Interview with Dan Snaith (Caribou/Manitoba)

As published in L.A. Record:

Dan Snaith, mastermind behind Canadian psychedelic electronic act Caribou, was formerly known as Manitoba until a litigation threat from “Handsome Dick” Manitoba forced him to change the name. He released Andorra, the second album under Caribou and fourth overall, last month on Merge Records. Dan speaks with Lovely Linda from the road about talking bears, Ph.D.s and bloody trampoline accidents.

How’s it going?
We’re in the middle of Colorado right now in the middle of a massive flat field. It’s the dullest drive we’ll do all tour.

Speaking of fields, I read that the name Caribou was inspired by an acid trip on a Canadian prairie.
That’s right, actually. It was in a field not too different from this. We found out on that tour that we had to change the name or whatever, the lawsuit shit had just gone down, so we just stopped and took some acid and came up with the name in the middle of nowhere.

Did a talking caribou tell you this?
There was actually a bear. There were no caribou, but the bear informed me, “Caribou is your name to go with.”

What’s your drug of choice?
I actually don’t do drugs very often at all. That was kind of just an exceptional circumstance. When I’m making music I’m always totally sober. But that was a special time or whatever when I was just going through all the stress of dealing with lawyers all the time. I needed some kind of escape from that.

You were threatened with a lawsuit by the former singer of the Dictators…
Yeah, Richard “Handsome Dick” Manitoba.

Did that whole thing kind of make you wary of other litigation, say from sampling songs?
I’ve only used small parts of songs. This most recent album has no samples at all, there’s the occasional bit of strings or harp or something that I didn’t have access to or couldn’t play or whatever. But that wasn’t really thrown at me more because I was focusing this on writing compositions rather than having loop-based music which doesn’t lend itself to sampling so much. I’ve never had any trouble.

The whole lawsuit thing doesn’t seem to have gotten you down.
No, not at all. It was a pain in the ass sorting it all out at the time, and even just agreeing to the name change and all that crap, and talking to lawyers and dealing with all sorts of bureaucratic bullshit. But as soon as that was over, I mean people picked up on it really quickly. I got press just because it was such a ridiculous story. I never ever even think about it apart from getting asked about it in interviews. It never really comes up. I feel like a while ago most people figured it out.

I also read that you had this recurring dream where you’re submerged in a tank of water and a woman is trying to have sex with you and another is trying to kill you, but they’re twins and you can’t tell which is which.
Wow, man… I remember that vaguely. I can’t even tell you if I made that up or whatever. I do have extremely vivid dreams a lot of the time but that one’s not recurring anymore, that’s for sure.

I used to have a recurring dream that I was the devil.
Did you enjoy being the devil?

It was scary, I was 3 years old. I’d be walking up the street with my parents and they’d tell me I was evil. I’d ask why and they said would laugh and say, “Because you’re the devil, of course.” I’d look down at my shadow and see two horns sticking up out of my head and had two glowing red lights for eyes.
Wow! That’s fucking terrifying.

I’d wake up totally freaked out.
That’s a lot of responsibility for a 3-year-old being the devil.

No kidding. It seems like you have no problem with taking on lots of responsibilities, though – you were a volunteer firefighter as a teenager, you earned your Ph.D. in advanced mathematics while busy making music…
I’m definitely always up to something. Which is why being in the middle of a field in Kansas or Colorado or whatever is particularly frustrating. When we went on tour, one thing I had to give up was taking trampolining courses.

There are actually courses for trampolining?
Yeah, it’s kind of like gymnastics but on a trampoline. You like learn to do back flips and then like, a back flip with a half-twist, and then a double-back flip and all these different moves.

Wow, I had no idea.
Yeah me neither, actually. I just kind of stumbled across it at the local community center near where I live. When the tour’s over I’m hoping to get back to that and get some kind of a qualification there.

You should have brought one along with you strapped to the top of the bus.
These ones are big fucking things. You can jump really high on them. They’re not like little backyard trampolines.

How big are they?
They’re like rectangular instead of being circular and they’re maybe like 15 feet long and maybe eight or nine feet wide.

How many people can jump on one at a time?
I think that having more than one person on there would be frowned upon. But on the other hand, at the courses I was taking there’s like four of them set up next to each other and sometimes the instructors would each get on a trampoline and do a synchronized routine.

