Modular Love: Daphni & Caribou’s Dan Snaith Interviewed

With Daphni's Jiaolong, Caribou's Dan Snaith has completed a transformation from electronic pop auteur to full-blown dancefloor fiend. He speaks to Rory Gibb about real world textures, mathematics and music

Dan Snaith is sitting on the pale stone steps of a giant monument somewhere near the centre of Stoke Newington cemetery. It might be a warm early autumn day, with the sun beaming down through the trees, but nonetheless it’s a peculiarly sepulchral location to be discussing his debut full-length as Daphni, Jiaolong. With it, Snaith has taken a dramatic step further along the same trajectory his music was traveling with 2010’s career-best Caribou album Swim, which realigned the delicate motorik pop and glimmering electronica of his earlier work into a series of deceptively ravey, zero-gravity club tracks.

Jiaolong was released last month. It collates material from a series of 12"s, released through Snaith’s own label of the same name over the last year, as well as adding a few extra, as-yet-unreleased tracks. With it he’s largely abandoned the intricate and obsessively detailed sound of Caribou in favour of rough-crafted collages of samples and modular synth, all chopped together swiftly in his studio at home to provide fuel for his DJ sets. The latter instrument, a relatively new acquisition for Snaith, is an all-pervasive presence on the album: great, fat, rubbery basslines twist and warp in helical patterns through the superstructure of highlights ‘Jiao’ and ‘Ye Ye’, and a chorus of high-pitched electronic interference screams through the syncopated snare-clap rhythms of ‘Light’. Meanwhile, around the synth’s melodic frameworks hang loose assemblies of samples that touch on musics from around the work: soul, funk, disco, African pop and more.

"Before Swim came out I was starting to DJ," says Snaith of the growing interest in producing pure club music that led to Jiaolong, "but then there was much more interest once it had come out, I was playing in all these clubs and having these amazing nights. Because it was so fresh and so new, I think that was part of what spurred me on to make the music on the Daphni album as well. Just seeing this exciting new thing I could have a different take on and a different way in."

You had gradually shifted into more dancey stuff with Caribou – was that a conscious thing, or was that something that gradually worked its way into your music as you were going? Rhythm always seems to have been a big part of what you’ve been doing with Caribou – not necessarily so explicitly clubby though.

DS: I’ve always listened to dance music a lot, and I’ve always been interested in it. In fact, the first Manitoba record I made was more explicitly interested in two-steppy garage and that sort of thing. It went out of the records for a few years before Swim.

I guess there were a couple of things. At the beginning of working on [Swim], the Junior Boys and I had just played at the Barbican with Liquid Liquid, and we went down to Plastic People afterwards and Theo Parrish was doing his residency there. I think that was the first night I saw him play there, and he was just playing some of the weirdest music, stuff that you wouldn’t think would make people want to dance, but people were losing their minds to the same weird repetitive loop over and over. Definitely that was kind of the starting point of wanting to make an album that worked in that kind of way. I think I made ‘Bowls’ in the next couple of days after that experience.

I guess even when I was making Swim I was conscious that there was music that was going to be sort of ‘Caribou-esuqe’ in some way, and then there was stuff that needed another outlet. So I was already thinking about Daphni. [It] didn’t have a name or releases, but that was the idea already then. Since then it’s become two distinct things.

What I find interesting with the Daphni stuff is the fact that you’ve got this really great balance of organic sound and very electronic, synthesised sound, and a lot of the time those two poles aren’t necessarily balanced very well in dance music. Was there a lot of that coming from Caribou, the feeling of live sound?

DS: I think so. I’ve always loved that, and I’ve always loved that in a lot of the dance music that I love. There’s some completely synthesised dance music that just gets it so perfectly that it’s exciting, but often my favourite people are people like Theo Parrish and Floating Points that are blending some kind of synthesis [with more sample-based material].

The Daphni stuff for me really is a collision between something that sounds very organic, and this modular synthesiser. So I’ll get an organic loop sound repeating and then I’ll just smack some big synthesised bassline or acidy part up next to it. That kind of collision has always been exciting for me, and it also reminds me of my DJ sets, where I’ll often be playing an old record and then a new record right next to it, and you get that collision of two different sounds.

I was recently reading David Toop’s book Haunted Weather – which explores some of the effects of digital sound on music and sound art – and he was saying that one of the main things that putting sound entirely into the digital domain does it that it sucks the air out of it. With stuff that’s been recorded in real space you can feel the music breathing, for example. That’s one thing that marks out this stuff and Kieran’s newer Four Tet stuff, you can feel real space in it rather than just synthesised space.

