Caribou Finds His Voice After Life-Changing Surprises, with Some Help from Four Tet

Photo: Thomas Neukum

BY Daryl KeatingPublished Feb 4, 2020

The last few years for Dan Snaith, better known to music fans by his recording moniker Caribou, were littered with momentous changes that cropped up out of nowhere. The death of one family member, coupled with the deteriorating health of others, were all part of Snaith's recent life, and as such, are part of his latest album, Suddenly.
"My life in the last five years has been much more defined by these things that just came completely out of the blue," Snaith tells Exclaim! "None of us have the ability to prepare for this stuff, and in all of our lives, there will be those moments that shape us in significant ways."
The vehicle by which Snaith tackles these serious subjects is one that hasn't carried much weight in the past: lyrics. While previous Caribou records featured angelic, airy vocals that fit the music perfectly, they weren't actually saying a whole lot. On Suddenly, conversely, Snaith sings about loss and life. He's telling a story: his story.
"In the early [to] mid-2000s, it was more about making psychedelic-sounding music, and the vocals for that are kind of ethereal and reverb-y. A big step forward on this record was realizing that I can't do that anymore — I have to sing about the things that matter to me. I have to communicate them directly, without obfuscating, and just be brave enough to tackle them head on. Otherwise, it's a deception and it's a dodge. When I listen back to this music ten to 20 years from now, I want to think I had the courage to speak up about the things that were on my mind."
All this talk of harrowing personal experiences might lead you to believe that Caribou has made a very gloomy record, but that's not the case. While there is emotional depth to the songs on Suddenly, they're not sad. This is still a Caribou record, after all, and with it comes all the colourful fireworks we've come to expect from this project. It's rooted in cheerful memories too — not all of the sudden life changes were negative, like the story of the birth of his daughter. We'll let Snaith tell it in his own words.
"The important thing about this story is that we don't have a car," Snaith explains. "So we had a midwife who was helping us with the process, who also, crucially, had a car, and had offered to drive us to the hospital when the time came. I was texting her during the day while my wife was in labour, saying, 'Ah, I think it's really gonna happen quite soon. Are you able to get here as soon as possible?' By the time she arrived, she just looked at my wife and said, 'We've got to go. Like, now.' We got in the car and made it about halfway on a 20-minute ride to the hospital. At that point, my wife and I were in the back seat, and I was like, 'This is happening right at this moment. Our daughter is going to be born right now!'
"She pulled over on Caledonian Road, which is a busy, rough street," Snaith continues. "It's just a hectic London street. [The midwife] ran around to the back door — and just to set the scene here, there's a cafe right there, where people were drinking coffee on the street, about five feet away from us. She opens the door and my daughter is born into her arms, immediately. I mean, the second the door was opened. And we just sat there laughing our heads off. It was this amazing sense of relief, and excitement, all sorts of emotions, really. We were all laughing and crying simultaneously at this absurd situation."
While Suddenly's title and lyrics are inspired by these precipitous events — many of which he didn't realize were bleeding into the music until it was completed — the themes of suddenness appear in song structures too. Many of the tracks go through a sudden tonal shift in the last minute or so, making for an occasionally abrupt, but thoroughly interesting, listen. These unexpected shifts range from the big, bright lights explosion on "You and I," to the folkish, downtempo turn at the end of "Home."
"Not only does the title reflect that element of what's going on in my life right now, but it also reflects what's happening in the music too; how it just shifts dramatically at times", says Snaith.
For Caribou fans, it might seem strange to think that Snaith doesn't have much confidence in his vocal abilities. Certainly, his voice is a huge part of any Caribou release, and it's even more prominent on Suddenly, but being a singer in a band is something that Snaith has only recently accepted. "I'm terrified by the idea of singing in public, or even singing to friends and family," he admits. "I've definitely come to terms with it being part of the way that I make music now, though. I've come to see the limitations around my voice as a good thing. I have to find creative ways of making it work and conveying emotion with this voice, that isn't a singer's voice at all.
"For me, this is the central thing about the way that I record — not just with singing, but with respect to everything — which is that I'm in a room by myself all the time. I wouldn't be singing those words if I was in a room with a band or a record producer. It would be a much bigger ask to get to that point where I don't feel vulnerable. But because I'm doing everything by myself — musical ideas, lyrical ideas, vocal ideas — there's a self-deception at play. I forget the fact that lots of people are going to hear this music. I can trick myself into thinking that I'm just making it for me, and that's what allows me to be able to sing and write about things that are very personal."
