Caribou’s Dan Snaith and Producer Nigel Godrich Unravel the Mystery of Making Music

Published March 16, 2020

Dan Snaith photographed by Thomas Neukum.

While many of us are getting used to the new reality of working from home, Dan Snaith has been doing it for years. As the electronic musician Caribou, Snaith has been a one-man show since his early days performing under the name Manitoba. (Snaith was forced to change his name after another musician with the same name threatened a lawsuit.) Snaith came of age in rural Ontario, Canada, at a time when technology began making it possible for musicians to create expansive soundscapes from the confines of their bedrooms. His early work, on albums like The Milk of Human Kindness (2005) and Swim (2010), was steeped in psychedelia and reverb, with Snaith’s trademark falsetto a distant echo, floating on the other side of a towering wall of sound. But with his last album, 2014’s ecstatic and distinctly poppier Our Love, Snaith began experimenting with a more straightforward approach to songwriting and recording, letting his vocals rise above the surface of warm, galloping synths and crunching beats. And while his sound got crisper, Snaith, who moved to England in 2001 to pursue a PhD in mathematics, clung to his method of working along from his home studio, part-archeologist, part-mad scientist, burrowing through hundreds of samples and loops to see what fit. 

When it came time to record his follow-up to Our Love, those snippets had reached a crescendo upwards of 900, many of which make up Snaith’s latest record, Suddenly. The album marks the latest chapter in Snaith’s progression from EDM misfit to an artist playing openly in a sandbox just on the outskirts of the mainstream. Snaith’s voice can be heard vividly on each track, singing about universal themes like  mortality and the transient nature of relationships. But thanks to Snaith’s enduring ability to create unassailable hooks and triumphant melodies, the music transcends the melancholic material into something ultimately life-affirming. On a recent afternoon in London, Snaith welcomed fellow musician Nigel Godrich—best known for producing every Radiohead album since OK Computer—into his home to geek out about the recording process, the art of choosing singles, and the place where math and music collide. 

———

NIGEL GODRICH: Do you have a studio here in your home?

DAN SNAITH: I’ve only ever worked from home. I’ve never worked in a studio apart from in the final stages. It used to be in the bedroom where my wife was sleeping, and I’d be trying to record something in the middle of the night. In rural Ontario, I couldn’t conceive of having the money to pay for time in a studio. Your way in was to work in a studio. If I listened to Pink Floyd, I was like, “I’m never going to make that record,” because that cost a million pounds in 1971. But electronic music at the time was being made in somebody’s bedroom. So as a teenager, I started working in a bedroom.

GODRICH: Totally. And that’s something that I find fascinating from the other side. I definitely went the other route in terms of getting into recording. And I’m a little older than you. That means that by the time you were coming of age, you had more technology, which meant that you could do a lot of things at home that I wasn’t able to do at all.

SNAITH: I came in at that exact moment in music recording history when all of a sudden it was like, “Hey, wait, we can do this.”

GODRICH: There’s a certain kind of approach which requires a lot of equipment. I’ve followed that always. But you have a computer that can do all of these things that emulate things that I would do in the studio. I don’t know how you do it, but I love the end product. I like that I don’t know how it’s made. 

SNAITH: I started making music with zero gear, like the microphone that a telemarketer would use to record my vocals.

GODRICH: I meet people who have not worked with professional gear, and they always want to ask, “What mic should I use on the drum kit?” To me, it’s irrelevant. Before you had the good equipment, you were still doing what you do, and it worked. It’s a musical thing. It’s about your brain and how it interfaces with the computer.

SNAITH: I would counter by saying that when I listened to the records that you’ve produced, they have a quality that I’m certainly chasing, and I think I’m a long way off. But I work within those limitations and that’s part of what is stimulating and exciting.

GODRICH: It’s very important to have those unattainable goals as artists. I’m inspired by the thing you’re doing, but I can’t do that either. I think that’s a fairly common trait of anyone that’s creative.

GODRICH: You’re an expat from Canada. How long have you lived in England?

SNAITH: Since 2001.

GODRICH: Do you feel that this is home? Do you feel English?

SNAITH: My parents are English and moved to Canada before I was born. I sound very much like a Canadian. I came back to do a PhD here in 2001. When I was in Canada, I always felt a  bit British. I felt like I had a foot on both sides of the Atlantic. And now as long as I’ve been in England, I feel more Canadian, maybe. That’s interesting, because my whole life, my dad was like, “This would be much better in England.” It drove us all crazy. He’d never enjoy the place where he was, and now that he’s moved back to England, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s the grass-is-greener scenario.