DS: That’s definitely something I’ve always liked. Because of that, and because of just the nature of acoustic instruments – and by acoustic I also mean electric guitars, things that are amplified acoustic instruments as well – there’s so much texture, you know, you can get so much complexity just from sampling a small piece of acoustically recorded sound, as compared to trying to generate it entirely. It’s kind of an interesting aim in itself, through the whole history of electronic instruments that try to recreate – ‘Oh we’re going to make a bassoon sound!’ – and obviously it totally fails.

They never sound anything like it.

DS: It just sounds so simple compared to the [real thing]. That’s interesting in its own right, obviously, but there’s so much richness. You just turn on a microphone anywhere in the world, you get an incredibly rich thing that’s hard to replicate digitally, or electronically.

Do you find it quite intuitive, personally, working the organic and the electronic together? On general evidence it can actually be quite a difficult balance to strike in dance music, you know – if it’s over cluttered or over ‘real world’-ish, it can strip it of some of what it’s about.

DS: Each of the tracks on the record was made in a day. And it was usually like a Friday afternoon and I’d be DJing that night, or Saturday afternoon and I’d be DJing that night. It’s really tactile music. That’s the good thing about the modular synthesiser, it’s entirely tactile, you’re turning physical knobs and you get some completely different sound, and so it’s really fast. I worked really fast, I didn’t revisit the tracks, whereas Caribou tracks I agonise over forever and think ‘Oh, there’s not enough harmonic movement here, there should be bridge that goes into this’. These were just like [claps hands], bang them out, and really physically get to grips with the music and make it that way, rather than sitting there with a mouse.

Is that tactile aspect quite important to you?

DS: For this stuff, yeah, it really is. Whereas with Caribou stuff, that’s a real distinction for me, I’m very meticulous and spend hours editing little bits and pieces. But here it’s about just capturing that… I just like that idea, I think it’s something that I’ve always wanted to add into my music, the idea of capturing some moment that you’re recording with. And funnily enough, the music that I’m making that sounds the least ‘live’ to peoples’ ears – you know, dance music isn’t associated with being live – is the most spontaneous music that I’ve made.

There is that live jammed aspect to it. It’s people like Jamal Moss, this sense that you capture a certain energy that’s happening this second, right now, and wouldn’t happen if you were to re-rub it to the point where it loses that.

DS: Yeah. I think that’s important for me both with dance music production and also the DJs that I like. If you’re in a club – either through the tracks or the way that they’re mixing them – you get the sense that there’s something genuinely happening and there’s an element of surprise. That’s the most important thing for me in a club – somebody plays a track that totally blindsides you, or an instrument just comes in out of nowhere, just to get out of the [purely] functional…

Is that something you strive to achieve with your own DJing? Do you have a particular idea in you head of what sort of feeling you want to get from it?

DS: I think the key is that I don’t have an idea in my head. When I go to a club I have no idea what tracks I’m going to play. I bring a bunch of music and then, it’s kind of… It’s funny actually, having done all these live shows over the years, I’ve become confident enough that I don’t get nervous before shows, because I know that if something goes wrong we’ll just figure it out. That’s exciting and fun, and the shows are almost better when we rehearse less for them, becuase we have this sense of tension. But then DJ sets I start getting really nervous for – the first few big ones I did I thought ‘Things could go horribly wrong here, I haven’t planned this at all’.

You completed a PhD in Maths in the past, and I’ve been intrigued to ask this: does making music hit similar buttons in your brain as doing maths and science, those sort of fitting together and devising processes?

DS: Yeah, the fitting together-ness, that’s the key. I think people have misconceptions about mathematical research, and pure research is a lot of fumbling around with these… You’ve got some abstract concepts that are being defined in some way and you’re trying to piece them together. But a large part of the process for me, anyway, was not being able to picture what was going on perfectly. If you could really see clearly what was going on, you’d see that they fit together nicely in this way, or whatever, and you could prove some theorem about how things connect with one another. But most of the time, you feel like you’ve got a handle on this little bit and that little bit, but you can’t quite see how everything works. And then there’s that moment where you figure out – ‘Oh, wait!’

You figure something out, and everything clicks together.

DS: Yeah, and in mathematics things really do go [clicks fingers]. If something fits together, it really fits together. So in music it’s similar, you have an intuition. I guess that’s the other big part of mathematics – that there are people, like my PhD supervisor, when he set me the problems to work on, he would have known just from his intuition, ‘I know this is going to work, if I sit down for two days I could write it all out’. Because he has such a better understanding, and with that comes an intuition about how things are going to work, [where] for me as a first year PhD student it took a lot of figuring out. It comes from experience.

So it’s the same thing with music: if you have a sense that this melody you’ve written would work really well with some counter melody or some rhythmic thing, you spend some time getting it, and it’s not quite right. But then when you get that same sense after you’ve been fumbling around, when things do work together, two ideas sit together really well, you get this sense of excitement.

