The impressive, ever-evolving non-career of Dan Snaith that’s lead to his fifth and best album yet
Dan Snaith categorically doesn’t do careers. It’s unlikely you’ll see him defiantly trying to beat the commuter rush, avoiding the dead-eyed stares of suit-clad robots or hopping onto a crowded underground train ripe with the bitter coffee fug that hangs like a brown mist on the breath of any professional the wrong side of 9am.
“I don’t think in a careerist way at all,” he states. “I think I’ve been really lucky to do what I do and have it continue, go on tour, and have people interested the music I make. What more could I ask for?”
A brief bit of trouble with a legal name wrangle (Manitoba was taken, it seems) has marked the only blip on what’s been a steady, if unspectacular progression from bedroom producer to ambient genius. Having found homes on the likes of Domino and City Slang, Snaith been given the time to create, develop and mature. Now on his fifth full length, it’s a process that’s neatly paid off for the best part of a decade. Still, when we catch up with him post a triumphant in-store at Rough Trade, he’s clearly got a few things to contend with.
“Yeah, I’m pretty busy,” he smiles. “The day we leave to go on tour is tomorrow basically so we’re trying to get everything done before we go but the Rough Trade show was fun, actually. I’ve never done any in-stores before, and I’ve just kind of avoided them in some sense, thinking they were going to be weird things to do. It was good though, even if it was kind of trial by fire.”
Despite the intimate confines, and for a band who have a dynamic twin drum line-up back-dropped to a maze of bugged out visuals, those who squeezed into the shop could have expected a somewhat stripped down version of Caribou.
“We didn’t have video projections and lighting stuff. It’s a tiny little stage and we’re just cramming all this shit on to it and all the technical people are staring at us like, ‘what the fuck are you doing?’. It was really the first time we trialled anything out and I’m just amazed, because of it being the first gig everything usually falls apart. It went surprisingly well.”
For anyone exposed to Caribou’s latest offering, ‘Swim’, it should come as little surprise that the live show has been anything but a triumph. The album is layered, intricately condensed, and bears all the hallmarks of the consummate beauty Caribou has made his signature. It transcends and translates, and stands as a record to gush over and revel in, and one its maker is particularly proud of.
“All of the things on this record feel the most comprehensively me,” he explains. “It’s got things from all the music I love and have listened to, and have had on albums in the past. It feels like I’ve just let everything in but at the same time there are things that seem new to me. It’s not quite a summation of my previous albums but it’s the most forward-looking record I’ve made.”
It’s a bold, personal statement from an artist who’s constantly evolved and re-invented the Caribou dynamic with each release. His fifth studio album (Manitoba releases included), it seems ‘Swim’ was driven by his defiant desire to create a record for himself as much as it was a reflection of that particular time in his life.
“I was really, really excited about the record when I finished and I always hope that’s going to translate. I also thought a lot of people were going to dislike it or it would confuse a lot of people, and those who’d heard ‘Andorra’, which is very different, would be like ‘What the hell’s this?!’.
“I expected it to alienate people more than it did but at the same time I was really pleased with it and had this defiant attitude and I’m happy people seem to be up for it. I’m in a fortunate position where the expectation is that my albums are going to be different from one to another, which is great for me. If someone released four albums and they all sounded the same, I guess the reaction would be more hostile.”
Associated with the likes of Four Tet and Junior Boys, in an age where links become increasingly tenuous, there’s genuine feeling and a sense of mutual appreciation for the others’ work. And where there’s been a noticeable shift in appreciation for intelligent, ambient electronic on the back of a series of wonderful releases, it seems the spotlight is moving with the good feeling, regardless of whether Snaith et al. are ready for it.
“If so, I’m completely oblivious to that,” he says. “In terms of being associated with Kieran, this is the guy who got my music released 10 years ago and who’s also one of my closest friends. And Junior Boys, who are also close friends… they’re totally sensible connections for me. I’ve always felt a kinship with musicians if they’re somehow personally involved in my life.
“I think it’s just because we’re doing reasonably, distinct, similar things. Kieran is probably the first person to finish the half-finished track because he lives just down the street, and Jeremy from Junior Boys mixed half of this record. It’s like a community in a sense but it’s just a case of being friends.”
“When I first started releasing music, I thought, is it about substance or a media consensus and what determines whether I’m able to keep releasing music? I always fundamentally feel if you make good music, people will be interested in it.”
It’s a mantra and definition that not all can sustain, and where sales are paramount, and not all artists are afforded the luxury and comfort of understanding, loving labels, it’s increasingly becoming an ideal that rings truer less on a mass scale. And while the sentiment is undoubtedly a wonderful one, it’s easy to forget that it’s underpinned by a desire and determination to create, evolve and sustain. It’s a lesson Dan constantly takes to heart and explains the indulgent focus of ‘Swim’.
“I’ve learned so many different things from making different kinds of music. ‘Andorra’ for me was learning how to arrange and compose, thinking carefully where the arc of the song was going to lead and to be really precise. I thought of it as a craft more instead of making this big noisy mess.
“I feel like this album [Swim] I’ve incorporated…there are kind of moments of meticulous precision where I’ve spent a lot time making sure all the different layers of things interacted in the right way. Then there were also moments where I was content to let things go their own way and just turn things on, hit things on the fly and generate that sense of excitement. It kind of balances the two things for me, that kind of spontaneous performance but also paying attention to every detail.”
And it’s that thought and consideration that has contributed to one of the albums of the year. It’s a testament to the fact that, even five albums and a over a decade in, he’s still picking up new tricks, tinkering, tweaking and refusing to cede to anyone’s creative will but his own.
“It’s funny for me to think of it like that,” says Snaith. “Every time for me seems like a fresh start because I want to do something different. If I tried to make this record 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have known to have got certain sounds out of my own head or I wouldn’t have approached the songs in the same way or been confident enough to do something different. There’ve been times in the past where I’ve re-appropriated or used bits of context from other types of music but it’s not about paying homage to anything. This time I actively rejected doing that.
“Even the music I’m really excited listening to, I don’t want to incorporate any of the elements of that music, I want to push the idea of making my own as far as possible. This is what makes this album personal to me and is perhaps what my previous albums did less successfully.”
Not quite stubborn, more modestly single minded, Dan Snaith will never admit to having made Caribou his career. Why would he when the learning curve has been as glorious as this?
By Reef Younis
Originally published in issue 17 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. May 2010.