Dan Snaith's most recent album as Caribou, Our Love, spans genres from house to prog ballads, all with a pointed sense of warmth. It's among the year's very best releases. The Canadian producer/singer recently told me by phone that the album was intended to give back to those who'd strongly responded to his last Caribou album, 2010's Swim. Below is a condensed and edited version of our chat, in which we discuss how to balance self-expression with intentionally pleasing listeners.
Gawker: Where was your head at when you started this new record?
Dan Snaith: Swim [was] received in a way that I didn't expect at all. I thought it was a pretty idiosyncratic, weird record, and it connected with people in a way that I hadn't expected. And that was the thing that made me want to make a new Caribou record and to make it for a different reason this time. I'd always just kind of indulged myself, made music thinking only of myself, [made] music in the genre I was excited to try my hand at. This time was much more about making a record that's intentionally looking to communicate, looking outward, looking to kind of share with the people who'd connected with Swim to give some warmth back to them for all of the wonderful experience I've had in the last few years. I think that led to more of a direct, concise pop approach.
That approach would seem to require a balance between actual expression and pandering to the masses. Was that something you wrestled with?
It was definitely something I thought about. That's why people don't generally tend to say, "Oh yeah, when I was making this record, I was trying to please somebody else." That seems to be at odds with artistic integrity. The predominant narrative around artistic integrity involves doing what is essential inside of you and ignoring the critical response or the public response. [Paying attention to that is] seen as debasing yourself, or something. But I didn't feel like that at all, really. I didn't feel at any point like I was dumbing the music down or making it more populist.
A good example for me is, and I really didn't see this at the time, but I've got a young daughter and I spent a lot of time with her listening to Stevie Wonder's classic records from the '70s. Just because she's two years old, and it's some of the music you'd want a human being to hear first when they're on earth. I was listening as a dad and as a civilian and not as a music producer in quotation marks or whatever, but I didn't realize the effect that they were having on the music that I was making but those records are doing precisely what I wanted to do.
They're so warm, you feel like Stevie Wonder's just pouring himself into the music, and that he kind of loves you and loves everything and is putting as much of his personal existence and experience as he can into the music. I'm not comparing myself to him, he does it incomparably better than I do. But once [ Our Love] was finished, I listened back to it and I could hear not necessarily specific things but tonal things or the way that I kind of figured out how to sing the songs coming from that kind of music, classic soul music, which is so open and so giving.
The two singles you've released bridge the gap between track and song—they're poppy and melodic, but both only contain a few words repeated over and over. The hooks are basically chants.
That's something that's fascinated me for a long time and it kinda goes back to early Daft Punk records or that kind of sound where somebody would make a house record by sampling one line of a disco record or soul record, just looping it and accumulating more meaning the more you repeat it. If you pick the right line and repeat it, it starts to resonate more and more as you change the musical context around it. That idea is not new by any means, but it does feel like a very contemporary mode to me. It feels like a fresh idea in pop music.
I know Inner City's tracks and even though they are the quintessential house tracks, they are not the ones that are central to my love of that music. I recorded the first half of the song, and I switched sound and had this totally different bass line sound and plucked out that for the second half of the song. It's a nice contrast, a nice surprise. I knew it referenced classic techno and house and this was a moment where I thought, "OK, do I do something more clever, something that isn't so beholden to the classic idea of what that music should be like?" Or do I just know that people are going to enjoy that moment when the bass line comes in and not second guess myself. I guess maybe that could be seen as the conflict between doing something that has integrity and something that is more based on what people will enjoy.
But also, I kind of see those things in a different light now. I see them as kind of reflections of my ego in making the music or my insecurities. There were times early on, when I was recording my first record, that I'd be like, "This is too simple, this is too straightforward. I need to show people that I can have more complex ideas, that I can do things that are more sophisticated." Looking back at that, I see it as more of a juvenile, ego-driven consideration other than an honest musical one. I guess there are both ways of looking at those kind of decisions.
And when you're talking about dance music, you're making music to be enjoyed. Dance music is extremely utilitarian.
Sure, but a lot of these tracks you'd have to be totally crazy to play in a club. But that moment on the record was just like, yeah, when we play this live or when it's in a DJ set, people are going to be excited by that shift.
I would argue that this is a better sex album than a dance album.
Yeah… I mean, that's not specifically what I had in mind but you're probably right.
Good to know. The reaction to Swim was way more broad, way more diverse than the previous record. With Swim, it was like, "The first time I had sex with my girlfriend when I was 18 was to 'Odessa,'" or whatever. That was such a surprise to me. It's an illusion as an artist to think you have control over the music you make after you release it. The meaning is accumulated by all sorts of people in all sorts of situations. I started to revel in it. When people tell my stuff like that it totally makes me smile.
This record leaked months and months in advance. What was your reaction? And why didn't you just release it officially then?
Well, from the record label perspective, I wouldn't be talking to you now if I had done that. It kind of messes up that side of things. But for me anyway, to put it in perspective, all of the records I have released have leaked months in advance. That was much more common five, six, seven, eight years ago. Now it seems kind of remarkable that these things can be kept under wraps. So I was kind of surprised. We had only sent out watermarked copies at that point and [the leaked version] wasn't watermarked, they'd removed the watermark somehow or confused the watermark or whatever you do with watermarks.
My initial reaction was disappointment that there wasn't going to be that moment that I've never had, where everybody's waiting until the very day it's released to hear it at the same time. But in five years time, it's not going to matter to me or anybody at all. And it's only a certain type of fan that's aware of this or interested in this, and if those people really want to hear the record, what's so bad about that? The whole intent with this record was to make music to share with people, so if that comes out in a slightly different way than planned, in retrospect, I don't really have a problem with it. It's a bit of a shame in that it's not a shared experience on the release date, but apart from that, I'm glad that people are listening to it.