Caribou: Where the Circuits Meet the Wood
You’ve got to chuckle when you hear why Dan Snaith goes by the stage name Caribou. Seems that the Canadian electronic musician originally launched his career under the nom de plume Manitoba. Makes good, logical sense, eh? Canada — Manitoba — native son proud to represent . . . Well, all was fine and dandy until Handsome Dick Manitoba of the relatively obscure ’70s rock band the Dictators threatened Snaith with a suit for, uh, “trademark” infringement — and succeeded. Thus Snaith was forced to call himself Caribou. (By extension, Handsome Dick showed commendable restraint in not bringing similar action against the Revolting Cocks.)
Snaith/Manitoba/Caribou’s new album is called Andorra (Merge). It’s the London-based artist’s latest sortie in a series of works that initially traversed evolving fields where what used to be called drony ambient chill-out further isolated itself into IDM-aligned exercises in pure beat, texture and tonality. Along the way, Snaith picked up an acoustic guitar to pluck and ruminate fondly on the best of ’60s and ’70s pop ’n’ psychedelia — and, by some extension, ye olde progressive and even AM classic rock. That evolution, which began to bear tasty fruit on Caribou’s excellent 2005 The Milk of Human Kindness (Domino), brashly incorporates Snaith’s love of complex electronic timbre, wide dynamic range and visceral wham with his rapidly deepening skills at a near-baroque complexity of vocal harmony and instrumental arrangement.
This trend of electronic-based musicians yearning for the warm comfort of traditional pop songcraft is a familiar one in recent times. Yet Snaith’s inspired assemblage Andorra is not just uncommonly well done, it goes considerably beyond the ADS-ish pastiching of pop and “serious music” aesthetics into a resonantly blurry realm where the electronic and acoustic become one and the same, and, best of all, the technology and songcraft sound like they emerged from the same musical womb.
Snaith, who’s got a Ph.D. in mathematics, is a plainspoken and clear-minded musician — though he’s been known to stride the stage wearing a bear mask — whose work seems far more about its process and motivation and ultimate musical results than about any boring old cult-of-personality-type pop-star charisma ego-trip rubbish (which has its place, sure, but . . .).
Snaith’s gloriously wide-screen Andorra was recorded entirely in the bedroom of his London flat, with a motley and minimal collection of instruments and technology. That says a lot about what is genuinely possible for the determined lone wolf to achieve in the seething, high-stakes heart of this biz called rock, and indeed roll. Even Snaith’s discussion of the equipment he uses and deliberately misuses to make his sounds seems crucial, since they’re key to understanding how its DIY aspect is inextricably bound with music’s future creation and public perception.
“I don’t have a very clean recording aesthetic,” he tells me over the phone from London. “I like things to sound a bit sloppy. And when I pile everything up on top of one another, I like the instruments not to sound distinct from one another, to mash together. That helps the sound rather than detracts.”
Now, I’m not one to prattle on and on about the hallowed punk-rockness of musicians nose-thumbing the rules about how to play a guitar or make a record; nevertheless, it strikes me that Snaith’s calculated fuckery of standard studio gear is as much a punky POV as, say, Iggy Pop jabbing himself with a broken beer bottle. It’s an attitude I like, because Snaith obviously is not gonna be bossed around by his equipment or by what it’s intended to do. He’ll go his own way, thanks, come hell or high water, or possible electrocution.
“Yeah, I never really read too much about recording,” he says. “I just don’t know much about recording in the kind of traditional sense, and any equipment I’ve had I’ve just messed around with and said, ‘Oh, I like the way that sounds,’ whether it’s an overdriven guitar going into a little crappy mixer or whatever.”
Andorra’s fab array of sonic delights often evolve so radically within the songs that one might wonder about Snaith’s concept for the set as a whole, i.e., did he in fact have one? Previous albums only hinted at the supremely melodic and memorable effect that he seems capable of so facilely pulling out of his hat on tracks like “Melody Day,” “She’s the One” or “Sundialing.”
“This album starts in a ’60s kind of pop vein and ends up with this eight-minute trance track with no drums,” observes Snaith. “It went off into different directions that I didn’t expect it to, and I didn’t have a map of how the whole album would fit together. But I did for each song. Sometimes I would write a verse, and a lot later — like two months later — I’d write a chorus; by the time I got to sequencing the tracks, I had pretty much an idea of where I wanted things to go.”
During the recording of the album, Snaith had every sound in the universe at his fingertips — well, at least as many as samples as he could fit on his hard drive, plus a few guitars, basses, drums, a Fender Rhodes and two fairly cheapo Russian microphones — but soon enough, the project became as much about musical ideas as about production values.
“It was about writing songs, and melodies and harmonies, and the way countermelodies would sound. That was the thing that everything hung around. It was writing — every track had to be a song, there would be no throwaway tracks. There’s not even a spare second — like if it wasn’t that great, that could be edited out. Get rid of it! I just wanted to densely pack the musical ideas together.”
Caribou is the sound of one lone bloke taking personal responsibility for every note heard on his records. As much of a stretch as it might seem, that’s a phenomenon that links back to all the greatest thinkers of our musical time, up to and including Ornette, Mingus, the Beatles and Beck. Caribou’s music, then, is a metaphorical sound: how an individual persona can perhaps best be revealed via technology.
At any rate, Caribou’s the new boss, not quite the same as the old boss, and his Andorra is a computer-aided, handmade thing of heady beauty. And he did it all by himself.
“The reason I make music is to escape into this kind of world and just mess around and get really excited about the music I’m making and leap around my room in the middle of the night with my music blaring really loud. I want each record to be a step forward for me, something new. It’s whatever gets me excited to conquer some obstacle, to figure out how to do something as well as I possibly can.”
CARIBOU | Andorra | Merge
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