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CARIBOU - August 3/07


As a friend of mine once exclaimed while listening to a particularly dizzying Caribou track, "You need to be a math whiz to figure out these beats!" Fortunately, the man behind Caribou is just that: a PhD in mathematics. Known as Dan Snaith to his family and friends, this Dundas, Ontario native first came to our attention under the moniker Manitoba. His 2001 debut, Start Breaking My Heart, was a beautifully constructed, unexpectedly melodic piece of what was once awkwardly called IDM, or Intelligent Dance Music. Likened to Boards of Canada and Autechre, it displayed a lot more heart and playfulness than most of its contemporaries. The next album, 2003's Up In Flames, completely blew that template wide open, delving into the realms of psychedelia, hip-hop and pop music, including some vocal tracks.

Then came his well-publicized copyright lawsuit filed by Handsome Dick Manitoba, lead singer of the punk band The Dictators over the name 'Manitoba'. In one of the most bizarre, unsubstantiated, yet tolerated music lawsuits in recent memory, Snaith opted to leave  with his dignity and bank account intact rather than his moniker. In 2005, reborn as Caribou, he released the lovely, knowingly titled, The Milk of Human Kindness. Milk progressed even further into psych-pop territory, making his status as an electronic artist an increasingly odd tag.

Now we're greeted with the exceptional Andorra, an album that features nine fully written tunes that reveal just how well Snaith has shed the cloak of abstraction and artifice that often plagues electronic artists by this point in their careers. Rather than becoming a self-parody, his continued reinvention has yielded another deeply satisfying album. The day after a secret show to celebrate Andorra, Soundscapes spoke with Snaith as he wandered amidst the conversations, traffic and sirens of his adopted London home. Step inside his mathematical mind...

Soundscapes: How was the gig last night?

Dan Snaith: Well, we've got two new guys in the band, so, we were all just, like, expecting things to go wrong or whatever. First show jitters or whatever, but it was fantastic.

SS: Is that the first for the new record now?

DS: Yeah, well second one. The first one was, we did this festival in the south of France in this villa on top of a castle on top of a mountain.

SS: Nice!

DS: The south of France, so it was a good way to begin.

SS: Yea, yea.

DS: So, they've both been really good shows. 

SS: So, congratulations on Andorra, it's very beautiful.

DS: Thank you.

SS: Even though your last two records have been quite melodic at times, this feels to me as though it's the most consistently melodic record that you've made.

DS: Yep.

SS: It reminded me of a quote of yours around Up In Flames -- back when you hadn't done much singing -- where you talked about your struggles recording and redoing the vocal takes.

DS: Yep.

SS: Has singing become a lot easier for you now? The vocals are so layered, it sounds like the comfort level has to have gone up by now.

DS: Yeah, it's gone up quite a lot. I mean, Up In Flames was probably the first time I've really sung in my life, apart from, like, y'know Christmas carols, like Jingle Bells, elementary school or something, you know what I mean? Along those lines. So that was really the very beginning of trying to use my voice. And then, yeah, I've become more and more comfortable with it -- not that I'm particularly good at it -- but I'm kinda learning how to do various things, get the results that I want and I mean, yeah, you're absolutely right. This album, I wanted every song on the album to be an actual song. It was all about trying to make...y'know, in the past, a lot of my music has been kinda loop-based. Kind of droning, music or whatever. (Here) I wanted every song to be a composition that developed and had an arc of a pop song. So, all of the tracks ended being vocal tracks, which wasn't something I was necessarily, definitely going to do, but I'm really happy it did in the end. This kinda idea that each of the songs is a pop song in some terms.

SS: Yeah, well, songs like "Melody Day" and "She's the One", there's a directness there.  I popped in Start Breaking My Heart this morning and when you compare them, the directness of the songwriting just seemed unthinkable at that point. What changed in songwriting for you? Are these songs now ones that you've always wanted to write but didn't feel confident enough to do at the start, or is it something that's grown over time?

DS: I think that, with every record it's about...I mean, the whole thing with this is even if I wasn't playing these records, I would always be making music I think. I've been doing that ever since I was 14 or 15 or something. Always just recording music. And so it's always about keeping myself excited about it and always about doing something that I kinda feel that I haven't tackled before. "Oh, that's an interesting thing to try and do, let me try and do that."

SS: Yeah.

DS: So, I kinda feel that each time is something different and so I never really felt that I, I mean, I like a lot of different kinds of music. That's probably kinda reflected in the different albums in different ways. But one thing that I never really felt I tackled at all was, y'know, I love, like, a Zombies pop song, or some sort of a love pop song that makes you get a lump in your throat. Catches in your throat, makes you feel a certain way.

SS: Mm-hmm.

