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Home / Articles / Music / Music feature /  Learning to breathe
. . . .
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Learning to breathe

The man behind Caribou just wants to get his feet wet

By AnnaMaria Stephens

Making waves: Dan Snaith. Photo by Jason Evans.

Before you picture him in a pair of water wings, Dan Snaith, the man behind the band Caribou, would like to clear something up. Though Snaith’s latest album is called Swim, and the circulating backstory is that he learned to swim while recording it, he wasn’t completely inept in the water.

“It’s not like I was hydrophobic,” says Snaith, a Canadian expat who lives in London. “We even had a pool in my backyard growing up. I could get from one end to the other in a very clumsy fashion.”

Then his wife gave him swimming lessons as a gift, and he learned the proper strokes and breathing techniques. Snaith, who holes up like a hermit when working on new material, is now hooked on laps.

“It’s this very serene state underwater,” he explains. “Everything feels very ethereal, and you’re doing this hypnotic, repetitive activity. I get in a trance and I can think of other things, get some perspective, let my ideas percolate.”

The real impetus behind Swim, a follow-up to 2007’s Andorra—an album that garnered Snaith Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize—came before any chlorine-soaked epiphanies, however. “Niobe,” the last track on Andorra, was lingering in Snaith’s mind.

“The way it hit me was that it really breathed—there’s a sense of inhaling and exhaling, and it has a really nice movement to it. When I listened back on that, I thought that there were so many possibilities of which way to push that sound, and push that idea of fluidity, and the effective feeling of music washing back and forth, one place to another in the mix.”

Where Andorra is a swirling, folksy, electronica-laced romp through sunny ’60s psych-pop—a departure from Snaith’s early IDM-ish work, originally under the moniker Manitoba—Swim goes decidedly darker and dancier. Opening single “Odessa,” with its squelchy bass line and tricked-out effects, seems like something you’d hear on a very discerning dance floor.

Turns out, when Snaith isn’t swimming or composing music, he’s hanging out in clubs. “One of the things I like about London is that it’s easy to fly to Berlin or Paris or wherever and DJ in various cities.”

This particular DJ, by the way, is the furthest thing from a dilettante jetsetter—he originally moved to London to get his doctorate degree in mathematics. His favorite spot closer to home is London’s Plastic People, a tiny club where the “cosmic disco” crowd gathers. According to Snaith, it’s pitch black with an unbelievable sound system.

“The idea is making audiophile music, meant to be played at loud volume, and thinking about what the different frequencies do physically to people, and making it propulsive as dance music.”

In other words, throw out your headphones and resign yourself to a hearing aid someday. “A space gives you the feeling that you can move around in the field of sound,” Snaith says.

Swim’s sonic might wasn’t achieved with DIY mixing, like previous endeavors. Instead, Snaith used the $20,000 he received with the Polaris Prize to hire pros, including Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys, a good friend, and Welsh engineer David Wrench. He also brought on guest collaborators—Born Ruffians’ Luke Lalonde and a free-jazz quartet from Toronto.

And although Snaith’s interests and influences have been scattershot since he started recording in the early 2000s, he says Swim is the most “him” album to date.

“I’m an obsessed music fan, so it’s really exciting for me to get caught up in some record from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s,” he explains. “I think, Wow, that’s an amazing sound, how did they do that? Can I get that same sound? It’s not like any of my records were intended to be homages, but they knowingly reference different musical genres and ideas.

“This time around, I felt that the most important thing for me to do was to push the idea of creating my own sound, my own vocabulary of musical ideas, to make it harder for anyone to describe as anything other than, ‘Oh yeah, this sounds like Caribou.’”   

Caribou plays with Toro Y Moi on Thursday, May 20, at The Casbah.