Caribou: Stranger Things
It took five years of experimentation and over 900 carefully nurtured musical seeds, but Suddenly, Dan Snaith’s fifth Caribou LP, ended up developing from one simple “germ of an idea”—surprise.
“Our Love was [me at my] most concise, polished, digestible,” Snaith says of his crowd-pleasing 2014 Caribou record, which earned a Grammy nod for Best Dance/Electronic Album and, in a career best, landed at No. 46 on the Billboard 200. “I made it to be that way. I enjoyed polishing all the rough edges. But my music is never going to be genuinely pop in that sense. I love the idiosyncratic, weird things. I can’t go any further in terms of making it shiny and glossy, so I decided, ‘Let’s go the other direction— embrace the eccentric, unexpected things.’”
Snaith is a master at sculpting a sustained vibe through repetition, a hallmark of classic dance music—for reference, look to the blissful house grind of “Never Come Back.” But, Suddenly’s centerpiece thrives on jarring dislocation—lulling you into a false sense of security, before shifting the landscape beneath your feet to send you tumbling. The floating-on-a-cumulus-cloud atmosphere of “New Jade” turns stormier as its R&B vocal samples stutter like a skipping record, darkened by guitar drone and decelerating to a halt. The groovy, fashion runway strut of “Lime” morphs endlessly; its chanted vocals, jazzy saxophone flashes and elastic funk riffs melt into shapes somewhere between the synths and guitars.
The most jarring left turn arrives on “Sunny’s Time”: The track opens with a crystalline piano theme and glitchy electronic beat before shifting midway through with a growling hip-hop sample that is chopped up, processed and manipulated beyond recognition.
“It’s all exploration,” the Canadian-bred, London-based producer says. “I had the piano part and was thinking, ‘This relates to the woozy sounds in contemporary hip-hop and R&B, so let me find some vocal sample from a rapper. I don’t know how I’m going to use it, but let’s try it out.’ I just played tiny little slices, little atoms of it. I was interested in the fact that you could break down [a sample] that much and still maintain the charisma that was there in the original delivery. The voice still has a presence at that molecular level.”
It’s fitting that Snaith values music on an analytical level. In 2005—four years after releasing his debut record, Start Breaking My Heart, under the name Manitoba—he earned a mathematics doctorate from Imperial College London. But Snaith’s music, even at its most synthetic and meticulously arranged, still exudes human warmth—from the psychedelic folk-tronica of his first Caribou record, 2005’s The Milk of Human Kindness, to the more traditionally dance-leaning material he issued under the moniker Daphni. It’s crucial to remember Snaith’s role within the space of Intelligent Dance Music (IDM), a sub-genre of electronica that favors craft and experimentation over tropes.
Snaith’s process is exacting and meticulous—born from the same exuberance he experienced as a teenage musician, when he first combined his love of jazz and prog-rock with the ambient techno that flourished in the U.K. during the 1990s. For Suddenly, which was released in February, the home setup stayed consistent: he’d walk downstairs, spark up a new beat or piano progression and aim to make something new each day. As he freely admits, accumulating over 900 ideas for one album sounds a bit ridiculous, but that freewheeling methodology helped him plot a thematic shape.
“I start from nothing and make something,” he says. “I always love that process. It’s so freeing. I’m not thinking, ‘Does this fit in with what I did yesterday? Is this going to be on an album? Is this in the right genre?’ I’m just enjoying the intuitive process of making something. These days, I have kids, so I work 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., five days a week, for the most part. If you record one or two of those ideas a day, then they start to pile up very rapidly.
“There’s a folder in my iTunes that’s called ‘Songs 2015,’ which gives you an idea of how long this has been going on,” he adds. “It has 900/1,000 Ableton projects in it. I would render those all out. They were completely distinct things, not like ‘Version 2.1’ or whatever. But that’s me and my process. It sounds like an absurd amount of music, but I think that’s part of what allows there to be so many left turns and allows the music to be so diverse. I’m not starting out every morning, trying to find another track for the album. I’m just free to make whatever music comes into my mind. It’s very wasteful and inefficient—it takes me a long time to make an album, and I generate way more ideas than I need. But it does mean that each album can be very different.”
Along the way, he started to stockpile those sonic surprises, like the sampled attack in “Sunny’s Time”—suggesting a radically different tone than the smooth-sailing energy of Our Love. “In the process of making the record, a few of those things started to fall into place and I started to think things like, ‘Whoa, the transition from A to B is a kind of weird,’” he says. “As a producer, you say to yourself, ‘Am I going to smooth this transition out?’ But because of this inkling I had, I was like, ‘No, I’m going to emphasize it. I’m going to make it even more disorienting and sudden.’”
And he found a partner in that search for the startling: Colin Fisher, a multi-instrumentalist friend and former collaborator who colored many of the songs with ornamental layers of electric guitar and saxophone during one wild, three-day blitz.