Are you trying to aspire to that level?
I dunno. Maybe one day. I wasn’t very good at it, that was the only problem.

It sounds really dangerous.
It is really dangerous. One of our friends just smashed their chin open and there was blood everywhere. And I saw somebody else land on their arm and dislocate it. The best story was somebody had braces on their teeth and there’s a move where you land right on your front, which is quite an easy move, but this person caught their braces in the mesh of the trampoline and tore some of their teeth partway out.

That’s absolutely horrifying. Do you have any advice for people who want to pursue trampolining?
You should go for it, but keep your dental work away from the trampoline.

Let’s talk about the new record, Andorra. I actually don’t have it yet…
Oh no way! You should have just illegally downloaded it.

What’s your take on downloading music?
I kind of do it, definitely to check out music that I don’t wanna commit to… I’ll buy something I really like on vinyl if it’s available or whatever but, you know, I’ll do it just to check out more music than I would have in the past. New music, anyway. I guess that’s probably that same kind of phenomenon with other people; it’s totally helped me more than it’s hurt me. People who wouldn’t necessarily have gone and paid 15 bucks for a CD will like check it out and maybe they’ll buy the next album or maybe they’ll come out to the show or whatever. I think it’s a good thing.

So your new album is more composition-based…
Yeah. The last albums were kind of sonically based, tying in different combinations of sound and things. So this time I kind of wanted to focus on pop songs that I love or compositional ideas that I wanted to see, could I do that? So I wrote the songs before I started recording them. But then by doing that I had to lose the kind of production angle, it was kind of a new element that was added into the music. So I think it kind of follows on from the last record but it’s got, I mean in my eyes anyway, it’s got more to it – all of that composition and more emphasis on the melodies and harmony and chord sequences and that kind of stuff as well as the production ideas that are sometimes similar to the previous records or follow on from them or different or whatever. The production is all independent from the composition kind of thing.

Is there any difference in bringing this sound to the live stage?
When the music is so much about loops and the actual the quality of the sound it’s harder to take those songs in a different way, where with kind of pop songs underneath, or some kind of compositions underneath, you can reinterpret them in whatever way you want and there’s still that thread from the original song.

That must make it more fun to play live.
Absolutely. All of the songs that we do play live on the new record I think lend themselves pretty well to us playing them live. We took them apart and tried putting them together in different ways and saw what was the most physically exciting for us to play, and hopefully for people to watch us play as well.

What inspired you to get your Ph.D.?
I only really did it because I was enjoying doing it. Mathematic has always been around me. My dad’s a math professor, my mom was a math teacher, my sister’s a math professor, my brother-in-law is a math professor, my grandfather was a math teacher… The only reason that I did the Ph.D., aside from the fact that music was still part time at that point, was that I was looking for something else to do. So I ended up just doing a Ph.D., not really because I was doing it for like purposes of a career or whatever, but just because it was something that interested me and something that I enjoyed doing.

Do you see more education in your future?
Music is more than full time at the moment. It takes up as much time as I let it, and I tend to let it take up more time than I probably should. I definitely like the idea of going back to university when I’m retired or something like that and learning more. And I can imagine doing it before then if I get bored of doing music – which I don’t show any signs of doing at the moment. But I can imagine wanting to study something else as well. I sort of like the student lifestyle. I like learning things for no foreseeable purpose. I’m not a very practical person, so…

No kidding. I never heard of any other math doctor trampolinist going on world tours with a band. When you happen to have a spare moment what do you like to do?
Apart from just hanging out with friends or whatever, most of the time I just make more music, which is why I spent the last year locked away in my room. That’s what I want to do most. I’m not the kind of guy that’ll just be like, “Oh, I’m gonna go out for a walk in the park today.” What’s the point of doing that? I could be doing something more constructive with my time.

Are you undertaking any other interesting pursuits?
No… For the last year I just kind of locked myself away and recorded all the time, and I took those courses and I watched as lot of Werner Herzog movies. So that was pretty much my year in its entirety. I got quite deeply obsessed by him, I watched maybe like 50 of his 60 films. He’s not making them as fast as I can watch them.

If you could tell a mashup DJ one thing, what would it be?
In the year 2007 I think I’d tell them to stop. The joke is over.

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