Caribou on 'Suddenly': "This is music that wants to comfort, reassure and be supportive” - Cover stars - Mixmag
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Caribou on 'Suddenly': "This is music that wants to comfort, reassure and be supportive”

Love, life, birth, death: Caribou confronts the big things in life on his new album

  • Words: Stephen Worthy | Images: Dean Chalkley
  • 3 March 2020

If Dan Snaith were to create a party himself from the ground up, you suspect the template wouldn’t veer far from something like Cosmic Slop. There are few places quite like this Leeds institution. Slop exists to support a charity, MAP, that provides classes in the creative arts and support for youngsters excluded from mainstream education; the classes are held in the 200-year-old former ironworks, Hope Foundry, in which Slop also takes place each month. Dan, appearing as Caribou tonight, is giving his services for free – just as close friends Four Tet and Floating Points, and one of his childhood heroes, Gilles Peterson, have all done in the past.

There’s no exposed concrete on show here, no expensive light show, and by the end of the evening you’re dancing shoulder-to-shoulder on a carpet of discarded Red Stripe cans, but it has one of the best soundsystems – hand-built by Tom Smith, MAP’s inspirational founder and DJ – you’ll find anywhere on the planet, one that Dan’s been looking forward to experiencing for longer than he can remember. Although it’s not the only reason why he’s here.

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“My wife and I have been thinking more and more about the effects of austerity in the last decade,” he told us before the show, “and how these kinds of spaces – these kind of community studios – are being closed down. Tom has come up with this sustainable model. It’s a very DIY approach. If there’s a problem, he and his team – but quite often him – fix it themselves. There’s some statistics that show that something like half of these kind of things have closed in the past ten years across the country. It’s inspiring and exciting to be a small part of this. People want to play this club because it’s a fucking amazing club to play. It’s not just a good cause, it’s the best party you’ll ever go to. Tom is an amazing person.”

On this particular, clay-cold West Yorkshire Saturday night, Dan is playing an all-night DJ set for 200-odd fortunate partygoers (who pay a ‘donation’ rather than an entrance fee), rewarding them with a sprawling, relentlessly upbeat and eclectic set. It’s one that fizzes with unbridled energy, taking in classic funk, 70s r’n’b, Afrobeat, free jazz, Indian ragas and UK garage. As befits a man with a PhD in maths, tot this all up and the sum total is clear. Pure, unadulterated love has settled above the assembled, like a happy cloud.

But first we’re heading back 190 miles south and 36 hours to a fireside chat in a quiet north London pub, a short bike ride from the home that Dan Snaith – aka Caribou, aka Daphni – shares with his wife Nitasha and two young daughters. While the pub is all muted greens and reclaimed wood tables now, it still feels a somewhat incongruous setting given that in a previous life this place was the notorious Filthy McNasty’s, best known as the drinking haunt of Pogues front-man and all-star boozer, Shane McGowan. Dan, it’s worth pointing out, not only doesn’t drink but never has.

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Sporting his trademark gold-rimmed specs, lugging a rucksack and craving a mug of tea, he looks every inch the archetypal Stoke Newington dad. True to form, his denim jeans are crisp and comfy, on his feet are a pair of Saucony running shoes and a plain, powder blue T-shirt – Dan loves a blue T-shirt – covers his lean frame. However, there probably aren’t many Stoke Newington dads who grew up in rural Canada, spent a vast proportion of their life ensconced in academia and now travel the world, lighting up rooms and festival crowds with emotive, reflective, soulful electronica.

After a hiatus in which Dan and Nitasha added another daughter, now three years old, to their family (their elder daughter is eight), his life is about to explode again. A new album, ‘Suddenly’, is imminent, as is a world tour with his band that begins back home, a few miles from where he grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, and continues into the summer. His seventh album as Caribou (née Manitoba), ‘Suddenly’ picks up where 2014’s ‘Our Love’ left off and is a record that focuses on loss, love, death and the big moments on which our lives pivot dramatically.

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It’s the first time he’ll be spending a significant time away from his two children, which explains why his 13-year-old Nokia 6300 phone – gold, coincidentally, echoing the frames of his glasses – is about to be put out to digital pasture, much to his chagrin. “I’m about to crack,” he says. “When I go on tour this time, I’m taking a smartphone. Of course, I’m in front of my computer ninety-nine per cent of the time anyway, so it’s never that hard to get hold of me. It’s not like I’m in a cabin, away from the modern world.”

But inevitably there’ll be a trade-off to upgrading. “I like it that when I take the kids out somewhere I’m not distracted by emails. It feels great to be disconnected when I’m with my kids.” Family, friends, love, life, home. These are Caribou’s recurring themes, and they and go a long way to explaining Dan Snaith’s enduring – and increasing – appeal. In a world that feels like it’s been knocked off its axis, he makes music that comforts and cheers: euphoric, yet at the same time reflective.

