Stranding travelers across the continent as it forged surreal panoramas in the sky, the ash spewed forth by Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull might rank among 21st-century Europe’s most impressive natural disasters, but it didn’t quite register with Dan Snaith. “I’m barely aware of it — we’ve been locked away in a bunker rehearsing,” says Caribou’s frontman, in a Canadian accent unaltered by his years in London. “I haven’t seen a sunset.”
When I spoke with him, Snaith had grander plans in mind. The cataclysm struck just days before he was to set off on a world tour (he comes to the Middle East next Thursday) in support of Swim (Merge Records), a compelling assortment of aggressive dance beats, warm, sneaky harmonies, and surprising instrumentation. It’s easily his most ambitious record yet, an early contender for album of the year, and a strangely fitting soundtrack to billowing clouds of airborne debris.
Swim has roots in water and perfectionism. “We had a pool in our backyard when I was growing up,” he explains. “I could go from one end to the other. I figured out my own awkward way of doing it, but I really couldn’t enjoy swimming, because I didn’t have lessons.” His attitude changed when his wife got him swimming classes, around the time he conceived of Swim. “I never saw the gracefulness of it until I learned to do it properly — then I became obsessed with doing lengths every day, improving, and making it a meditative, repetitive thing instead of splashing around in the water like I used to.”
He thinks of his earlier output in similar terms, categorizing his work up till Swim as “messy.” It’s hard to agree with him. Since the 2005 release of The Milk of Human Kindness (earlier, moderately messier efforts were recorded under the name Manitoba), Caribou have been known for tight songcraft and careful nods to other acts and eras. Their second release, Andorra, was a loving homage to ’60s chamber pop, baroque in its layers of chary referentiality. “Because I’m a music fan, what excites me are particular sounds or ideas off records. As a person who’s interested in music production, it’s very easy for me to hear a record that I hadn’t heard before and think, ‘Oh my God, how did they do that?’ I naturally try and figure it out and do my own take on it.”
Swim was the result of working hard against these impulses. “I consciously avoided listening to other records. I avoided anything that referred to something specific in other music — I don’t have to use sounds that refer to other things. The most important thing for me was to push the idea of having my own sonic palette, my own musical fingerprint. With this record, I wanted music that people would listen to and say, ‘That can only be Caribou.’ ”
Did he succeed? Just put on “Leave House,” which starts with a keyboard riff that might have been lifted from Black Moth Super Rainbow (who owe their existence to The Milk of Human Kindness). After a few seconds, the mechanized, cowbell-propelled groove eradicates all thoughts of the (derivative) original. Listening to “Leave House” is like watching a Transformer use a Gobot for an arm. For Caribou to assimilate a sound-alike so completely is a breathtaking testament to their singularity and a potential sign of their impending world domination.