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Caribou’s Dan Snaith on Daphni, Radiohead, and the “EDM Barfsplosion”

Caribou's Dan Snaith photographed by Nitasha Kapoor

Last time Dan Snaith took on a new alias, it was because of a lawsuit — here’s looking at the Dictators’ Dick Manitoba, a man who truly lives up to his given name — but there wasn’t any real, categorical shift between Manitoba and Caribou. Snaith’s latest project, Daphni, however, strays from Caribou’s lush, psychedelic avant-pop towards a leaner and more club-oriented sound, one that harnesses erratic synthesizer squelch and elements of funk and Afrobeat around stripped-down machine grooves.

Snaith has never been a stranger to dance music, but he has spent the last couple of years reinforcing his club bona fides in earnest. His breakthrough, early in 2011, was a Caribou remix of Virgo Four’s “It’s a Crime,” which reworked a lost Chicago house cut from the 1980s into one of the most bewitching club anthems in recent memory. (It proved an unlikely hit, too, placing at No. 20 in Beatport’s list of the year’s most charted tracks and No. 13 in Resident Advisor‘s poll of the year’s best tracks.) Remixes for Hot Chip, Carl Craig, Art Department, and Sinkane, all released under his Daphni alias, further cemented his off-kilter (yet still, somehow, populist) approach, while Daphni’s “Ye Ye,” released on Four Tet’s Text Records, proved him capable of unabashedly huge techno bangers. On the vinyl-only Resista label, he turned his hand to re-edits of songs by Thomas Mapfumo and an obscure Togolese band called Cos-Ber-Zam. And amidst this general flurry of activity, Snaith also launched his own label, Jiaolong, on which he released idiosyncratic club music by Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan and Chaz Bundick’s Les Sins (a.k.a. Toro y Moi) alongside oddities like Daphni remixes of Cleveland’s Emeralds.

This week, he releases his first album under the Daphni moniker, Jiaolong (Merge), gathering together a handful of previously released cuts along with new material. None of it, he says, was made with the intention of creating an album; most of the songs began simply as edits and oddities to spice up his own DJ sets. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkably cohesive LP, firmly establishing Snaith as one of dance music’s most innovative (and idiosyncratic) voices.

I spoke to Snaith via Skype video chat in his London studio; he talked about the genesis of Daphni, his back-to-back DJ sets with Four Tet, Caribou’s tour with Radiohead, and the absurdity of America’s current “EDM barfsplosion.”

People talk about Daphni as though you were a recent convert to dance music, but you were making pretty “proper” 2-step way back in 2003, with “If Assholes Could Fly, This Place Would Be an Airport.” You’re not new to dance music.
No, definitely not. With that track and even my first album, the Manitoba album, I was listening to so much 2-step garage around that time. Even before I moved to London, I was coming over to visit a lot and buying records from Blackmarket every time I was in town. Jeremy [Greenspan] from Junior Boys was the first person that played me Dem 2 records and stuff like that, in Canada — he was probably one of the people who introduced me to Detroit techno. So it’s something I’ve been doing for a long time, but it has come in and out of the music I make.

When I was making Swim, I was like, “Is this all going to make sense on a Caribou album, or is it going to need some other outlet to release it?” The tracks that went on Swim all made sense as Caribou stuff, but there was loads of quite dance-oriented music that I’d made. One of the tracks on the Daphni record, “Ahora,” was made halfway through making Swim, in 2009. So there was a bunch of stuff that definitely didn’t seem like Caribou music. I was already thinking that maybe it’d make sense to do a limited 12-inch under another name, but it took a while to crystallize the difference between the two things, to make sense of it and to act on it. I wasn’t even planning to release a Daphni album until a few months ago. There are loads of Daphni tracks that aren’t going to see a release that I’ve just made to DJ with. That’s what all these tracks are made for. It wasn’t until a few months ago, when I put a bunch of my favorite ones together, that I thought, “This actually is coherent as an album.”