“I knew, early on, that he’d be a great person to add a lot of unexpected things, and that’s a theme of this album,” Snaith says. “He’s just a remarkable player and listener. He plays improvised music, so he’s really good at responding and is very open to lots of different contexts and genres. The thing that made me call him up is that I heard a Steve Vai-style guitar solo at the end of ‘You and I’ in my head, and I was like, ‘That would be such an unusual but, somehow appropriate, thing to try out.’ I knew he wouldn’t just be coming over to add that, so I picked out a few other places where I could have him improvise little bits and pieces. The album was probably 75-percent done, but I still didn’t have a clear picture of where it was heading. When Steve arrived, he was completely jetlagged. He hadn’t heard any of the music before, and he still ended up recording on six or seven tracks. We went to two music festivals while he was here, and I played at Fabric, this big club, until like 5:00 in the morning. It was a crazy blur, but it was the catalyst for finishing so many tracks.”
Though Suddenly is defined by headphone-friendly ear candy and bold textural contrasts, it’s also perhaps Snaith’s most personal work, reflecting on loss, family and hardships. “Sister” opens the record in an observatory of starlit synth, with Snaith’s soft vocal briefly accompanied by a ghostly sample of his mother singing a lullaby. Closer “Like I Loved You” finds the musician “broken, so tired of crying,” amid buzzing keys. The most striking blast of emotion is the grief that fuels “Magpie,” an electro-pop daydream built on a piano loop that Snaith rescued from his pile of discarded Our Love demos.
“There’s a song on Our Love called ‘Julia Brightly,’” he says. “Julia Brightly was a sound engineer of ours and became a very dear friend of everybody in the band. When we met her, she presented as a man. She started touring with us in 2005, and we had no inkling that she was trans. After years of touring with her presenting as a man—right before the tour for [2010’s] Swim—she said, ‘I’ve got to tell you something. I’m trans. I’ve known this my whole life.’ She was already in her fifties at that point. Imagine dealing with repressing that for so much of your life, feeling scared about expressing that. I found that very moving. We were doing a big eight-week tour of the States and Canada, playing everywhere. She said, ‘I’m going to be transitioning on this tour. I just want to let you know that and make sure you’re comfortable with that.’ In subsequent conversations, she said, ‘I sent a lot of those emails about tours I was doing, and I never heard back from a lot of people.’ There was no way we were going to say, ‘No, sorry,’ but a lot of people did, and that was a real eye-opener for me too. It was such an inspiration to me and such an education.
“I’d never known a trans person in my life,” he continues. “There was a sense of physical danger in a lot of the circumstances we ended up in—like when we’d get out at a truck stop in Kansas and she’s dressing as a woman but is only partially transitioned. It was a deeply moving [situation], and we became very close as a result of that. Many years later, as we were finishing Our Love, a friend told me she was in the hospital and had been diagnosed with a super aggressive form of cancer. She had been on tour with the Knife and, within weeks of her diagnosis, was in the hospital dying. I was there with her in London the night before she died. It was such a tragic, terrible, devastating thing. I named that track on Our Love after her, but that track isn’t about her. I stuck that name on it to memorialize her in some way. This time, I got to properly write a song about her.”
“Magpie” is a hopeful look at modern tolerance, though that optimism is couched in the sad reality of how far there still is to go. “I loved the conversations we had. Growing up in the north of England in the 1960s, the idea of being out as a trans person was just completely incomprehensible. I know it’s still difficult and problematic—it’s still a risk and a physical threat in many circumstances—but the degree to which trans awareness has changed in the five years since her death,” he says, before trailing off. “The song is like a letter to her, saying, ‘I wish you could be here to see how much has changed.’ But, when I think about her being around to see a Trump presidency, I know there would be literal steam coming out of her ears. I’m not a person of faith. I don’t believe I can actually communicate with her, but I just wanted to put that [out there], and somehow write a tribute to her.”
Even musically, Suddenly feels more directly biographical: It’s the first Caribou LP to feature acoustic piano sounds, even if they’re often modulated and stretched like taffy into wobbly pitches. (“There’s an irony there that it’s the instrument I’ve spent the most time in my life playing, but it’s new to my recorded music,” he says.) And though he’s reluctant to pat himself even gently on the back, noting that he’s “not a natural singer,” Snaith—for the first time ever—utilizes his voice on every track. His top-line melodies, wispy and sweet, are now framed with the focus they deserve—and that’s partly because he figured out, tonally and emotionally, the reason he sings like he does.
In fact, according to Snaith, one of Suddenly’s biggest surprises was awaiting within his vocal cords.
“If you’re a really good singer from birth, you open your mouth and it sounds good, and that’s the end of the story,” he says. “That would be your voice because it’s just there, available to you. But I’ve really had to find this. My natural range is way lower than what I’m singing on any of these songs. I recently started taking singing lessons, and it’s the first time I’ve ever done that—because I was embarrassed. Somehow, it’s more embarrassing to sing in front of a singing teacher than it is to sing these same songs in front of an audience every night. We’d go from one song to the next, and [I’m singing] mostly in between my chest voice and my falsetto. And that’s exactly the worst place to sing. But, the melodies I find are almost always in that range.
“I asked my teacher: ‘Why do I keep ending up here?’” he adds. “She said, ‘That’s because of the frailty. The uncertainty is where you hear the most emotion. That’s why people sing in that range— you can hear the vulnerability.’”