Post # 15: “Caribou: BBC Essential Mix” – The musical page-turner

From London, Canada to London, U-K, Dan Snaith has been through horizons and styles as diverse as progressive rock, free-jazz and electronic music. Formerly known as Manitoba, and also releasing as Daphni, his bubbling creativity is only matched by his great open-mindedness. Last year he set another milestone in a carrer without fail by recording his first “BBC Essential Mix” which was voted the Best Essential Mix of 2014. Follow us as we take on a two-hour trip through the limitless world of Caribou.


IN SHORT

This is a two-hour mix from Dan Snaith a.k.a. Caribou,  put together for the BBC Essential Mix radio show, firstly aired on Saturday 18 October 2014 at 4 o’clock in the morning. It has been named the best Essential Mix of the year.


RECOMMENDED LISTENING ENVIRONMENT

This mix is composed of very diverse tracks, with different styles and changing BPM. As such, it will adapt to every environment. Listen to it when you do sport, when you go to school or work, when you come back home, when you get ready to party. It will fit perfectly. One exception though: I would not recommend it for a strictly “chill-out” session. I think it is fair to say this mix would fit quite well in a club.


DEEPER LISTENING

One of the strengths of the mix is that all genres are represented: house, techno, funk, soul, disco, and everything in between. The selection of songs and tracks is absolutely phenomenal and reflects the unique open-mindedness of Caribou. Combined with an always perfect and sometimes truly astounding mixing, it creates surprises and unexpected transitions. But at no time does the musical flow loose coherence or power; some tracks are weird, others are incredibly catchy,  some are laid-back and some are pure hits: each of them is noticeable for a reason. I like to see this mix as a page-turner: you never know what will come next, but you can’t wait to find out.

The mix is structured in four parts bound by five new Caribou songs: one opening the mix, one closing it, and three others at 30, 60 and 90 minutes in. It is not like the music stops before and/or after each part, or the mood changes totally; I rather feel that these Caribou tracks act like boost pads during the mix (just like in Mario Kart!), revitalizing it in a way.

LuigiCircuitCaribou
“Caribou tracks act like boost pads” [image taken from Mario wiki and edited by me, click to access]

While “Mars”, a brand new song from Caribou’s latest album, gives a ‘Rocket start‘ to the mix, the first  ‘Item Box‘ comes around the 15 minutes mark when in a snap of a finger Caribou switches from the James Brown-like “Funky Nassau” by Bahamian funk band ‘The Beginning of the End’ to Jack Master‘s incendive techno track “Bang The Box”. As the caribbean singer talks about his band’s “doggone beat” and how the “drummer plays his [beat]”, Caribou literally takes him at his word and replaces the spoken “beat” by the real, heavy and dirty kick from the Jack Master’s track ! Unexpected yet perfectly timed and efficient, in a word: classy.

Nassau’s gone funky
Nassau’s got soul now, oh, yeah
And we’ve got a doggone beat now
We’re gonna take care of business too

Listen to the drummer
Playing his [BANG]
[BANG]
[BANG]
[BANG]

And here shines the eclecticism I mentioned above: within 7 minutes, you get to hear a pure funk song from 1971, a techno track from 1993, followed by an obscure italo song from 1982 and finally a tribal house classic by the inevitable Armand Van Helden from 1997. Can you think of something more eclectic than this ?

Right after this highly unlikely yet enjoyable sequence comes another treat with the unbeatable Daft Punk track “Revolution 909”, the anthem of a generation to say the least. So how does Caribou introduce this track in the mix ? Well, he does not introduce it really. He just unleashes it right on time to maximise the impact. A virtually hidden drop (if that makes sense), and then the song lives its own life. I mean, it’s Daft Punk. Does Daft Punk need any introduction ? Definitely no.

