Under Water Caribou creates a production concept album based on the sounds of swimming

Until recently, Caribou’s Dan Snaith didn’t know how to swim. But his wife got him swimming lessons as a Christmas present, and now when he’s not making music, he’s in the water. In fact, swimming became the production concept for his latest album, Swim (Merge).

Until recently, Caribou’s Dan Snaith didn’t know how to swim. But his wife got him swimming lessons as a Christmas present, and now when he’s not making music, he’s in the water. In fact, swimming became the production concept for his latest album, Swim (Merge).

Snaith, who has also released albums as Manitoba and has a Ph.D in mathematics, decided to bring the aural effects of water into his compositions. “A big part of the sonic production aesthetic with this album was about having some idea of fluidity or liquidity in the elements of the music,” he says. “Everything is washing around your head, flowing around in a way like waves or liquid would, rather than being very metallic or rigid, the way that a lot of sounds in dance music typically are.”

When Snaith only knew how to do the doggy paddle with his head above water, he wasn’t aware of how sound changed in and out of water. “The characteristics of water are so different, sonically,” he says. “When you’re swimming, one ear comes out of the water, then both ears are in the water, and then the other one. So you get the sense of the sonic space as you’re in rocking back and forth.”

Consequently, musical ideas often came to Snaith while swimming. “I’d think, that would be something interesting to happen: Something appears in one ear in a very crisp, clear sound, and in the other ear, it’s kind of reverb-y or echo-y and watery,” he says. “And it flips back and forth.” Snaith used Ableton Live as his primary engine to modulate parameters for the swimming effect, such as the wavering synth pitch on “Hannibal.”

As for his mathematics degree, Snaith says it helps him get creative faster. “I don’t mind figuring out, ‘Okay, how does this work?’ But that’s not the interesting part,” he says. “The interesting part is what happens once all that stuff is second nature. For example, growing up playing piano, you play all these scales, not because anybody likes playing scales. But having practiced and learned how to play in a certain way, translating your idea into a musical or technical result is easier. And that’s what’s interesting about mathematics, not the boring part, which unfortunately is all you get when you’re in high school.”

An Arturia ARP 2600 V soft synth and an M-Audio Axiom 49 MIDI controller helped Snaith come up with ideas quickly, such as the thick layers of metallic synths on “Kaili.” “I took the part and made four layers of it, and then I shifted over the second, third, and fourth layers so that they’re all happening at slightly different times,” he says. “The second comes in slightly after the first one, and the third one comes in slightly after the second one, etc. And then they’re all modulating differently—maybe one of the filters is turned down or has some weird vibrato—going around your head, coming in, fading to silence, and then coming back in again.”

Miking is a simple proposition for Snaith, with a borrowed Neumann TLM 103 for vocals and a Coles 4038 ribbon mic as one drum overhead. But although he recorded a lot of live drums this time, most of the takes didn’t make it to Swim, mainly because he wanted to do something different than he’d done on previous releases.

The ringing percussive sounds on “Bowls” were created using just that—bowls. “They’re these two Tibetan singing bowls that I got when I spent a month traveling around southwest China last year,” he says. “I picked them up, got them home, and sampled them just once. Then I mapped that sound onto a keyboard and played it as if it were a synthesizer.”

Meanwhile, the combination of pulsing keyboards and crunchy drums on “Found Out” was created with layers of Fender Rhodes with a slow chorus effect, organ, and orchestral percussion samples meshed with a digital-sounding distortion. And on “Odessa,” Snaith sampled a bass note from an old musique concrète record, mapped it onto the Axiom, changed the decay, and played the wobbly, bulbous bass part. “A lot of the sounds on the record are some hybrid of an acoustic sound treated as if it were a synthesizer,” he says.

Although originally from Canada— London, Ontario, to be exact—Snaith now lives in the other London (England) and mixed the album with UK engineer David Wrench, as well as Jeremy Greenspan (Junior Boys) back in Hamilton, Canada.

This time, he wanted to create a mix that was exciting, not perfect. “One mix that I always come back to is the Shuggie Otis album, Inspiration Information, and the track ‘Island Letter,’” Snaith says. “There’s a point where a Fender Rhodes melody appears in one ear, incredibly loud. Everything else is so beautifully mixed and recorded and sounds like you couldn’t even dream of it sounding anymore lush. And then that comes in totally out of the blue. It’s weird moments like that, that always captivate me and make me excited about making music.”

Snaith describes his previous mixing process (involving Mackie HR824 monitors) as “messy, idiosyncratic, and sloppy-sounding.” But he learned a lot from Wrench and Greenspan. He also made their job more difficult.

“I live on a main street, and there are constantly big buses and trucks going past the window,” Snaith says. “So all of the vocal tracks have rumbling and noises in the background, and then I added an echo or a reverb. So when I took these tracks to be mixed, I asked Dave and Jeremy, ‘Is there anything that I could have done to make the parts easier for you to work with?’ And they said, ‘Well, at least get rid of the bus sound before you put the reverb on it. Not only is there a bus on the record, but there’s a big reverb’d bus in the background.’”