GODRICH: Human beings tend to do that. There is something very specific in your aesthetic, which is not actually British. There’s this kind of crossing point, a quality to your programming and some of the sounds that you choose and the aesthetic that you have, it’s from over there, in a good way. Are you aware of that, or is it just what comes out of you?

SNAITH: When I’m recording in general, I’m so bad at conceptualizing or planning what I’m doing. I’d imagine people who approach you want you to have a kind of picture of what you’re doing.

GODRICH: That’s always my first question: What is it that you think I’m going to do? It’s a very good yardstick to get a grip on what they actually understand about what it is that I do. Because if they’re completely off the mark, it’s kind of a waste of time.

SNAITH: Interesting.

GODRICH: They might not have an answer to that, which is fine, too. It’s an interesting question to ask because you’ll get an answer, or a look of confusion. The other thing for me, because you get associated with something so strongly, so it’s the guy guarding the cave saying, “Do you just want me to make you sound like Radiohead? I’m not going to be able to do that. So if that’s what you’re after, you’re wasting your time anyway.” But what I was saying was you have something over other British artists. What do you think about me saying that? Are you surprised that I think that?

SNAITH: I think you’re right. Even though it doesn’t come out consciously, at some deep level, so much of my nostalgia is built up around North American music. When I was growing up, one of the big turning points in my learning to love music was getting into hip-hop, and through that  into old records: “What did this Wu Tang record sample? Let me find the original record.” But also, if you start buying records in flea markets, the records that are in the flea markets there are different from the ones here. You’re not finding a Smiths 12-inch, you’re finding The Byrds.

GODRICH: Hip-hop especially, we all have a taste for it here, but we can’t make it.

SNAITH: Or it’s a British version of it.

GODRICH: But a British version of it has the Jamaican influence that makes trip-hop. We slow it down. There’s this other version of hip-hop in the mainstream, which doesn’t work here, I don’t think.

SNAITH: It’s better when it’s a homegrown thing, like grime music, which does a different take on hip-hop.

GODRICH: Exactly. Grime’s roots are in reggae and Jamaican music, a completely different thing. We can do that and Americans can’t do that. They can’t do jungle. But you can do more than we can do because you’ve got the American gene. That’s kind of what I hear.

SNAITH: The one thing that I thought I would never be able to do from day one was hip-hop. It was untouchable. I’ll never produce like DJ Premier or Q-Tip or Madlib. It was like, don’t even try, because when people in my world try—

GODRICH: It’s the worst thing in the world.

SNAITH: The worst thing ever. There’s a song on this album called “Home,” based on a loop from a Gloria Barnes track, an old soul record, and I heard the track and I was like, that needs to be looped. That’s the impulse of somebody who’s listened to a lot of hip-hop. I don’t care whether I’m going to make a track out of this, you’ve just got to take that bit and hear it on a loop because it’s going to be perfect, and then put a kind of hip-hop breakbeat under it. I had that sitting around for a couple of years before I figured out how I could a track out of it.

GODRICH: Do you think in terms of singles?

SNAITH: I have a sense of what tracks are more immediate than others. That was the first single. It made sense when I played that to people and then asked them, “What do you remember from what I played you?” They’d be like, “Oh, that track ‘Home.'” It’s just in there immediately and it’s because it’s an incredible loop. People will want to hear this over and over again. But I really think in terms of albums. I’ve grown up listening to records like the ones you’ve produced. When I came across Radiohead’s music, I was just like, that is like a journey, a narrative arc the whole way through. That’s the classic conception of an album. And I know that people don’t necessarily listen to music that way anymore.

GODRICH: So they tell us, but I don’t even believe it.

SNAITH: At the beginning, I was like, who am I making music for? I’m making music literally for me. But then, if somebody else is going to listen to it, it’s going to be somebody who loves music in the way that I do, not somebody who’s just hearing it on the radio. That’s changed. The more your music expands into the world, the more people have different ways of approaching it. One of the biggest things that ever happened to me, and I had no idea that this was going to be a thing at the time, was a track called “Odessa” that was on FIFA 11 video game. People talk to me about that all the time. When I was asked about it, I was like, “Okay, yeah, sure, whatever. That’s fine, I’ll give permission.” But I kind of love that that happened and people came across this music that would’ve never come across my music. It’s nice to embrace the way that it’ll travel in this weird way through the world.

GODRICH: That’s fantastic. I think we have to do that now as well, because of the world we live in. When you’re a record maker like you or I, it’s changed to the point of music just being so ubiquitous that everybody’s so saturated, so you can’t be blamed for using an avenue like that. Back in the day it was a dirty word to do something mainstream and allow somebody to promote something with your music. But nowadays, the whole experience of culture is just so multifaceted and fractured that I’m personally very pleased that “Odessa” ended up on FIFA, because that means more people heard your music.

