It’s midsummer in Muskoka, Ontario, or, as Canadians affectionately refer to it, cottage country. Two friends, headphones on, sit side by side on the dock, looking out over the lake as family and friends socialise behind them. The friends are Jeremy Greenspan and Dan Snaith. Snaith, the man behind Caribou and Daphni, is listening to new Jessy Lanza music that Greenspan (Junior Boys) has been working on. Jeremy is listening to a new Caribou album, a project that was finished and sent off for mastering just days before the pair arrived in Muskoka for their annual summer holiday.
“You can probably tell I’m a water person,” Dan chuckles as we chat over coffee before this cover shoot on the Walthamstow Wetlands. The wind is bitterly cold today, but Dan is undeterred. By the water — like his yearly retreat to the lakes of Muskoka — is Dan Snaith’s happy place. His landmark 2010 record was called Swim, and the cover of this new project (Suddenly lands on February 28th) is of bright, inviting blue water. In Dan’s words, it’s calm, tranquil, and reflective – an image that represents the music.
It’s been five years since the release of Our Love, a period during which Dan and his family have experienced great change. His family has grown, with the birth of his second daughter, now three. And his family has been struck by loss, with the passing of his brother-in-law. Second single, ‘You and I’ is a tribute, an ode to the relationship between son and mother. In this sense, Suddenly is a diary, reflecting in the record’s tone and lyricism the things that have been happening in Dan’s life, and in the lives of those close to him. It’s a diary told in the most intimate way — with his voice, for Suddenly sees Dan’s vocal at the forefront more than ever before.
The album also chronicles his listening, a diary of discovery, so to speak. For Dan, who considers himself a fan first and music maker second, Suddenly brings together “everything that follows my excitement about the music I’ve been hearing.” Where Swim was informed by London’s bubbling late-night landscape at the time — Theo Parrish in Plastic People, Floating Points, Hessle Audio — Suddenly takes inspiration from a world of woozy, spacious R&B and hip-hop production that’s grown from Drake’s OVO Sound label. On his new record, Dan seeks to strip away familiar rap cadences, leaving behind the “weird, ethereal bits.”
There are plenty of weird, ethereal bits: Suddenly is littered with fuzzy keys, dissonant melodies and affecting string sections. And as we’ve come to expect from all Caribou music, the record glows with a familiar warmth and softness. Even when Dan Snaith is at his most reflective and melancholy, still he wants for optimism and joy. “That’s what music is for me,” he says gratefully, “it’s to get that feeling of release, and euphoria and happiness.”
Dan might find happiness of his own when he’s making music, but he also delivers moments of euphoria for his listeners too — ask anyone who’s experienced a live rendition of ‘Can’t Do Without You’ as the sun dips over a festival site. We anticipate many more of these moments as Caribou set off on their next string of live shows. With crisp, groove-led percussion, soaring synths and catchy riffs, ‘Ravi’ and ‘Never Come Back’ are custom-built for a festival crowd. Look for those slightly-sunburnt faces, belting the words as if their hearts might burst. “It’s always better when I’m with you,” goes the former. “You and I were together/ Even though we both knew better,” goes the latter.
“There’s such potential for me to get lost in the wormhole.”
“Sometimes I’m in the studio and I’m thinking to myself, ‘I can’t wait to play this at a festival,’” Dan says. Whilst he makes Caribou music alone in his basement studio, the band has become one of his favourite things about being a musician. The Caribou live show informs, to a point, what Dan creates in the studio, but he’ll never leave something off a record on the basis it may not work in a live capacity. “I’ve made this deal with myself,” he explains. His method is to produce many (and by many, we mean upwards of 900 for this record alone) thirty-second clips, each representing a potential blueprint for an album track. He ranks the clips in vague order of preference, and then starts to flesh out the ideas, from half a minute to a fully-formed track.
Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, is a crucial part of this process, often, Dan says, rescuing ideas from the bottom of the pile. “There’s such potential for me to get lost in the wormhole,” Dan admits, before jokingly mimicking Kieran’s aghast exclamation of “Dan! Finish this fucking track!” ‘New Jade’, a shimmering cut with wicked drums that speaks of optimism and new beginnings, is one of three or four tracks on the album that Kieran literally saved from the trash. “It’s amazing that we found each other,” Dan says. “He’s like a brother to me.”
Dan Snaith has a PhD in Pure Maths, but he wonders if that gives people a misinformed view of the way his brain works, or indeed the way he makes music. The mathematics we learn in school is logical, methodical, black and white. But beyond school, maths is wildly abstract, a playground of ideas. It’s a way of thinking that’s invisible to most of us, and it’s that kind of mathematician that Dan associates with most. “They’ve got some kind of beautiful, weird thing going on in their heads,” he says.
And speaking of beautiful and weird, Dan has an especially heartwarming story to tell about Colin Fisher, the Canadian multi-instrumentalist and improv-virtuoso who has contributed to Suddenly on guitar and tenor saxophone. Dan affectionately describes him as looking like the Buddha, with a crazy hyena laugh. One weekend in the summer, Colin came to stay with Dan to work on the album, picking up a Turkish flute on a stroll down Stoke Newington High Street. Dan’s eyes light up as he recalls a scene in his garden, Colin playing a flute, one daughter bouncing on the trampoline, and the other running circles in the grass. “It made me so happy, to be making music with this wise, amazing person whose ideas I value so much,” he smiles, “and also just for my kids to have this life, where it’s normal for these wonderful, unusual people to drop into their lives.”
People come into our lives, and they leave our lives too. Sometimes they are taken, and it’s painfully untimely. Such was the case with the late Julia Brightly, who worked with Caribou as their sound engineer for a decade. It’s now been almost six years since Julia passed away, and Dan has written the album cut ‘Magpie’ for her. “So much has changed, so much is new, and now/ And yet there’s still so high to climb,” he sings. Julia grew up vulnerable and isolated in 1950s Britain, later coming out as trans whilst touring with the band. “It was this amazing flowering of her personality,” Dan recalls of her experience. “‘Magpie’ is a letter to Julia, reflecting on how much the world has changed with regards to trans rights and the awareness of trans issues. It would mean so much to her.”
There’s a point in our conversation where Dan refers to himself as a magpie, referring to his tendency to pick up on music from all different times and places. A magpie is extraordinarily intelligent, and, of course, known as a bit of a kleptomaniac with a penchant for shiny things. At first glance, the bird is black and white, but look more closely and the black feathers glow with an almost iridescent hue of purples, blues and greens.
It’s Dan in a nutshell really: collect lots of shiny ideas, methodically arrange them into a list, deliver something luminous.
Suddenly is released on 28th February via Merge/City Slang.
Bristol – April 6th, O2 Academy
London – April 7th, O2 Academy, Brixton
Berlin – August 15th, Spandau Citadel
Photos by Mathew Parri Thomas.