Quite a few Daphni tracks have been edits of funk or Afrobeat songs.
I was making lots of different edits of things to play in my DJ sets. A couple of them went in DJ mixes I did, maybe one for Allez Allez, around the time Swim came out. So people started hearing them, and I could tell that people were interested; people were asking about them. That’s how the Daphni Edits 12-inches [on Resista] came out. For the Cos-Ber-Zam track, I just sampled that loop from the record, just a drum loop and a voice. They’re this Togolese band that only ever released one seven-inch. I found out about them from Analog Africa, this fantastic reissue label that clears everything and contacts all the original musicians. I made it to DJ with, but I really loved it, loved that combination of the synthesized sounds up against the sample, so I asked them [if I could release it]. When I contacted them, they couldn’t track down the publishing rights, so it had to be credited as a remix for it to be released at all. A lot of where the samples come from, and the influence from African music and global music generally, it’s the records that I’m listening to that are exciting to me. There’s such an amazing culture of reissues unearthing this music at the moment. When I was starting to make music in the late ’90s, Soul Jazz were reissuing stuff that has now been quite canonized, like the 100% Dynamite series. They’re amazing — I love that label. But now, I cannot believe the things that crop up on Boomkat — 500 copies of some totally obscure record of somebody playing, like, solo oud or something. It’s hilarious to me, in one sense, but it’s also amazing that there’s this genuine interest in weird music, rare releases, and it doesn’t even have to be danceable.

Having seen you DJ, it seems like you’re trying to open up the idea of what constitutes “dance music.”
That [Cos-Ber-Zam] track, in particular, is totally the wrong tempo to put into a house set. But there’s some crazy energy to it. That’s my favorite thing about the DJs I like the most, and when I’m happiest with my DJ sets, is that ability to really surprise people — to totally blindside the room in a way that somehow makes sense. Sometimes that track works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I play that track after people have gotten accustomed to a certain tempo or a certain kind of music, and it just unleashes this wild energy. People are like, “What is going on right now?” That moment of excitement is something that’s really special in clubs. You’re not watching a band play their hits; a DJ can pick any record from anywhere, and that potential is something I want to make the most of, rather than just playing something that’s uniform.

All the tracks on the Daphni album were made really quickly. The day that I’m DJing, I’ll be working on a track because I want to play some new music, just to see people’s reaction to it, get that kind of buzz. Often, making the music really is almost like a DJ set, to some degree. I’ll have some kind of sampled loop, and I’ll get this modular synthesizer going, and just kind of collide the two things together as if I were mixing an acid record into an older sampled track or whatever. It’s just a collision. But I’m definitely not arranging it. I’m arranging Caribou thinking of there being a notional band involved: There’s gotta be a bass line and then something in the midrange, and a vocal above it and some kind of arrangement that sort of flourishes around it. With the Daphni stuff, there doesn’t need to be that much stuff. There doesn’t have to be a verse and chorus, obviously. Hopefully, there’s a feeling of excitement and spontaneity in these Daphni tracks. Things are happening really fast, and I’m not going back and editing. Caribou records take a lot more time, and I’m a lot more meticulous and go back and really think about them. Daphni tracks, I don’t really think about them, I just do.

What made you decide to start your own label, Jiaolong?
Part of why I wanted to release these Daphni reords is that I could make a track, play it one weekend, have it pressed up on Monday or Tuesday, and it could be in shops three weeks later. That immediacy was very exciting, because Caribou has become quite an involved thing. There are four people in the band. I finish a record, there’s a three- or four-month lead time to releasing the album. I have to book a whole tour, there are singles and videos, blah blah blah, all the normal stuff. So it was really exciting to just be able to make a track and have it out there — if it had been digital, it would’ve been even faster, I guess — as quickly as the medium of vinyl allowed. So that was really the only plan for this music. It wasn’t intended to end up on an album, particularly. And then I released a couple things for friends, like I did a remix for Emeralds, who are close friends, just to play in clubs, and Jeremy from Junior Boys wanted to release some tracks, and Chaz from Toro y Moi sent me some music, and I was like, “I love this, can I release it?” But I definitely have no intention of Jiaolong becoming a real label. Now I’m getting emails from people, like, “Hey Dan, you may remember me from this, do you want to release this friend of mine’s music?” This is my worst nightmare! I spend too much time answering emails already. The last thing I want to do is run a label. But it is a great outlet to get stuff out there quickly.

“Yes I Know” reminds me a lot of Terry Riley’s “You’re No Good,” with its heavy soul loop and freaky synthesizer.
That’s an amazing record. I wasn’t thinking about that when I made it, but thank you. That’s a killer record. The source material for “Yes I Know” is a really short track, and I haven’t done that much with it. I guess that’s another thing I’ve become more confident with over the years. I know that I can write music, and I know that I can compose; if something really simple works, I don’t need to overcomplicate it just to prove to people that I’m really doing something. I’ve got the confidence to be more simple as well as doing things that are more complicated.

