, yet he’s chosen to make music and unsurprisingly he’s got rather good at it. Whether he’s unearthing crafty afro-tinged electronic tracks under his Daphni guise, staking a claim on the live stage with his Caribou project, or perfectly pitching live electronics for peak time emotional dancefloors with tracks like “Our Love” and “Can’t Do Without You,” he’s certainly doing something right.

In this edited and condensed excerpt from his recent interview with RBMA Radio, he discusses his early influences and his new record, Our Love.

On playing the piano

There was a time, when I was young, that I really wasn’t interested that much in music. I was more interested in hanging out with my friends, and sports, and things like that when I was a kid. Then we moved when I was ten years old. A year or two after that, my mom heard about a piano teacher who was teaching her friend’s kids. He was teaching them to play The Beatles, Meatloaf, Billy Joel. The kind of stuff that kids learn on piano if they want to learn popular music.

That was the first time that I kind of connected with being taught music. I was also getting really into listening to music at that time. For the first time my friends were listening to bands. We lived in a little hippie town, so it was bands like Pink Floyd, and Yes, and The Grateful Dead. The piano teacher had played in a local progressive rock band, so he still had some of these old organs and synthesizers and things, and he still had all his old records. He secretly wanted to teach all his students this kind of stuff. He didn’t want them to be playing what was on the radio. Bryan Adams or whatever.

He wanted to be teaching this old stuff. He would always be like “Hey, take these records home this week. Have a listen to them and see what you think.” That got me really excited. I got really into those kinds of ’70s, overblown, progressive rock bands at that time. It was kind of a technical thing. If you’re learning an instrument, you want something that is challenging as well. Those musicians were, in a totally misguided way, chasing a kind of technical prowess.

Aphrodite’s Child - 666

On psychedelic music

I grew up in this town where, not only my piano teacher, but everybody else that I knew was quite happy to listen to Pink Floyd. That was their favorite thing. Even the friends that I had that ended up being more into music, listened to Pink Floyd right next to Sonic Youth or Wu-Tang Clan or whatever. I think that music has had a big influence on me. Psychedelic music from the ’60s and progressive music from the ’70s. It’s not the same bands anymore. It’s not like I draw any inspiration from Yes. Although they do have, over their entire catalog, they have about ten seconds of good music, I think.

666 is the weirdest record you’ll ever hear in your life, pretty much. It’s incredible.

A really big record for the weird kids that I grew up with in high school was called 666 by Aphrodite’s Child, which is a progressive rock group with Demis Roussos and Vangelis in it. It’s a concept album about the apocalypse, and it’s still one of my favorite albums to this day. It’s the weirdest record you’ll ever hear in your life, pretty much. It’s incredible. One of my friends found it on a country road.

I think the primary thing about psychedelic music, for me, was that it was the era when people started to really understand music recording technology and the music studio. That multi-track tape recording could be an instrument in its own right. At that point, people really started experimenting. It was the first time that people said, “Well, what happens if we do this thing which we’re not supposed to do? Turn the tape around so it plays backwards. Use this effect unit in a loop so that you get some weird kind of feedback effect.” That has definitely stayed with me, even if my music isn’t so much overtly referring to those same kinds of things.

Manitoba - Brandon

On playing live

The first record that I made as Manitoba – before I got sued and had to change my name – was trying to sound like late ’90s, early ’00s Warp. It was influenced by Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin. When I made that record, it made a lot of sense to perform it live with a laptop. Even then, I was really frustrated with it. There wasn’t Ableton or other tools that make it easy to manipulate sound live. It was really limited.

The next record that I made took this real explicit turn toward psychedelic music. I went back and found all those rare psychedelic and progressive rock records, and took all the ideas that I wanted from them. At that point, it didn’t make any sense for me to go on and do shows with me standing behind the laptop.

We all lived in a one bedroom apartment. Myself and my girlfriend, and the two of them sleeping on the floor in the living room.

My friend Ryan, who plays guitar and keyboard in Caribou to this day, was one of my close musical friends and associates since I was a teenager. I played him the new record and he was like, “Look, if you ever need a band to play this music, let me know and I’ll move over to London.” I convinced my other friend Pete to move over to London as well. I was like, “We don’t have any shows booked, but I think we can get some shows once this album comes out. Start rehearsing. You can live at my place.” We all lived in a one bedroom apartment. Myself and my girlfriend, and the two of them sleeping on the floor in the living room.

