For songwriter Dan Snaith, who records as Caribou, it took a crowded room to show him how he could unclutter his sound.
Releasing his first record in 2000 under the name of Manitoba (he changed it in 2004 after a lawsuit from “Handsome” Dick Manitoba of New York protopunks the Dictators), Snaith, a Canada native, found an immediate transatlantic audience for his digital psych-pop polyrhythms, gaining critical acclaim alongside blissed-out freakbeat producers such as Four Tet.
Eventually fulfilling what seems like the predestination of someone born in London, Ontario, Snaith moved to London, England (to finish his Ph.D in mathematics). And it was here, performing as a DJ in the humid basement club Plastic People, that Dr. Snaith found the direction for his fifth full-length, Swim, which he declares to be his aqueous take on dance music.
“Until this album, I mixed all my records at home, and the frequency range I always packed full of stuff was the mids, low-mids …[it] had this woolly quality I loved,” he says. “And I always had really bad studio monitors, so tracks didn't have much sub, much bass, since I didn't notice it wasn't there. But with this record, I made tracks and tried them in clubs, and I noticed how using the full audio range was different.”
Getting professionals like Junior Boys' Jeremy Greenspan to mix the tracks also helped Snaith realize what he was missing. “It was the first time I thought outside just melodies and harmonies,” he says. “That drew me to dance music — thinking of composing music in terms of the physicality of the sound, the space of the audio range as an instrument.”
Inspired by eccentric producers such as Theo Parrish, who make what Snaith describes as “accidental dance music,” Swim is intended as an album that no one could say is from “a '60s nostalgist … who was back again with another survey of his favorite things from the past,” Snaith says.
A lot of Snaith's early records were about what he describes as “chaotic enthusiasm.” Beginning with 2005's The Milk of Human Kindness, Caribou transitioned from Manitoba's mirthful sample pockets to pulse-anchored Krautrock dynamics. Now, with Swim, Snaith believes he has moved on to the next chapter of defining a sonic signature, sequencing disco, acid-house, tech-funk, and a renewed confidence in individual tones. “It's still this psychedelic effect, but the key is more knowing when to leave things out to let other sounds do their things, and letting the repetition of the songs be an asset rather than trying to pile in too much stuff,” he says.
Performed live by a drums, bass, guitar, and keyboards quartet and a laptop running Ableton Live, Caribou's newest tracks feel almost like mitosis as they split, coordinate, and develop. Gated drums fade in and diffuse as hissing bleats and cathedral melodies, woozy pauses and wonky bass split off, coalesce into a sinewy, expansive groove, then trade the lead.
“I don't think about what [visuals] sounds evoke — I think in audio terms, because in a club it's physical, it's not conceptualizing,” Snaith explains. “In those rooms, the bass is rumbling your rib cage; it's not abstract. I've been working on the most concrete interaction you can have.”