SNAITH: I should say that I still have an old school mindset where I don’t want it to be associated with corporate interests and moneymaking in various ways. I still am picky about it.

Nigel Godrich photographed by Sean Evans.

GODRICH: FIFA is pretty cool, though. The album made me think about the art of creating pop music. It’s an art form. There’s something about being able to create this joy in music. It’s very easy to make sad records. Melancholy is quite easy in my experience. Making things that make you want to get up and jump up and down, that’s harder. Do you see yourself putting out a load of singles? Do you get involved in that process?

SNAITH: I do. There’s another track called “Never Come Back” that’s a more straight-up euphoric dance-pop thing that’s going to be the next single. But none of them represent the record in its totality. “Home” was going to make people think the record would be one thing, but if we’d released something else first it would have meant that it was something else. Do you get called on to make that call very often?

GODRICH: Historically, it’s been the most unpopular part of the process, because essentially what happens is you have somebody telling you, “We took it to radio and they think we should use this song.”

SNAITH: Oh, really?

GODRICH: It’s always a bit like, “Really? We should use this one.” And they kind of turn around and say, “Well you can if you want, but if you do that, and it doesn’t work out, you employ these people to do their job.” We all wanted to put out “Reckoner” as the first single for In Rainbows. And we were told no, which we thought was quite weird. In America, they have different taste from here, so they generally go for the most rock-y, generic thing. Which is quite frustrating. I’ve never really been good at singles.

SNAITH: When you hear an album that really is an album from beginning to end, you kind of assume that the person who made it had a conception of that arc when they were making it. That’s not the way it works for me at all. It’s all jumbled together and it’s all finished and then I put it in an order.

GODRICH: Subconsciously you’re making a thousand decisions every minute, and slowly that stuff is being sieved into things that make sense. I also know the experience of working on a song, and in my head I’ve already decided this is the first song on side two. You’ve started doing it unconsciously. This is how you’re supposed to work as an artist. You’re not supposed to write down a formula. You just have to follow your instincts.

SNAITH: There’s a lot of stuff on this record that’s more personal than ever, about deaths and my wife’s family and health crises with my parents and losing friends. How does anybody ever get that stuff out with a producer in there? I could only imagine doing that when I close the door in my studio and I’m the only person in there, and I can kind of trick myself into thinking that this is just for me right now, and I’m never going to release it.

GODRICH: Well because you’re writing, so you can write something that can press those buttons and make sense to you and make you feel that feeling. And then it exists and you can go and frame it in a different way. And maybe you could work with a producer in terms of framing it, if you didn’t have those skills yourself, but you do. It’s about relationships, really. When you’re in a working relationship, you literally are wearing each other’s underwear. It’s very, very intimate. So you have be comfortable enough to bare your soul.

SNAITH: I’ve got the impression that some of the Radiohead albums are being created and written at the same time that they’re being recorded or demoed.

GODRICH: Radiohead is different. I grew up with those guys. It’s more intimate.

SNAITH: Still, I think that would be hard.

GODRICH: Thom Yorke has a notebook and he’s spewing out lines and I go, “Yes, no, yes, no.” He’s able to put himself in a room and really go into himself. He’s just a person who can do that. He can write 30 verses of “Dawn Chorus,” and it ends up being really long, and then he’ll chew on it. Thom always used to just carry notebooks with him everywhere we went. We’d be eating, and he writes stuff down all the time. For “Everything In Its Right Place” it was just me and him in a room, and he’s like, “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon. Oh, I can’t say that.” And I’m like, “Yes, you can. That’s great.”

SNAITH: That’s the thing I don’t have.

GODRICH: That’s just a creative partnership. That also comes down to the equipment, the fact that you need somebody to interface technologically to this enormous universe, and that’s what I’m good at. I’m strong technically, but I’m not interested in gear. I don’t find equipment sexy. People are always asking me about microphones, especially people making music solely on computers that I think is absolutely mind-boggling, but has nothing to do with my business.

SNAITH: Right.

GODRICH: My skill is knowing how to operate all of this equipment. I can make it do things that if we’re in a collaboration and you’re throwing things in the air and I’m catching them, I can make things happen which you will get excited about and make you do something else. It’s a studio collaboration, which I think you leapfrogged, because your method is a one-person thing.

SNAITH: I’m sure you’re also selling yourself short in that a lot of what you do must be to do with the people and making them feel comfortable.

