Exclusive Features
Anniversaries, Cover Stories, Editorials,
Interviews, Lists, and Comprehensive Rankings

Caribou: Your Love Will Set You Free

on October 09, 2014, 12:00am

A mere seven minutes into the seventh album from Dan Snaith (aka Caribou) and your mind will unbuckle itself from your body, spasm like a puppet, and plunge into warp speed. Our Love’s tremulous moments whirl every which way but predictable, flitting between electronica, hip-hop, and dance so as to render these mortal boundaries indeterminable. The aptly titled “Mars” suctions you into its own sound-vacuum, engaging otherworldly, outer-limit nostalgia.

Are your feet off the ground yet?

Throughout the 10 tracks, Snaith casts a wider net than his previous work, with more poise and expertise rifling effortlessly cool through retro-techno. Each track channels mind-winding nodes that prod and pierce so passionately. At the center of it all, Snaith elevates beyond, working in ascension toward a musical vision to honor. Like the human heart encased within the expanding and retracting ribcage, this triumph is a living, breathing organ pumping melodies.

He’s transformed into a composer with a deeply profound love and understanding of dance music, not just how it works, but why it works. Hallmarks from his two side projects, Daphni and Manitoba, run parallel to the subtlety and severity of Caribou, and it’s a combination of that stylistic frisson and Snaith’s willingness that allows him to explore the tension of dropping penetrating melodies on top of a spirited debate about the human dilemma: being stuck in imperfect relationships unable to decide whether it’s better to fix it or just break it apart and start over again.

The transfixing result is one of the greatest strengths of Our Love and makes for one of the best records of Snaith’s career.

In our conversation, he spoke about the genesis of the album, what being a new father, Stevie Wonder, and the gravitas of his social orbit have in common, and how he lets the lyrics about the texture of being in love illustrate their own functional and dysfunctional world. He is a contemporary storyteller and an absolute delight to speak with, making this album feel much like the intrigue and mechanics of love — eminently worth exploring.

caribou our love

So where are you based at the moment?

I’ve lived in London since 2001, and I’m at home right now, which is somewhat rare for the summer.

When does all the panic of touring start?

[Laughs] Well, the journey has already begun, and the panic has started! We’re doing festivals, so I’m travelling every weekend to play shows, but I’m excited for it because it’s been a while since the last Caribou record and making new music.

Speaking of, this album is an absolute triumph! In love with Our Love. Did you set out to learn any new techniques when you started writing this record?

When I started writing, the things that captivated me the most were synthetic hyper-digital sounds that are everywhere in contemporary R&B music at the moment. It’s that production sound I liked, and I imagined the really 2D hyper-glossy sound. Until the last couple of months of working on this record, I really thought that it was gonna be austere and digital sounding, but it became warmer and all the things that I added later on in the process changed it and took me by surprise.

Do you ever find that when you’re putting sounds into a digital domain, it might suck the air right out of them?

I like the contemporary music that I was listening to where you can tell that, apart from the voice, there was nothing that had ever passed through physical air, and everything had lived in this virtual space. It feels like it suits our contemporary situation. This new trend where something would be made entirely inside a computer and would never see a recording studio or a microphone or transistor was an interesting idea, but when I tried to do it myself, it missed some kind of warmth, and I couldn’t pull it off!

So what was the turning point for you?

Actually, the thing that had a big effect on the sound, one that I didn’t anticipate or understand until after it was finished, was that I had a daughter. She’s three years old now, and during the whole time that I was making this record, I would spend lots of time going into the little studio in my basement, recording for a couple of hours, then taking care of my daughter, then listening to a lot of old music with her. As a new father, you play all the things you want somebody to hear first when they’re a human being. I listened to those classic Stevie Wonder albums, but in a civilian capacity. I wasn’t thinking that these would have an effect on the record I was making. In retrospect, I realized that if I’ve been trying to make a record that communicates directly with people, those kinds of albums do that absolutely perfectly. The warmer synthesizers, vintage keyboards, and vocal production on those records had a subliminal impact on me.

