Culture | Dan Snaith: straight outta Dundas, Ontario

Caribou’s mastermind creates his own musical scene from his bedroom

Trendsetting magazines and web sites have always looked for indie music’s new “it” spots, from L.A. to New York, and Montreal to Baltimore. Chances are, though, not even the most intrepid Pitchfork scribe would ever make it to Dundas, Ontario. The 10,000 person county outside of Hamilton is no musical hotbed, but it is where Caribou frontman Dan Snaith spent his formative years.

As a teenager craving creative stimulation in a hippie town where Nirvana’s popularity in high school paled in comparison to the Grateful Dead, Snaith quickly adopted an “anything goes” approach to discovering bands. “We were obsessed with finding out about other weird music,” he explains, “and it didn’t matter whether it was a Dennis Wilson record or techno from the UK going around at that time.”

While previous releases followed a more loop-based, repetitive approach, Snaith admits diving into full-fledged pop territory on his new record, Andorra. “I consciously set out to write all the songs on this album in advance before I started recording, which is unusual for me,” he notes; writing and recording “usually just happen at the same time.” This time around, Snaith tried to “condense [his] ideas as much as possible to fit things into short pop songs and squeeze out all the excess.”

Ultimately, Andorra’s songs still can’t help but spill over the sides of their immaculate pop mould, but they come out all the better for it. Sunny melodies shift in and out of psychedelic freak-outs, as Snaith swaps instruments and his band alternates between chiming vocals, textural, swirling guitar, and frantic two-person drum solos.

Perhaps it’s this gotta-play-everything restlessness that makes Caribou’s most recent record so engaging. Snaith packs wide-ranging ideas into his songs, excitedly sharing his broad musical interests in five-minute sonic bursts. It’s refreshing respite from the armies of indie-rock soundalikes who promise they just want to make you dance.

No need to get carried away over originality, though: Snaith’s inspirations are clear, too, from the Beach Boys to NEU!. Still, the unlikely musical pairings made by such a voracious listener suggest progression and synthesis rather than uninventive copycatting: he tosses around influences as diverse as obscure no-wave and decades-old progressive rock. Instead of falling into a lull of ho-hum candy-coated melody, the songs trip into mesmerizing kraut-rock drones and blast off with commanding energy.

Inspired by the physicality of groups like noise duo Lightning Bolt and Japan’s legitimately-crazy Boredoms, Snaith – who writes and records all of Caribou’s songs alone in his bedroom – reworks his material with a full band before touring, explicitly keeping their live show in mind.

Snaith sees himself as a musician rather than lyricist, investing most of his songs’ feeling in sound rather than words. “It’s all about coming up with melody and harmony that have some kind of emotional connection,” he says, then adding lyrics to reflect the song’s feeling, whether it’s euphoria or melancholy. Snaith may be reluctant to couple his tunes with confessional lyrical outpourings – “[It’s not] me sitting down and writing down my life story and fitting music around it,” he explains – but his eclectic musical tastes keep Caribou songs comfortably removed from superficial party pop.

Still, with their winsome melodies, Caribou songs tend to be perceived as overtly happy – a fact that puzzles Snaith. “Inevitably, in the process of recording an album for a whole year, I was in every single possible mood at some point,” he says. “My music tends to be more optimistic than it is pessimistic, but there are some songs [on Andorra] that are more melancholy…. It’s not like I’m happy for the entire year!” he exclaims. It’s clear that Snaith is generally unwilling to limit Caribou’s sound to one category – understandably so, seeing as since 2001, his albums have run the gamut from ambient electronic to psychedelic pop.

With its carefully-crafted harmonies, Andorra sees Caribou at their most melodic yet. Snaith admits he picked the remote principality nestled between France and Spain as an album title because it “seemed like a good physical home” for the “overtly emotional, romantic and lush sounding world” he was imagining. Ironically, after naming the album, he travelled to Andorra for the first time, finding it “all tacky souvenirs and crappy ski chalets for Europe’s rich bureaucrats” rather than the mountainous paradise envisioned.

While he may draw inspiration from the romantic promise of far-off lands, Snaith’s work retains the unshakeable influence of his native country. “I was really aware when I started recording music that I was some dude in a bedroom and had grown up in rural Ontario, the middle of nowhere,” he explains, from his London, England apartment. “There’s a sense of Canadianess, of remoteness and ruralness, rather than being another DJ from London or New York.”

“I’m kind of glad that I’ve never really been part of a scene,” he adds, “I’ve just been left alone to do my own thing.”

With an ear that loves Nelly just as much as noise-punk and the energy to last a marathon three-month tour, we can be glad Snaith has emerged from his bedroom once again.

Caribou plays with Fuck Buttons on Sunday March 23 at La Tulipe (4530 Papineau). Tickets are $18. Visit caribou.fm for more information.


Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.