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The Defiant, Domestic Music of Caribou

The producer returns Friday with his new album, ‘Suddenly,’ his most personal collection of music yet

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One of the best tracks on the new Caribou album, Suddenly, perfectly evokes the headspace of a devoted but distracted father who’s got a Chicago footwork song stuck in his head during a child’s piano recital. That, believe it or not, is the simplest way to describe it.

Canadian dance-music guru Dan Snaith (a.k.a. Caribou, f.k.a. Manitoba) has spent 20 years now mixing festival-tent ecstasy with heartfelt interiority, the anthemic with the cerebral, the domestic with the defiantly hedonistic. (“Can’t Do Without You,” the tender and massive leadoff track from Caribou’s 2014 LP Our Love, is his most straightforwardly triumphant moment to date, though his triumphs tend to be far less straightforward.) So you’re prepared, theoretically, for a new tune that kicks off with warped but lovely piano arpeggios that wrap around Snaith’s delicate, unpolished falsetto as he sweetly warbles a quick refrain, perhaps, for a loving father reassuring a young child long distance from backstage at some gigantic music festival:

What have I missed since I’ve been gone?
I’ll be back when this is all done
But don’t you worry, that’s not your style
It makes me happy when I see you smile

And then, “Sunny’s Time” indulges a brief but breathtaking pause before the blaring quasi-footwork part kicks in, a jarring jumble of declarations (Gots to bounce!) that shatter the reverie but also deepen it. The startling cumulative effect is interior and cerebral and domestic, but defiantly, ecstatically so—a mesmerizing card trick from a London-based, vice-averse, happily married father of two who can still summon thunderclaps of carefree EDM abandon.

Suddenly, out Friday, is Snaith’s first album as Caribou in six years, and its pleasures can be relatively simple: “Never Come Back” is a propulsive pop-house earworm for those who prefer his more dance-floor-friendly work under the alias Daphni, and “Home” flips a fantastic sample from ’70s soul singer Gloria Barnes into a gentle tribute to a close friend who fled a toxic relationship.

But longtime fans of this guy, from the vibrant ’60s psychedelia of 2005’s The Milk of Human Kindness to the even trippier pre-EDM-boom bombast of his 2010 breakout Swim, have learned to also embrace his thoughtful pivots and provocations. Like the frenetic guitar solo that punctuates the crooning melancholia of “Like I Loved You.” Or the pummelling chopped-vocal-sample bombast of “New Jade.” Or the serene electro-yacht-rock pulse of “Magpie,” which turns grief (“It’s been five years since you’ve been gone and now / Oh how the time has passed me by,” Snaith warbles) into something very quietly ecstatic.

Suddenly is extravagantly rewarding whether you think about it way too hard or hardly think about it at all; it’s the most personal Caribou album yet, which makes its triumphant ache only more universal. I spoke to Snaith on the phone in February about the (sincerely) rewarding juxtaposition of Home Life vs. Club Life, the thrills (seriously) of being surrounded by people on drugs despite not being on drugs yourself, and his thoughts in retrospect on what he once (affectionately) described as “the EDM barfsplosion” of the early 2010s. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

I think a lot of young musicians figure that once they get a little older and get married and have kids, it means a sort of creative death, like their music won’t have the same immediacy or intensity or passion. Did you worry about that 15-20 years ago, and are you making the sort of music now that 20-year-old you thought you’d be making now?

It’s funny that you say that—that’s something I’ve been reflecting on more and more frequently these days. As a music fan, you’ve got to be aware that’s a dynamic that happens to almost all the musicians you love. Some people manage to continue to generate really interesting music, but the majority, not so much I guess.

Early on, it was about wanting to keep feeling like I was opening a door to get into the kind of world that I’d always wanted to: being able to release music and travel the world playing music. It was about keeping my door open, and keeping my foot in the doorway so that it couldn’t be closed on me. And now I feel comfortable about that. I’m not worried about going away for five or six years between albums, and people not remembering who I am, because I’ve done it a few times, and you get to realize that at a certain point, people are interested, and despite the fact that the musical world moves so fast, they’ll still be there interested to hear it.

I feel like domestic is a dirty word in music, or maybe just in music criticism, but this record feels domestic to me in the best possible way. Given your home-studio situation, is there any real separation at this point between your home life and your musical life?

No, they’re so close now. And really this album is all tied up with things about family, things that happened to people in my family and the people closest to me. I had all these different ideas, and the ones that stuck, the ones that endured, were the ones that were reflecting on those kinds of themes, because those were the things that were most important to me.

The guy at my European label, when he heard the record, he was like, “Oh dear, this isn’t what people want to hear an album about, necessarily.” And to some degree that’s not, like, a sexy thing to make an album about. But I said, “That’s fair enough,” and I just have to accept it. It’s a truthful thing, it’s an honest thing, and it’s kind of a stimulating thing as well. So I just went with that—I didn’t second-guess myself too much about it.

