Caribou’s Dan Snaith and the Artfulness of Muck

Electro-music superpower Caribou’s new album, Andorra, is mastermind Dan Snaith’s latest salvo in a series of works that start somewhere along chilled ambient (and even chillier IDM), and stroll down a path cobbled with pure beat, dense texture, and the tricky tonal turns of ’60s pop and psychedelia. Jaw-droppingly sumptuous, Andorra brings together Snaith’s love of gritty electronic timbres and heavy, visceral beats with intricate matrices of vocal harmonies and rock instrumentation. It’s complex, but what’s to be expected from a musician who, in his spare time, has managed to obtain a PhD in mathematics?

What is a bit shocking is that the album was recorded entirely in his bedroom with a motley and minimal setup that hasn’t been upgraded much since he became Dr. Snaith.

“It’s okay,” says the Canada-born, London-based musician. “I don’t have a very clean recording aesthetic anyway. I like things to sound a bit sloppy. And when I pile everything up, I like the instruments to all mash together, rather than sound distinct from each other. That actually helps my sound. It doesn’t detract from it.”

Even applying compression “properly” is a side issue for Snaith.

“There are some tracks on Andorra where compression is a large part of the sound of the track,” he says, “Some people say that when compression is used right, the listener shouldn’t be able to discern it. I beg to differ. On `Irene,’ it’s the sound of the drum machine and a Rhodes being really compressed together, and then put slightly out of phase with each other that produces the really whoozy, pulsing kind of sound that I love. I never really read too much about recording, and maybe that’s why I do this. I just don’t know much about recording in the traditional sense, and any gear I’ve had I’ve always just messed around with, and said, ‘Oh, I like the way that sounds.’”

Snaith, a pianist since the age of five, started recording in his bedroom as a teenager.

“I got a drum set, a computer, and a MIDI keyboard,” he says. “That was a real eye-opener for me, because I realized I didn’t need to drive into town, get all my friends together, have a band practice, and then record a 4-track demo. I just spent all my time writing and sequencing music on a cheap keyboard and a computer, and learning how to arrange things.”

Inspired by jazz pianists and prog-rock keyboardists such as Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, Snaith began composing music that showcased his technical wizardry. But the world of keyboard virtuosity was effectively disrupted when he was introduced to Britain’s ambient techno scene in the early ’90s.

“I was struck by the fact that it was all made in a not-too-distant fashion from the simple setup I had,” he says. “And the music was not about technique. It was about programming things, rather than playing them, and it was a real challenge for me to wrap my head around that.”

Although music software and computers constantly improve, Snaith’s recording setup has remained the same. He tracks on an outdated version of Sound Forge on a cobbled-together computer, and incorporates samples off a vast collection of old records that he rips straight onto his hard drive.

“I still use Acid 4.0,” he says. “It’s loop-based, and it also works perfectly well with a multitrack sequencer. It doesn’t matter much, because I don’t do any effects processing inside the computer—everything happens before it goes in there. For most any instrument I’m recording, I use an Oktava MK012. It’s a really bright mic, and it naturally adds a bit of the ’60s and ’70s quality that’s on a few of the tracks on the new album.”

While nearly every drum part on Andorra is a looped sample from his extensive vinyl collection, Snaith did whack the tubs for a few tracks, recording a single floor tom by positioning the MK012 above the top skin, and a Shure SM58 under the bottom head. Most of the other “natural” sounds on Andorra come courtesy of a Tanglewood Violin bass (“a knock-off of Paul McCartney’s famous Hofner”) and a Gibson SG, with a Boss SP-303 Dr. Sample acting as a preamp for both instruments.

Still, the trademark Caribou sound is that of intriguingly blended and distorted keyboard sources. Never straying too far from his trusty old Fender Rhodes, Snaith nonetheless embraced the sounds of a group of beloved, antique synths, such as the Jen SX1000 and the Yamaha PSF 480.

“The Jen was the first synth sold in department stores in England,” he says. “It’s a mass-produced kind of synth with just one mono voice, and a few knobs you can twiddle around to get different sounds. The Yamaha was my first keyboard thing. It boasts a wicked bunch of crappy bossa nova and cha-cha beats, and it allows the user to change the envelope and basic parameters of the sound.”

In another example of Snaith’s somewhat casual approach to gear, Andorra became the first Caribou album made with the aid of working studio monitors.

“On the last album, one of the speakers had a torn tweeter,” Snaith chuckles. “This time, I set up a decent monitoring system—a pair of Mackie HR 824s—which, amazingly, helped gauge the final sound with far more precision and speed [laughs].”

Although he’s not immune from a random case of GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), Snaith emphasizes that each and every purchase is made only to facilitate his creative vision—which isn’t very dependant on the newest or greatest technology. In his mind, it’s the vision and the technique that ultimately matters, not the tools.