By Bree Davies
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We've been trying to do a tour of cult-related sites," enthuses Dan Snaith from a van packed with musical gear en route to Montreal. "We stopped off at the Branch Davidian complex in Waco last time we were in Texas. There are still all these foundations and all this burnt shit left. And way in the back, there are still Branch Davidians living there. We were ready to run and jump back in the van; man, we were scared shitless. It's creepy. It's insane."
"Creepy" and "insane" are two adjectives that wouldn't be out of place in a description of Caribou, Snaith's primarily one-man band. Previously known as Manitoba -- the name change was spurred by a lawsuit from Handsome Dick Manitoba of the semi-legendary punk act the Dictators -- the project yielded two full-lengths earlier this decade that envisioned a brain-bent and altogether eerie commingling of electronic music and psychedelia. Start Breaking My Heartand Up in Flamesshot Caribou close to the top of a list that included such lauded digital manipulators as Boards of Canada, Four Tet and Fridge -- while name-checking inspirations as diverse as Brian Wilson and Timbaland in the same breath.
But it's Snaith's new album, The Milk of Human Kindness, that justifies all the adulation his fans and the press have heaped on him. Leaking phosphorescent trails of smeared beats and hyper-melodic whimsy, the disc is, paradoxically, his most experimental and mot accessible to date. On its opening track, "Yeti," Snaith shuffles stuttering gulps and samples of analog synths like some bubble-gum-snapping Madlib, meanwhile chirping the lines "The twisting, turning bodies burning look up from where they lie/To see the stars and heavens churning, flashing across the sky."
As psychedelic as his records are, though, Snaith sees the genre as more of an aesthetic than a lifestyle. "I don't spend much of my time on peyote," he quips. "I just like sloppy, raw-sounding music. I think people assume I sit around listening to cruddy '60s garage-rock bands. I hate that kind of shit. I guess I like more psyche-pop shit like the Free Design or David Axelrod. But I get samples from all over the place, mostly obscure jazz or prog records.
"The turning point for me was getting into free jazz," he elaborates. "Albert Ayler and Alice Coltrane. It had everything I loved about music: great melodies, amazingly heavy beats, insane instrumentation. And the people playing it are 100 percent devoted to what they do. Weird, eccentric characters. And that kind of attitude informs the way I make music more than using an actual jazz chord or something."
Snaith's praise of jazz -- not the most obvious influence you hear in his music -- isn't just lip service. As a kid living in Dundas, Ontario, he studied classical and jazz piano for years before discovering electronic music, hip-hop and, naturally, rock.
"I grew up in a little hippie town where you were either into the Grateful Dead or Skid Row and Iron Maiden," he recalls. "I listened mostly to Yes at that point, which was also a frighteningly popular option. I hung out with the indie-rock wieners, mostly. I had a huge flaming-red mullet."
But the mullet was nothing compared to the extravagant headwear that Snaith and his touring band (multi-instrumentalists Ryan Smith and Peter Mitten) donned on stage during their last tour. "We wore bear masks," he says. "We were trying to throw every possible stimulus at the crowd we could. We just wanted as much shit going on as possible. You know the first Wu-Tang album, 36 Chambers? I was looking at that, and I was like, 'If these guys came out on the stage like this, with stockings over their faces and hoodies up, that would be so great.' The bear masks were a lot of fun, but they were also immensely sweaty. After a hundred shows, I guess the novelty factor wore off a little."
This time around, Caribou has opted for a more face-forward approach to live performance. With an arsenal comprising two drum kits, keyboards, samplers, guitars and various instrumental odds and ends, Snaith is attempting as faithful a representation of his home-studio sound as possible, which isn't exactly an easy task. Although using only a basic PC setup -- "Not having so much fancy gear keeps me from fucking around with the technical shit all day, keeps me focused on ideas," he explains -- Snaith chops, tweaks and sequences sounds with an ear for composition that's deceptively intricate.
"When we were putting a live show together for the first time, we were like, 'Maybe this is going to work, and maybe this is going to be terrible,'" he remembers. "We had to relearn all the samples and work out the drum kits and instruments and try putting it all together. This time I think we're influenced by the more kraut-rock tracks on the new album. I love the idea of bands like Can just locking themselves away forever and becoming this amazing thing, being able to reinterpret their songs live. We like to have more freedom to fuck around. I like the idea of taking really strong melodies and then doing something weird that isn't just verse-chorus-verse-chorus. Doing something a bit weirder. But people seem to love it."