I was really struck by the clash of “Sunny’s Time”—for some reason I picture a dad at a piano recital who’s got a rap song or a footwork song stuck in his head. Is this album about various elements like that violently clashing, or is it about all these different sounds and moods somehow achieving a sort of harmony?

I think it’s more the latter. I mean, there’s a bit of both I guess, but I’ve always loved contrasting disparate sounds—that’s really fruitful, the kind of erosion of genres, and the juxtaposition of an old sample sound against a contemporary digital or synthesized sound. Those will always be the places that I’ve found stimulating and exciting to my ear.

Of course there are moments on Suddenly that are intentionally set out the way they are to surprise and to be an unexpected left turn. That’s part of what the title is about, obviously. But when I did finally put it all together and have a kind of first listen all the way through, I was like, “It does for some weird reason feel like it fits together.” I mean, that could be because it’s so personal to me, but for me, it has that feeling somehow, even though there are so many things in contrast and conflict with one another.

My favorite song for sure is “Home,” which reminds me of a simpler time when Kanye West was mostly just a guy who flipped old soul samples. I’d like to think that you heard that hook—“Baby, I’m home, I’m home”—and the whole thing just popped into your head complete. But I’m guessing that’s not actually what happened.

No, I hope it sounds like that, I hope it gives you that impression, because that’s the kind of song—it should sound easy and effortless, you know? Definitely, that’s exactly the kind of thing that I was thinking, the first Kanye album or Madlib, those kind of producers. When I first heard the intro to that Gloria Barnes song, I was like, “Oh my God, that’s a perfect loop. Stop everything.” And it sat like that for ages, for like a year, and I kept coming back to it and trying to think, like, “Is this just for me to listen to? Am I going to try and make it into a Caribou track? If so, am I going to sing on this thing? Or is it going to be a kind of interlude or something?”

The thing that tipped it into synthesizing what I do with what the sample suggests was the story. It’s about a friend of mine and her ex, leaving a toxic relationship, and she went literally home to her parents’ house where she grew up, and she kind of rediscovered, figuratively went home as well. And I was thinking about that story, and wanting to write something about that. And then I was just like, “I have this loop sitting there that’s all about the concept of home.” And that very quickly unpacked from there.

Is there an added vulnerability now that you’re putting more of your personal life, the lives of the people around you, into this music than you did on your earlier records? Do you take the reaction, do you take criticism more personally? Is there more of you in this record in a tangible sense?

I mean, yes to almost all of those questions. Definitely there were tracks on here that I thought wouldn’t be on the record because they were too vulnerable, and they were made for myself to have some kind of therapy almost or something. A lot of them are written to somebody really close to me—in my wife’s family, there was a loss of her sibling. It was completely devastating, and a lot unfolded in her family, and we’re very close. We’ve been together for 20 years, so I’m as close to her family as mine. And there were parts where I’m like, “This is their story. Do I even have the right to be sharing this?” But the thing that’s kind of resolved that for me is I want to honor the people in these stories: Most of these stories are about difficulty, but also about how the people involved made something positive about it, and kind of valorizing them.

With respect to reviews, that kind of thing, I feel quite comfortable with where I’m at right now. I mean, I guess I’ve been lucky: I haven’t had an album that’s universally panned by everybody, but I’m happy for people to have different opinions on the music that I make. I think that’s a reasonable part of the process, you know?

I’ve always been really struck by your singing voice as this very delicate and singular thing, and I’m pretty sure there’s more of your singing on this album than on any other. Do you like your voice now more than you did at the start?

I mean, I still don’t like my voice. Most people struggle with that, I guess, and especially, I’m really a nonsinger. Some people can just open their mouth, and without any teaching or anything, you can just sing beautifully. And that, honest to God, is not me. I have to struggle to find my place within the limitations of my voice, to make my voice work within the music. That’s a process for me with every album, and particularly the more prominent my voice is, like it is this time.

I do think something would be lost if these songs were sung by a more quote-unquote professional singer. And I can’t say tangibly what that is, but I feel strongly that what people respond to in your voice is that vulnerability—it’s more personal to you, and thus to the person listening.

Yeah. I’m glad to hear you say that, and that’s what I hope. One of the people who give me—I rely on their feedback endlessly—is Kieran Hebden from Four Tet. And there’s definitely been times when I’ve been thinking, “Oh, maybe I’ll ask this person to sing on this track.” And he’s just like, “Dan, you need to sing this track. This is about your life. That doesn’t make any sense. It’s got to be your voice, for something you’re singing that’s so personal.”

In Long Shot, that romantic comedy from last year, “Can’t Do Without You” pops up when Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron’s characters are on E, and they’re in the midst of this really hedonistic, ecstatic moment. If I’m not mistaken, you personally don’t drink or do drugs, but that scene still made me wonder about your own personal relationship to late-night-dance-club-type hedonism. Does it affect the music you’re making, or the music you’re not making?

