Q&A: Caribou's Dan Snaith
On life, death, mastering the backstroke and being the brainiest kid in class
Your latest album, Swim, is pretty out there in parts, and yet it's the biggest hit of your career . What gives?
I'm definitely surprised by this. It's the record that has done the most for me. It's sort of ticking along without us having to do anything. For sure, it's not the album I thought would do that...
Some might argue your previous record, Andorra, was a lot catchier...
Yeah, I certainly thought that. My expectation is that Swim would be seen as difficult or confusing, that it might alienate people. Whereas Andorra was about being melodically strong and figuring out how pop song-writing structures work. The whole thing has left me confused and happy.
Of course Swim is different in one important respect. Lyrically, you are writing about yourself for the first time rather than dealing in abstracts.
I don't know if that has anything to do with people's interest, but it is definitely true. It wasn't something I planned to do, it came about naturally. Having made music for a while now, I'm more confident about my singing and writing about things personal to me. Previously, there was nothing in my life I really needed to write about. Whereas on this, there were lots of things going on.
You were learning to swim, for starters.
That had an influence on the sonic characteristics of the record. In terms of lyrical content, my grandparents passed away while I was making the album. So I was reflecting on ageing and loss and things like that. The track Odessa is about a divorce. Fortunately it's not mine. It was somebody close to me. And that's the first time a friend of mine has gone through that process, that whole horrible experience. There were more adult things going on around me for the first time I suppose.
And there you were in the corner, taking notes...
Not quite! While these things were happening, I wasn't thinking, 'oh great -- I can write a song about that'. After a little time had passed, though, I felt compelled to incorporate personal stuff into the music.
You've got a PhD in mathematics. If we examine your songs closely, what manner of arcane mathematic references might we uncover?
It's a theme in popular culture that maths and music are connected in some way. I've had interviews where I tell people, 'no, there's no maths in my music, I'm not using some secret formula'. And inevitably the very next question is 'no, really -- what's the formula?'
No, really, what's the formula?
Well, I will say this. Mathematics is more creative than it is often imagined to be, from people's experiences at high school or whatever. It is more musical, more intuitive. That's why I like studying maths, that's why I like music. But there's no direct input from mathematics in my music.
Sounds like you were a bit of a boy genius at school. The other kids must have hated you...
My dad was a maths professor. Both of my sisters are now academics. My mom was doing a masters until the kids came along. It would be fair to say I grew up in an academic household. I always found the academic stuff very easy. I guess it's because I was raised in that atmosphere. Growing up in small town Canada, there was a sense of 'oh, I'm special'. The great thing about studying mathematics is you go away to university and quickly realise the cleverest people you could meet are mathematicians. They are clever in a totally superhuman way. And that's not me at all.
Swim is out now. Caribou play the Forbidden Fruit Festival, Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin on Sunday
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