Math, Psychedelia and an Ass Named Handsome Dick

BY Kevin HaineyPublished May 1, 2005

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 trans rocker 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 realizing, 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 realized 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 realizing 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.

Twenty-odd years and thousands of albums later, Snaith's passion for music has enveloped even the most obscure corners of modern sound. Combine substantial interests in mathematics and music, and you've got the seeds from which a creative mind sprouts.

"Mathematics and music are two totally immersing, obsessive things," Snaith says. "I think [that's] probably part of my nature."

While attending math classes at University of Toronto, Snaith squired himself away in his bedroom, carefully constructing his debut. Start Breaking My Heart was released in 2001 on the Leaf label and its understated, melancholic mixture of subtle jazz nuances, warm glitch sounds and emotional swelling was met with an almost unanimously positive reception from newfound fans and unfamiliar critics alike.

But no one expected Snaith to achieve what he did with his next album — Up In Flames strode creative leaps from the instrumental laptop-tronica of his debut and ran headlong into a virtual whirlwind of electronically produced psychedelic pop, complete with lyrics and extensive live instrumentation.

Snaith is modest when explaining the creative transition that took place between Start Breaking My Heart and Up in Flames. "I didn't have the realization until I was just finishing [Up In Flames] where I was like, 'Wait a minute, this sounds really different than the last one,'" says Snaith. "I guess I [started off] making Start Breaking My Heart-esque tracks because that album had done pretty well and people had been really into it. Back then I was like, 'Uhhh...' you know, afraid that people wouldn't like a different sounding record. I was like, 'Okay, I'll start making more tracks that sound like that,' but I was getting really frustrated because I didn't want to tread over the same territory again, and there were so many people doing that bedroom-y sounding electronic music, so I just thought 'Fuck it.' I was listening to lots of psychedelic rock at the time and just started making music."

Much of Up in Flames' (and his new record's) wild and reeling originality stems from Snaith's recording methods, which are more incidental than contrived. "If I try to think about what I want to do while I'm recording it, it always comes out sounding really laboured and forced. I think my favourite part about how some of my music ends up sounding is how there are weird noises in the background and it sounds kind of sloppy. I think that's because I'm just throwing things in as I go along and seeing what happens."

Such elements of chance fascinate Snaith and fuel his embracement of a sporadic sensibility. "There are so many times I come back to stuff and it sounds really different than what I expected because I just threw it in and didn't think about it and forgot that it was there. The same thing with the sampling, too — a lot of people, because we toured as a band last time, expected me to go into a studio with a band — but that's part of another way of making weird things happen, just throwing in a record that was produced years ago or produced in some weird way. If you're in a room with two guitars, a bass and drums you're probably only going to think of things within a certain restrained set of ideas. [If] you've got all these records and you're like, 'I wonder if this is any good,' there are likely more weird influences going to end up in there, and I like that. Different production sounds and different instrumentation."

Once Up in Flames was out (on Domino and Leaf) and burning up the ears of his quickly growing fan base and music critics from pole to pole, it was time for Snaith to hit the road. In characteristically fun-loving style, Snaith brought along friends Peter Mitten (drums) and Ryan Smith (guitar), and bought some fuzzy animal masks to wear as a sort of slapdash stage show.

"We were like, 'Yeah, we'll put together a show and do like 15,'" recalls Snaith, "but then we ended up doing more than 100 shows because people were still asking us to do more. I was just like, 'I gotta make another album at some point... and finish this PhD!'"

Snaith recalls the stresses of juggling a PhD and a world tour with light-hearted fervour. "I'd be [writing] in the back of the van or on the airplane; whenever I was in London I'd go in [to school]."

He managed to pull through just fine, and now things have eased up considerably on the school front. "I've submitted my thesis, but I haven't had my defence, so knock on wood it all goes well, but I'm surprised I got everything submitted on time. I've just been a madman for the past couple of years trying to fit everything in."

Once touring had wrapped up, Snaith finally found the time to record his third album, The Milk of Human Kindness. Picking up where the joyful exuberance of Up in Flames' psychedelic wonderment left off, The Milk of Human Kindness looks beyond its predecessor's indie rock and pop gazes to apply Snaith's uniquely hybridized sound to a veritable plethora of time-honoured genres. From the Teutonic Krautrock grooves of "A Final Warning" and "Bees," to the up- and down-tempo hip-hop dashes of "Lord Leopard" and "Pelican Narrows," to the Silver Apples-esque stutter-funk pop glide of "Brahminy Kite" and the downtrodden folk feel of "Hello Hammerheads," Snaith is widening his palette with the most colourful and provocative reference points.

