Tier 3

music / / poetry / / philosophy / / -ology by Nick Courtright

Band Interview: Caribou

Caribou is the brainchild of Dan Snaith, a man who grew up in Ontario and got his PhD in mathematics in England (check out a PDF of his impressive and practically unpronounceable thesis here), all the while developing his own brand of retro-influenced electronic pop. His mode the last few years has turned more and more towards what the layman would call “songs,” and the change has resulted in some of the best music of the last half-decade. In an effort to further understand how a man gets his PhD and then tours the world supporting electronic pop music, we had ourselves a little chat with Dan, who proved to be just as smart as he sounds.

One thing I absolutely had to know about regards your PhD—I saw that you specialized in Algebraic number theory, and I found your thesis online, and…Overconvergent Siegler modular symbols? Sounds pretty intense. I was wondering if you could tell me about that?

Well, I can, but it’s not something I can explain, really. It’s not something that’s applied—which is kind of why I like it—it’s completely abstract. It’s not applicable to anything in the real world. None of those words make any sense because, without, you know, taking a course and learning a few definitions and thinking about math and learning more about it—it’s real cumulative and it’s something that’s impossible to explain in any two sentences that make sense.

Yeah, I was looking through your thesis desperately seeking even two sentences that a non-mathematician could say aloud.

It’s like it’s this whole separate world that’s fully inaccessible. And I think somehow that that’s what I like about it.

Something that’s purely theoretical?

Exactly. In some ways it’s really self-indulgent. It’s just for the fun of doing it and for the challenge of working on it.

But I think it’s good that people still do things not just because it’ll get them a job, but they do these things because they enjoy them.

You’ve said in the past that your music is not mathematics, but aesthetics. But even with that in mind, how do you think your mathematical background has influenced your music?

I don’t think it influences my music directly, but the things I like about mathematics and music are the same things. They’re both kind of creative and they’re both kind of individual pursuits. But although I enjoy the same things about both of them, I don’t think there’s any way in which the mathematics affects the music. As far I can see anyway.

If math and music are two separate worlds wholly, how do you think you would describe your aesthetic taste?

It’s really hard to say. I guess I would say that I have a tendency to like things that are kind of layered or more messy sounding or maximal sounding rather than spare minimal music, music that’s more based on space. I tend to like music that’s full of lots of things going on that create a big world of sound or whatever—lots of different surprises and interesting sounds interacting that are based on simple elements. But yeah, it’s hard to say. And even that stuff’s not entirely true.

I think there are so many things to like about music and so many different reasons to get excited about making music, and that’s the reason I’ll never get bored doing this. Each time I can think about something different when I’m making the record or when I hear new music, and it can surprise me. It never gets boring because there are so many different elements that are exciting.

So it’s been a little bit of time since Andorra was released. I was wondering if you had any thoughts, or how the progress—mentally or production-wise—was going on the next project?

Well, I don’t really write anything while we’re on the road, since it’s kind of impossible to do that very well. But I also kind of like the fact that when we finish this tour, we’re going back to England for a couple weeks and then that’s pretty much it for awhile. And after this time of just focusing on playing live, it’s almost like starting afresh each time with a blank slate. So I’m really looking forward to that. I’ll have little ideas like “I want to try this instrument produced in this way” or “I want to try this specific sound,” but really I don’t have much of a comprehensive idea at all about what the record’s going to sound like. And that’s exciting. Just going back and seeing what happens.

In several interviews you’ve admitted that you’re an incredibly obsessive person, and that really goes in line with the whole “wall of sound” idea—the intricacy, the layering, putting a lot of things together. And that you get really deep into things—I’ve read that you’ve even taken trampolining lessons? I was wondering what, now that you’re on the road, are your present areas of obsession?

[laughs] Yeah, that’s funny. But really, when we’re on tour in some ways it’s very regimented—I mean, after shows we’ll go out and hang out with people and do whatever social things, but in some ways it’s a very regimented life as well. You’ve got to sit in a van almost all day every day, so you can imagine the kind of places we’re seeing driving around America. Often we’ll be driving eight hours every day, and then we have sound check, and then we go out and grab a bite to eat, and then we’re back at the show, and do a show, and then maybe we go out with friends, and then sleep, and then we do it all over again.

But I kind of enjoy the regiments of being on tour and only thinking about playing shows really well and playing live music and only being worried about that. But it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t allow for indulging in lots of different things. But I’ve been reading a lot lately.

What have you been reading?

At the moment, as we’re driving through California, I’m reading The Grapes of Wrath, which is appropriate, I guess, geographically appropriate. And before that I read Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin.

That’s amazing—I’m reading Pnin right now.

Oh, no way!

Yeah, you’ve got to love Nabokov. His prose is just so flawless. And he always has those characters who are on really the verge of being unlikable. All riddled with flaws.

Definitely. And they’re honest characters. Really. Essentially human characters. I’m lucky, because I didn’t used to be able to read while we were driving, but I’m training myself to be able to do that. And it’s good because for years and years when I was studying I didn’t ever read for fun, and so now this is allowing me to get back into doing that again.

When you’ve been in school forever your sense of auto-didacticism erodes and you have to reclaim it.

Yeah, definitely. I completely agree. You have to work to get that back, to keep changing, keep learning.

*****

Caribou [MySpace] [Official]

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