I guess with both things – the exciting thing about music, the reason why I’m more enthusiastic about music than ever, and always getting more and more excited about it, is that it’s not like ‘Ok, now I understand everything and it’s just a question of writing it all down’. It’s always opaque, and it’s always fuzzy how it’s going to work, and it’s always a sense of discovery trying to put things together.

And I guess when you do find something, it’s that buzz that carries you onto the next thing, I suppose.

DS: After making the first album or something, a long while ago – or even the first couple of tracks – I’d get this ‘Is this ever going to happen again? Is that just a fluke that it worked out in a way that I like?’ There were definitely times when it would be depressing, sitting there and thinking ‘Nothing here is working the way it did last week.’ And now I just have the experience to be like ‘It’ll happen again, I just have to keep working at it’.

The samples on the Daphni record in particular have a really wide geographic range to them – you seem to be drawing from so many different places, there’s fragments of African music, and then the name of the label in Chinese, and then soul, and what have you. Did you consciously want to draw aspects from all areas into the record?

DS: It’s always been the case that people – Soul Jazz, Sounds of the Universe – have been reissuing amazing music from diverse parts of the world, but with the decline of record sales in general [and] the rise of real niche markets in things, I look at the records that are being resisued these days and I literally can’t believe it. Here’s ‘We’re going to reissue a record of some guy in Morocco playing a one-stringed lute for an hour’, and this is going to be on the front page of Boomkat. Because those were the kind of records I was looking for [in the past]. And not only are they being reissued, but they’re also being uploaded onto peoples’ blogs or whatever.

And people seem to have been really loving them. Honest Jon’s and Soundway have both been doing really well with reissuing some amazing stuff.

DS: Yeah, but not only… Honest Jon’s the shop, for example, is stocking things from tiny, tiny labels. So I think the excitement just carries over from that, from the fact that I’m hearing so much music that I – and probably most people – wouldn’t have heard, and because it’s exciting and new, and because it’s a musical context we haven’t been introduced to before. Maybe we had reissues from Brazil and American music of the past, but now people are really going everywhere, which is exciting.

I guess as well the one other thing that binds the album together is that big bass sound you’ve got on there, the modular synth.

DS: Yeah. It is almost a dialogue between me and this instrument a lot of the time, there’s me cooking up the samples, but then there’s totally unexpected things on the record. There’s a track called ‘Light’, and there’s a little blippy acid line and then there’s a harmony that comes into it that’s kind of this weird dissonant thing, this parallel harmony, that I never would have written.

So have you gone back and listened and thought ‘Wow… Did I record that?’

DS: Yeah, a lot of the time I’ll just be recording tons of stuff and hitting a dial will kind of pitch it out somewhere that I never would have thought of, or change the quality of the sound in some way. That has had a big input – just the unpredictability of it. And I don’t know if you’ve seen those instruments [modular synthesisers], but it’s impossible to reproduce anything on them. You have to get every dial at the exact [same point]. Maybe it won’t be so useful on a Caribou record, but for a record like this where there’s no presets – where you can recall something – you really have to commit to saying ‘This is how it’s going to sound’. I’m going to hit record and I’m not going to come back and do it again because it would be totally different next time.

Is it quite a recent acquisition?

DS: I actually intended to start putting one together – because you buy them in little pieces – for Swim, but then the case that holds all the pieces together and powers them all took so long that I was already done with the record by the time it arrived. So really this is the first body of work I’ve made using it.

Was it interesting seeing effect that bass sound has on a dancefloor? There’s something amazingly kinetic about it, a real forward drive.

DS: Yeah, definitely. I mean, sometimes I think it would be a lot of fun to – actually I talked with Sam [Shepherd] Floating Points about this, because he has an amazing modular synthesiser too – have a club night where people bring down their modular synths. [laughs]

We did the Caribou Vibration Ensemble thing at ATP last year, which was like a big 11-piece band version of it. And a big part of that was we had James Holden with all his modular synthesisers onstage connected to the drum kit, so hitting drums would trigger things happening on his synthesisers, et cetera. And I have so much respect for him for doing that, because first of all he never performs live, he’s being flung into a band where he’s playing with live musicians, which is something he never does – and also he’s playing the most unreliable, unpredictable piece of equipment you can imagine. But it was amazing for that reason, because something totally different happened every time we played a track.

I guess it must be really nice listening back over the Daphni record now, and thinking ‘Actually, I couldn’t replicate these again.’

DS: Yeah, it’s definitely a nice idea. The whole thing feels so immediate that that’s not the point for me, getting a bunch of remixes done or revisiting it, or trying to attain some ideal version of the songs. No, they’re just a document of what happened when I turned everything on that day!

This is the full version of an interview originally published in The Stool Pigeon in October 2012.

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