How do you determine the line between something for you to play in your own sets versus something that you release under your own name? I thought it was interesting that “Yes I Know” leads off the album, when in some ways it’s just one big loop of someone else’s song.
The liberating thing about making this music is that I wasn’t thinking about those issues at all. That’s probably what happens a lot of time when people make sample-based club music. It’s the excitement of making it that lets the music get made, and then those questions come afterwards. For example, I’ve had experiences with clearing samples where it’s just ground everything to a halt, and I’ve had friends who have not been able to release a track at all because there’s a sample in it. It’s a really great, original piece of music, and it just has some small sample in it. That seems a shame to me when that happens. But I also understand there’s a lot of issues around that, particularly if you’re sampling music made by musicians around the world who aren’t relaxing in a mansion somewhere. That’s why it’s so great to be able to deal with a small label who’s directly in touch with the musicians, and go directly to them and say, “I want this track to come out just because of the music, not because of any kind of financial benefit for me. Can we work something out that everybody’s happy with?” In fact, Analog Africa have never cleared any sample usage before, so it was amazing to me, and kind of ties into my love of the original music, which is obviously what making that track is all about.

It seems like it was your Virgo Four remix that announced your arrival as “dance” producer. Were you surprised at how that took off?
Well, yeah. I finished that track quite quickly, as well, and listening back to it, I was immediately very happy with it. The mix sounded great right off the bat. I knew I was really pleased with it, but it’s quite a specialist thing, in some ways. I know they’re a legendary band, but it’s still a contemporary artist going back and remixing an old track, something that wouldn’t necessarily cross over. I was surprised the way it connected the way it did.

For coming from the fringes of dance music, as you do, a lot of your Daphni cuts are quite big, populist tunes.
I’m certainly not trying to be obtuse or obscure in any way. I love playing a big tune in the middle of a DJ set that has other weird music in it. I love those moments. Who doesn’t love being in a club when everybody’s got their hands in the air? That’s a big thrill for me. Obviously, there are always two sides to that. There are certain tracks where everybody would have their hands in the air and I would have my hands over my ears.

I’m definitely not trying to do anything that’s intentionally not populist, that’s for sure. And I love big melodies. That’s always been a part of the music that I make. That inevitably makes it cross over in a way that something without a lot of strong melodic content wouldn’t.

Do you think your audience is more open to you taking risks because of your history as Caribou? Or do you think that if DJs took more risks, they could get away with it?
It’s funny you say that. I often feel conservative. I’ll see Theo Parrish play something, or Kieran [Hebden, a.k.a., Four Tet], when we’re playing back to back, will play some tune that completely surprises me, and I’m like, “This is a disaster, this is never going to work.” And the next minute everybody’s freaking out to some Steve Reich record or some Brazilian track or something. And I always think, “Damn, I wish I had the balls to play tracks like this.” So I’d say something like that to Kieran, and he’d be like, “What are you talking about? You play totally weird shit all the time.”

It’s funny: Having played so many live shows, I’m never nervous before a Caribou show, but I often get nervous before a DJ set. I’m thinking, “This room is full of people who don’t necessarily have a clue what I’m about, and I could quite easily clear this room.” I’ve definitely cleared some rooms over the years. So there’s that real pressure, but I also have that stubborn streak that I think maybe is helpful as a DJ, that’s like, “I really want people to hear this track right now, and I feel like it’s going to work,” and you just have to kind of will it in there. There’s definitely a tension between those two things.

As far as your question about the audience, I’m not really sure. I end up in quite varied situations. Kieran and I played back to back at Creamfields Andalucía this summer; we just played in Ibiza. That night at Horst [in Berlin, playing an eight-hour set] was amazing — a small club with people who have come specifically to hear me do one thing — but I’ve ended up in lots of different scenarios, which is another reason I get nervous about DJing. It’s more of a crapshoot than a ticketed Caribou show. Often I don’t know what to expect when I’m doing a DJ gig. I’ve got a good idea of a bunch of different clubs around Europe and Canada and in New York, and I play with friends a lot more. But in the beginning, when I was trying to get more DJ sets, and people didn’t really associate me with dance music yet, I’d end up playing after someone who had just played an hour of the biggest Ed Banger tracks ever, and I’d be playing after them, and it would be like, I don’t have one track of anything that can follow this guy, let alone a whole hour. Now I’m getting to do more really long sets where I can kind of build things up, then totally break them down again, and build them up again a few times over the course of the night.