Caribou’s “Our Love” brilliantly concludes this first half hour of the mix. The second part includes some gems from the 70’s with tracks such as the Underdog edit of “I’m Satisfied” by James Brown – it will make you shout and dance like mad – or the equally funky “We’ve Had Enough” from Arnie Love. This one leads to a more housy part of the mix with two productions from Daphni – Dan Snaith’s moniker for everything club-oriented – including the yet unreleased ‘Tin’ and its dreamy synth patterns.

Caribou’s “Can’t Do Without You” cover

A few minutes later, clocking in at just an hour or so, is simply one of the best tracks of the past year, Caribou’s “Can’t Do Without You”. A truly incredible production showcasing Dan Snaith’s skill to literally carve the sound: fine, precise and tuneful vocals at first repeated virtually accapella, then superimposed on a sort of round, smooth rumble that gets slowly, increasingly granular and powerful with time; drums that stay low, hidden in this sonic fog until Caribou can’t hold it anymore and frees everything: drums explode into pieces, synths fly at the speed of light and vocals try to surface inside these fireworks of sound. Oh my, what a bliss.

And you’re the only thing I think about
It’s all that I can still do
And you know you’re the one I dream about
I couldn’t do without you

The never-ending evil build-up of “Up” by Butric opens the second hour of the mix, which sees Caribou casually dropping unreleased tracks and edits such as the great ‘Call’ by Les Sins – Toro y Moi alias. Around an hour and a half, without you noticing it, the man even delivers a short course in electronic music history by linking together three acts that shook things up in their time (and still do): the post-punk weird sounds of Crash Course in Science in the early 80’s, the Daft Punk filtered house at the turn of the century and the magical techno of Aphex Twin with a track released on the last  EP of the Analord series in 2005.

Towards the end of the mix, the mood gently settles down with a succession of tracks which to me appear to be very special, almost intimate to Caribou. Absolutely delightful productions, digger’s secret gems that feel very sincere; like offerings humbly given to the listener as a reward for his patience. As such, I think they deserve a bit of background. First the warm and swing-infused harp arpeggios of Detroit’s Dorothy Ashby suspend time and invite you to travel. In the late 50’s, Dorothy Ashby popularized the use of harp in jazz and released several albums in the following decade. She went on to record with multiple rhythm and blues artists, including Stevie Wonder on the gorgeous “If it’s Magic“.

Photograph of Dorothy Ashby, probably in the 60’s. Image is taken from Wright Museum Archives website, click to access

But it is the astonishing, extraordinary, prodigious “Love Is A Hurting Thing” by Gloria Ann Taylor that steals the show here. Everything seems unreal in this song: the piano, the violins, Gloria Taylor’s voice. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.  A forgotten jewel whole diamond necklace from the disco era, whose original copies used to sell at hundreds of dollars on Discogs before it was finally re-edited.

After this stellar cut, Caribou sees us off with a handful of tracks, all of them radiating love. From the energetic “What’s Happening to Our Love Affair” by Danny Hunt to Caribou’s very own “Love Will Set You Free”, the mix ends up in triumph with english original rock band The Zombies, repeating ‘This will be our year, took a long time to come’. Knowing how fantastic 2014 has been for Dan Snaith, this was premonitory to say the least.

A truly touching finish to an all-round fantastic mix from Caribou who legitimately follows in the footsteps of all the great bands and artists he pays homage to in his mix. A lot more than a simple two-hour collection of hits, this Essential Mix shines by its diversity and impresses by the surprising ease with which all tunes agree with one another. To top it off, Dan Snaith’s own songs transcend it throughout. To me, this mix beautifully expresses Caribou’s unfeigned passion for music and his natural inclination to share it with people.

Complete tracklist is available on the Soundcloud page of the mix.


DEEPER READING

The BBC Essential Mix is a weekly radio show broadcasted on BBC Radio 1. It has been running for more than twenty years now. I already talked about this institution in my eighth article and the fabulous contribution of brazilian duo The Twelves to the program. Make sure you check it out if you want to know more about this radio show and also hear a two-hour “action-packed affair” from the Cariocas, as Pete Tong announces at the start of the show.

