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For Dan Snaith, a.k.a. electronic musician Caribou, winning the Polaris Prize for his fourth album, 2007's Andorra, was validation of seven years of hard work. The award, given annually to the best Canadian album, was an odd nod considering the solitary nature of his bedroom recording and the cultish appeal of his prior releases. Snaith suddenly found himself held up as an example of great Canadian music. It was a surreal surprise. Of course, creating an album with mass appeal was the very idea behind the '60s psych-pop-inflected effort.
"I'd made music up to that point by starting with a loop and putting another loop on top of that and layering things up," he says on the road between stops in Toronto and Ottawa. "I made a lot of music that I was happy with and really liked, but I was never going to write a pop song in that way. So I took that as a challenge and something I'd never done or thought about doing before — learning how to compose, arrange, be concise, and put things into a pop-song format."
Indeed, Snaith completed a Ph.D. in mathematics because he couldn't conceive of wringing a career from making music. One of the primary things that drew him to electronic music was the idea of breaking through its usually icy, sterile veneer and making something that mixed organic elements with cracks in electro-pop's steely precision. He got his first break around the turn of the millennium, when he encountered Kieran Hebden, who'd already found success in a similar vein with his project Four Tet. Hebden passed Snaith's music along to a label, helping make his dreams possible.
After the success of Andorra, Snaith was concerned he'd be pigeonholed as a bell-bottomed nostalgic. Personally, he'd always enjoyed dissecting music and felt that perhaps Andorra's lilting, harmony-enriched, electronics-infused pop was too easy to unlock. So he sought to "find my own voice, that isn't in response to another kind of music, but a collection of sounds and aesthetic production qualities of my own."
That intent and a variety of new professional occurrences coalesced into Snaith's new album, Swim, a surprisingly funky, otherwordly dance-inspired blend. It germinated out of an increased presence in the DJ booth and more frequent trips down to the local dance club, where Hebden and other friends were spinning. It was abetted by his recent embrace of Ableton Live, a nearly limitless track-manipulating software program that replaced his antiquated Acid, opening up a wealth of new sonic possibilities.
He recorded some tracks with a horn section after a couple of concerts with a 15-piece band, overlaying his bustling electro-pop on songs like "Kaili" with a late-'60s free-jazz element that's "always been a bedrock of my music taste." Lyrics, which were previously an afterthought, became more personal and central to the idea and execution of individual tracks. Snaith also took his bedroom roughs into a studio to be mixed, adding depth and size to the sound while involving outside individuals (engineer David French and Junior Boys musician Jeremy Greenspan) in the final process for the first time.
Though concerned that fans of Andorra might be confused and alienated by the new album's approach (which isn't too far removed from efforts prior to his breakthrough release), he felt compelled to follow his muse and remain steadfast to his musical ethos.
"It'd be unfortunate if nobody liked it, but I feel like I have to release the music that I'm most excited about making," he says. "It seems to have turned out quite to the contrary. I expected more people to be confused by this record than seem to be. They're happy, and the response has been really great."
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