Six Questions For ... Caribou


Every day is "Melody Day" for Dan Snaith.

Arcade Fire and Feist got all the attention, but my favorite Canadian import of 2007 was Dan Snaith, the artist-composer-producer formerly known as Manitoba - until singer "Handsome Dick" Manitoba threatened legal action and Snaith switched to the nom-de-studio to Caribou.

On last year's Caribou album, "Andorra," Snaith's high, feathery voice, sun-kissed melodies and spectral, kaleidoscopic productions (flutophone! sleigh bells!) sound like something out of Brian Wilson's (or Rod Argent's) psychedelic dreams. It's jaw-dropping stuff.

A self-contained studio whiz, Snaith is touring with a band one last time before heading back to the lab to work on a new album. The tour stops Sunday at the Rock and Roll Hotel.

What's a guy with a PhD in mathematics - who studied algebraic number theory - doing in a field like this?
What I like is, they're both creative. Mathematics at a higher level is more creative than people expect. But they're both really hard to pin down. Music has always appealed to me very immediately, but it's also very hard for me to say why I like this song and why I don't like this one. That goes for music I listen to as well as music I make. There's always so much more to understand, that's hard to wrap your head around why things work and things don't. People often expect my music to be very mathematical, which it's not. It's aesthetic and intuitive.

You were originally known for building songs around loops, but it turns out that you also have a pretty great sense of songcraft: Some of the chord progressions and melodies on "Andorra" are just stunning. Innate talent, or was it studied?
It felt like a lot of hard work. I spent a year recording the album. I started over 600 songs, just trying to tune my ear to melodies and harmonies that sounded exciting to me. It was really hard to do at first. People think of me making music out of loops, but I grew up playing piano and taking classical music lessons, then I took jazz lessons. So I do have a background in the understanding of harmony and theory, but it's just a background; I write music intuitively rather than doing it in too studied a fashion. At the end of the day, the only really important thing to me is that I get some sort of emotional, gut reaction from a melody.

Where did the idea of using a flutophone come from? It's not exactly a standard instrument in recordings sessions, you know.
I kind of learn instruments as much as I need to be able to play the parts I want. Learning to play a complicated part on a flute is a lot of hard work. But I could kind of approximate the sound I want on a recorder. A flutophone is like a recorder, but it has a nicer tone, a more rounded tone. I ended up just picking one up randomly and it wounded up substituting when I wanted a flute.

How many instruments can you play? Or, I guess, how many can you play well?
That's the thing. I grew up playing piano and I still think of every harmonic and melodic thing in terms of piano. I guess I play drums, too. Not well, but enough to be able to play them live and to be able to translate rhythmic ideas into something I can play and record. So piano and drums, I can play to some level of proficiency; everything else, I learn enough to play the parts. I have loads and loads of various instruments piled up around my room but I couldn't play them in a concert.

Let's talk names. You used the nom-de-art Manitoba until the lawyers got involved, then came up with Caribou while tripping on acid. Why couldn't you have just called yourself Dan Snaith?
It's probably a more honest name. It's not like this is my project for a certain kind of music and I have another project for another kind of music. I'm always going to be making music compulsively and I need a name to release it under. But [Manitoba and Caribou] kind of relate to the remoteness and Canadian-ness of where I grew up. It's nostalgic for me, even if it's not so much in my music, which is inspired by music from all over the world. It triggers associations that are personal to me, I suppose.

So about your nascent obsession with trampolines: Do you have one in your touring van?
We don't. When I was trampolining in the U.K., they weren't backyard trampolines; they were very professional Olympic-sized trampoline training facilities with coaches and everything. The facility just happened to be around the corner from my house. Everybody there took it extremely seriously. It's like gymnastics, where you perfect each move and then move into a new combination. I found it so hilarious that there's a serious facility for something that's just fun to do when you're a kid. But I really got sucked into it. The last time I thought about anything really sporty and coordinated - I can't even remember the last time I did anything along those lines. It was especially good because I'd just be recording and recording and I needed to take my mind off of that and have something different to do. I'm the kind of person that be can be obsessive about details. It's really easy to lock myself in my apartment and then realize one day: Oh [expletive], I haven't been out of the apartment in five days. Not that trampolining is going out into the real world.

By J. Freedom du Lac |  March 28, 2008; 11:13 AM ET Interviews
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