Interview with Caribou

Delusions of Adequacy recently had the good fortune to conduct an email interview with the mastermind behind the bands Caribou and Manitoba: Dan Snaith. His albums of laptop-driven “bliss pop” have earned him critical raves and a popular following.

Because of a legal dispute, Mr. Snaith recently had to change the band’s name from Manitoba to Caribou, but with the name change came a broader approach to the music as well. Caribou’s The Milk of Human Kindness came out this spring, and among its gems you’ll find as many tracks that depart from the Manitoba sound as you will tracks that follow naturally from Manitoba’s Up in Flames.

What follows is a transcript of the interview, which shows a little bit about the man behind the beats – how he makes his music, what inspires him, how well he works with others, and what consumes the time he has left over from making albums.

Delusions of Adequacy: Why do you make music?

Dan Snaith: I think I’d be in a loonie bin by now if I didn’t. I’ve spent pretty much every spare second since I was about 13 making music. I can’t imagine what else I’d do.

DOA: How and when did you get started making music?

DS: I stole a really shit sampler from my highschool and got one of those wanker synthesizers that were so popular with wankers like me in the late 80s and early 90s and started making shit with a little computer when I was about 13. At the same time, I was in indie-rock bands, but I didn’t think that shit was so cool because I was way more into Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

DOA: Early on, what bands or artists did you admire and why?

DS: I keep answering questions just before you ask them. I admired all those overblown prog-rock loons because they had good ‘chops’ and wore cloaks and shit. I still admire them for the cloaks, but turns out their music was total crud. That occurred to me a bit later in life.

DOA: How much of the music do you play yourself, and how much is sampled? Do you actively look for samples, or do you just listen to music and occasionally say “I’d really like to reuse that part”?

DS: It’s about half and half. I don’t actively look for samples. I’m just one of those record-collecting nerds who is always looking for weird records. I guess from listening to a lot of hip-hop and then getting into finding out what records they sampled from I’ve got a reflex whereby if I hear lots of drum breaks on a record I have to own it, too. So that helps with keeping me in stock with lots of mad drums.

DOA: Where do you get ideas for you songs? Do you usually build them in a certain way (drums first, then guitar, and so on)?

DS: I just build them out of loops. I never write anything before I record it. I guess it often starts with drums, but things can start with a sample or a melody I’ve played. Quite often the original thing doesn’t end up in the final track. I always record far too many parts, and the last part is getting rid of most of them and then arranging it into a song.

DOA: How has your approach to music evolved?

DS: Very little. I record things in exactly the same way that I did on the first album, essentially. I still try and work as intuitively as possible and never think too much about what I’m doing or plan things out in advance. Just seems to work best that way. I guess the reason that I like making music so much is trying to record something that sounds new to me each time and so hopefully that keeps the music moving on.

DOA: With Caribou, you seem to be moving away from some of the lush, poppier sounds of Manitoba and moving towards a more organic and diverse sound. Was this a conscious decision?

DS: No. Like I said, these things just kind of happen. I’d get bored if I ended up doing the same thing twice, so I guess my music will probably keep shifting around. There’s definitely no conscious difference between Caribou and what I did as Manitoba.

DOA: Do you collaborate on your songwriting, or do you tend to do it all yourself?

DS: I’m a control freak and work extremely unsociably, so I tend to end up doing it all myself. That’s definitely the case on this album. On Up in Flames my friend Koushik cowrote two tracks that he sung on, which worked really well. But there are very few people I trust [enough] to work with I guess.

DOA: Is your music career a full-time endeavor, or do you have to keep another job as well? Did you intend for writing music to be your occupation?

DS: I always dreamed of doing music full time. I’ve just submitted a Ph.D. thesis in mathematics, so now I’m doing music full-time for the first time, which is really exciting for me. I’m glad I kept the math on for as long as I did because I loved doing it, but it did feel like I was being torn in two different directions a lot of the time.

DOA: After being required to change the band’s name from Manitoba, how did you decide on the name Caribou?

DS: We were on tour in the prairies in Canada and strapped ourselves onto three crucifixes on the back of a flatbed truck, took a bunch of acid, and waited for a vision. The vision came and it told us ‘Caribou’.

DOA: Have you patched things up with “Handsome” Dick Manitoba? [It was because of Mr. Manitoba that the legal troubles regarding the name arose.]

DS: Never talked to the guy. Every impression I’ve got from him is that he’s not interested in debate or compromise. I’m happy to let him get on with his life and never talk to him again. The whole thing makes him seem pitiable more than anything else to me.

DOA: What bands or artists do you listen to these days?

DS: Always Madlib, Lightning Bolt, Animal Collective. The new Daft Punk album. I listen to a lot of old stuff as well. I’m well into this guy Phillipe Besombes from France in the 70s.

DOA: Do you have goals for Caribou — like selling a certain number of albums or touring every continent on earth — or do you just take it as it comes?

DS: I just take it as it comes. I’m pretty much exactly where I want to be musically so I’m happy as a pig in shit. I’m really enjoying touring, though, so we’re definitely going to tour every planet in the solar system.

DOA: How do you know when you’re done with a song? Is it tempting to always go back and tweak some part of it or add a little more to it, especially with all of the digital tools available these days?

DS: I usually leave a track for a few weeks when I think it’s finished, and if it still sounds finished after that then it’s a done deal. With a bit of distance, it usually becomes obvious if it needs something else or not. On rare occasions, I listen back to my music and sometimes think “I wish I’d whacked a harmonized guitar solo in here” but not very often.

DOA: Do you prefer to write lyrics that are direct and personal or abstract and open to interpretation?

DS: I don’t like writing lyrics much at all. At the moment I’m super into the Daft Punk technique of only using the words from the song title as lyrics. That’s next-level lyrical shit.

DOA: If you could time travel and play any instrument with any band, what band and instrument would you choose (e.g., “play drums with Killing Joke in 1982”)?

DS: I don’t go in for that kind of fetishist shit really [ed: no offense taken ?] but if you pressed me I’d say … oh fuck. I don’t know what I’d say. I’d probably want to spend some time and learn how to play an instrument properly before I do that.

DOA: What really good book have you read recently? What film have you seen recently that you would recommend?

DS: My literacy level has dropped to near functional illiteracy, I’m afraid. The only books I’ve read in the past four years are mathematics textbooks. As for films, I would recommend the Wickerman (the original, not the upcoming remake) because for some reason only people in the UK seem to know about the best film in the world.

DOA: Finally, is that a picture of your dog on the cover of the “Jacknuggeted” CD-single?

DS: That dog is a friend of the photographer Jason Evans. I believe his name is Harvey.