“A balding maths professor.” That’s how Dan Snaith, the man behind the hugely successful electronic dance project Caribou, identifies himself after 15 years in the music industry. That’s hardly the only thing that makes him stand out from the typical electro crowd: meet a proud father of one, with a background in jazz piano and a PhD in mathematics. After spending over a decade in London, Caribou admits he is still very much Canadian (despite a slight British accent creeping in) and is always happy to pay a visit to the home ground. Vancouver Weekly talked to him about love, geography, and the failures of jazz world.
Vancouver Weekly: You’re a family man now. How does that go down with busy touring?
Dan Snaith: I can’t tour as much as I used to. Before, we used to go away for months. But I won’t trade my family for anything. My daughter is three-and-a-half and is about to start school. Traveling with children is not as hard as it sounds. When she was eight months old, she was with me on the Radiohead tour, and it went fine. Although, she’s unlikely to remember it.
VW: How do you feel when you come back to play in Canada?
DS: I always feel great about coming back. It’s still home, and all the press releases identify me with being a Canadian. I am always nostalgic about growing up in rural Ontario; it’s the most idyllic thing I can think of. My daughter is growing up in London, and I miss that Canadian childhood for her.
VW: Do you think there is a geographical aspect to your music?
DS: Definitely not. The thing that I liked about living in the middle of nowhere is that we had to invent our own music. We were a group of friends trying to get [our] hands on anything that was interesting and weird, and there was no identity that we had or even could adhere to. There was no scene. We made it all up for ourselves. That gave me a more global, non-geographic approach that’s about universal things.
VW: Your new album, Our Love, is dedicated to a universal value. Are you happy with the way the record has been received?
DS: It’s been crazy and pretty overwhelming. I’ve always felt lucky that I could do what I wanted to do. My labels were very understanding. I never had to compromise. I mean, to be able to reach out to that many people by not giving concessions to popularity is pretty amazing. That just shouldn’t happen for a balding maths professor in his mid-30s! So I wanted to make this record to say thank you and share the feeling of warmth and generosity. It’s a very genuine feeling; I feel truly connected to people who supported my music over the years, and it’s great to realize that my music is embedded in people’s lives around the world.
VW: Do you feel lucky to have succeeded. or is that a hundred percent hard work?
DS: I previously averted from putting my personal life into music, but it changed with Swim. I’ve put as much of myself into it as possible. And that’s the advice that I always give. The records that jump out for me are the ones when I hear individuality, not copying. And I try to follow the rule myself. I’m confident that if there is distinctive music, it will find its audience. On the other hand, I know that there are thousands like me that don’t have nowhere near this privilege, so in some ways, it’s luck too.
VW: Were you scared at all to put it out?
DS: Not really. I’ve built my confidence over 15 years of releasing music. I’ve always felt the support of people around. There’s so much warmth, especially during live performances. And that is exactly what encouraged me to put more of my personal life into the music: the sense of people behind me.
VW: What does your family think of your career path?
DS: They love it. They are all academics, and they assumed that I would become one. My parents saw how much time I spent as a kid playing piano or drums, or borrowing dad’s computer to experiment with electronic tunes. It’s so different for them, and they like it for that reason. They wouldn’t be exposed to this world of music otherwise.
VW: Do you get a lot of support from the maths community?
DS: I do get that, and I love that! There was this crazy rave party in Manchester recently, and a group of young people came up to me after the show and said, “Dan, you inspired us to go study mathematics.” First of all, it was funny hearing it in that environment, but I also very much identify with these kind of people, the geeks who like science and music.
VW: A lot of people say that you simply know how to make audiences dance. Is there a maths secret to it?
DS: Music is for me about feeling, about generating an emotional punch. Things that make people dance are almost biological; there are no mathematics to it. Of course, there are all kinds of clichés in the dance world. You spend enough time in it and you understand when and why things happen. I like subverting those clichés, doing things intentionally at wrong times. I make my music danceable by accident.
VW: Tell me about your jazz experience – why did you not continue with it?
DS: I’ve recently seen the movie Whiplash, and it was unintentionally one of the funniest movies for me. I mean, look at all the scenes of the young guy playing the most ridiculous, terrible music, that nobody listens to! But jazz indeed has become this formal scholastic discipline – all life has been squeezed out of it. I’m saying that, and most of my favourite music in the world is jazz. But nobody in the general public is interested in jazz, and for a good reason – it doesn’t represent the contemporaneity in any way; it misses the point.
When I went to study mathematics, I chose it over studying jazz piano because of that exact atmosphere of tension and torture portrayed in the movie. That was one of the best decisions I made about my life. Many of those who continued studying jazz ended up on cruise ships or unemployed. But the things that are good about jazz will appear in other music, so there is no need to try revitalizing this style.
VW: How much of improvising is there in your shows?
DS: There [is] some, but nothing jazz-like. It’s more of a collective approach: we leave space for songs to change from night to night and play off each other’s ideas. But don’t expect huge drum solos or anything!