DS: I felt that I'd never really tackled writing in that kind of poppy format. I mean, writing music at all, in the past, the songs and the recordings have been the same thing: I've just started with a loop and built from there. This time I did, y'know write the chorus, write the verse, and then record everything. Which is something totally new for me. So, yea, it's not a case of that this is where I've been heading the whole time, but it was definitely something new and something that I liked in other music and I wanted to try doing myself.

SS: How does your recording setup work in London? I understand that you record at home, correct?

DS: Yep.

SS: So, when you have such endless control, the big drawback can be that it's impossible to put 'things to bed'. Have you found kind of a mechanism to be, like, "This is done. I can move on from this now."?

DS: Yea, I mean, I've never had too much of a problem with that, I guess. Or maybe I've always had a terrible problem with it. (laughs) I don't know which it is. I spent the whole year recording this album, and recorded, like, 670 partial tracks or whatever during the year and then whittled it down to these nine. So, for me, the thing that I really enjoy is just trying things out and recording different things. Just constantly working through ideas, it's what I wanna be doing anyway. And then, when a song gets close to being finished, I'll already be working on, like, ten or twelve other ideas at the same time. So, I just go and leave (the first song) for a while. And when I come back to it, maybe a few months later, I'll think, "Well, this section could be a bit better", or whatever...

SS: Yea.

DS: ...and so then I'll change that. So, it's just a matter of time and then eventually, I'll come back and listen to something and nothing will say "that needs to changed" to me. I kind of, when I, it's not a question of, "OK, fine. I'll say this is finished." When I do get to the point where they're finished, I think they're really, really finished, so there is a definite end. It just seems to take me, like, nine months or something to get there, a lot of the time. Y'know, from the first note that's recorded to me saying finally done, it's just a long period of time. I think that's what it's always been, as far as self-criticism goes.

SS: Right.

DS: It's just a matter of time for me. If I start a track and come back a week later, I'll kinda have a decent idea whether I like it or not. If I come back two months later, it's like, "Oh, obviously I don't like that bit."

SS: How does spontaneity manifest itself in your studio? Do you find working at home, in the same environment, you can get a little grid locked creatively?

DS: I mean, I definitely, if you think about, uh, yeah so, over a year recording making nine songs means, y'know, I'd go like a couple months without making anything that ended, that I wanted to release or whatever, that ended up on the album.

SS: Mm-hmm.

DS: I think there's stuff that I could have released, but I only wanted to... let's let that go by. (a loud police siren whirrs on) But, yeah, there are long periods of frustration where I'm like, this isn't as good as I want it to be. Or maybe there'd be like, I don't know if I'm the only person who'd notice or if, whatever. There are long periods of "this isn't quite working right", but for me it's always been a case of, it's just better to just keep working through it. I mean, it's never a question of writer's block. I can always just come up with, "Why don't I try this, why don't I try that." But something, sometimes when I mix a track that I really like, everything just clicks and I can tell that everything's working.

So, it is, it's such a ridiculously self-absorbed thing to do to spend a year working on forty minutes of music that I often feel like, "This is utterly ridiculous!" To be putting this much time into just completely losing myself in my own little world, or whatever.

SS: Yeah.

DS: At the same time, I enjoy it so much that, I mean, I have the luxury of being able to do it so, I'm apologetically going for it.

SS: I want to talk about your relationship with Kieran Hebden (Fourtet). The one thing I've always felt about you two -- especially as you've congruently developed over the last six, seven years -- is that under the loose umbrella of electronic music, the two of you have a common understanding of how to make rhythmically complex music without forsaking melody. What does his friendship give to you as an artist? How do you play off one another, or do you as much as it might appear from the outside?

DS: Probably more than people might imagine. Like, actually he just moved today. He's lives maybe two minutes from my house now. It's either my wife or him who are the two people who hear these tracks before anybody else does. You know, he'll come over and listen to my new tracks and give me his completely honest assessment, or whatever. And likewise, I get to hear his music, when he's working on new music I get to hear it before most other people so, and uh, y'know, ever since we've met, we've just... Music is such a particular thing, you can have a lot of things in common with somebody musically, and still then there's, "Oh, I don't really like that thing that he likes," or whatever but so much more often than not we see eye-to-eye on things about various things about music. So, yeah, I really feel like we kind of, or that's why I can completely trust anything he says about a track that I'm working on, because we really do see eye-to-eye. And I think you're right, uh, we're both lovers of big melodies or whatever, but also kind of rhythmic stuff like dance music and hip hop music, old records with drum breaks on them and that kind of stuff.

SS: He's just one of those guys that I've never heard him do a bad remix. I rarely like remixes, but he just always seems to get it. His remixes never forget what made the song great in the first place.

DS: Yep.

SS: I'm guessing his friendship would be even more vital when you do record so much at home.