With all that's happened to Snaith over the last few years, it's clear that he had a lot to process. One thing you can do is to bury yourself in music, and for some, that might mean banging out an album's worth of songs. In Snaith's case, it meant making over 900 tracks. If you're wondering how one person can whittle that many song ideas into a cohesive 12-track record, well, they can't.
"I desperately rely on somebody else's ears," says Snaith. "Those people are my wife, who has an excellent ear for music and will tell me exactly what she thinks without sugar-coating it, and also Kieran [Hebden], whom you'll know as Four Tet. Kieran came over at one point, when I had this mass of music, and the look on his face just said, 'Dan, I'm worried about you. You have a problem spiralling out of control here,' but actually I don't experience it that way. I just have this trust in the process. This is how I excavate the nuggets of musical ideas that I want. I don't have the foresight, like Kieran does, to make a track a certain way from start to finish. I'm more inclined to live in the soup of all these ideas, and eventually filter out the parts I think are worthwhile.
"Actually, a bunch of the tracks that became central elements of the record were in the trash," he continues. "Kieran was curious to hear what I wasn't going to use, and he ended up rescuing several of them. So it would have been such a different album without this crucial input from the people close to me."
Despite being in the game for almost two decades now, the methods that brought us Caribou's early records (even back to the days when Snaith recorded as Manitoba) are still in operation. Back then, Snaith was using an 8-track cassette recorder, a Korg Wavestation and a "really crappy sampler" that he stole from his high school in Dundas, ON. It was a far cry from the type of studio setup you're likely to see these days, but with those three simple tools, he could layer sounds, add percussion, and ultimately, make multi-track recordings. "Sometimes I think, 'Well, those are exactly the same ingredients that are in my music now,'" says Snaith. "Sure, you can have an unlimited number of tracks now, instead of eight, the synthesizers that I use are different and I can sample things a lot more easily. Things have changed in the level of quality or the restrictions have been lifted, but it's pretty damn similar."
One thing Snaith has come to realize is that you can have a well-kitted studio, newfound confidence in your lyrical content and a mound of material to pluck from, but when an unexpected snippet of music lands in your lap, you still have to run with it. One of these instances happened while he was writing Suddenly, and instead of moving on to the next thing, he went to great lengths so it could be included in the album.
"This is indicative of really bad studio practice, but I was making a track, and I had Netflix open in a browser, which doesn't happen all the time, by the way," says Snaith. "There was this film called Shirkers playing in the background, and the trailer has this beautiful, ethereal voice in it. I didn't even realize there was something playing in the browser, but my track was playing at the same time. I just thought 'God, that's amazing! It fits so perfectly.' Now, that is not typical of the way that I sample things, but I just couldn't ignore it. So, we managed to get in touch with the Singaporean artist in question [Weish] and got their permission to use it on the record, which I was so happy about, because it adds such an interesting texture that I didn't have previously."
Though one random sample doesn't make a record, it does fit right into the album's overall ethos. Suddenly is punctuated with surprises. It creaks and twists when you least expect it, sometimes tumbling into Beatles-esque psychedelia and occasionally stretching its R&B legs for a jaunt around the block. It's rough around the edges, weird, wonderful and in a lot of ways, it had to be like this.
Caribou's previous album, Our Love, was a response to the unexpected success of Swim, its predecessor. After Swim, Snaith and his band of merry men (who only perform live with him) found themselves moving from relatively small venues to headlining outdoor stages at big music festivals. Our Love was very much written with that in mind. "Our Love was this open-armed reach," says Snaith. "It was me trying to distil the music I make without compromising it. Distil it in a way that can reach the most people or can get to them the most directly. I think this album is a step away from that. I just wanted to do something different, and indulge some of those eccentricities that I felt I'd shaved off the corners of Our Love. There was a real polishing going on with that record. I was polishing it to a sheen that hadn't existed on other albums. With this record, I thought that it was okay if it was a bit odd and full of turns that people don't see coming."
That vast openness of his last album hasn't left the fold entirely. In fact, we're certain that if you hear newer tracks like "Never Come Back" or "Ravi" on an outdoor stage while the sun's going down, your follicles will flutter in ecstasy. But there are a lot of facets to Caribou, and this new record guns for every one of them. Suddenly, Caribou is back. Suddenly, we're hooked all over again.
Suddenly comes out on February 28 via Merge Records.

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