What was it like to play that eight-hour set at Horst?
I think it was the best DJ experience that I’ve ever had. It was such an amazing crowd. I ended up playing for nine hours and then had to go straight to the airport. At the end, Johnny [the club’s owner] came up and said, “Dan, I’ve never had anybody play for nine hours and not have to go to the toilet once during the entire time.” And I was just like, “Oh, I just forgot! Now that you mention that, I desperately need to go to the toilet!” But I had just kind of forgotten. At various points, I was like, “Oh, I’ll play a few more tracks, and then I’ll go,” and then the whole night just disappeared.

What did you close with?
That’s a good question. I can’t remember, but it might have been Albert Ayler — it’s quite often this Albert Ayler track, “Love Cry.” That’s one of my favorites. It’s him when he was trying to cross over and made a kind of populist soul album with free-jazz saxophone over the top of it. It’s a real treat, that one.

You’ve been doing a lot of back-to-back sets with Four Tet. What’s it like when you two play together?
I’ve been playing back to back with Kieran for 12 or 13 years or something. The way I met Kieran, I met him at the Big Chill festival in the U.K. I was just a punter, and I went up and started talking to him — “I like your music, blah blah blah” — sent him some music later, and then booked him. We were putting on this club night in Toronto when I was in university there. So he came over and stayed for like two weeks on our couch. It was before he started traveling to DJ and to do live shows, and if somebody emailed him now, and was like, “Do you want to not be paid any money? We’ll pay your flight, and you’ll sleep on our couch, and you don’t know us very well…” [Laughs] But it was the right time. He played that club night with us, and then we went on lots of record-buying trips. That was the start of our friendship. I moved to London quite soon after that, and we’d end up playing pubs. We’d get from 10 till midnight, and the two of us would be playing psych-rock records or So Solid Crew or Nas records. We’ve been doing it for a long, long time, but not consistently. We’ve just randomly ended up DJing together here and there. And then last year, we were like, “This seems like a lot of fun and something that people genuinely seem to get excited about.” And we get excited about it. Kieran’s been living in New York the last year, so when we get to hang out the most is if we book a show together.

Your careers have sort of moved in lockstep. You and Four Tet always seem to have new albums out the same year, and now you both have singles-driven albums that aren’t really albums. You have the Jiaolong label, he has Text Records. It’s a little uncanny.
There are two sides to that. There’s no question that I learned the way the quote-unquote music industry works, or how to be a contemporary musician in control of the things I want to control, from Kieran. He’s the person who got me signed, and whenever I needed advice, I’d go to him. I’ve followed his model right from the start. When my first album came out, he had so much experience already. He had done three Fridge albums, he’d signed to a major, been dropped, done 50 remixes, whatever. And the fact that we’ve become the closest friends, that’s the other half of it. Swim and There Is Love in You, these two records line up musically because we’re doing the same things. I’m phoning him up, saying, “There’s this thing on Friday, do you want to go?” We end up checking the same things, seeing the same things, talking to each other about the music that we’re making. We’re both the first person who we send our tracks back and forth to. When I was considering releasing the Daphni tracks, he had put out the “Pinnacles”/”Ye Ye” 12-inch, and I thought, “Maybe I should start putting out music. I’ve got these tracks and I want to put them out.” And Kieran was like, “It’s a piece of piss, running a label! It’s the easiest thing in the world.” So knowing somebody who’s doing the same thing has been a part of why I started releasing music this way.

Have you two ever collaborated on music together?
We have, actually, once, for a Notwist remix. At the time, it was a record we both liked and were excited about. I don’t think it’s either of our best work, that’s for sure. He’s also played in the Caribou Vibration Ensemble, so we’ve had that experience. In terms of producing music, it’s funny — we really should do it, at some point. But it seems like we’re always both so busy, and even though it seems like we’re in lockstep, schedule-wise, there’s a lot of time he’s on tour and we’re not, or he’s in America and I’m over here, or then he comes back and I’m off on tour. It’s not like we’re in the same neighborhood. We used to be quite a lot, literally down the street, and hanging out all the time. But it’s not always the case.

There’s also the fact that we have such similar skill sets. We both kind of work by ourselves and combine samples with programming. It’s almost more fruitful for me to do a duet with a banjo player or something, somebody who does something totally different. And that’s what’s happened on Caribou records in the past. The people that I’ve collaborated with have either played instruments that I don’t play, or sing really well, which I also don’t do. Kieran and I might just be both reaching for the mouse to do the same thing.