DS: Yeah, very, very much so. I mean, when you're in a band or something, you're bouncing ideas off lots of people and things come together a lot quicker. If you try something out and the other members are like, "That's stupid, don't ever play that again," and that very quickly gets left by the side, whereas it is very easy for me to get lost in, "Oh, this idea, this'll be really good!" and then, for a couple days, and then a few days later come back and think, "No, no. That's really not what I want at all."

SS: Yeah.

DS: So then, usually it's just, I think that's why things take a little longer with me, because, Kieran comes over every few weeks and takes a listen, y'know, when he's over, listens to a few tracks. Usually it's me self-editing, but also having him there to be like, "I think I really like this thing that I've made. What do you think about it?" It's really invaluable.

SS: You mention the difference in working with a band. How has playing live with a band -- I guess around Up In Flames is when you started that?

DS: Yep.

SS: How has that influenced the way that you record and write? Has it changed how you think about things?

DS: I think, uh, I guess that I always played music before I produced music, or whatever, before I made music. I started out playing piano, and I started out playing in shitty bands in high school. And I guess that's how I approached music rather than say, a dance or electronic music producer might arrive at it just from there, I learned instruments first and played live first. So, I think that's always kinda been there. Always getting that excitement out of physically playing an instrument.

SS: Right.

DS: But definitely, you're absolutely right, in that, that's become more and more a part of life. I really, you know I love, well, you can tell by my touring schedule that I love doing shows and I love getting out and playing music live. Yeah, it's funny, I'm not sure how, it's not really a conscious thing. I never, I mean, I don't want to be limited by, "Are we going to be able to play this song live? What's this song gonna sound like live?"

SS: Right.

DS: But I think music's just so much easier to get in tune with what, have some kind of physical presence to it, or whatever, how people are gonna react to music when they hear it when you're playing it live in front of them. Immediately, you can see, oh, that section should've been half as long or people are looking forward to going to the bar or whatever. And I think that physical excitement of making music is, y'know, it's so common for me to be recording at home in the middle of the night with my headphones on just like, jumping up around banging a tambourine, and I guess I'm kind of, sort of, thinking that I'm playing the song, or being a musician who's playing the song, when I'm recording it.

SS: Mm-hmm.

DS: So that kind of, like, thinking of things in terms of how they make me feel physically and make me feel when I'm playing them on an instrument.

SS: Yeah, yeah. When you talk about your progression and how the arrival of this record is not a pre-designed endpoint but just how you've arrived at it over time, do you think that making a live band record is something that you can see yourself doing?

DS: Umm, potentially, yeah, I mean, but the thing is, uh, I really enjoy the... (pauses) I feel like I kinda have the best of both worlds already because the live show is kind of, it fills that purpose for me. And I also really do just like that mad scientist, tinkering around with things over a period of time and getting things exactly as I want it. But yeah, maybe, no, maybe it makes sense to try things out. I can definitely imagine doing something like playing live with a bunch of musicians, and then grabbing the stuff and then taking it away and tinkering with it for a while.

SS: Yeah.

DS: Something along those kind of lines.

SS: You mention the whole mad scientist thing. I've spoken to musicians who are painters and writers who talk about the way that the one stream of art influences the other -- their music is influenced by their painting, or not, whatever. I'm wondering about you and mathematics. Are those two worlds separate? Do you find knowledge from one or the other creeping in them?

DS: I've gotta admit that for the last two years, I'm zero mathematics. So, since I've been able to do music full time and that's what I've been doing. I mean, mathematics is always going to be a big part of my life, particularly in, y'know, my dad's a math professor, my sister's a math professor, my mom was a math teacher, my granddad was a math teacher. It's just always been a part of my life. A big part of my life, so, it's still very much a part of me, I guess.

But uh, I think when I was doing them both half and half -- when i was writing a PhD thesis and recording albums -- I think I liked the same kind of thing about both of them. Mathematics is kind of a lot more creative than people who've taken math in elementary school or high school imagine it to be. Mathematical research is more tinkering around. Kind of playing with ideas and fitting things together, which is very much the way I see music. I mean, there's definitely no direct, "Oh yeah, y'know, I used this formula in this." There's nothing like that at all. But I think that I'm the kind of person that can easily just get into something that's a puzzle of sorts. Like trying to figure out how to do something, I can easily get lost in it. And both of those things kinda provide that for me. There's both really these solitary pursuits in my case, kinda things I can get lost in. And they also both have a kind of eureka moment, I think, like, when you doing mathematics and something really clicks, y'know: "This is exactly it. This is how it's supposed to work." And I get that, that's really the same thrill when I'm making music and I have some melody recorded for the first time and everything's sitting together, there's just this like thrill and euphoria of everything clicking. Everything's working just as I want it to.

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