I’ve always seen you as an artist who has a deep understanding of dance music, not just how it works, but why it works.

Something that I’ve been thinking about in the last few years, listening back to my old music, is that they are like photo albums that take me back to that time in my life when I was making the music. But, the ones that I feel least happy with are the ones that are most obviously my take on somebody else’s music. So, a big focus with this record was finding my own sound. If the album is going to be about my life and the lyrics are going to be personal, it should be, as much as possible, identifiable as me.

There are so many familiar Caribou anecdotes. One that I adore is how your albums kick off with these super accessible moments. On SWIM [it’s] “Odessa”, Andorra “Melody Day”, and here with “Cant Do Without You”. What is it about the first song that feels so important to you?

Wow, you’re right, and they’re the first singles from each of those albums, too. When I make an album, there’s this process of figuring out what’s the essential thing that makes it different from the last one. A month before I mine through ideas and suddenly something just clicks and they become the songs that sum up the intent of the album.

But is the album linear in the way that you begin with a confession of sorts via “Can’t Do Without You”, then by the end you realize “Your Love Will Set You Free”?

I get a partial idea of what’s going on when I’m making it, but I never have that degree of insight while I’m doing it. I generate so much music. I make 600, 800 little sketches of tracks that I whittle down, so I can’t see the woods for the trees. When I made the last track, I definitely knew that that was going to be the sentiment that I wanted the album to end with. The first time I listened to the album the whole way through from beginning to end was when I finished mixing with David Wrench. I realized that I hadn’t done it yet, and I was kinda nervous. [Laughs] It’s a bit of a surprise and pleasant that even though I didn’t have the full oversight of what’s going on, I felt like, “Wow, that sounds like a coherent thing!”

From a listener’s point of view, there’s nothing too overwhelming sequentially, and another trademark of yours that melted my little face off is when you incorporate a brief pause and then let the song explode into an enormous volley of percussion. The track “Silver” sounds like it isn’t even made by a human.

[Laughs] Do you know that little pause and lifting sound is one of my favorite parts on the album? It’s Owen Pallett that wrote that rising string.

I didn’t know it was him, but I have his name written down in front of me with a big question mark.

You didn’t even know, you just wrote it down? Wow, that’s special. He did the violin arrangements for the whole album, but he had a pretty deep involvement with the whole record. He’s the kind of guy who has a completely different perspective from most of the musicians that I know because he is a composer with an understanding of harmony better than most musicians.

His ability to describe his own process, opinions, and music is positively moving too. What a guy!

Owen’s a really good friend. I’ve known him for over 10 years. The minute you talk to him, you think, “Wow, this guy is a really perceptive, intelligent person.” He was one of the first people that I sent really short one-minute snippets of the tracks to, and the feedback that he gave me was so amazing. He was really honest, and that’s valuable when you’re getting feedback on something that isn’t finished. It happens with Kieran [Hebden] from Four Tet too, and my wife is really wonderful as well. It’s often like other people have to tell me what my music is about.

That really shows that there’s barely any ego involved in your creativity, because I find when people are nervous to receive feedback, it means they haven’t allowed themselves to let go of control, and I think half the beauty is the process of making it, whether it’s challenging or not.

Feedback is always wonderful, but it illustrates just how trapped inside your own prism of madness you are! It doesn’t even matter who, but sitting in the same room with somebody else while you listen to your music allows you to hear it in a totally differently way.

Sometimes your songs are so instantly appealing that you can miss important details, like the lyrics onBack Home”, where you outline the complexities of love and marriage. Want to tell me a bit about that track?

The whole theme of the record is that my experience and my love is the most important thing. Fortunately for me, the lyrics that are about dysfunction and difficulty in relationships are more about the people that are close to me rather than my actual relationship with my wife. I ask why we are here doing what were doing, not what we are doing. I was led to believe when we were younger, you fell in love with somebody, and it was kind of perfect and unchanging. That doesn’t exist. A lot of lyrics in that song are about compromise and the texture of being in love, love that’s functional and dysfunctional at the same time.

