Interview: Caribou

Interview conducted by Rob Galo
Transcribed by Brent Koepp

Editor’s Note: What you are about to read is quite possibly one of the best openings to an interview you’ll ever see.

So I’ve been listening to your new album Swim and that shit’s intense man.

Caribou: *laughs* That’s good to hear.

I’ve been listening to your previous albums since your first one on Leaf Records (Start Breaking My Heart under the name Manitoba) and I’ve been following you since. On this new album you switched your style. Whereas on your previous ones you had this ’60s pop almost German krautrock thing going on, on this one it’s almost entirely funk.

Caribou: I guess for me, it’s definitely more dance music influenced than the other music that I’ve made. That just reflects the kind of music I’ve been excited by in the last couple of years. I’ve been DJing more, been going out to clubs more, and I’ve been going to see gigs and stuff like that. The important thing for me with this record, it was obviously influenced by dance music, but I wanted it to have it be difficult for people to say, “this is a ’60s sounding record, or this is that sounding record…” I wanted to push the idea of kind of having my own combination of sounds, my own kind of fingerprint of the sonic combinations of the things on there, as far as I could. That was big part of of making this record for me. Trying to make it my own as much as possible.

I think you definitely did that, because even though I’m listening and hearing all these things from previous dance outfits, there is definitely a lot of sounds that are uniquely Caribou on there.

Caribou: Yeah, that’s great. Any music is made up of in some sense, by influences. That’s always been a challenge for me. I’m so excited about so much music, I hear something in somebody else’s music and I think, “how did they do that? How can I do my own take on that?” There is a limit to how much you want to do that. You want to make things your own. So I guess the idea with this record, really.

I’ve been listening to it and I’ve been trying to think of the drums. I’m a student taking sound production courses, when I’m not doing this; I’m wondering how much of the drumming you did live, or with samplers or using drum machines. I know you’re a pretty good drummer…

Caribou: *laughs* I’m not a good drummer. I’ve cheated my way my entire recorded history by sampling really amazing drummers off old records. And then we play live, I play with other drummers who are really fantastic. I’m a really, just basic drummer. But, rhythmic things are always important to me. And always something I’ve thought about a lot, so it’s something that’s always been a big element in my music. But again, I kind of knew that I’ve done so much of that, of like big kind of layers of really busy drum kit kind of sounds, like sampled off some old record, a huge kind of drum break or big chunks of a drum solo throughout my tracks. Really busy kind of acoustic sounding drums. But I needed to do something different. I felt like I’ve done everything I can do with that particular thing. And so this time around, most of the sounds are either drum machines, or just kind of individual drum sounds I’ve made, then played on pads or keyboards. There is very little in the way of a lot of traditional instruments I usually use. There is no bass guitar almost, and there is very little electric guitar. Theres bits here and there. But there’s not as much as compared to other albums. And similarly with drums, there are still kind of touches of kind of acoustic drum sounds to give it that kind of space, but a lot of it is programmed or played on drum pads.

That is really neat. Were you using any particular programs for those, because I know for a while you were using this like really old program…

Caribou: I used to use [Sony] Acid which is kind of like, I used it because at the time that I started releasing music, it was like the simplest, easiest user friendly thing that allowed you to loop things up really easily etc. And I just kept using, like for years and years and years I would just be using Acid the very first version 1.0 that they released. I never bothered to update. And you know technology kind of passed me by many times over. On this last album, for the the first time I thought “this is getting ridiculous”, I have to like, the reason I used Acid in the first place because it facilitated things I wanted to do. So there were things I really knew what exactly I wanted to move to which was Ableton [Live]. Which had all the ideas I liked about Acid: it’s easy to play loops, you could trigger things, all the kind of conveniences, but so much more. I’ve always kind of said that, it doesn’t really matter what software you use. It’s about, the software may set some limitations on you, but it’s about the ideas you have within those limitations. It’s how you kind of use it. People make amazing music on the most basic equipment. So it’s not really about the equipment. That being said, there are definitely some kind of techniques that I used on this album, making all the sounds kind of swirl around your head if your listening to it on headphones for example – going left to right, going in and out of pitch. All these effects of taking synthesizers or drum machines and kind of playing them. Playing all their sonic characteristics. As if they are an instrument I guess. And, a lot of that was made much much easier using Ableton. So I think it had a big influence on the sound of the record I guess.

Yeah, I’ve had a number of classmates, they’ve been using these really “advanced” programs like Pro-Tools. Then it’s like, you have these really giant interfaces, and it takes forever just to make it do something really simple. And then all of a sudden we realized “wait a minute, all these DJ’s and electronic artists have just been showing up their gigs with their laptops with Ableton on them.” *laughs* And so we’ve suddenly realized that these kind of programs are ten times easier, and faster. It actually works in real time.

Caribou: I guess that’s the thing for me, that is the most important thing, to be able to work fast. When you have an idea, it seems totally counter-productive if it takes a long time to realize that idea. If it’s not keeping up with the the pace you are coming up with ideas, then the software is doing you a disservice. That is the great thing about Ableton, as you say it really does operate in real time. For example, with our live show, which we’ve always kind of had our live shows being kind of technological elements and kind of live band elements next to one another. And the ways those two kind of things can interact now, the life performances and triggering samples and kind of all those sounds. The way those two things can interact are so much faster. That’s where Ableton… I mean obviously it’s called [Ableton] Live for a reason It really comes into its own in that setting. That’s another thing I am really really excited about to play this music live. Because I think if I would have made this album a fews year ago I wouldn’t have known to play it in an exciting and interesting way. Both interesting for us to play on stage, and also for the people in the audience to watch it. But now, I think it really is the perfect kind of time to play this album.