The importance of maintaining caring relationships is perhaps rooted in Dan’s upbringing in Ontario during the 1980s and 90s. His English-born parents – both maths professors, the same subject Dan would later gain a PhD in – and two elder sisters moved from the UK to the rural township of Copetown (“It’s basically an intersection,” explains Dan), near the “hippie town” of Dundas. With all their extended family back home in England, the Snaiths had to keep tight.

“We had to enjoy each other’s company and make the most of it,” he explains. “We were in a field somewhere. There was nobody around, so until you could drive you were completely isolated. The summer holidays would come and I had to figure out what to do.”

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For Dan that meant playing piano for school bands, jazz piano at weddings and in rock bands with the friends he made in Dundas – “some of the most engaged [people] in music and art that I’ve met” – many of whom remain close to this day. One, Ryan Smith, is guitarist in the Caribou tour band and also, as Taraval, makes techno records, releasing them on Four Tet’s label, Text.

Inevitably, with both parents and sisters who have doctorates and spent their lives in academia, Dan would also spend much of his time studying. Whether it was nurture or nature, he’s not entirely sure, but he proved very good at maths. In the late 90s he bagged himself a prestigious place as a summer intern at tech company HP’s Bristol offices, back in the UK. One of his sisters had moved back home by then, and Dan stayed with her and her husband, making the most of his time hanging out, by himself, at festivals like the Big Chill. It was there that one encounter changed his life irrevocably. After spotting them on the grass playing a board game, Dan got talking to post-rockers and Trevor Jackson acolytes, Fridge. Among their number was Kieran Hebden, then on the cusp of morphing into Four Tet.

“I ended up spending the festival wandering around watching music with them,” he says with a grin. “It was very generous of them to do that with a random guy who had come out of nowhere. I kept in touch when I got back home and sent Kieran some of my music.” Kieran was sufficiently impressed to send Dan’s music to Leaf, home of some of the earliest Four Tet recordings. Leaf would go on to release Dan’s first three albums (there were two as Manitoba before an American artist of the same name threatened legal action), starting with 2001’s ‘Start Breaking My Heart’, released in the same year Dan moved permanently to the UK. Nowadays, all the Snaiths are back on these shores.

Dan’s built some enduring relationships over the past 20 years. The founder of the Leeds-based Leaf label, Tony Morley, is among the crowd at Cosmic Slop the following night, while the bond between Caribou and Kieran Hebden/Four Tet remains rock-solid to this day. “He’s become the closest of friends,” Dan says, with a twinkle. “I feel like part of his family. That personal thing has just deepened over time. He’s been a mentor endlessly, whether it was when I was moving from one record label to another, deciding which gigs to do, whatever. That’s how I’ve learned everything – by asking Kieran, basically. From those early years he’s always been one step ahead of me, so he always knew the answers, or if not was just really insightful. But it’s not just me. He’s super-generous with his time for lots of people.”

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Along with the other trusty wielder of the Quality Control sticker, his wife Nitasha, Kieran has always been there for Dan, regularly checking in for updates during the making of ‘Suddenly’, encouraging and cajoling, critiquing and supporting. Despite Kieran’s protestations, Dan has given him an arrangement credit on the lead single from the album, the stirring, Avalanches-esque breakbeat jam, ‘Home’.

“There was a version that I’d sent him with a hip hop breakbeat over the whole track,” Dan recalls. “Then a few months later I sent him a version with my own drumming on it, a more subdued, kind of folky-soul take on it. He was the one who had the insight to say it should go back and forth, so the instrumental parts have the breakbeat on it, but when you’re singing it should be much more subdued. And I was like, duh, that makes so much sense.”

Along with Kieran, there’s a third, younger member of the mutual appreciation-cum-soundboard society, Floating Points’ Sam Shepherd. Sam, says Dan, is in many ways a younger version of himself. “It’s really, really eerie sometimes,” he says, laughing. “Although in some ways – and it’s not my intention to be self-deprecating here – Sam is like a better version of myself. He also did a PhD and was thinking about whether to follow music or academia, but he knows the synthesizer inside out way more. We have different takes on things, I guess, and he’s way more diligent, too. But we’re very reminiscent of each other and very close. He’s another one of the few people that I play music to early on, and he’s brutally honest.”

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While Sam was away touring he invited Dan to use his famed Shoreditch studio, brimful of some of the best synths ever made.“I just have a few bits of gear. A reasonable amount. But he has a completely unreasonable amount of gear!” laughs Dan– although, inevitably, he’s at pains to thank his younger friend for his generosity. He made good use, for example, of Sam’s Yamaha CS-70M (the one you can hear on ‘Requiem’ from Floating Points’ album ‘Crush’ last year) – despite suffering a momentary bout of guilt. “I said to him ‘Sam, you let me in here – but isn’t this too close to what you’re doing, you know?’”

