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In The 'Swim': Caribou Surfaces At The Independent

The most dance-floor ready album by Caribou yet? Yes, of course, London-based songwriter Dan Snaith said recently from Austin, Texas, where Caribou had stopped to perform during its current tour. There’s no reining in the man behind one of the most shockingly powerful live shows I’ve ever seen at Bottom of the Hill -- listeners have been enthusiastically embracing Caribou’s new Swim (Merge). One can only assume their ears are well attuned to the onetime Manitoba mastermind’s electro-esque indie -- Swim simply foregrounds the beats to beautiful effect. And if you’re ready to take the plunge, Caribou performs two nights, May 23 and 24, at the Independent.

Q: From where I'm sitting, Swim really sounds like Caribou’s most danceable release.

Dan Snaith: Definitely. I’ve been excited by dance music in past few years, especially in London perhaps. It’s an exciting climate for dance music and club music at the moment. The album is influenced by me going to clubs more and thinking about making music for clubs and ideas of making loop-based repetitive music again. Things that were catching my attention.

Q: What got you out to the clubs?
DS: DJing. There are places in London like Plastic People, which is an amazing little club. I went to see Theo Parish, a Detroit house-techno guy, pretty much every time he was in town. Seeing him for the first time was definitely a catalyst for making this record. He has made so much amazing and strange dance music. I guess I like idea of dance music being strange!

Q: I hear the album was titled Swim because you recently learned to.
DS: I guess it’s called Swim for two reason. I had this idea of making watery-sounding dance music where everything’s washing around in the mix. That idea predated the swimming lessons.

Then my wife got me swimming lessons for Christmas or something like that -- I was a terrible swimmer, but I never thought I should take swimming lessons and learn how to swim properly. It got me into the idea of swimming all the time. I could never see the gracefulness of it because I was such a bad swimmer. But the more I did it, the more I enjoyed it, and spending all the time swimming enforced all the musical ideas of liquidity. Also swimming is a good counterpart to what I do: When I make music I don’t leave the house much, so it was good idea.

Q: Have you been touring a bit as Caribou?
DS: Not at all -- maybe five or six shows in last two years. Really I was constantly at home working on music all the time. Now we’re on tour constantly. The way I like doing it is bipolar:  Tour constantly, then don’t tour at all. I like the mental space: All I’m doing now is making music and there’s nothing to distract me.

Q: You’re not studying mathematics at the moment?
DS: I did a PhD in mathematics, which ended five years ago, and since then I haven’t done any mathematics. I guess I am involved in a sense because I have friends who are mathematicians, my dad and my sister are mathematicians. I’m just doing music constantly.

Q: I really liked the mbira sound on “Hannibal” -- African music was another sound that interested you of late?
DS: Not particularly African music. I’ve just always being interested in the sonic character of different instruments from around the world. For “Bowls” on the album I bought these bowls when I was in southwest China for a month.

I’m probably guilty of looking at music in a context-free way. If I like the sound or character of an instrument, no matter what character or context it comes from, I’ll try to get that sound and play that instrument. I’ve always been into music that has a really wide palette -- as well as being genuinely interested in the context.

Q: You say “guilty” -- do you feel guilty about appropriating certain sounds?

DS: It’s something that I’m aware of as a good and bad thing. It’s good in that it’s always the way I approach music -- that’s a big part of why my music has diverse elements in it. I don’t feel tied to a scene or particular aesthetic. I can look around and be a bit magpie-ish about collecting the things that attract my attention. But it’s a complicated issue, to the degree that people understand the things they use or incorporate.

Q: One of the standout tracks on the album is “Sun” -- was that based on any particular incident or event?
DS: I was doing a DJ set somewhere in Europe on a Friday and I was working on that track on Thursday. I thought, I just want something of my own to play this weekend, so I was working really fast and spontaneously. The DJ gigs I was doing were good for that -- you’ve got to finish this track today even if it’s in a rough form. I just turned on microphone and started singing “sun” over and over again. But seeing it was made in London in November there was no inspiration for that -- it was made in the moment of being excited about, I can’t wait to play this tomorrow!

It’s funny because this album is two different albums or collections of things. Songs like “Sun” were done just the DJ way. I was thinking maybe the more song-based ones can be on a Caribou album -- I can’t put these dance-based ones on the Caribou album. It took me a while to think, wait a minute, these two things fit cohesively together. They all incorporate similar ideas.

It was kind of a conflicted thing. When I finished this record I knew this was my favorite record I had ever made. I felt really confident about it in a way. But when I was listening to it I thought, this is probably the strangest record I’ve ever made! **Andorra** was one of the most poppy and straightforward records. This will just confuse people, the people who just heard Andorra.

But I had this strange sense of calm. Lots of people won’t like it, but I felt fine with it. The thing that surprised me is that to a large extent this hasn’t happened at all. I’m surprised by how positively it’s been greeted, generally speaking. Which is great -- there’s more room for more weird music.

Maybe I was kidding myself, but the climate for music at the moment is pretty good. There’s a real appetite and openness to embracing strange or eccentric things.

With the track “Bowls” the thing I love about it is that the main instruments are harp and Tibetan bowls and when I play it in a club people will dance! I thought, this is such a great thing. In the particular clubs I DJ at, dance music can incorporate all these weird sounds, and as long as it’s rhythmically propulsive, people still dance. I was thinking of other Caribou albums as things to listen to at home, just the way I was listening at home as I played it.

Q: It’s as if this album is a coming-out of sorts for Caribou, much like you left your home studio and were drawn to the clubs.
DS: It helped me make the music to think of it in that way, even if it’s not played in big dance clubs. I like the idea of clubs dotted around the world functioning as be audiophile environments, where people go to dance but also to listen to music. They’re really the only public spaces where people go to listen to music on high-fidelity audio systems. I like the idea that especially as musician -- though 95 percent of people will be listening to it on speakers on their laptop.

Caribou performs Sunday, May 23, and Monday, May 24, at the Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. (415) 771-1422, theindependentsf.com