Caribou’s “Our Love”

Let’s go through Caribou’s discography now. Dan Snaith has released his sixth album in 2014, “Our Love”, from which five songs are featured in the mix. His most accomplished endeavour in the electronic music field, it has received a wide critic and public acclaim. I highly recommend you listen to it if you liked the mix. Caribou is currently touring the planet with his live band, presenting an amazing live show (see here).

“Swim”, his previous album from 2010, was also very much an electronic affair (including the hits Sun and Odessa) but before these two albums, Dan Snaith’s sound was rather ranging from psychedelic 60’s pop to progressive rock. His fourth album “Andorra” marked the culmination of his ‘retro-pop’ sound while offering a glimpse of the electronic experimentations that were to come. To me, its last track “Niobe” represents the hybrid double nature of Caribou’s music at its best: a genuine analog structure surrounded by a swarm of electronic synths and drum machines.

“Niobe”, taken from “Andorra”, 2007

Caribou’s first two albums “Start Breaking My Heart” and “Up In Flames”, initially released as Manitoba, were re-issued under the name Caribou following a complaint from the singer of punk rock band “The Dictators“. Those albums are the very subject of the lecture Dan Snaith gave in Rome as part of the Red Bull Music Academy in 2004, an edition attended by 30 participants whose face was relatively unknown back then, but whose name may be familiar to you today: Swiss house specialist Eli Verveine, local hero Carola Pisaturo, guitarist Jonny Nash (of ESP Institute fame) or Pilooski (half of Discodeine). For more info about the RBMA, fell free to read my fourth article here.

Caribou lecture in Rome (RBMA 2004), rightfully subtitled “How excellence is born from isolation”

In addition to this more than ten year old recording, another interesting interview of Dan Snaith is the Resident Advisor Exchange he took part in last September, following the release of his latest album. These two interviews provide complimentary elements about Caribou’s music and help us see below the surface of his Essential Mix.

Caribou Resident Advisor’s Exchange #218, September 2014

Dan Snaith grew up in London, a small town of Ontario (a province of Canada), listening to varied genres of music such as hip-hop, electronic or alternative rock, “something that was unusual, not for everybody’s taste” at the time. But feeling weird in an already “weird little town” fitted him perfectly and still does, as he confesses that “the weirdness of music is always going to stick with [him]”. In his teenage years, Caribou took classical piano lessons but soon moved to jazz piano, “an important step for [him]”. He remembers that his first teacher was “a progressive rock casualty from the 70’s” who got him into YES, from who he would eventually adopt their most distinctive sign of belonging: a mullet haircut. But – fortunately – that did not last long and soon Dan Snaith started collecting records and listening to “strangely sounding jazz”. He then learnt improvisation, a technique that would be decisive for him in the making of his own productions a few years later.

Fastforwarding in time, Caribou’s shift towards electronic music happened around 2008, after his move to London (this time in England). There he met people who were to change his musical path: James Holden, Sam Floating Points and Joy Orbison, all of them key figures of the London underground scene. With them, he started hanging out in clubs and DJing – in particular at the now closed Plastic People club. In the R.A. interview, Dan Snaith explains that these new affinities came naturally: “The people that I’ve always had the most in common with and the music that I love the most is made by the weird outsider person who is doing something slightly different on the periphery”.

Plastic People logo - click to access
Plastic People logo, click to access

However, nothing would have happened without the contribution of Kieran Hebden, a.k.a. Four Tet, a producer and DJ from London who literally kick-started Dan Snaith’s career in 2001. Having followed a quite parallel path as Caribou himself, Four Tet released his first EP only a few years before the Canadian. The two guys met at a festival in London at the end of the 90’s and immediately became friends. Caribou describes Four Tet’s early works in the following way:

“Here was [someone] who was sampling Czechoslovakian prog-rock records and weird eastern-european or american free-jazz records, and making music that just sounded like nothing else. A totally unique approach that just really appealed to me”.