Yeah, so, I mean, you’re right: I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, and I’m 41 years old. I end up in clubs a lot, actually: I have this Daphni alias for club music, and I end up DJing in clubs loads. And most of my friends are now electronic-music producers and DJs: They don’t have a band, and they’re always doing gigs in clubs. And particularly in London, that’s the kind of dominant culture, club culture.

So I end up in clubs a lot, and I really love them as spaces. For one thing, they’re designed to make the sound as best as possible, and for a music producer and engineer, that’s amazing, obviously. But then I also do love the openhearted, open-mindedness, the utopian “Everybody’s welcome in this space.” Lots of people my age are like, “Oh, Dan, what are you doing? I could never go to a club because I feel so old.” But I’m not ever made to feel that way, whether people recognize me or not—I feel like they’re not spaces that are actually exclusive like that.

When you’re in that situation, and the vast majority of the people around you are chemically stimulated in one way or another, are you personally having a totally different experience? Is your perspective purer in any sense?

Oh, I don’t know about that. I’ve never done drugs or been drunk, actually, but immediately in middle school, I gravitated toward the first kids doing drugs and smoking pot and whatever. Those were just the more interesting, music-y kind of people—familiar story, right? So my whole life had been, like, being the sober guy around people who were on drugs. And I was so comfortable in that environment. People are always like, “Isn’t it weird like that?” But then, their experience has always been on drugs with other people on drugs. I’m just so used to this combination that it doesn’t strike me as weird or make me think, “What are these people experiencing?” Yeah, I don’t know. I enjoy it vicariously through them to a degree.

You once described “Can’t Do Without You” as the sort of song you could imagine playing to a huge crowd at a giant festival. Does that apply to anything on Suddenly as well? How has your success changed your sense of scale?

Yeah, it very much did with Our Love. Very much the thought behind a lot of that music was like, “Man, things are really opening up more broadly for Caribou. We’re playing in front of bigger crowds. Let’s embrace that and see where that takes the music.” And a lot of this music on this album is really drawn away from that. I thought, “I’ve pushed out as far as I can,” and so a lot of this is super intimate and not designed to be played at a festival.

But then, I think you can probably guess that there are a couple of tracks, “Ravi” and particularly “Never Come Back,” the minute I came up with that synthesizer riff and the little vocal part, I could just hear the whole—it was like you were describing. “Home” might’ve been like that. I could hear the whole track. I could picture playing in front of a crowd at a summer festival, with the sun going down or the sun coming up or whatever. And it was just the excitement and euphoria of knowing that if I made that track, it would live in that kind of a space, and I’d get to perform it in that kind of a place, and how thrilling and exciting that is, you know?

Suddenly, to me, is the ideal mixture of elements I was hoping for and elements I didn’t expect at all. To what extent are audience expectations in your head when you’re making music now? Do you know generally what people want from you, and does that knowledge make you more or less apt to try and deliver what you think they want?

Yeah, a bit of both, actually. I kind of knew after Our Love, I was like, “People would be happy with another album that’s in that same vein.” The concise, polished version of my sound or whatever. And I was like, “I can’t keep chasing—it’s like a trap to keep chasing that thing over and over again.” The spark will run out or something, you know what I mean? To keep trying to make a song that’s like “Can’t Do Without You,” but bigger, you know? It’s just a trap to try and do that.

So I pushed away from that intentionally, and I thought, “Maybe some of this music won’t travel as widely, or kind of connect with people’s lives.” But then I realized, Swim also had a moment, and I was so surprised that that connected with people, because it’s a really weird record, right? I made no attempt whatsoever to make it palatable. And I thought, “I’ve got a love of melody and harmony, and those things that run through the center, and my voice singing a song, those things are in the center of the music, and that’s what people connect to to some degree.” And I feel that frees me up to do more unexpected things in the production and the arrangement.

Back in 2012 you used the phrase “the EDM Barfsplosion currently gripping the corporate ravesters,” and then you got asked about it a lot in interviews like this. I’m curious how that Barfsplosion feels to you in retrospect, now that it’s largely regarded as this weird, huge, uncomfortable era whose moment has partly passed. Do you have a kinder view of that scene now that it’s not so dominant?

You know, it’s funny. I mean, I put that quote in a press release, but I don’t have any particular animosity—in fact, I would be unhappy if there weren’t music for 16-year-olds that sounded like music for 16-year-olds, you know? That music was amped up as much as possible, kind of taking the tropes from dance music previous to it and just turning it up to 11 or 12, and I loved that about it, actually. Even if I don’t like the particular choices, or the aesthetics aren’t mine, I love the fact that it’s moved it into this space that was exciting and invigorating. And then obviously it was quite a narrow conception, maybe, of this genre, so it ran out of steam because it didn’t have space to evolve or whatever.

So there’s no ill will toward it—I wasn’t cheering on its failure in any sense. It was just very much not the world I was living in. But then, I mean, you can hear on “Never Come Back” that I like pop-dance music. I liked that conjunction of ideas, and using that kind of repetition of dance music alongside pop music. I know there is still a huge appetite for that kind of music.