I was about to ask that. Has this changed the live way Caribou performs? Because I remember the last few times I saw you it was you and maybe two other players, and you would switch between drums and then of course your acoustic instruments like your melodica, and you then had your keyboards with you. So now I imagine you are also having a laptop in there.

Caribou: Well I mean, we will have a laptop on stage. But I’ve always disliked using a laptop as something that would be leading us. It should be following what we are doing. It should be kind of reacting to what we are doing, rather than us reacting to it. That’s the definitely the way it’s going to work this time around. For example, the main role of the laptop is to kind of be the interface between all the sounds. Like two keyboards on different sides of the stage, both go through the laptop. And a button on one keyboard can do something the sound coming out of the other one. Or can do something to the sound coming out of the drum pads the drummer has attached to the snare drum, or can do something to the video. All these things are integrated. That is the real benefit of the technology these days. Any kind of button or controller of any kind on stage can kind of do anything you want it to. So everything is really connected. A microphone could be the input that changes what happens on the video screen behind us.

Are you still going to be using visuals too, with this new live version of Caribou?

Caribou: Yeah, our guitarist Ryan does the visuals for the show. And a lot of it this time around is about that kind of thing: integrating it with everything else that is going on stage. We’re kind of playing the visuals live, rather than just “press play” on a music video. Which is kind of the thing we did the first few times we toured. That was the extent of what was really possible. That was kind of the interesting thing to do for a while. Now I’m really excited with the new setup. Where the visuals are almost another instrumental that we are playing rather than just kind of rolling some videos as the backdrop.

That sounds really awesome. Hopefully you guys stop in the US, so I can see you guys.

Caribou: We are definitely.

Are there any specific groups or acts that you are currently listening to while producing this new album? Because when I listen to this, I hear a lot of classic dance-punk. I’m thinking New York stuff, like Liquid Liquid, Arthur Russell…

Caribou: Yep.

And even a little bit of Talking Heads. Like the first time I heard “Odessa” I was like this could slide right in there with Remain in Light.

Caribou: There is definitely all of those things are part of, obviously all that kind of stuff came right out of the disco scene in New York. Arthur Russell obviously very much involved in that. I’m always interested in music that kind of falls in between a bunch of different things. So it sounds like this and it sounds like that. Arthur Russell’s music he played kind of 20th century ensembles, playing cello, then he played pop music, then he made disco music. So he’s just a fascinating character. And like Liquid Liquid, they are kind of impossible to figure out where in music they should fit. They fit in so many kinds of categories. But, I think there is a lot of that going on now which I found really exciting. I was listening to a lot of contemporary artists. Like for example is this British dance producer named James Holden. I kind of got this idea of making dance music that sounded really fluid and really all the elements were floating around your head. Disappearing and coming back and there was a kind of liquidity to everything. I kind of got that idea from listening to his music which had that same sense. The kind of synthesizers that build and then decay when you don’t expect them to. They then disappear, and then come back . The quality of the sounds change, and his music was an influence on all of that. Actually when I was making Andorra I was listening to his music loads and loads. And the last track on Andorra is called “Niobe” and that was basically an attempt at figuring out how the fuck he was doing what he was doing. Figure out how to capture that kind of excitement of things always falling apart or growing. This kind of organic sense to the kind of music he was making. And I guess this album, really for me, I looked at the track “Niobe” and I thought, I could push that idea in lots of interesting ways. So that had a big influence on how this album progressed.

The last thing I expected was to have a conversation about James Holden.

Caribou: *laughs*

Way before I was listening to more indie rock and indie music, I used to be this weird dance music nerd, because in high school I read “Generation Ecstasy” by Simon Reynolds and we have two or three record stores in Cleveland where you can still buy techno. So I was like going in there and checking out James Holden’s stuff and then he made that label Border Community. I remember the first couple of singles that were on Border Community were… oh man. I can only imagine what they would have sounded like on a club level. I would just listen to them on headphones and he would have that, like you were saying “in your head swirl” going on. Absolutely.

Caribou: Yeah, definitely. He is an interesting character. He’s a friend now, I subsequently got to know him. But you know he started out making kind of like Trance anthems…

Yeah, I remember those too.

Caribou: Yeah, and then the music he has been making since then has been getting kind of more and more eccentric and strange and interesting to me.


Caribou: It seems like… it’s never been my approach to think that I only listen to these genres. So i’ve always tried to keep an eye on what’s going on with dance music or music that is made from bands, live music or whatever you want to call it. I’ve always just kind of figured it’s all old, it’s new, it’s all kind of the same thing. So, this time around it just seemed like a lot more interesting things to my ears were happening in the circle of electronic music producers, and dance music producers than bands. Which I hadn’t felt for a long time I guess for a few years, it was exciting.

I hear you on that. I’ve found myself moving further away from actual bands. But since I’ve already been down the way of dance music for the most part, I’ve gotten bored there.

Caribou: *laughs*

I think yours is good though. I like your take on it.

Caribou: It’s always about finding the things you like in those genres. Maybe I don’t like 95% of bands or 95% of dance music, but the things I do find really do captivate me. And it really doesn’t matter what genre they are in.