Math, Psychedelia and An Ass Named Handsome Dick
No matter how kind or honest a musician may be, there are always going to be people trying their best to hold them back, knock them down or discredit their work. These often anally retentive or self-obsessed folks have become known as haters, and they can appear in any form.
When electronic psych-pop wizard Dan Snaith was greeted by an email from someone who (sort of) shared his nom de plume Manitoba (under which Snaith released two well-received albums, most notably the creative breakthrough of 2003's psychedelic wonderwall Up In Flames), little did he know that this stranger was in actuality a hater intent on taking his name away from him right at a time when the buzz was spreading like wildfire. But with one simple click of the mouse, Snaith was looking head-on into the malicious wishes of a man named Handsome Dick Manitoba.
"He was like, ‘You gotta change your name,' and we were just like, ‘Are you kidding? This is the most ridiculous thing ever,'" recalls Snaith.
No stranger to the realms of the ridiculous, Handsome Dick Manitoba (real name: Richard Blum) achieved a small amount of recognition in the mid-'70s with his New York-based group of bratty upstarts the Dictators, which The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll describes as "much closer to brazenly amateurish heavy metal than punk." In 1976, Handsome Dick had a famous near-death experience at CBGB after heckling transvestite rocker Wayne/Jayne County, who retorted to Dick's comments by planting a microphone stand into Manitoba's skull. You'd think the man would've learned right then and there — being a hater doesn't make you friends.
At the time of his email encounter with Handsome Dick, Ontario's Manitoba was juggling writing his PhD thesis and the Up In Flames tour. "I consulted a lawyer in the UK and he was like, ‘No, this will be fine, and it'll be fine in Canada,'" says Snaith. "Then we did a show in L.A. and I got called to the door with like, ‘Somebody's here to see you' or whatever, and [Handsome Dick had] hired a private investigator from the other side of the country to come to the show and serve me with a subpoena. I was like, ‘Holy shit.' That's when I started realising, as funny as this is, it's serious shit."
After consulting American lawyers about the situation, Snaith was informed that it would cost him about $500,000 U.S. to fight the lawsuit (an amount Snaith obviously couldn't afford), and that he still stood a good chance of losing if he decided to go through with it. It became a huge source of frustration for Snaith, but his kind nature won out in the end.
"It got to the point where I was like, ‘It doesn't matter that this case is ridiculous, it doesn't matter that in some sense I should fight this because he's getting away with murder.' I just realised that if I spend all my time thinking about this and dealing with this annoying little guy, that's just such a waste of my time, so I was like ‘Why don't I just change my name and move on?' Immediately upon realising that, it was kind of this release, like, ‘Yeah, it doesn't matter buddy. Do whatever you want.' Out of principle it would've been good to be able to say, ‘No, no, no, you can't go around bullying people with lawsuits,' but at the end of the day I don't want to have spent all my time arguing with some guy."
Snaith took the Canadian route and fought Handsome Dick's aggression with passivity; Manitoba became Caribou. What might have seemed like a potentially career-crippling blow became little more than an easily resolved formality. Hell, even some of Handsome Dick's own friends got in touch with Snaith to express their bewilderment over the lawsuit.
Now Snaith can focus on the matter at hand: continuing the musical course he set out on, armed with his new name, a fantastical new album, The Milk of Human Kindness, and the world tour he's been rehearsing for the past month in Toronto.
Born into a family of mathematicians — his father and grandfather are both math professors, his mother and sister math teachers — Dan Snaith developed a passionate interest in numbers, which he's still actively pursuing through the PhD he'll have earned by year's end. (Snaith is studying in England at the University of London's Imperial College.) The thesis he's writing concerns modular forms, but Snaith insists that trying to explain the ideas he's putting forth wouldn't mean a thing to someone who doesn't study math.
Snaith developed a concurrent passion all his own, for music. Growing up in the small Ontario towns of London (where he was born) and Dundas, then the more secluded countryside, Snaith learned piano and would play for hours a day, before and after school.
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