Caribou talks to Pantha du Prince
Hendrik Weber and Dan Snaith are part of a new garde of musicians who’ve helped introduce dancefloor-oriented listeners to a deeper, more abstract tonality. Using micro sampling, field recordings, and unique sound design, they’ve managed to carve out a special niche for themselves amongst the electronic music elite. At this year’s rainy Club to Club Festival in Turin, the two artists had a chance to sit down, dry off, and wax philosophical about weekend labor.
Dan Snaith: We’ve never met before, but you know my dear friend Kieran Hebden, better known as Four Tet . . .
Hendrik Weber: Yes, we met in Paris recently—we were booked at the same festival. I played after Aphex Twin who had a comfortable early evening slot. Kieran on the other hand had to wait and wait and wait because everything got delayed.
DS: I heard in the end he only got to play for twenty minutes . . .
HW: Yeah, because he had to catch a flight to Manchester in the morning for his next show.
HW: It’s like everything for us has to be squeezed into the weekend. I honestly think the whole concept of the weekend is dated anyways. I actually don’t know a single person who works nine-to-five, Monday to Friday. Almost all of my friends work on the weekends because they’re all freelancers or musicians. Apart from religious reasons, I wonder if there’s anybody out there who still needs the weekend . . . We should all have early parties from ten p.m. to three or four a.m. every night. I don’t like to support industrial working patterns.
DS: But don’t you just support alternative working schemes when you accept that everybody’s work shifts have become flexible?
HW: Good point. But nothing speaks against flexibility. I like it when you can decide for yourself when to work and when to spend days off hanging around your apartment. I’m just saying that the weekend is a relict of the past.
DS: I actually like the idea of spending time at home while letting people think I’m not in town.
HW: Of course, you can update your Facebook account every day with random fake snapshots of places you pretend to visit—the leaning tower of Pisa, the Coliseum, the Eiffel tower—all while lying in bed having a late breakfast.
DS: Last year we did, like, two hundred shows and played almost every night. If you do that for three months without a break you certainly yearn for a vacation. It’s a very North American ethos to play as much as possible. You get a shitty van and just wing it, sleeping on people’s couches until you’ve had enough. Personally, I like it.
HW: But it means you also don’t see your friends or family. Can you really deal with not having days off?
DS: I enjoy touring for what it is. And since I don’t drink or do drugs, I sometimes think the consistent way of doing extensive tours is almost healthier than the insanity of a DJ lifestyle—playing exhausting shows on the weekends and staying at home for recovery during the “work” week. It’s also a pain to constantly be in motion and fly long distances only to play short sets. But hey, if they pay you well . . .
HW: Super short trips are the most draining. I’ll go from Berlin to Helsin-
ki to Porto to Tunis and back to Ber-
lin in three days. If I’d draw a diagram of my travel routes, it would look
totally like a bizarre spider web. If you
think about it, it’s completely insane.
DS: I sometimes think about whether it would be more relaxing to spend all January in an airplane and then magically appear at all subsequent shows that following year. Or is it better to waste a whole year in the daily grind of accelerating and stopping, traveling and performing?
HW: It depends on how you define the “daily grind”. As long as I can make sure that the music I play won’t bore me, everything’s fine.
DS: Do you have changing set lists? What do you do to feel entertained by your own set night after night?
HW: I basically play the same songs every night, but different versions. I can change them while performing, which is what I always do. I’d start a track with the end or mix the different sections. Computer technology allows for this in very intuitive ways. Plus, I have some percussive objects with contact microphones attached to them. Whenever I play them, I’m improvising—I almost never play the same thing twice.
DS: I always say that too. But in the end, there usually aren’t that many changes between the shows.
HW: Then try to change the set lists! I know people always say that certain songs can’t be played after other songs, but that’s not true: the challenge is exactly to make that work. And you have to listen to your intuition. Not so long ago, I went to Oslo to play a festival. I was having lunch backstage and I heard the chimes from a nearby church. The bells sounded lovely and I mentioned out loud that it would be such a thrill to write music for a bell tower. So, one of the guys I was having lunch with says, “No problem—I can organize that.” More often than not, you escape the daily grind by keeping everything intuitive.
DS: So, how’d you approach the bell tower, creatively speaking?
HW: After thinking about it for a while, I became totally fascinated by the idea of creating a digital sonic city map based on different melodies played by different bell towers. I like the idea that you could virtually orient yourself in a city by hearing which steeple plays what melody.
DS: Did you do it?
HW: Of course, the project was too complex to be realized the way I had planned. Instead, I wrote a piece for bells, found an ensemble, and did some shows. Who knows—maybe we’ll take the show around the world . . .
DS: It’s interesting how many people say they improvise when they actually don’t.
HW: I think that you always have to relate in changing ways to fundamental parts of your own music. People come to see you because they probably bought your latest album . . . and because they want to dance. I always have that in mind when it comes to playing “new” stuff or improvising. I think I probably improvise best at home, in a studio environment . . . under perfect conditions.
