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...