Let's Go Swimming
Caribou's Sweetly Surprising New Dance Record
Much has been written of the cognitive connections between math and music, but ask people to imagine a musician who's also a PhD mathematician, and they'll likely picture a stodgy classicist at a grand piano or a producer/technician who approaches songwriting with charts and graphs and cold analytical precision. In the case of Caribou producer Dan Snaith, a second-generation mathematician with a PhD from Imperial College London, they'd be way off.
"It's not [analytical] at all," he says by phone from a tour stop in Austin. "Mathematics becomes much more imaginative and creative and intuitive at a certain point, which, unfortunately, is after most people's experience with it ends. Those are the things I also like about music—they're both emotional things in the sense that you get some kind of gut, instinctual feeling. I think people's perception of mathematics would be exactly the opposite."
Snaith's music over the years has never sounded particularly cold or calculated. First under the name Manitoba, then—after threat of lawsuit from punk has-been "Handsome Dick" Manitoba—as Caribou, Snaith has made kaleidoscopic, loosely swirling psychedelic pop saturated with emotional color. His compositions incorporate electronic elements, acoustic instruments, and his own soft, tuneful singing into an omnivorous, organic whole. It's intelligent head music that appeals more to your heart than to your brain.
His newest album, Swim, though, marks a decidedly new turn. The wobbly bass line and opening squeal of "Odessa"—a scratchy tremolo that recalls ESG's "UFO" but was actually sampled from an old Bollywood soundtrack—announces the addition of an unexpected new element to Caribou's equation: funk. Snaith executes it surprisingly well. Swim is a darker, dancier record that retains his previous albums' emotional highs while increasingly moving one's hips and feet.
Throughout, Snaith's combination of acoustics and electronics makes for an invitingly warm, immersive take on dance music, animated by his expert application of oddly interlocking rhythmic patterns (perhaps this is the math rearing its head). On "Sun," Snaith chants the song's title as an ascending mantra over steady shaking percussion and warbly, filtered organ. On "Found Out," he sings over heavy distorted tom drums and a pinched, off-kilter 6/4 guitar figure. The extended instrumental of "Bowls" pairs ping-ponging percussive chimes and clatter with subliminal bass hum, muted house piano and woodwind, and an expansive, echoing harp. "Leave House"—whose title might recall American psychedelicists Animal Collective's "Leaf House" or British dance producers the Chemical Brothers' "Leave Home," depending on your approach—fixes Snaith's plaintive falsetto to a cowbell-spiked beat, a spooked atmosphere, and a low yet playful woodwind melody.
It's easy to hear echoes of other artists in Caribou's compound sound, but his idiosyncratic touches keep things from descending into mere pastiche. "Lalibela" breaks from steady hi-hat shushing and backward-slipping synths reminiscent of the Field into a coda of wordless moaning. Album closer "Jamelia," with its noirish, nightclub air and Luke Lalonde of Born Ruffians' androgynous vocals, at first recalls Antony's tracks with Hercules and Love Affair, before opening up into something altogether brighter and untethered.
Snaith, who grew up in small-town Ontario, has lived in London for 10 years, but he says this feels like his first "London record."
"In the past, I'd always thought my music was kind of locationless, in the sense that it could've been made anywhere," he says. "The climate for dance music is really exciting in London at the moment." (He cites London dubsteppers James Blake, Ikonika, and Burial, as well as Theo Parrish's monthly residency at London club Plastic People, as personal highlights.)
As for the record's relatively dark tone, Snaith notes that one song was inspired by a close friend's divorce and that his grandparents passed away while he was making the album. He says, "Right from the start, I liked the idea of making kind of sad dance music, which is by no means a new idea. Lots of music throughout dance-music history has been a combination of euphoria and sadness."
In its juxtaposition of melancholy and body moving, as well as in some of Snaith's vocals and instrumental treatments, Swim evokes some of the recently repopularized work of Arthur Russell, a comparison that Snaith acknowledges.
"The most interesting thing to me about him is that he's this unique character at the crossroads of various different things going on in dance music and New York City at that time," says Snaith. "There's the disco stuff, the avant classical stuff, which I think people know less of perhaps, and then the folk music. And all of these different streams that he connected make him this really interesting character with an interesting place in music. I'd love to inhabit that same kind of space, connecting a bunch of different things."
With Swim, Snaith continues to make serious headway toward securing that sort of legacy, adding an impressive new facet to his already polymath sound. The record's clubby, nocturnal vibe is a sharp contrast from his earlier, more sunshiney and pastoral psych pop, and it's a difference his two area shows—a nighttime club gig at Neumos and a noonday set on Sasquatch!'s main stage at the Gorge—give him a perfect opportunity to tease out.
"The tone of those two shows will be very different," agrees Snaith, who adds that the new record has increased his live band's versatility. "It feels like there are lots of different places we can play. We played in maybe the world's premier techno club, Berghain in Berlin, and it was amazing—it properly felt like we were playing club music. And then we can play a dive bar or a big summery festival and get a different kind of excitement. It seems to work everywhere."