INTERVIEW- It figures: Caribou's music not by the numbers

Caribou is the moniker used by Canuck multi-instrumentalist and highly credentialed mathematician Dan Snaith for the laptop albums he creates in the middle of the night. It's wrongly filed under electronic music for two reasons: first, the electronic elements are a natural byproduct of his tendency to write complex arrangements with a computer and without collaborators. But more importantly, techno is just what everyone expects from a nerdy math student. But Snaith is a pop songwriter first and foremost, and his views on composition are far more conventional than might be expected.

The Hook: Your PhD is in something called Pure Math. Can you explain what that is?

Dan Snaith: Pure Mathematics just means it's not applied. It's not to do with science— you study it for its own merit. The one thing I like about it is that it doesn't bear much resemblance to the mathematics people learn in high school. It becomes almost a completely different subject— much more abstract and creative and even philosophical. It's also very arcane, I guess– it's hard to explain in terms that people know. All the terminology just sounds like gibberish until you study it.

The Hook: I know you get asked about the connections between music and math all the time, but does theoretical math apply to music more than the practical and applied branches?

Dan Snaith: In a sense. I do get asked that question all the time, and I think what people expect is what they hear about Bach— sequences of numbers encoded in the music. That couldn't be further from the truth. The way I make music isn't mathematical at all— it's totally aesthetic. But it's also very abstract. You can think of it in abstract terms, and it's that playing around with abstract ideas that bears some relation to the study of mathematics. I've met lots of people with those shared passions, but I don't know why they tend to go hand in hand.

The Hook: If you had to choose between your musical career and your academic one, which would you choose?

Dan Snaith: I already have, I guess. I finished my third record when I was finishing my PhD, and that was literally the last time I ever really thought about mathematics, really— about three years ago. My dream was to spend all my time thinking about music and playing music— it's so much more fun than sitting in the math department.

The Hook: I read an interview in which you said you're very controlling of your art. How has that defined your music? Is that why you still work alone in your bedroom?

Dan Snaith: It's a good question. I don't know if I'm in a good position to answer that. It's just such a comfortable environment for me now— I have an idea, and I immediately know how to go about doing it.

The Hook: Are you playing drums on tour these days? You used to play guitar and keys live; which do you prefer?

Dan Snaith: I guess since we started touring, I basically just fill in whatever needs to be done. The records aren't arranged. That's one tangible effect of recording the way I do— they don't end up with bass, drums, guitar, guitar, vocal. If the song has loads and loads of drum parts and no vocals, then two of us end up playing drums. On more pop standards, I'd be playing guitar and singing; I just fill in on whatever is necessary. The other guys do, too— it just requires that we switch around a bit. But I think I like playing drums the most— it's the most physical, primal thing.

The Hook: How does changing from pitched instruments to unpitched or percussive instruments change the way you approach your own songs?

Dan Snaith: My previous records were built out of loops. This time, I really consciously tried not to make the tracks in a loop-based way. I wrote them all in advance, and really wanted to think about composition. It was a completely different process for me, setting up an arrangement in my head before I started recording. I guess the rhythmic thing is a lot more innate— you just follow your nose, but [with] the harmonic or melodic instruments, you have to think more. You have the rhythmic elements as well, but you have more freedom to drastically change what's going on with the music.

The Hook: Do you use prerecorded backing tracks when you play live, or are you triggering samples and loops?

Dan Snaith: There's a laptop on stage which is kind of triggering samples as we go, things like a flute embellishment or a string sound that we want to be there, but more and more as we tour, we've tried to move as much away from that as possible. The laptop is also a big visual part of our sound, triggering optical effects and visuals that are sync'd up to the music, and the drummer is playing to a click track. It's designed to give us as much freedom to play together as a band, but also to have some technology as well.

The Hook: You said in 2005 that you were trading a lot of ideas with Kieran Hebden of Four Tet fame. Is that still the case?

Dan Snaith: Kieran is one of my closest friends. He lives just down the road from me, and I see him all the time, when we're not on tour. It's not like he does any work on my records or vice versa, but apart from our wives and girlfriends around the house all the time, we're the first people to hear each other's music. Especially working by ourselves as we do a lot of the time, it's good to have a sounding board that you can trust. He's one of them.

The Hook: But you're not actually collaborating?

Dan Snaith: Neither of us do any work on the other person's records. We spend endless hours either talking or when we're on tour [or] emailing each other. But he's much better at being up to date with technical things than I am. I'm a real kind of Luddite. I think people think that because I make music on a computer, I'm writing my own software like Autechre does. I've been working the same way since I was 13 or 14— I'm really slow to pick up new things.

The Hook: You also sing a lot on your records even though you don't consider yourself much of a singer. Why not farm out the vocals to a specialist like so many other electronic musicians do?

Dan Snaith: I guess I've collaborated with singers in the past, like on this album with Jeremy from the Junior Boys. But I make the music for myself. Being aware that I'm not a very good singer, can I still make a pop song that sounds the way I want it to sound and carries the emotion that I want it to carry? When I'm making the music, it's oftentimes kind of like doing something that's exciting for me and overcoming it.

Caribou performs with F*ck Buttons at the Satellite Ballroom on Monday, March 31. $10/$12, 8pm.