Friday, March 28, 2008

Interview: Caribou

This feature appears in today's Washington Square News.

Dan Snaith, the musical brainchild behind Caribou, may have a Ph.D. in mathematics, but do not mistake him for a number cruncher.

"There's no mathematics or formulae or systems," Snaith said. "It's very much aesthetics."

Hailing from Dundas, Ontario, Snaith has put out albums under his Caribou moniker since 2004 and is keeping his musical output steady with the recent release Andorra. Caribou has toured as a traditional band since 2003's Up in Flames, an album recorded under the name Manitoba.

Snaith's previous projects confirmed him as a virtuoso electronic composer, featuring a style with heavy reliance on loops and samples. But his latest album embraces a more organic sound. All of the instruments were recorded live, except for a few occasional string and harp samples. The end result is far more song-oriented than his more experimental back catalogue. Snaith's singing pushes each track toward a solid pop structure, exploring the popular theme of romance as the record spins.

"I wanted the album to be a bunch of love songs," he said, "but they're not autobiographical."

Snaith has not entirely adopted a lyrical approach to penning songs. He said that while recording "Andorra," he first created the chord sequences and focused on melody before turning his attention to writing lyrics.

The critics have labeled the result as shoegaze, a genre that combines washed-out guitar fuzz with incomprehensible vocals. But Snaith does not entirely agree with the claim. He said many of the bands associated with the movement are not very melodic; he has instead christened his Caribou project as something between shoegaze and 1960s pop.

Although Snaith creates albums alone (a process he described as "hermetic"), he is joined by Ryan Smith on guitar, Andy Lloyd on bass and Brad Weber on drums when performing live. Lloyd also shares vocal duties with Snaith, creating the layered vocal effect that is endemic to Caribou's style.

Snaith is a versatile frontman, playing a variety of instruments. Since he is an accomplished percussionist, the band will often use two drum kits to replicate studio effects. In order to make the transition from the studio to the stage, the band spends a significant amount of time grooming their songs and honing their chops.

"We spend a month rehearsing before we go on tour, breaking down the songs," Snaith said.

The band now plays over a hundred shows a year, including recent stops in Moscow, Istanbul and Prague. These shows vary dramatically in size, from small club shows to "playing to 10,000 people in Portugal" during a music festival.

There is also a strong visual element to the shows, which feature video projections courtesy of Irish animation company Delicious 9.

Although the transition from bedroom producer to frontman is a drastic change, Snaith has gracefully adapted to being a more public figure. He cites his experience playing in live bands as a teenager for setting the groundwork for his comfort with his current gig. But unlike his Caribou project, Snaith's first musical experience was far from rock stardom.

"I started playing piano really early, but I didn't really enjoy it until I learned about improvisation," Snaith said.

Snaith began to focus on electronic music after a friend in the United Kingdom introduced him to Detroit techno. He cites artists hailing from cities as far as Berlin for inspiration.

More recently, Andorra has spawned a number of remixes. Snaith said he keeps tight creative control over how his material is modified, but trusts his remixers and considers them good friends. Results include British producer Four Tet's rework of "Melody Day" and Hot Chip's take on "She's The One," a track that features Junior Boys' Jeremy Greenspan on the original version. Once a fan created a remix and pressed the version onto vinyl. Snaith saw the product in Boston, and after experiencing the nervous pangs of not overseeing its production, he was content with the results.

Despite friendships and connections with other artists, Snaith feels detached from any one scene. Although many bands from his native Canada have found success under a collective umbrella, he prefers solitude. One reason could be the constant evolution of his music. Snaith dislikes classifying himself as either indie rock or electronic. He has managed to avoid the more negative side of the music industry; he disparages the idea of rapid inflated success and condemns illegal downloading.

"It's never going to be the kind of music that's going to be hyped," he said.

Snaith sees the benefits of the internet, which has facilitated access to music. Although he notes the "doom and gloom talk" of falling record sales, Snaith is more optimistic when it comes to the quality of music that's being made.

"Good ideas will always prevail," Snaith said. "People will always be interested in them."

Caribou will continue to tour throughout the summer. Since Snaith is unable to record on the road, he plans to start working on the next album in June. And if past work is any indication, there's no telling what direction his music will take.

"I kind of like starting from scratch every time I start," he said.


Caribou plays at the Bowery Ballroom tonight. Thanks to Christina and Dan for making the interview possible.

MP3: Caribou - Melody Day (Four Tet Remix)
MP3: Caribou - She's The One (Hot Chip Remix)
MySpace: Caribou
Official Site: Caribou

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