“Can’t Do Without You,” the lead single from Caribou’s latest album, Our Love, is a lovely piece of lo-fi pop masquerading as house music. It’s built from next to nothing – a cooing pair of looped vocals backed by a synth-and-drum circle of music that rises steeply, emotionally. Yet it somehow sounds ready to take on the world, and crush it. By summer’s end, that’s exactly what it was doing. Not long after Pitchfork nominated “Can’t Do With You” for “Best New Music,” a collaborative remix from Berlin duo Tale of Us and Irish disco-house phenom Mano Le Tough fully-established it as a crossover hit, entering Beatport 100’s Top Ten in September, and peaking at #6.
This may not have been how Caribou aka Dan Snaith planned it, but the result seems familiar. Encouraging indie purists to dance to house music and the club kids to engage with live instruments is something the man behind Caribou and the more dancefloor-oriented Daphni has been doing for 15 years. A constant critical favorite, Caribou’s 2010 album, Swim, his fifth, finally struck a commercial nerve and established him as an indie star; while ensuing tours opening for Radiohead, eight hour-long back-to-back DJ sets with the likes of Four Tet and Jamie xx, and house hits as Daphni (especially 2012’s monster, “Ye Ye”), pushed his reputation further, still. The results may continue to surprise some, but the fact that he continues to take his recent success in stride was evident when Beatportal spoke with him recently; Dan Snaith just wants to “make people dance.”
Congratulations on the “smash hit”! Tell me how the track came about. Were you the one who chose Tale of Us and Mano Le Tough to remix “Can’t Do With You”? Did you bring them together?
With this record, I’d actually made a concerted decision not to have lots of remixes. With Swim, I was so excited by lots of young producers, that I was just like, “Hey, nice to meet you. I love your music. Do you want to do a remix?” I choose and approach all those people. This time I thought I’ve got to calm down on the remixing a little bit. And then immediately after “Can’t Do Without You” was released, I got an email from [Tale of Us] directly saying, “We love this song. We want to remix it. Can you please give us the parts so we can make a version to play in our sets all summer?” Which was kind of the intention. I wanted the song to have that kind of life – I imagine DJs playing it at festivals. I was excited by the idea, and I liked their music. It just seemed such a natural genuine way for things to come about. Like, I could feel their excitement about it. I didn’t know Mano Le Tough was going to be involved. The collaboration came from them. There wasn’t even really a plan to necessarily release [the remix], but they sent it back and it was fantastic, so we did. The whole process was natural and lovely.
How do you know when a piece of music is done? There was an interview with Richard D. James recently about the new Aphex Twin record. He said something along the lines of “it’s done when I’m sick and tired of it.”
Oh, right, right. That’s a very Aphex answer, isn’t? It couldn’t be much more different for me. For example, the Daphni stuff, [those tracks] were done the first time I had a six-minute-long version. I never went back to them. I never changed them. It was just like, here’s a raw jam and that’s it. It’s either done or it’s going in the garbage. So it better be done.
Caribou tracks sit and sit and sit. I might write the verse and then write the chorus six months later. They evolve so, so slowly. It’s partly about that time of them sitting there and then coming back to them with fresh ears and being able to hear them. It’s also kind of about being annoyed; when nothing jumps out and says, ugh, that’s wrong, that’s when things are finished I guess. Or when there’s no niggling sense ¬– just when it feels right. The first time that I listen to [Caribou songs] and it feels right, that’s when it’s done.
Does that mean that by its very nature a Caribou album will always take longer to produce than a Daphni album?
I think so. The Daphni record was so easy and quick to make that I thought maybe this will happen every time from now on. No. There’s just so much more breadth with Caribou. There’s compositional stuff, and all kinds of vocals obviously, and wanting to pack more song structure in there. The songs are soaking in all the stuff from my life, whether it’s lyrically or less literally and more metaphorically in the sound of the record. Getting a sense of where my life is at, how that should be absorbed into the music, that takes time for me. That’s why it’s important [the songs] sit there and accumulate a sense of being lived with, or lived in, or whatever.
You are famous for doing these mega-long DJ sets, either solo or as a tag-team. How does one prepare for eight-hour DJ set?
I find them easier to prepare for than one-hour sets. If you’re playing at a festival stage for one hour, in between two other DJs who are trying to fucking bang it out as hard as they can, there’s this intense pressure. You’ve only got this restricted range of music you can play. Whereas, in an eight or nine-hour DJ set, you’ve got the club all night – [laughing] because if they’ve given me the club all night, it’s going to be a smaller room – there’s a sense that you can play whatever you want. So you bring a bunch of music and you do it on the fly – and it just happens. You get to build it up and then break it right down. At peak time play like a dub record or play something that starts everything over again because presumably nobody’s going anywhere. There’s not another stage next door for them to check out. I love those. Those are my favorite gigs to do. Actually, I think after this Caribou touring cycle – during which I’m not going to do much DJing – I want to book exactly those shows, go back to all my favorite little clubs, play all night, do that again. I’ve been doing more festival slots recently, which definitely can be great in a different way. But it’s not why I got into DJing, you know, sharing all the music that I love. You don’t get to do that as much when you’ve got 90 minutes.
Doing those types of DJ sets gives you some time to get weird. Tell me about a record you like to play or a vibe you like to invoke. What’s your favorite leftfield turn in a DJ set?
I mean, my favorite DJs are the ones that are going to surprise you. And that was one thing I learned early on about DJing: if you’ve got your head down and you’re focusing on all the mixes to be seamless, and then two hours later everybody’s like, “I haven’t noticed any transition, it’s just been too monotonous.” And those moments when you just play something totally unexpected – like a Kraftwerk record or any record you play at the beginning or end of the night – those are big moments. Like play a Shuggie Otis record, or Albert Ayler’s “Love Cry” is one of my favorite random ones that I throw in there. A Nina Simone track, especially something with lots of live instrumentation, that’s wonderful. If you’ve been building the set up with lots of programmed stuff, it’s great to play something that changes the pallet completely, like a Dorothy Ashby record.
The big realization while making Swim was that people from the outside world, who aren’t involved in dance music, think of it as being this very constricting, constrained genre where you have to conform. That it has to be functional in these ways. But my take on it is actually, that’s not it at all. The intent is to make people dance. But that’s kind of like the train tracks, or the framework underneath everything. And as long as you satisfy that [framework], then you can go much further afield than you can if you’re a band with two guitars and a drummer. You can have any sounds you want, any kind of palette, any kind of tempo, and it’s much more freeing. That applies to the senses as well. As long as you keep in mind that there are people dancing to this, and staying in that same frame of mind. For me, that’s easy because I get so excited DJing that I’m dancing along in the booth. Then you can kind of intuit when to take those big left turns that can be those moments when everybody’s like, “YES! What the fuck is going on? This is crazy!”
Caribou’s Our Love is in stores now.