Daniel Snaith is a remarkable individual. Not just because of his astounding, cerebral, diacritic music that, nearly a decade and five albums later, is seeping into the minds of people searching for, as one recent reviewer put it, “electronics for grownups.”
The amiable, unassuming man behind the Caribou moniker is also the distinguished owner of a mathematics Ph.D., awarded by the Imperial College London, making Snaith more than just the professor of ambient, psychedelic-tinged, Canadian electronica. That his 2005 thesis, titled “Overconvergent Sigel Modular Symbols,” was undertaken while his burgeoning musical career, which began in 2001 under his first alias Manitoba, was well under way baffles the mind.
“I continued it because I wanted to do it,” Snaith states intently. “People say, ‘You’ll be able to fall back on it,’ but that wasn’t the intention. I enjoyed doing it, and I wanted to achieve something. Now, I can’t remember how I managed to do both at the same time, I must have had so little time to do anything else.
“People often think the two are linked. I know why people say it, people want it to be true. Even when I tell them it’s inaccurate, they say ‘but really . . .’ It’s just a shame people think math is so archaic. Math at research level is so much more interesting than the level most people stop studying it. It’s not like accountancy.”
Situated in the back of a car in his hometown of London, Ontario, speaking to Snaith ahead of his “tour highlight” return to Japan, his determined focus is clear and, despite his protestations to the contrary, it is impossible not to draw even the smallest parallels between the demands of a Ph.D. — deep thinking, meticulous planning, attention to detail — and the qualities that are encompassed in Snaith’s music: To paraphrase the man himself, Caribou’s music is so much more interesting than the level most people make it out to be.
April saw the release of his fifth studio album, “Swim.” Once again, it is a semiseismic shift from his previous work, maintaining his audacious, anything- goes approach to constructing dance music, but introducing a lucid, clinical, increasingly melancholic aspect that makes the album so instantly enchanting.
“I always felt like I wanted to make a record that was, as much as possible, uniquely mine. That was my thinking; I had that idea in my head all the way through to a certain degree. I tried to make it sound like me and only me, with as little influences from elsewhere as possible. I wanted ownership of every sound.”
Do you feel you achieved that? It is quite a bold ambition.
“It’s hard to say,” he says with deep sigh. “It’s a collection of music I made over a year of my life, so I have no perspective on it all. I’m the last person to ask, really. My main feelings on the songs are the situations they remind me of, the places we’ve been. I never listen to it now, but we play the songs every night and love it, and if we have a good experience in a particular town, I associate it with the songs. As for whether I achieved what I set out to do, that’s for other people to say.”
“Other people,” essentially everyone who has come across the record, have screamed its praises vociferously, threatening to take this most underground, avant-garde of acts into a state of previously undreamed-of public conscience. “I’m really surprised people have been so positive. I thought it would confuse or alienate people, because it is a very eclectic record. It’s affirming that people think it’s good, and very nice.”
Yet if Snaith’s stock is at its highest now, critical praise has never been far away. Longtime admirers at influential, cooler-than-thou Web site Pitchfork have championed Snaith’s work since his Manitoba days (a name he changed to Caribou in 2004 following legal action from The Dictators frontman Richard Manitoba). The word-of-mouth growth in popularity culminated in the award of the Polaris Music Award in 2007, the Canadian equivalent of the U.K. Mercury Music Prize, for best album by a Canada-based act for “Andorra.” An honor, surely?
“Well I suppose so,” he says with coyness, “but after I’d won it I just went back to being a hermit, so it didn’t have any real effect that I noticed. I don’t think there’s been sudden interest; I just think it’s been a slow, gradual thing. It was a surreal moment. It was surreal to be thought of in that way, as part of a larger community of musicians. I’ve never been involved in anything like that. And obviously it’s an awesome prize. But to think of your music as prize worthy is weird. It isn’t why you start making music.”
The acute embarrassment felt about being rewarded in such a way is as obvious as the uneasiness in which Snaith talks about the association with other Canadian acts. Does an affinity exist?
“No,” he says plainly. “I don’t think of my music as being geographically linked to Canada, or that I’m representing Canada in any way. The link is I’m from Canada, I grew up there, my formative experiences were there and it is a huge part of who I am. Otherwise, I don’t feel part of any scene or movement. I think my music is set apart.”
There seems to be a slight rejection of your roots?
“Not exactly, but I grew up in a s***ty town. We lived in the country so until I could drive I couldn’t get anywhere. I was stuck with nothing to do. All our parents listened to stuff like The Grateful Dead and that’s what most people liked. More people were listening to Grateful Dead than Nirvana. But there was a small group of us who went looking for things and we helped each other out, introducing each other to dance music, electro or Spacemen 3. I was coming from a place where it didn’t matter who the band was, when it was from or if it was cool; if we liked it, we listened. About that time I stole a cheap sampler from high school, and from then on I’ve been making music. I felt from very early on it’s what I’m meant to do.”
How about using the Ph.D.? He lets out a small laugh.
“I could maybe go into teaching again, I really enjoyed that during study. But I can’t imagine not doing music. It’s amazing it’s my career and if it’s there to do, I’ll be making music.”