Playing Rather Than Programming: Caribou, June 5 at RIBCO Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 26 May 2010 06:02

Caribou's Dan Snaith

Dan Snaith sounds tired of answering questions about math.

He comes from a family of mathematicians; he earned a Ph.D. in the field in 2005. And because he records and performs (under the name Caribou) electronic music, journalists (this one included) ask him a lot of questions about the relationship between his primary academic and musical pursuits. They both involve computers, don't they?

Snaith -- who will be playing with his band at a Daytrotter show at RIBCO on Saturday, June 5 -- said there are some similarities. But not many. "Being able to do what you want ... is kind of an intuitive process," he said in a phone interview last week. "In both mathematics and in music, you kind of have to use some gut-level intuition to piece things together. [But] I think they're very different in many ways."

What's evident listening to the music of Caribou is that Snaith's electronic instruments are largely tools, not ends. There are certainly electronic sounds, but the songs sound organic and feel handmade, and his singing voice is ethereal, warm, and emotive -- a perfect offset to any digital coolness. Put differently, there's nothing mathematical about Caribou's songs.

The Onion AV Club accurately summed up the Caribou approach to electronic music: "Each time, bleeps and bloops made appearances but seemed beside the point: Caribou is more about ecstatic synthesis than synthetics."

Snaith's dreamy album Andorra won the 2008 Polaris Music Prize -- awarded to the year's best Canadian album -- and his new record, the dance-y Swim, was called "his strangest and gutsiest work yet" by the AV Club. PopMatters noted that the album's "sonics boast valleys and peaks that play out like the domestic dramas contained within the lyrics."

Snaith said he records hundreds if not thousands of hours of music over the course of a year, and "you often get a sense when you're making a piece of music whether it will work or not. But it also often turns out to be a false sense." That means that Snaith is often exploring things that never become songs; but because he can't trust that first instinct, he's also mining hidden gold out of material that didn't seem initially promising.

Prior to Andorra, Snaith largely pieced his songs together without a blueprint; his 2007 album was the first time he wrote before assembling. Swim employed both songwriting techniques, but Snaith said there was another difference: "I had an aesthetic concept in mind at the beginning of making music that sounded fluid or liquid ... ."

The album was spurred by the Andorra-closing "Niobe," which was itself inspired by the work of dance-music producer James Holden, "whose music although it's electronic seems to breathe, really builds and decays in a natural or unpredictable way," Snaith said. "Listening back to 'Niobe' while making this record, it seemed like there were lots of leads to follow from there."

And while Snaith said that he's been listening exclusively to dance music since late in the creation process for Andorra, his interest is in creating (and hearing) music that's "idiosyncratic" and "weird": "I like music that genuinely sounds live, whether it's played on electronic instruments or not. It has that kind of ... humanity ... . I'm playing it rather than programming it."

But because of the way the songs are composed and recorded, they don't necessarily lend themselves to live performance without significant retooling.

"The four of us in the band kind of discuss each song and tear them all apart and put them back together in whatever way we deem most suitable, most exciting," Snaith said. "They don't have to be facsimiles of the versions on the album."

But he at first worried that much of Swim wouldn't survive the translation. "I was really concerned when we started rehearsing that the songs weren't going to work live," he said. "I wanted us to be properly performing them live, not kind of relying on some electronic means that limited what we could do ... . I wanted them to be free, as if we were playing [all] traditional instruments."

Caribou will perform on Saturday, June 5, at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue in Rock Island). The bill also includes Datagun and Centaur Noir, and the all-ages show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door. For tickets, visit

For more information on Caribou, visit or

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