This interview originally appeared on The Vine in 2010.
You’re playing 60 gigs in three months, jumping from city to city. That must be a huge change from recording?
Very much so. Almost the polar opposite. A lot of the places we’re playing I’ve been to several times before. You see something of the world when you’re on tour, but it’s definitely best to try and come back and see the places you like when you’re not trying to do shows.
When you’re playing these tracks over such an intense period do you start to see them differently? Do you notice things you hadn’t seen before, or think of things you wish you had put in there?
If that happens we just put them in the live show, that’s the great thing about it, we’re always evolving and changing the way we play the tracks. They don’t have to be a copy of what’s on the record. They have their own life as we start touring and they begin to change. We just played Bergheim last night, which is probably the world’s premier techno club, so you can imagine the sound system. To play the show in there to an audience of people who were thinking about it in that way, it definitely changes your perspective on the music.
It’s almost like you end up with hundreds of different versions of the same album.
Definitely. That’s true in a number of different ways though. For each person who listens to the album, they approach it differently, it takes on a life of its own depending on the listener.
So when you release the studio album, is that almost a template that you imagine will change dramatically through the live experience and the remixes that will occur on the net?
Yeah, the live version will constantly change and I probably won’t ever listen to the pure studio album again for years, but at least it will be this permanent record that exists in that form for as long as people have it on their hard drive.
This new album seems to follow on from the final track on Andorra, ‘Niobe’. Were you already thinking about the dance direction back then?
That’s absolutely right, the album does follow on directly from that track. When I finished Andorra I didn’t have a good sense of what was going to be on this album but every time I revisited that track ‘Niobe’ I got the sense there were so many unexplored directions that it pointed in. Coming back to record again I was excited about so many kinds of dance music and everything pointed in this one direction, so it definitely was the starting point for this album.
That track seemed to have a narrative to it, as if Niobe was a real person whose story we glimpsed for a few minutes. Do you think about narrative arcs in your tracks?
That was something I thought about a lot with Andorra, giving the songs a narrative arc not necessarily in terms of the lyrics but also the way the tracks were structured and developed. That way of working has stuck around on Swim even though it’s much more of a loop-based record.
The idea of telling a story through sound isn’t so prevalent in music anymore, but it has been in the past, a cheesy example that comes to mind is Tangerine Dream in the ‘80s.
That was a popular idea around the time of those progressive rock bands and kraut rock groups, the idea of a long-form song as some kind of sonic trajectory.
The Canadian government seems to be very supportive of artists and musicians – have you experienced any help from them?
They helped us with the last tour, which was great, but this time around I’m consciously not applying for any grants just because I feel like I’ve finally reached a point where we can do things on our own and I’d like to see that money going to other people who need it more. It’s quite problematic, as grants are integral to promoting Canadian music but it’s also hard to allocate that money correctly or fairly. Giving me, who’s already an established artist, money to do something that I probably would have done anyway seems to me less appealing than giving it to someone who wouldn’t have been able to record, but then how do you find that other artist? It’s a difficult issue and I don’t know what the agenda is either. It seems to often be more about promoting the country’s music internationally than it is about fostering young talent. There’s less interest in people nobody’s heard of yet.
Is it true you recorded almost 600 tracks for this album?
Over 600 tracks, though mostly half finished tracks I guess.
It sounds like you need a reality show to get people to pick the best tracks – Caribou Idol maybe.
Might be an idea. They all seemed like part of the process though. They’re steps along the way, it’s not like I’m thinking, ‘which of these 60 albums will I end up releasing’. It seemed kind of obvious which tracks should go on there. They’re intermediate things, but entirely necessary. I don’t know how I’d make the album without making all of that music.
Do you work in a fragmentary fashion, cobbling together one-minute pieces here and there as you see something larger forming?
Very much like that actually. It’s hard to stitch things together though and inevitably lots of ideas get left behind. There are often great little bits that I know would make a nice segment in a song but I have no way of incorporating them. But maybe I’ll notice that what I like about the little bit is the synthesizer sound or the melody and that ends up being incorporated into a longer track.
It seems like a literary way of working, like the album is a novel and the tracks are all chapters that slowly start to fit together to form a whole.
I’d be interested to know how it compares. How much to people over-write for a novel? Do they write way more than what ends up in there? I have musical friends who will make ten tracks and all those tracks go on the album and they spend all their time and hard work finessing the various parts of those tracks. With me it’s about generating lots and lots of ideas as I try to figure out what the hell I’m doing.
Is there much of a mathematical process in creating the tracks?
No, definitely not. It’s about getting an emotional kick or punch from the music, a sense of excitement. I don’t know what people imagine I do, whether they think I have a blackboard on my wall covered in formulae that I study and then turn around and start playing chords on a synthesizer. I mean, I like mathematics and music for the same reason, that they’re both creative and imaginative and abstract and are contained inside your head, but there’s definitely no direct input from mathematics into my music. That’s why I liked the mathematics I did, because it was absolutely inapplicable to everything else in the world. It was completely abstract, that’s why it was appealing.
I read somewhere there was a lot of hidden formulae and mathematics in your music that only nerds would spot, but it sounded like bullshit to me.
That’s definitely bullshit. I can understand why people want that to be true though. The whole thing about music that makes it interesting is that it’s impossible to figure out what’s going on. It’s totally opaque and the only way to figure out what to do or what’s exciting is through intuition and your emotional response. If we knew how to take a formula and make a track from it, music would become banal. It’s the opacity that makes it magical.
Does your own emotional reaction to hearing the music on tour give you inspiration for new ideas?
No, not really. Maybe one or two of the albums have been informed by the live show but I actually like touring and recording being completely separate. I like going back to the studio after touring and starting from scratch. With recording and touring, one feeds into the other obviously, but there’s not much connection between playing live and recording.
So is touring your way of getting the songs out of your system?
Yeah, you get to enjoy them. There’s so much labour and frustration in finishing the album that going out to play them is a real release. You get to enjoy the songs and enjoy sharing them with people. Recording always seems to be so stressful for me, I’m always thinking it’s not working, but touring allows me to get away from that completely and enjoy myself.
Will you come back to Australia this summer?
We are going to, yes. I don’t know exactly when, but we will definitely be back. It seems like a good record to follow the summer around the world with.