GODRICH: I hope to think that I’m not a horrific person to hang out with, and I have a lot of empathy with artists and people who make things. We all want to make something beautiful so we’re all here for the same reason. Relationships are very complicated and the psychology of the whole thing is very complicated. But that works better with people that you don’t know very well. Relationships that are very long in the tooth, like 25 years of hanging around with Thom Yorke, we’ve rubbed each other the wrong way enough times to know who we are. Do you go back to the things you did like two albums ago and pick them up?

SNAITH: I know that’s happened with Radiohead, but this is the first time that’s ever, ever happened for me. There’s a track on this album called “Magpie,” which is from the pot from my previous album, Our Love. Its mood didn’t fit that album. It was just a loop, but I thought I should finish it, and I think it does fit the mood of this record. It’s an anomaly that that’s happened, because I always felt that’s kind of cheating. I’m desperate to not repeat myself. Pick your favorite artists in the world. Look at their discographies, and 95 percent of the time you can chop off the last half of it, put it in the garbage, and you haven’t missed anything. Radiohead is kind of the exception to that. I’m so desperate not to become that person. Do you ever think, “I’ve made so much music but I can still make the best piece of music I’ve ever made today?”

GODRICH: It’s that thing you just said where you’re like, “Fuck, I don’t want this to not be as good as the last thing.” It’s that.

SNAITH: I got that from you guys actually on tour. It was just like, this has to be still fucking totally killer.

GODRICH: I’m very fortunate, because since I was young, I was exposed to people like Thom. These are art school people, but I never went to art school. I learnt about it from them. That exact thing that you’re talking about. When we finished Moon Shaped Pool, which I know is a really good record…

SNAITH: Sure is.

GODRICH: But if you start at The Bends and you get to here, that’s 21 years, and every 10 years we do an exceptional one, like OK Computer and In Rainbows. I felt like Moon Shaped Pool was up there in that respect. I think it’s kind of incredible that we’ve managed to do this.

SNAITH: You’re already way past the sell by date for most artists.

GODRICH: My analysis of that is that, I think Thom is very prolific, but we’ve not rushed the records. Your 900 ideas that took you four years to go through, that’s all right. That’s sort of how you do it. You just keep the bar high. There’s two reasons for doing things. One of them is to have fun and enjoy the process, and the other reason is to create something that you think will outlive you.

SNAITH: My process with making these 900 things is always fun. If you leave me alone, I’m going to go down in that room in the basement and I’m going to make something. I turn off my critical faculties and I just make something, and that thrill has never left me. Even if it’s mediocre, it’s still fun. Then it’s agonizing over, how do I assemble it into something bigger

GODRICH: I wanted to ask you about your PhD. It’s not a coincidence that you have a mind that makes music like this. 

SNAITH: I genuinely have forgotten everything in my PhD. If I read it now, I would not understand it, which is weird. It’s like a language that I haven’t used for 20 years. Pure mathematics is so esoteric, so in this other world, that it has no relevance.

GODRICH: Can you understand that it gives you this enigmatic quality?

SNAITH: For sure.

GODRICH: It’s like, if you scrape away your skin, there’s some sort of metal…

SNAITH: People expect me to be taking apart a synthesizer and that is not me at all. I’m not a lab guy. I’m terrible with that kind of physical object.

GODRICH: You’re not practical.

SNAITH: Not at all. But a word like “symmetry” appeals to me in both music and math. Symmetry is a key concept in mathematics, that things have a kind of elegance or beauty in the way they’re symmetrical, the way they’re congruent, the way two ideas will fit together perfectly. That’s so satisfying. These abstract things that people have dreamed up, now just fit together in this beautiful way. That’s what a theorem is. I feel like music has that, the “kerchunk” moment, when two things work together in a way that’s beautiful and often not too obvious.

GODRICH: If you think about the action of just throwing a ball, the amount of trigonometry and calculation that we do unconsciously in order to just catch a ball, we have all of this sort of stuff going on in our heads. Music is so intangible, it’s the least understood art form. It’s like magic. But I do think there is mathematics in that magic.

SNAITH: I’d agree with that. But the thing I love about mathematics is when you get past the stage where you’re like, “Answer these questions that you should already know the answer to, like memorize your times tables.”

GODRICH: The boring shit.

SNAITH: Then you’re like, “Okay, here’s a question that nobody’s actually thought through and figured out the answer to yet.” And then it’s a kind of search or play, a kind of exploration. And that relates to me with music, too.

GODRICH: So you are Dr. Dan Snaith.

SNAITH: I am Dr. Dan Snaith.

GODRICH: Then that’s how I’ll always think of you.

Godrich’s band Ultraísta just released their new album, Sister, the band’s first in eight years. Stream the new single “Tin King” here.