Math Geek, Math Chic

There is some quality about higher mathematics that entirely escapes our sense of reality. The purity of the number exists on a plane that is seemingly untainted by our human biases. Fourier analysis can break any complex tone down to its component pure tones and simple addition will build it up again to the original timbre. If the musical and mathematical groundwork laid by Pythagoras is any indication, these two forms are inextricably linked. I carry with me the belief and concordant jealously that high-caliber mathematicians must see pattern and form where mere mortals do not. Being firmly in the camp of ‘mere mortal’ when it comes to calculus, I grew quite excited at the chance to chat with Dan Snaith, mathematics PhD, and the man behind the laptop creations of Caribou.

Fresh off the tour bus from Minneapolis, Caribou graced this city alongside the Super Furry Animals on November 24th at Richard’s on Richards. Escaping the noise of soundcheck, I spoke with Dan Snaith outside Madame Cleo’s (you know the place, or at the very least its distinctive airbrushed artwork). His sonic stylings are no stranger to this part of the world, having breezed in last May with the Junior Boys and the Russian Futurists for the first round of touring for his latest full-length The Milk of Human Kindness, which has been met with an overwhelmingly positive response. Beginning the millennium as
a self-described “dude with a laptop,” Snaith has turned his live performance into an audiovisual bombardment. While not the first artist to use two drum kits simultaneously, he has the rarer honour of making music that actually deserves the poly-percussive treatment. The visual component is provided by the Dublinbased animators Delicious 9, and Caribou’s newest release Merino is a DVD collection of all of the videos that these creative folk have spawned for him.

Dan stressed that, as much as this is a Caribou release, it is also the creative product of Delicious 9, and he wants their name to be featured and the visual product to be appreciated as their interpretation of the music in a different modality. With his mind constantly on music, Snaith is rather removed from the
creation of the videos. “I don’t want to wade in there and be like, ‘Yeah it would be cool if there was like stars in there,’ y’ know what I mean? But I do send them the music and then go over there and hang out with them for a weekend and talk through their storyboards for the videos.”

While he admits that performing with the added visual component is somewhat confining musically, it doesn’t bother him at all. “I spend so much time on the album taking care of how each track is arranged, so I don’t want to break them down into fuckin’ free-form hippy jams on stage. People always ask about
improvisation but I think that a lot of people don’t realize that when you go and see a band that’s just a fucking rock band they play their songs exactly the same way every night. I think people get this impression that everybody is just like Phish up there going [makes guitar noise], y’ know? We do have some freedom to switch things around, and as the year has gone along we’ve changed the show so that from night to night we’ll change it. It is restricting in that you can’t totally change the way the song’s going on the spot but I think that bands that do that are quite rare actually.”

Having finished his PhD in mathematics last March, Snaith remains uncertain as to how exactly he accomplished such a feat at the same time as he was earning his musical reputation. Apparently the mathematician and the musician were interwoven in a threatening inverse relationship: “It started off mainly
student with some musician and then in the end musician took over the whole thing. It was good, doing a PhD was great because there were no classes to go to; I’d just be scribbling away in the back of the van and not sleeping ever. Somehow it all worked out, I don’t know how I managed to do both but I’m really glad that I did. It would’ve been very easy to just be like, fuck this.” Flying in the face of a putative math-music connection, Snaith’s musical and academic lives rarely meet. Neither consciously informs the other, not even when it comes to time signatures. “I really enjoy them both, they are both really obsessive individual pursuits for me.”

Showing some signs of road weariness, Snaith tells me that he has only been at his London, UK home—where he’s been going to school for the past four years—for about two months this entire year. The end of the current tour in mid-December will see his return to the recording studio. “I don’t really have any
specific plans. I never plan things out. I get asked all the time, because I tour with a band, will it be a live band record? And that’s not really what I want to do. I like having live sounds and samples all together. Having said that it could be a live blues-rock album because I don’t have any plan until I get into the studio, I just start recording and see what happens. I never write anything before I start recording it, I just start recording”. When can we expect a new Caribou release? Upon getting in the studio, Dan usually offers up new mastered tapes in nine months. “It’s like having a child… My next album is going to come with a bonus child.”

If the names Manitoba and Caribou are any indication, this guy remains thoroughly Canadian, and I’m more than happy to have him on my team. At the end of the show he extends a sincere and deep appreciation to the audience, saying, “You guys are always way too nice to us”. Flying the ‘nice Canadian’
flag at full mast, may he conquer the world with kindness, or the milk thereof.

Being a stickler for festivity I couldn’t let him escape without filling me in on his favourite listens for ’05. Animal Collective top the list among other noted releases from Quasimoto, Four Tet, and Gang Gang Dance. And with extra emphasis, “The Daft Punk album, everybody hated it but it’s so fucking good,
and I can’t wait for ten years from now…[for everyone to recognize].” Just FYI on the Daft Punk, Alternative Press claims that Human After All is “a hilariously cold and mechanical work that makes Kraftwerk sound like Curtis Mayfield.”