But while there’s certainly a shared warmth when it comes to the music of Floating Points, and a similarly skilled musicianship built on an impeccable taste in records, ‘Suddenly’ is very much a Caribou record. The album was named, indirectly, by his youngest daughter who – suddenly – settled on it as her favourite word. So when Dan was looking for a title his wife suggested it, reasoning that it fitted perfectly the theme percolating through the album’s lyrics: those life-changing moments that stop you in your tracks. Up until recently, Dan says, many of those were positive ones – like meeting Kieran, or the time he heard his music on the radio for the first time on a late-night alternative show on a Hamilton college radio station, after his school friend Koushik had passed them a cassette.

“Everybody was asleep in the house,” he recalls. “I had the radio on. And then it came on. Very few people were probably listening. But my skin was crawling, I was sweating, I couldn’t believe it. I still remember that moment, thinking, ‘This is it. I’ve made it!’ I still think it’s the most excited I’ve ever been about my music in my life.” But these days, his ‘suddenly’ moments have a deeper emotional impact. ‘You And I’, an enchanting slice of throbbing, 80s-style electro-rock, contains a line with real emotional heft, one that might offer succour to anyone grieving: ‘There’s a reason that you left us all down here, you’re a whisper in my ear’. It was written, explains Dan, for his mother-in-law, who was experiencing “unfathomable grief” after the sudden loss of someone they both relied on.

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“I was insulated from big shocks and dislocations in my early life,” says Dan, who’s now 41. “I had a really stable childhood. But mortality catches up with all of us eventually. The last five years have been shaped by [it], and that was one of those moments where the phone rings and everything just kind of melts around you.” Dan also mentions a “catastrophic divorce” in his wife’s family, then a sudden health crisis for his dad when a long-standing condition turned into something life-threatening overnight (thankfully, he survived). “We were all kind of scrambling to make sense of it all,” he says. “These dislocations happened over and over again.”

‘Sister’, meanwhile, is a warm, gossamer-light, beatless electronic hymnal that’s his response to the #MeToo movement and features – not that she knows it as yet – the voice of his mother. “That’s a dislocation we’ve had in our culture in the past five years,” he says. “All of a sudden, my perspective shifted. I didn’t realise the degree to which sexual violence was pervasive. [I was] finding out that every woman I know has a story, and realising that this isn’t just about high-profile media cases, it’s absolutely pervasive. ‘Sisters’ addresses, literally, my sisters and my daughters, but also women in general and our male, collective responsibility and the need [for us] to address it.”

Embedded in it is his mum’s voice reciting a nursery rhyme, recorded when he was a child and collected from the regular cassettes his family sent across to his grandparents back in England, detailing their life in Canada. After his grandparents’ death, Dan recovered the tapes, digitised them and embedded an excerpt from his mum in ‘Sisters’. “She still doesn’t know about it,” he admits. “It’s funny, I had a friend who heard it and was like, ‘There’s something wrong with that track? Is that the final version because there’s something in there [his mum’s voice] that doesn’t belong.’ I was like, ‘That’s probably the thing that belongs the most on this album’.” How does his mum feel about her guest spot? “I’m saving telling her for the moment when I have the vinyl and I can show her the credit on the back. She’s a very humble, quiet person. I think she’ll be happy inside, but she will also be like ‘You did what!?’.”

Not that the interregnum between albums has all been about mortality and dislocation. When Dan and Nitasha’s younger daughter came into the world in 2016, it was a somewhat unconventional arrival. “She was born on the Caledonian Road [a busy, bus-filled main road not far from Kings Cross station in London], in the back of a car,” he explains. “That was a wild experience. We were on the way to hospital but didn’t anticipate it happening so fast. She was fine, so it was a happy moment. She was born into a street with people nearby drinking an espresso in a cafe or walking past, shouting at parking attendants. It was a mad, mad scene. So this record is not all to do with death!”

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‘Suddenly’, he says – or at least its more mellow moments, of which there are many – is in some ways about exorcising his urge to do more with the pared-back club tracks he makes under his Daphni alias. But, he says, such records represent just a small sliver of his life, their only purpose to be for him to play in his DJ sets. “They live in this very contained, constrained world of club music,” he explains. “Whereas when it comes to making Caribou stuff, nothing is excluded from the process.

“I feel like when I listen to this album – or at least the mellower moments – I hear the kind of music that wants to comfort, wants to give a big hug, to reassure and be supportive,” he concludes. We’re now packing up, ready to yomp back the couple of blocks to the basement studios at the Mixmag office where our photographer Dean and his team are waiting. “Yeah, that’s it. Despite some of the subject matter being heavy, I want it to sound somehow positive. I want to make something reassuring and positive out of these experiences.”

At Slop in Leeds the following evening, the main lights are going up. It’s 4:AM and the crowd are demanding one more. Dan drops a squealing, out-there r’n’b track by Albert Ayler, a sax-toting genius once described as the Jimi Hendrix of avant-garde jazz. It’s called ‘Heart Love’. If Caribou is sending a message to us, it really couldn’t
be any clearer than that.

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