Caribou plays the sentimental DJ

Photo by Thomas Neukum

Accessibility is a tough art to master.

Writing music with universal appeal can come off as pandering, or be outright bland. But Dan Snaith doesn’t rely on cliché to reach the masses, even if his latest Caribou LP is all about love. The love he’s singing about is complex and human, not some pre-packaged romance.

Our Love is an exercise in Snaith getting outside his own head, sharing his most personal music to date with his voice no longer heavily manipulated or buried under samples.

“I think it is a confidence thing,” says Snaith. “The consideration of ego is to say ‘let’s put in as many things as possible to kind of prove to people that this music has enough going on to justify its existence.”

Snaith’s latest is brimming with confidence while at his most vulnerable, managing to create a sense of space on Our Love that before had always escaped him. He’s shaken the insecurity of people hearing him singing, a byproduct of playing hundreds of shows since the release of his last LP Swim, including a tour with Radiohead.

But Snaith says there’s always a bit of doubt whether he can do it again, despite the mounting acclaim over the course of his last three Caribou releases.

“It hasn’t really made it easier. I still put in long, long hours making loads of tracks that don’t get used, trying to figure out something new and exciting that could form the basis of the sound of this record,” he says.

“One thing that confidence and experience helps with is I kind of know I just need to keep working and something will happen.”

Though he’s been based in London for the past decade, the Dundas, ON native invited two fellow Canadians to collaborate on Our Love. Owen Pallett’s violin can be heard on “Silver”, and Jessy Lanza is featured heavily on “Second Chance”. But their impact on the record expands beyond that, Snaith sending them (along with his friend Kieran Hebden, better known as Four Tet) early demos to get their input.

“A big part of what made the record so special is their input, when I hear those songs I’ll always remember them,” Snaith says.

“I just rely on that so much. When I make something and let it sit for a month I can be objective, but the day after, the week after, I don’t have that distance to judge it. Especially with Owen and Jesse, they’re coming at the music from a complementary but different angle.”

Dan first collaborated with Owen under Snaith’s club moniker Daphni. They were both in Toronto at the time and Dan proposed the two try and make some dance music.

“I said, let’s just book a studio and see what happens. And we had so much fun. We got in there and I was just hitting buttons and jamming away on things, and he was getting out a piece of paper and writing everything out on a score,” he says.

Snaith, who completed conservatory piano himself, says it’s more than Owen’s training that makes him such a great musician, capable of bridging gaps between the classical world and the pop or dance music worlds.

“He has a different way of picturing what’s going on,” says Snaith. “There are plenty of people with classical training but Owen’s one-of-a-kind. His take on music is very, idiosyncratically, his own.”

With Caribou growing out of home recording experiments for the past 14 years, on Our Love Snaith is at his most intimate, singing about his own experiences and those of his close friends.

He’s pulling from what he says have been the happiest years of his life, while also having friends go through divorces and losing friends from his and his parents’ generation. “Julia Brightly” is named after his friend and sound engineer who passed away in May.

On this record Snaith builds an appropriate space for this kind of soul-baring. The record is largely warm, soft and pulling from one of the most sensitive musical styles — R&B.

“The first thing that was aesthetically exciting for me was the production sounds in contemporary R&B. Glassy, synthesized things where everything is very manufactured and glossy [...] with a synthetic frame for a human voice,” says Snaith. “I thought the record would be much more in that way.”

But on the most tender moments of Our Love, like the slow crescendo “Back Home” and album closer “Your Love Will Set You Free”, it’s the classics that come to mind — albeit with a digital palette. Playing Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye records for his daughter crept into his writing in an unexpected way.

“Those records were doing what I wanted this record to do, which is to be warm and generous, to share my personal life," he says. "Those records are the epitome of that, feeling the presence of the person who made the record in the room when you listen to it.”

“Mars”, the closest thing to a typical club song on the record, is the outlier. Originally written a couple days ahead of a Boiler Room set he did with Jamie xx in 2011, there was something about the track that made him want to keep it off his Daphni debut Jiaolong. The treat of being able to hear its propulsive, syncopated drum line played by a live band is reason enough.

DJ-ing gave him a chance to completely base his set off the audience, picking songs as he goes, being a part of the crowd while dictating the soundtrack. It’s the polar opposite of what he does live with Caribou, where he’s an avid multitasker — especially since touring with the more electronic-based, pop-take on Ricardo Villabos Swim LP.

“There are some points in songs when we’re playing live when I can’t pay attention at all to what’s going on in the audience, there’s so much going on [onstage],” he laughs. “I have to be making eye contact with Brad [Weber] who’s playing drums, and John [Schmersal] who’s playing bass and Ryan [Smith], stepping on this, pushing this button, singing, making sure the timing is right.”

Since the release of Swim in 2010, they’ve been playing more dance music festivals too, where they’re the only act hauling guitars onstage. With two hybrid drum kits and a bunch of other tools, they’re able to turn Snaith’s layered studio compositions into something that can only be experienced at his shows.

They change things on the fly, grouped close together no matter how big the stage as images are projected onto their white t-shirts. What they’re able to accomplish live is a testament of how well they know each other musically. Dan has been playing with Ryan since they were 13 years old, with Brad since 2007, and John since 2009.

Having finished Our Love in April, Dan says the last few months have been filled with eager anticipation, waiting for the world to hear the record he made for us. And with the glowing reviews piling up, he has nothing to worry about as far as public opinion is concerned.

“That moment when it’s coming out and you’re just starting to do shows you get this instinctual read of how they like the music, whether they need some time to absorb it, it’s a really exciting time,” he says.

“It’s kind of a fulfillment moment of all those things that you’ve been working on for the last four years.”

Caribou plays Metropolis November 10 with Jessy Lanza.