Dan Snaith of Caribou brings energy to music and mathematics

By David Malitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010

To most people, the dual passions of Dan Snaith would seem to be completely at odds. He's the mastermind behind Caribou, whose new album, "Swim," combines the kaleidoscopic, psychedelic pop explorations of his 2007 breakout, "Andorra," with a more electronic, beat-driven sound that's as much about getting feet moving as heads spinning. And in his spare time, Snaith earned a PhD in mathematics from Imperial College London.

So he plays music -- an art form built on creativity and emotion. Yet he has also been a mathematician, someone who deals with strict formulas and theories. Doesn't compute.

Not so, says Snaith, 32.

"That doesn't feel true to me at all," the Canadian says from his home in London. "Mathematicians are some of the most passionate, most emotionally intense people you'll ever meet. People think of them as being like accountants or something, but they're a bunch of [expletive] lunatics! The most fascinating characters I've ever met are mathematicians."

Beyond mathematicians and rock-and-rollers being similarly eccentric, Snaith says the processes behind them are more similar than people might think.

"Music has an emotional punch. It's being unpredictable and spontaneous. But those are some of the things I loved about mathematics," he says. "It's unfortunate that mathematics is this totally opaque discipline. [Most] people have never been able to see the interesting side of it. It changes character after a certain point."

Snaith's own music has changed character over the course of a decade. His earliest recordings (when he went by the name Manitoba, before a lawsuit filed by "Handsome Dick" Manitoba of punk band the Dictators forced a change) were minimalist electronic compositions, but with each successive album he expanded his sound, reaching a creative and commercial peak with the lush, vibrant "Andorra." Snaith's songwriting was stronger than ever -- the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson was a common and relevant reference point -- and sounds swirled together into beautiful sonic headphone masterpieces. He says "Andorra" was the first album on which he thought first about composition and songwriting instead of his old method of beginning with a loop or drum pattern and building from there.

For the follow-up, "Swim," Snaith says he was influenced by his increasingly frequent DJ gigs in which he embraced dance music. He composed a set of songs specifically for those DJ sets, tunes he never thought would find their way onto a proper album.

"This isn't Caribou music; it's just over here," he says he originally thought of those songs. But eventually he had a change of heart.

"I think maybe I was fooling myself into believing that at the time," he says. "And then everything just kind of mixed together nicely. [The song] 'Sun,' for example, it totally fits on the album. But a month before the album was finished I thought, 'Well, I really like that track, I wish I could put it on the album, but it doesn't make sense. And then I realized that the album was living in this place that it did make sense."

"Sun," a gently, pulsing number that builds momentum on a woozy synth line and Snaith's chirpy chanting of the title, is one of nine songs on "Swim." As for what was left on the cutting-room floor? Oh, only about 700 songs or so. The incredible amount of leftover material -- by Snaith's own admission not all completed songs -- can be attributed to his work ethic. Although he tours with a full band, Caribou albums are a one-man show, and that drives his creative process.

"It's pretty much me getting up every day and wanting to work on music," Snaith says. "Working constantly on it. Making loads and loads and loads of music and then just sifting through to find the bits that I like."

Asked if he would ever consider recording in a studio with a band, Snaith doesn't sound too enthusiastic.

"I just like the glacial pace of the way that I work," he says.

And it might not allow for those random moments of discovery, moments he has experienced as both a musician and a mathematician.

"You really have these eureka moments," Snaith says. "It's impossible to understand or see what's going on. You're fiddling around making music or doing mathematics and things aren't working -- just a lot of trial and error in both of these disciplines. But then things just snap together. You can't make sense of something, but then when it works, it works on a gut level. You get this gut understanding of it."

Caribou Appearing with Toro y Moi on Monday at Rock and Roll Hotel, 1353 H St. NE. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets: $15. 202-388-7625. 877-725-8849. http://www.rockandrollhoteldc.com. As of Friday morning, ticket availability was very limited. Tickets are unlikely to be available at showtime. The Download: For a sampling of Caribou's music, check out: From "Swim": "Odessa" "Leave House" From "Andorra": "Melody Day" "After Hours" -- Dan Snaith

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