DS: When I listen to your latest album Black Noise, I always wonder whether you improvised all the small little details—or if some fancy algorithms did the job.
HW: When recording, I really allow myself to improvise. For Black Noise, we went out into nature to record some of the acoustic elements. After weeks and weeks of doing that, we ended up not only with hours of recordings—we also had our own sound, our own sonic signature. We were very proud of not having used pre-set sounds. I think it’s important as an electronic musician to define yourself by your sound architecture.
DS: I totally agree.
HW: And then I listened to all the recordings in my studio. Sometimes, when a moment struck me, I’d zoom into the track and work with that little sonic detail.
DS: How long are these moments usually?
HW: Sometimes a split second, sometimes one or two. Never ever are they longer than eight to ten seconds. For me, making a track is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. There are all these pieces telling us what to do. We edit down our long improvisations to five- or six-minute pieces, and these edits then become the foundation.
DS: When you say “we”, who’s the other person involved?
HW: That would be Joachim Schütz of the Arnold Dreyblatt Trio. He’s someone who loves to dive into the sound as a whole—as opposed to diving into individual melodies.
DS: How important is it for you to start a new record with something conceptual?
HW: Not important at all. The concept always comes during the writing process. For instance, the concept for Black Noise came while we were recording instruments in the woods. But of course I had the idea to leave the studio because I wanted to know how it would sound to record a vibraphone in the open air. But I wouldn’t dare call that kind of curiosity a “concept”.
DS: So, the starting point is more method than anything else?
HW: What we did was figure out the practical way to collect sounds and material. Maybe you could call it a method, since I almost always start with a fragment, never with a vision of the final result. But one thing’s for sure: without computers, I couldn’t make the music I make. For me, the whole thing started to become really interesting from the moment where I could start recording on my own. Before that, other people were always in charge of the actual recording process.
DS: I remember my first sampler had a storage space of four seconds. It always took ages to work with that machine.
HW: Musically, our era will be remembered as the time when sampling overcame limitations. Do you ever feel lost in the face of the billions of possibilities your computer offers you?
DS: To be honest, no I don’t. Even if you have thousands of plug-ins, it’s still always about the idea that drives you. And besides, you can’t really have an overview of all the possibilities anyways. You’re limited to those that you actually process and remember. I’d say my limitations are what allow me not to get lost.
HW: There was a time when not every plug-in worked perfectly on my computer. They didn’t do what they were supposed to do because the software was cracked or because the computer simply lacked memory. But somehow, I always loved the moment of unpredictability caused by such accidents.
DS: Growing up, I studied jazz piano. One day I understood why jazz ensembles like Miles Davis’ groups from the seventies sounded like a single entity: they simply spent all their time playing together—day after day, week after week, year after year. Unlike us, they weren’t producing their own music—they were playing it.
HW: I was always too lazy to properly learn an instrument to the point where I could basically become that instrument—as if it would just be an extension of me.
DS: What instruments did you learn to play?
HW: Guitar, bass and piano. Knowing only a little bit helped me a lot to understand how music works though. And with the computer, I never felt the limitations of not having mastered anything. Focusing solely on music was the best decision in my life.
DS: For me, the records of John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler really shaped my musical mindset. Listen to Interstellar Space—it’s one of the best Coltrane ever did.
HW: I actually don’t hear any jazz influence in Caribou.
DS: I’ve sampled a lot from jazz records, and some of the samples have certainly found their way onto Caribou recordings.
HW: It’s funny how we take so much care manipulating the tiniest atomic particles of our music, only to have to take planes across entire oceans and continents to play it all live.
HW: I’m the first one in my family to travel around Europe and the world on a regular basis, even though real regular traveling seems to be an American routine. Even when you travel long distances there you still end up in a place where you can speak English. Of course, Europe is different. I mean, not everybody here is as talented as, say, Nana Mouskouri who speaks and sings eight languages . . .
DS: But your music is largely instrumental, right?
HW: Yeah—I speak the language of sound. And I could never ever imagine doing a song in German.
DS: Because it’s too specific?
HW: It just wouldn’t feel right. I love the language, and I definitely love some German songs. But it’s not for me to sing in my mother tongue. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable.
DS: Scooter also do extensive touring, too. They’re from Germany and they’re famous everywhere.
HW: You know H.P. Baxxter?
DS: No, it’s just that somebody mentioned them to me recently. I think their music’s funny.
HW: Scooter are bizarre—real Dadaists. For years nobody took them seriously. But somehow overnight, they became everybody’s darling.
DS: It’s amazing how something can all of a sudden become “good” after being “bad” for so long.
HW: If you just keep doing the same thing for a decade or longer, sooner or later someone will find some fascinating aspect to your art. Even the most serious German newspapers write nice, intellectual things about Scooter these days. In one interview, the German painter Albert Oehlen said, “Scooter are pure form, zero content.”
DS: You mean Scooter is held in high esteem by the German cultural elite? That’s hilarious . . . It’s even funnier than the fact that they exist. ~
Photos: All photos taken by Luci Lux after desert in Ristoitaly, Turin.
Published December 23, 2011.