The Vitruvian nature of Caribou’s output makes it easy to think that Dan Snaith has allowed his two careers in music and mathematics to inform each other. The reality is, the Canadian-born, London-based beatmaker arrives at a finished track simply through tireless experimentation. His latest album, Swim, appear on many an end-of-year list, but Snaith is more concerned right now with the live performances of this impressive collection of songs. I recently got to spend twenty minutes on the horn with Snaith, chatting about making albums, playing shows, Four Tet and mathematics. – Matt Shea
London – is that where you’re based these days?
I am. I’m just in the UK by coincidence, I guess, today, but we’ve been all over the place this year. I am still based in London when we’re not on tour.
Why live in London?
Originally, I moved over there because I studied with my PhD supervisor – the guy I wanted to do a PhD with was based in London. But it was convenient in that the label that had released my first album, Leaf, was based in London at the same time, so it kind of worked for a number of different reasons.
It’s been a busy year for you. It must feel like an eternity since you released Swim.
It does actually. We were just thinking about the rehearsing [we did] for the tour before it started this year, and that just seems like an impossible amount of time ago. It’s just crazy.
I guess one of the things that’s noted about you is that you’re also a mathematician. What came first for you as a kid, the interest in math or the interest in music?
Well I guess mathematics in some sense must have come first, my dad being a mathematician and there being so many mathematicians in the family. I can’t remember a time when that wasn’t there. I mean, a lot of my early memories have something to do with mathematics. But, it was also my parents who encouraged me to start playing piano and they got me a little kid’s drum kit when I was around the same age. That also came quite early on, so I knew that I was interested in that kind of thing.
You’ve successfully followed both into your adult life. In more recent years, do the math and the music go together or are they competing interests?
Now, music is definitely number one. I don’t do mathematics at all anymore, which I guess expresses to some degree that I always liked music more and is what I wanted to do. But they never really went together in the sense that there’s never been any mathematics in my music or any music in my PhD work. But in some sense they complement each other; in some sense they’re both kinda solitary pursuits, they’re both imaginative; mathematics becomes a lot more imaginative and creative at a certain point. I think people like to think of them as more closely linked, or directly linked, than they are.
Talking about Swim – it’s such a distinctive listen. What kind of records were you listening to as you created the album?
Well I guess I was listening to lots and lots of contemporary dance music. It seems that’s where all the interesting things are at the moment – electronic music of varying, different types. But also, I’m glad you said it sounds distinctive because that was the whole idea for me. Even though I was excited about lots and lots of music, to not borrow from that music, to make sure I made an album that sounded like it was only my music: I really wanted to make it as distinctive-sounding as possible. So yeah, I think the spirit of being in London and there being so many exciting musical things going on in dance music and electronic music – that excitement contributed to the record, even if the direct sounds didn’t end up on there.
I’ve read that you cycle through a ridiculous number of tracks to make an album – something in the region of 600 – is it hard then to make the final product a cohesive whole?
I really did make it in two parts. Some of the tracks on there were intended to be dance music just for me to DJ with and maybe release on a 12 inch or maybe under another name – tracks like “Bowls” or “Sun” were never really intended to go on this album. It was only right at the very end that I thought, ‘Actually, these do work quite well with the other tracks. Maybe they should go on the album.’ In retrospect it seems hilarious that it took me that long to figure that out. I don’t make the music with any sense of how it’s going to fit together. I make this really disparate, massive – lots and lots and lots of music – and I think the thing that ties it all together is that I make it at the same time; all the same kind of ideas are percolating around at the time that I’m making it. That somehow, without me being conscious of it, unifies all the songs together.
Now you’re touring with Four Tet and have already played a number of shows together. How have they been going?
They have been incredible – the ones in the UK we just did. Kieran’s an old, old friend, one of my closest friends, and the guy who helped get my music released in the first place. It’s actually quite nice: when we first started releasing albums, the two of us toured together and did shows together frequently. And now in the last few years we’ve sort of released albums at different times, at different schedules – we haven’t been doing many shows together. So, this is great… it’s awesome, because he’s such a good friend and our music genuinely sits together in a legitimately similar way, so it’s great.
Talking about your relationship with Kieran Hebden, what brought you together initially, friendship or music?
I went up to him at a festival, after his band at the time, Fridge, had been playing, and just started talking to those guys, just like a fan would do. And very quickly it became evident that we got along together and shortly after that we flew him over to Canada to DJ at a club night that we put on in Toronto, and we spent like a week hanging out, going record shopping. You rarely meet that kind of person where it’s like, ‘Wow. We live on opposite sides of the world but it seems like we’ve been friends all our lives and we share very similar outlooks on music, and that kind of thing.’
Do you and Kieran bounce a lot of ideas off each other when you’re recording music?
Definitely. And particularly with this album, because we were both at home at the same time while making our current albums. We’d go out clubbing all the time together, and I’d slip him tracks that I was working on to try out on his DJ sets, and vice versa. We definitely had a big influence on each other’s albums, I think.
Perhaps one of the things that you and Kieran seem to share as producers and musicians in the dance/beats field is a strong focus on albums – is that a fair point? I mean, it comes through on Swim from the music right through to the album title. Are you big believers in albums as a means of distributing music?
Yeah, and I think I can speak on his behalf as well. As well as loving lots of contemporary dance music and electronic music, which is so single and 12”, the bedrock of our music taste is jazz albums and old music and old albums and stuff: things that you can’t imagine not sitting together. Being in love with albums like that and thinking we want to make a statement in that same sort of vein, and something that’s cohesive as well.
There’s a lot of talk of the album fading away as a means of distributing music, but you’re still confident in its future?
Yeah, I don’t know – maybe I’m a dinosaur – but I feel like it’s quite a resilient idea. Having a longer form of music than just one three-minute single – for one thing it’s, I don’t know, it’s something that’s innate to our musical attention span, to want to be taken on a longer-form journey some of the time, rather than just flipping from one thing to another. Maybe it’s a bit early to talk about its demise.
You developed a dancier groove with Swim. How does that translate into the live performance?
Really well. Our shows this year have just turned into parties, which is something we never had in the past. I can’t even pick the best shows because there have been so many incredible ones. And I feel like the live show, the band and everything, has just kind of come together. It’s my favourite iteration of our live show, so it’s been amazing and I can’t wait for these shows really.
Looking ahead to 2011, what are the plans for Caribou?
Back to making music. Back to home. I haven’t made any music this year because we’ve been on tour. I’ve kinda been building up the excitement to make some music again, so that’s what I’m looking forward to after these [February] shows.
MP3: Caribou – “Odessa”