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Caribou Dances Through Life’s Joys and Sorrows

Six years after his biggest hit, Dan Snaith goes deeper for ‘Suddenly,’ a great album about love and mortality

"I want the music to be comforting," says Caribou's Dan Snaith. "I want it to sound like a hug."

Thomas Neukum*

In the basement of an old row house in northeast London is the little room where Caribou’s Dan Snaith makes nearly all his music. “When we moved in, it was just a coal cellar with an unfinished dirt floor,” he says. “I’m very happy down here.”

Snaith is downstairs late on a Thursday afternoon, hearing his kids arrive home from school above him. The 120-square-foot basement space is now full of records, synthesizers, a computer, and speakers — the tools of the trade that have made this 41-year-old mathematics PhD into an unlikely dance-music star. This is where he recorded 2014’s Our Love, an elegantly understated R&B/house breakthrough that included his most popular single ever, “Can’t Do Without You” (currently closing in on 50 million Spotify streams, and past 10 million on YouTube); two years later, it’s where he returned to think about what he could possibly do next.

Our Love was the most polished, shiny, concise pop formulation of my music that I’ll probably ever make,” he says. “We had a big tour where we played exactly the kind of festival stages I expected to play ‘Can’t Do Without You’ on. It fulfilled everything I wanted that album to fulfill — but at the same time, I was like, ‘I don’t think I can go any further in that direction.’ Record labels would obviously love an even bigger song the next time around, but I can’t chase that idea. It’s not going to happen, and it will drive me crazy.”

Instead, Snaith decided to swerve left. He’d been listening to lots of new pop and hip-hop (Drake, Gunna, Post Malone) and rare old records, and he liked the thought of smashing those two planets together: “What if I made something that had one foot in contemporary production, and the other foot in the most weird, outsider world I can think of?”

That idea, pursued patiently over countless hours in the basement, led him to Caribou’s seventh album, Suddenly, out February 28th. It’s an album of sharp corners and trapdoors, where even the most catchy songs — from the warm sample-deck soul of “Home” to the mutant club-pop of “You and I” — feel very different from Caribou’s past successes. Playing up the contrasts was the point. “If there was a jagged edge when I was putting together Our Love, I’d shave it down into this nice, smooth transition,” he says. “This time, I was like, ‘I’m just going to leave those edges.’ That’s what seemed exciting.”

Snaith is a naturally hard worker: In his twenties and thirties, he’d make music around the clock, with only short breaks for food and sleep. More recently, with two daughters aged eight and three, he’s had to adjust his schedule based on the parental responsibilities he shares with his wife, an anthropologist. Most mornings, he drops the kids off at school, followed by a full day of music-making. After everyone’s back home around 5 p.m., he spends the evening with his family. “Late at night, when everybody’s gone to bed, I sneak back down here and work into the small hours,” he says. “This album is so intertwined with my personal life, because it was all happening in the same place.”

Even more than that daily balance, he says, this album reflects the life events that bookended its creation. “There were a bunch of things that came out of the blue and disoriented me,” Snaith says. “These perspective-shifting moments where everything changed, and I’d have to stop making music for a month and be more attentive to the people in my life that needed my support.”

First came the birth of his second daughter, who arrived unexpectedly quickly while he and his wife were en route to the hospital. “She was born in the back of a car,” he recalls, “on a super-busy street in the middle of London, with people sipping espressos in a sidewalk cafe right next to us.”

Later, their family was blindsided by the death of a close relative from a heart attack. “My wife and I have been together for 20 years, so her family is my family,” he says. “It was one of those moments where the phone rings and you answer it, and you’re told this news, and the whole world melts around you.”

Listen closely, and you can hear those changes in Suddenly. Beneath the alluring melody and dramatic mid-song twists of “You and I” is a plainspoken song about grief: “Now you’re gone/And I’m left here waiting …/It feels like there’s a hole inside/That just won’t go away,” Snaith sings. He wrote those lyrics from the perspective of his wife’s mother, holding onto her faith in the wake of a devastating loss. “It was a real tragedy,” he says. “It just felt like I couldn’t not write about it. When I look back at this music 20 years from now, how strange would it be if these things that have shaped my life weren’t reflected in the music that I made?”

Musically, too, “You and I” mirrors the long creative arc of making Suddenly. The song began three years ago with the calm, nostalgic keyboard chords heard in its opening. “Those 20 seconds of music were sitting on my hard drive for years,” he says. Every so often, he’d play the snippet for his two most trusted musical advisors: his wife and Kieran Hebden, a.k.a. electronic visionary Four Tet. “They’re ruthlessly honest. Both of them listened and said, ‘It’s great, but it needs something else.’”

Snaith had plenty of other ideas to work on — over the past five years, he stockpiled hundreds of song sketches using old samples, digitally treated pianos, synth guitars, and much more. Still, something about those chords drew him back. It wasn’t until last year, listening to Tyler, the Creator’s Igor, that he solved the riddle. “In his music, there’s less of a need for things to proceed in a linear songwriting fashion,” he says. “I thought, ‘OK, there’s an obvious way to develop this song. Let me steer away from that.’”

Inspired, he segued from the song’s chilled-out opening verse into an exhilaratingly fast chorus punctuated by almost-trap snares and pitch-shifted vocal samples. Still, he wasn’t quite satisfied, so he called another friend, Toronto-based free-jazz musician Colin Fisher, and asked if he could help take “You and I” even further with a guitar solo. Fisher flew over last summer and spent three days crashing with the Snaiths, adding his left-field instrumental flair to “You and I” and several other tracks. “He’s this big guy with a shaved head, covered in tattoos, and a laugh like a wild hyena,” Snaith says. “He’d be eating breakfast with my kids, and they’re like, ‘Who is this guy?’”

“I want the music to be comforting. I want it to sound like a hug.”

Lately, Snaith has begun getting more musical feedback from his eight-year-old. “Her whole life has consisted of going on tour with Radiohead before she was a year old, going to Japan before she was five,” he says. “Now she’s like, ‘Dad, play me the new stuff you’re working on.’” She’s particularly fond of “Home,” which Snaith built from a sample of 1970s soul singer Gloria Barnes, looped in the manner of his favorite A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan records. “She told me, ‘I think that “Home” will be the most popular track you’ve ever made,’” he laughs. “That’s her perspective, I don’t know where it comes from.”

Snath and his family faced other trials along the way to Suddenly. “Several other losses and close calls with mortality,” he says. “In the last five years, over and over again, I’ve been in that scenario. It’s something that catches up to everybody.” Out of those experiences, he’s made an album that isn’t miserable or defeated, but expansive and life-affirming. “Music-making helps me come out of those things feeling some solace and optimism,” he says. “I want the music to be comforting in that way. I want it to sound like a hug.”

He points to “Cloud Song,” the gorgeous, nearly seven-minute ballad that closes the album. It starts with tweaked keyboard notes and honest sorrow, gradually blossoming into something grander (“If you love me, come hold me now/Come tell me what to do/I’m broken, so tired of crying/Just hold me close to you”), and finally another fireworks-in-the-sky guitar solo from Fisher.

“I’ve built up the confidence to address these things directly,” Snaith says. “That song is saying, ‘Wake up. This is the reality of our existence, and we don’t have to be consumed by misery about it. We can still find joyousness.’”