Dan Snaith (aka Manitoba [and later known as Caribou]) might just have the makings of the best revenge of the nerds story yet (well, aside from Bill Gates). He's a Canadian-born, curly-haired mathematician currently getting his PhD at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom. But when he's not writing thesis papers that would make the brains of mere mortals implode, he finds the time to create some of the most refreshing pop melodies you'll ever hear. Last year's release on Leaf Recors, Start Breaking My Heart, create a huge stir in both the underground indie rock and avant-electronica communities (fractions rarely in accord with one another). The album's restrained simplicity, off kilter programmed beats, layers of hooky Rhodes piano melodies and good old-fashioned pop song structures hit a perfect balance or sounding both familiar and completely new. This year's release on Domino Records, Up In Flames, is a hugely ambitious departure from the governing simplicity of the last release. Instead, Dan has created a lush, sprawling, dream-like pop album falling somewhere between the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and Moby's Play.
What's even more amazing is that he made both albums in his apartment using an old off-the-shelf PC. If this interview taught me anything, it's that ambition and talent are the only prerequisites for making great music.
So when did you start writing music?
I've played the piano since I was a little kid and always was more interested in making up my own music than playing other peoples'. When I was 13 I stole a sampler from my school, got a computer, and hooked them up to our family computer. I think one second was the longest sample you could store in the sampler. The music I was making around that time was way better than the stuff I make today — it was serious fucking nerd prog rock because I was into Yes and shit around that time and all my tracks were about four hours long. It's been a slippery slope from there down to nerdy electronica as far as I can figure. I had a huge curly red mullet and big glasses and shit. Needless to say I wasn't being bothered by too many girls at that time, so I basically spent all my time making tracks. It's only when I figured out that if I cut my hair I could get some action that I cut my tracks down from half an hour to four minutes.
What's motivating you to make music at the moment?
Most of the time it's listening to music that I like and thinking, "Fuck, I could do that." The rest of the time it's listening to all the terribly uninspired music that people think is so great these days and me being an arrogant fuck and thinking, "Fuck, I could do that ... In a coma."
What kind of recording setup do you use to make your music?
A shitty PC, Acid v1.0, and Sound Forge. There are a couple reasons I use such limited resources to make my music. First, I don't have any money for fancy hardware, and second, I don't have any need for anything above and beyond what I'm using. I don't really feel that it is limiting me at all. As far as I can see all the software on the market performs essentially equivalent functions with some programs dressing them up in fancier ways. All I need is the ability to record sound, loop samples, chop them up, sequence them, and effect them. Any software will provide you with the ability to do this. Since it's only me making the music I don't need to be able to record lots of people playing at once or anything complicated like that. There are no live drums on either of the albums (all of them are made up of lots of different samples); there are live keyboards, guitars, some percussion (which I record while listening to a loop underneath to keep it in time). I don't use MIDI at all. I'm not convinced I would have been any happier with the results or do anything differently with really expensive equipment. Simple methods allow me to get ideas recorded and laid out together really quickly, which is the most important thing for me — so that I can hear how everything is developing and coming together. I also think that having limited technology often forces you to come up with your own ways of doing things that'll probably sound different rather than just using the same granulator plug-in that everyone uses so that you're music ends up sounding like everyone else's. The people I meet who want to ask me about making electronic music are too hung up on the technical side of things and not concerned enough with sounding unique. I think people think there's this magic formula that if they buy the right keyboard then all of a sudden they'll be the Neptunes or something. It doesn't work like that.
Were you already living in England when you made Start Breaking My Heart? No, I was living in Toronto.
I was in university and getting really into buying records again and listening to new music. I had gone to England the previous summer and gone to a festival where I met up with Kieran Hebden, who makes the Four Tet records and is a member of Fridge. His first Four Tet album Dialogue blew me away because it didn't sound like electronic music at all. I was also listening to shitloads of free jazz — Albert Ayler, Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, etc. My friends and I ran a club every month or so in Toronto and we flew Kieran in from London to play at it and basically hung out and made a lot of jokes about barbecuing and sorority girls and that's when I knew he was on the level. About that time Leaf decided they wanted to do an album and I was like, "Well, you can have all this new music I've made or I can dig up those hour long tracks I did when I was a kid and put them out as a collectors only cassette box set." For some reason they went for the new stuff.