We just rehearsed for a month and tried to figure out how to play these songs as a band. I was so much more comfortable with playing the songs as a live band rather than standing behind the laptop. It’s just developed ever since, even though sometimes the music has been more like a band, and sometimes it’s sounded more overtly electronic. The technology’s caught up to the point where we can do either of those things with a group of live musicians. It’s become an equally big part of what Caribou is all about.

On recording

It’s never hard to start recording something. Either I sit down and program a beat, or sit down and play the drums, or play a keyboard. Or, sometimes in my career, it’s been a sample that started a track. It’s never like there’s any shortage of ideas. It’s more chasing this moment where something connects with me emotionally or has something where I think, “Wow, this is something worth keeping.” It’s like throwing darts at a dartboard, and occasionally something gets close to being a bulls-eye. The important part is finding that idea in the first place. That’s as much a mystery as it ever was.

Caribou - Hello Hammerheads

On singing

I definitely remember the feeling of being extremely uncomfortable about my voice – and singing – from a very early age. I remember singing with my family, and my sisters would kind of laugh under their breath because I couldn’t tell whether I was in tune. I remember thinking, “Wow, it sounded all right in my head, but then it doesn’t sound all right outside of my head.”

When I started recording my first album, I was entirely happy making instrumental music. If you suggested to me at that time that I was going to make music with me singing on it, I would have thought that was ludicrous. But something changed with the second album, Up In Flames. I was a little bit bored of making instrumental tracks and wanted that element to be in my music. When I started singing for the first time on record, it was really the thing that gave me the... If I’d been in a band, it never would have happened. The fact that I was by myself in a room meant I could try a little take, record a few words, and I could go back and listen to it and think, “Mmm, that doesn’t sound very good. Let’s try it again.”

On The Milk of Human Kindness, there was one song on it called “Hello Hammerheads” that I had sung the whole way through in one take, so I thought, “That’s something that’s easy to sing.” I remember getting a friend of mine who was a good singer to come around to my house and I was like, “If I play this song on guitar to you and sing, can you tell me if you think I should be able to do this live or not?”

I remember being intensely embarrassed, just singing in front of him.

I remember being intensely embarrassed, just singing in front of him. Even though he’s a close friend. I finished it and I thought, “Oh, what’s he going to say? This is going to be a disaster.” He was like, “No, that sounded fine. You should definitely sing it.” My voice is warbly and out-of-tune a little bit, kind of flawed and amateruish. But that was what had worked when I recorded the song. That was the feel of the song. He said “people will love that.”

I remember the first time that I sang it was at a show in London. People who had seen us play a few times didn’t expect it. So when I started singing this song and people just went crazy. We’d had all these tours where the vocals were coming off a backing track, and it was ridiculous. From that point on, I grew in confidence to the point where now I’m singing the whole show pretty much.

The breakthrough record... and the new record

Swim was the first record where I felt like I’d come up with my own sound, to a certain degree. The fact that it was the one that connected the most with people was really affirming and invigorating.

We started played to these huge crowds. And after that, I went back to start recording a new album. That’s the reason that I wanted to make music again. To make a record that’s not just for me. I’d always made music to satisfy myself. This record, Our Love, is the first time that I thought about making music that’s to be shared, that’s for somebody else. That’s not just for me, it’s for all the people who liked Swim. To, in some sense, give something back to them.

Our Love is a record that’s simultaneously about connecting broadly with an audience, but also about what’s going on in my personal life, having a daughter in the last few years. My wife, my friends, and my family. I guess to me, that phrase refers to all of those things. Connecting with people through my music, but also about being connected to – and dependent upon – people in my personal life as well.

I was so happy when people connected with Swim. When I started making Our Love, the idea was to push that even further, to somehow capture as much of the texture and complexity of all the relationships in my life, and all the things that I’m interested in musically – and put my own stamp on it. I guess the dream for me is that if you played somebody a little snippet of my music that they’d be able to say, “Oh, yeah. That sounds like Dan.”

Interview by Arno Raffeiner

By Red Bull Music Academy on September 18, 2014

On a different note