I like how you ask that honest question: “Where did it all go wrong?”

Totally, and the chorus of that song is how so many people reach that point in their relationship where they know something isn’t working, so they ask, “How can we fix our love, and how do we know it’s broken?” It’s that kind of dilemma of being stuck in this imperfection and still not clear whether it’s better to try and fix it, or whether it’s better to break it and start all over again.

The dialogue feels marginally hopeless, but you’ve backed it with an uplifting sound. I like that dichotomy!

If you look closely enough, there’s a contradiction in everything. Just on a purely depth level, my favorite songs are both euphoric and melancholic at the same time.

Completely. And when I read your Rolling Stone interview with the brilliant Simon [Vozick-Levinson], you mentioned the “Disney” love, which reminded me of a Louie C.K. sketch called “Louie Heartbreak”, where he says, “Misery is wasted on the miserable. You’re so lucky you’re like a walking poem. Would you rather be a fantasy, some kind of Disney ride?”

I watched that after I was doing interviews! I’ve been thinking about these things a lot, and it made me think of the album and the themes of the album. Maybe I’m just a megalomaniac and everything makes me think of that, but it’s funny. You’re so right.

As important as an artist’s life situation is when they are writing, I think once it reaches the listener, then that’s really fascinating to me. I could talk to someone who loves your music and find out which album helped them through a certain time in their life.

I think your description of it is coming from very much the same place that I am. During SWIM, I travelled to a lot of different places, and I don’t mean geographically, but through groups of people. In the past, people would take a track, remix it, and it would be completely different from what I intended. They would cut out my favorite part of the song! In the earlier years of making music, I was so protective, but in the last few years I’ve flipped because it’s so naïve to think that my intention matters much more than anybody else’s, and this is in fact the best thing about music, that people will interpret it completely differently.

There’s a very touching moment on the album with the track “Julia Brightly”. Would you like to tell me more about it?

I don’t know how much you know about her, but she was our sound engineer for more than a decade, and a close friend, and was such a big inspiration in my life because when I first met her, she was a man. She passed away really unexpectedly, walked into hospital without knowing anything was wrong with her, just feeling some kind of discomfort, and then literally a week later was dead. During the period of her transition, we were on tour travelling really remote backwaters in the States, and places that you do not want to draw attention to yourself as being different. She was doing this also in her early 50s. It was so amazing to be part of that journey and for her to include us in that. I’ll never forget her bravery and conviction.

In the end, it made sense. It was too painful to write a song with lyrics, but something about the spirit and energy in that song just spoke to me. She was a wonderful person. I feel that her story was such an inspiration, and I want her to be remembered as much as possible.

Thank you for sharing that. It sounds like you exercised a beautiful amount of introspection while making this record. You mentioned earlier wanting your daughter to be influenced by certain types of music too. Did you grow up with ’90s rave culture?

I did later on, but when I was a teenager, I grew up in this weird hippie town in the middle of nowhere in Canada. I should have been listening to Nirvana, but instead everybody in this town listened to Pink Floyd and weird progressive rock from the ’70s. This town was stuck out of time, and it was a friend of mine who had been travelling to the UK who started introducing me to electronic music. In retrospect, it was kind of liberating that I could just listen on a more aesthetic level because my first encounters weren’t in the scene.

It all makes sense now! That famous sample that you use on Milk of Human Kindness is from the ’70s band The Moments, right?

Yeah, that sample! The one I originally thought was a nice, obscure loop, and it came up on the biggest pop song in the world! [Laughs] I don’t know what you’re gonna say, but it’s the sample Jay Z and Alicia Keys used on that track “New York” a couple of years later. I got into record collecting through listening to hip-hop and wanting to find out the original records that people used to build the beats for hip-hop.

2 comments