This isn't to say Snaith set out to create a Krautrock tribute album or open himself up to being the next Timbaland. Apart from its isolated excursions into new sound territories, The Milk of Human Kindness (named after a slogan Snaith spotted on a passing milk truck) is not much of a departure from the sound Snaith debuted on Up in Flames. Both albums exhibit an emotionally warm river of cascading sound that pulls on the heartstrings as heavily as the hips, and pivotal Kindness tracks would've fit in nicely anywhere on Up in Flames.

"I don't really think about these things when I'm doing them, and then people are always like, 'It sounds a lot like this,'" says Snaith. "I thought I wanted to move away from the indie rock feel [of Up in Flames] on some of the tracks and make it more repetitive — maybe from playing live — like wanting to work in more of that live tension that those old Krautrock bands had. They were really good at playing together and I wanted to try and get that kind of motorik feel, but by making it out of loops while somehow trying to make it sound live."

Which brings us full-circle to the present, with Snaith rehearsing in Toronto for the tour that will take him across most of the world in the coming year. Like last time, Snaith will be joined on stage by Mitten and Smith, and by the animated projection work of Ireland's Delicious 9.

"Last time we just needed to put together a show, and we did it kind of quickly," says Snaith. "But this time we've had a month of practicing 12 hours a day, acting like an actual band, which is good — it's come together really, really well."

As the end of Snaith's schooldays approaches, he finds his career in music reaching a level where he can support himself with it, haters be damned.

"I'm really enjoying the idea that I could be a musician full time. That's what I've always really, really wanted to do, and it's just become a reality that I can make rent and do what I want to do, which is unbelievable. I've always had to be doing it and something else. I'm lucky because I've been a student the whole way through, so I didn't have to work, I was just a student and did music on the side. At the tail end of [the tour for] Up in Flames, I was thinking, 'I'm about to finish school and for the next little while I can do music.' Which is really cool."

The Milk of Caribou's Inspiration

Like anyone who's seriously into making music, Dan Snaith loves searching out fresh new sounds. Since a large portion of the music he records is sample-based, there are motives other than simple music enthusiasm at play, but Snaith finds himself seeking out sounds that might be considered pretty freakin' far out. There's no other way to search out those unheard vinyl gems than getting right down on your haunches and digging through dusty crates that crowd every pawn shop, thrift outlet and antique store from here to Katmandu.

"I'm a big record collecting nerd hound, so I'm always buying lots of free jazz records, and I've bought a lot of Kraut and early '70s psych. All those albums by Can and Neu! and [American psych purveyors] Silver Apples, they're always going to be somewhat relevant. They've got amazing melodies and weird sounding shit and amazing beats, and that's like the formula for music I love. All those bands, if they released those records today, people would be like, 'Holy fuck, this is the newest shit ever!'"

But his interest in the obscure hardly ends there. Throughout his searches he's discovered some really intriguing oddballs. "I got into this guy Philippe Besombes from France. He had this whole little scene of French kind of Krautrock-y prog in the '70s [on his label Pole], and that was all really cool. I was like, 'I never knew about this kind of music before.'"

It's this kind of eccentricity and mystery that keeps Snaith digging. "I make music in the least conceptual way ever, but you always find these records that were made by weird people who really believe that they're bringing the entire universe together," says Snaith. "Like that Aphrodite's Child record, 666. That guy Vangelis was in that band in the '60s [and early '70s], and it was an apocalypse-themed record. Their album release party was planned with Dali and they were gonna cover Barcelona in an entire tent and do all this shit, drop cardinals out of the sky, and whales — and it's the most insane shit ever! There are so many weirdoes that made music with the thinking of, 'Oh yeah, yeah, this is perfect, this conceptual thing,' and then it's just the weirdest sounding shit ever."

Appropriate to his tastes, Snaith appreciates the most exciting developments in modern music, citing Animal Collective's psych-folk masterpiece Sung Tongs as a "totally mind-blowing record" and the pummelling in-concert onslaught of bass and drums duo Lightning Bolt as "the most intense concert experience I've ever had." He also totally digs hip-hop mogul Kanye West's The College Dropout ("The unreleased version, with all of the samples they couldn't clear") and Madlib's latest joint as Quasimoto, The Further Adventures of Lord Quas ("Oh man, it's amazing!").

As always, Snaith is modest when disclosing exactly how immense his album collection is. "Not as big as some people's," he says. "Definitely a few thousand records, but I'm always looking for more, always digging."

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