So what are you doing now?
Same shit, different pile. I'm living in London and doing my PhD. I've just finished my second album Up In Flames and I'm really excited about it. I'm touring it with a full three person live show with two drum kits. Right now I live in a one-bedroom apartment with my girlfriend and my guitarist and drummer.
When you're creating a song, what element do you usually start focusing on at first?
Always a melody. I usually just layer things on top of one another but I only really know that I've got a track worth finishing when there's a strong melody that ties it all together. I'm a big fan of "the hook" that's why I like pop music so much. Hopefully the music I make sticks in peoples' heads because there's a memorable melody in it. Who am I kidding? How can I compete with tracks like "Hot in Here"? That shit's infectious.
How do you know when the song is finished?
I probably don't until I listen to it again a couple months down the line and then I can tell if I think it needs something or not. Basically I just need a lot of time to distance myself from the track and then come back to it with a new pair of ears.
How long does it take you to finish an album?
Start Breaking My Heart took about nine months from start to finish. The new album took me about one and a half years so I guess at this rate my fifth album will take twelve years to finish. I'm pretty slow at working usually — mostly because I throw out about 99 percent of the tracks that I make.
What do you consider the most distinctive element of your musical style?
For Start Breaking My Heart I think it was a combination of lots of melodies combining with each other and hopefully a good amount of sloppiness. The melodies come easily, but getting music to sound sloppy is harder than one might think. I think there's a fair amount of both of those things on the next album too, but that there are a lot of other elements that make it distinctive too.
What do you do when you get frustrated or "hit a creative wall" while composing?
Keep working. I always feel that way. I constantly think the music I'm making is shit and then one day I'll listen back to a track and get really excited about it and realize that I actually really like it. A main part of the reason that I keep making music is being frustrated that I'm not as good at making music as I want to be. It means that I never really stop or take time off.
Do you have any recording or production tricks that you've found really useful?
Not really. I don't know any tricks. I don't even know how to use a microphone properly or how to use a compressor. I think the most important thing is just putting in a lot of time with whatever you're doing and using your ears carefully to figure out what you do and don't like about the sounds that you're getting. I think that if you spend enough time everyone will figure out their own way of doing things, which is probably better than everyone learning exactly the same way of doing things in the interest of having not all music sounds like the theme from "Monday Night Football".
Do you find yourself using compression a lot?
I don't understand it at all except that I know what it does to sounds now because I used it quite often on the new album. I didn't use it at all on Start Breaking My Heart, except they compressed it when mastering it. It's generally a good idea to use it on things that I record live to fatten up the sound and make it less likely to jump all over the place sonically. You've got to remember that if you're sampling off records, then probably the sounds you're getting are already pretty well treated sonically and have already been compressed and EQ'd properly so with sounds like that it might not need to be processed at all.
What are you doing to get your music to sound intentionally "sloppy"?
I think a large part of it is that I don't use MIDI at all and all the melodies and samples I record are all slightly out of time — like a real band would be. I've found that most people making electronic music see this grid in the program they're using and they're scared as fuck to put anything in that doesn't land on that grid. The way things miss being in perfect time is often what gives the music some sort of human or emotional feeling and by quantizing everything you do you lose all of that. So they're music ends up sounding like "MIDI-jazz" — like some keyboard demo. The other thing that makes it end up sounding sloppy is putting a lot of layers in with lots of things going on in the background all slightly out of time (or out of tune) to make things sound a little bit messier. I don't actually think about this stuff consciously while I'm doing it, but I think I'm a bit scared of things sounding too simple sometimes so I add in lots of layers. I should probably get better at leaving space in my tracks. Oh well.
What's the best advice you could give a poor, aspiring musician who'd love nothing more than to be the next Manitoba?
Don't bother. They should be aspiring to be the next Timbaland or Brian Wilson. In fact, they should probably be aspiring to be all the greatest musicians of all time simultaneously, not some chump like me. Anyway, I think the most important thing is that if you want to really get satisfaction out of making music, then make music that you love and also that sounds like you, and thus is unique. I get handed so many demos at gigs and as I travel around and so many of them sound like people trying to imitate Aphex Twin or whoever. What's the point of that? Do your own thing.