The two producers kept in touch and when Dan sent out his first album to Kieran in order to collect his opinion, this one in turn handed it to Leaf, a independent record label based in Yorkshire. What happened next, we already know: Manitoba’s “Start Breaking My Heart” was released a few months later and it marked the beginning of a fruitful, continuous collaboration between the two musicians. Today Caribou considers Four Tet as his “musical kindred spirit” and one of the two primary people (along with his wife) to give him feedback on his work.

Daphni b2b Four Tet, The Hydra London, 01/01/2015 (low quality video)

Now, stepping back, it is not difficult to find all these elements in Caribou’s mix. I guess his natural attraction for weirdness combined with a broad taste and improvisation skills reflects here in the versatility and almost informality of the tracks forming this Essential Mix.

Besides, when talking about DJing, Dan Snaith recalls that he loves the possibility of “surprising people by doing something unexpected […] and use that to build an energy in the room”: exactly the page-turner effect I was describing before. His greatest advice to aspiring DJs is not to focus too much on the technical aspect of DJing but rather to “try to keep that sense of spontaneity and share that sense of excitement [with people]…” An ethos that – to me – once more echoes the improvisation process.


EVEN DEEPER READING AND MISCELLANEOUS

If you’ve read this article thus far, I thank you very much for that. I tried to include as many links in the text, directing you to different contents which I hope are interesting. However, if this wasn’t enough for you, here are some more to broaden your musical horizon and maybe entertain your friends during social events.

– Just so you know, Dan Snaith is not only a musical genius, he is also a genius at maths: he has a PhD in Mathematics from Imperial College, London. His thesis was about “overconvergent Siegel modular forms from a cohomological viewpoint”… Well, all I can say is that this subject sounds at least as weird as Dan Snaith’s music, which to me makes it all the more interesting. And I wonder: what if Caribou’s music could be theorized into mathematical formulas and equations ? Let’s go further: what if, from a chronological viewpoint, Caribou’s music was itself an overconvergent Siegel modular form (whatever that means) ? Have a glance at Caribou’s thesis here and tell me what you think. Don’t be afraid, according to his former professor, “Dan’s write-up […] really give[s] a very hands-on approach to the subject”. Phew !

– Last month, Caribou set up a YouTube playlist of “1000 songs for you” that “is roughly the musical history of [his] life”. It includes all genres of music you can possibly imagine so look no further to soundtrack your rainy afternoons, and the night following it. And also the day after.

– Here is a highly recommended Boiler Room set of Caribou going back to back with Jamie XX, who is an artist you should also like very much if you enjoyed the mix. Tracklist can be found in the comments section.

– Owen Palett: Also cited by Caribou as an key person in the production process, he released his latest album, “In Conflict” in 2014, and it is a beauty. He also tours with Arcade Fire as a violinist.

Owen Pallett’s “In Conflict”, Domino Records, 2014

– Four Tet: Kieran Hebden has set up a Bancamp account to share his early works I mentioned before. You can listen to his first productions in high quality and also buy them for almost nothing. Also, worth noticing if you are interested in his music, Four Tet manages a label, called Text Records. The Anthony Naples track “Miles” featured in the mix, which was still unreleased back in October 2014, finally came out on Text Records in February 2015.

– The Red Bull Music Academy interviewer, Eothen Alapatt, aka Egon: At the time of the interview and until 2011, Egon was the general manager of Los Angeles imprint Stones Throw Records, founded by Peanut Butter Wolf. As such, he was involved in the release of some defining hip-hop albums of the last decade, including Madlib, J Dilla and Aloe Blacc. These days he has founded his own record label, Now-Again, which specializes in reissues of mainly American but also from around the world “psych funk” rarities and lost treasures. I highly recommend you check their catalogue, each release is spot on and their compilations are gold mines. Follow them on Facebook to make sure you don’t miss the next one !

I hope you liked the mix and enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to follow our Facebook page in order not to miss the next article ! Thanks.

Until next time,

Alex

PS: Header image is taken from BBC Radio 1 website: access it here.

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