I was surprised to see you guys booked at Creamfields Andalucía, which tends to be pretty full-on rave.
There are several stages, but our stage was me and Kieran, James Holden, Luke Abbott, Nathan Fake, John Talabot — all our friends. That was part of the reason we wanted to do it. And also, we wanted to see the carnage on the main stage and go over and check out Tiësto and whatever. Which, I’ve gotta say, was demoralizing. I thought it would be funny, and maybe even spectacular. It was the greatest scam in history. His private jet touches the ground half an hour before he starts. He doesn’t step out of the limo until the intro music is already playing, and they’re still trying to line up the video while he’s playing his first track, like they can’t even be bothered to put together a spectacular LED fuckstravaganza. It’s the laziest shit I’ve ever seen in my life. As for what he was playing, it was absolutely horrible — as I should have expected, but I’ve never seen any of those huge populist guys.

“Fuckstravaganza” — that’s right up there with “EDM barfsplosion,” a recent coinage of yours from the Jiaolong press release. How much are you paying attention to the overground scene in the U.S.?
Musically, it just has zero relevance to what I’m doing. Maybe I was being a bit provocative throwing a bit of “barfsplosion” in there, but I’m fascinated by it as a phenomenon. That’s why I wanted to go see Steve Aoki and Tiësto — are things a lot crazier than at the mega-raves in Toronto that I remember from the ’90s? What’s different this time around? What’s drawing these huge crowds? I’m intrigued by the phenomenon. I don’t really resent it. There’s so much shitty music, or predictable, boring, popular music out there, it’s not something that angers me. I’m not in a grumpy old man mode where I’m like [adopting grumpy old man voice], “Everybody should be listening to Theo Parrish!” That’s not going to happen.

You raved in Toronto in the ’90s?
Yeah, I did. In Toronto, it was enormous. This was when people started taking E: 1994, 1995, a few years after they were already doing lots in Manchester. I had already been going to clubs in high school; I saw Richie Hawtin play literally in the basement of somebody’s house in the town I grew up in, because he was from just down the road. A few people in our high school were listening to Plus 8 and that kind of stuff. My friend’s brother put out a record on Plus 8. So there was a connection to something. But then when I arrived in Toronto, every weekend there’d be two 50- or 60,000 capacity raves, with a huge drum and bass arena, and I don’t know, Oakenfold, all those people. But at the same time in Toronto there were lots of smaller clubs, so I was going to the smaller clubs, places that were playing more diverse music. And I was putting on nights. It was kicking off big time in Toronto; that was definitely a part of the culture that I was making music in.

What are the differences between your experience of raving in the 1990s and EDM today?
I guess there was no festival concept back then, or at least I never went to one. It was more like a big, dark room, not so much in the way of lighting at all. It’s definitely the lights that have exploded. In fact, the next back-to-back thing Kieran and I are doing is this thing at Brixton Academy that’s five pounds, and there’s going to be no lights at all. It’s going to be total darkness in this 5,000-capacity venue. James [Holden] is doing it, Floating Points, all the Hessle Audio guys. That’s more Kieran’s reaction to this lighting thing: Let’s have people listen to the music again.

How has it been for Caribou supporting Radiohead’s tour?
Obviously, all of us in the band are fans, and have been for a long time, so that’s really amazing to get to know them all. They’re all so lovely. And we were picked by them, not by their agent or their manager or somebody who thought, “This would be a good marketing ploy.” They wanted us to play before they played. Even to the extent that for some festivals around Europe, they said, “We’re going to headline, but you have to offer the set before us to Caribou,” which is an amazing thing for them to do. Also, playing two nights to 60,000 people in Mexico City is an experience unlike any other. We’ll never get that again, for sure. That scale is absurd.

Have you had to adapt the band to playing venues that size?
It’s an opening slot, so it’s shorter than we’d normally play. In the beginning, we were like, “We have to play the hits.” We were a bit terrified. But it turns out that of all the bands of that size we could open for, their fan base is the most musically interested in other things. Maybe it’s because we’ve been approved by Radiohead, in some sense, but people are interested in what we want to do. Now we’re starting to play longer sets; I think we’re just going to start playing weirder stuff and whatever we want. We’re back into being comfortable and doing what we want, which I think is the best thing to do anyway — not to worry about “maximizing exposure.” That’s not why we’re doing this.