If not for a brief descent into adolescent crime, the acclaimed psychedelic electronic act Caribou might not even exist.
"When I was like 13, I stole this really cheap sampler from my high school and just hooked it up to my computer at home and started putting music together like that in my bedroom," says Dan Snaith, founder and sole Caribou member.
Even to this day, the musical mad scientist in Snaith eschews the recording studio when creating the mind-bending music on his CDs.
"I record everything at home using a computer and whatever instruments that are lying around my room," says Snaith from somewhere on the road in Texas. He's speaking via a cell phone that keeps cutting in and out.
Snaith, who is now 27, was born in a small Canadian town about which he chooses not to speak, grew up listening to "horrible prog rock," holds a doctorate in math, sometimes resides in London and claims to never have touched drugs, cigarettes or alcohol.
Snaith and his live backing band are heading to Tucson to play a gig Friday, May 20, at Club Congress, with opening acts Junior Boys and The Russian Futurists.
Caribou's current three-month American tour, during which the band plays almost every night, is designed to promote the new CD, The Milk of Human Kindness.
Some of Snaith's past fans might not recognize the name of his current project. His first two albums, Start Breaking My Heart and Up In Flames, were released under the moniker Manitoba. Until, that is, a washed-up, mediocre punk rocker (Handsome Dick Manitoba of Dictators infamy) actually sued Snaith to stop using that name.
Which was obviously a crock. I mean, isn't that akin to someone with the surname Arizona asking a band of the same name--once upon, there was one--to cease and desist?
Snaith thinks so, too, but he has put it behind him. "It definitely feels like that's all in the past," he says over static as his phone searches for a cell tower.
But as the official press release put it, Snaith "opted not to fill the retirement coffers of several high-priced U.S. lawyers and just changed his artist name to Caribou instead." Which brings to mind not-unpleasant images of wild, hoofed beasts roaming the great white north and the delightful non sequitur-ish image of a 1970s album by Elton John.
The music of Caribou has been called "folktronica," "laptop" and "glitchcore," tedious appellations, none of which are appropriate.
It also has likened by critics to that of neo-psychedelic acts such as Spiritualized, Mercury Rev, Spacemen 3 and My Bloody Valentine. That kind of makes sense, not because Snaith borrows certain musical tropes and clichés endemic to psychedelic rock, but because he creates with his music a sound that approximates a surreal psychedelic experience.
Snaith uses hip-hop-style collage and cut-and-paste techniques to craft trippy and twitchy soundscapes, often employing trebly keyboards (especially the quaintly retro Farfisa) and a combination of electronic and acoustic percussion, as well as string sections, backward-masked guitars, burps of horns, gently hummed vocals and elegant cascading melodies that would not sound out of place in a horror-movie soundtrack.
One gets the feeling that director-composer John Carpenter--an under-appreciated minimalist--has been an influence, although Snaith won't cop to it.
Snaith will admit that he makes music from whatever comes to mind, basically.
"There's a lot of unexpected sounds, and sounds used to create an immersive musical experience rather than a just a bunch of songs played the same old way by a rock band," he says, nonchalantly. "I'm just always trying to do something that musically surprises me and something that I wouldn't mind listening to again if I had to."
From start to finish, making The Milk of Human Kindness took about nine months, which is a typical gestation period for one of Snaith's recordings, he says.
"But in that time, I will probably make more than 100 tracks and work on them concurrently, and be developing this idea at the same time as that idea. Then at some point, I will realize these two ideas work together. And the writing sort of takes place at the same time, although it's never a smooth and predictable process. It's like messing around with stuff or whatever.
"Then what happens is it all seems to start coming together, and I take all these ideas I have been working on and formulate them and aggregate them in what seems like the best way possible."
Hypnotic textures and rhythms abound, not unlike the work of older acts, such as Can and Kraftwerk, or contemporaries, like Tortoise and Trans Am. Because Caribou's music is so sonically dense, it's possible to listen to The Milk of Human Kindness dozens of times (and I have), discover new, fresh sounds with each spin and still not be able to categorize the style.
Recreating this effect on stage, though, would appear challenging. Which is why Snaith tours with two other musicians--Peter Mitton and Ryan Smith--collaborating with him.
"There are three of us on stage and two drum kits and guitars and keyboards and samplers and other small instruments lying around. We'll cycle around the stage, playing lots of different music and building these layers of sounds."
But will concertgoers be able to recognize the songs on the CD?
"Well, yeah. That's the starting point, but we don't particularly adhere to that, and we might just do what comes to mind and change it in the middle or whatever."
And, lest we forget, adding to the effect of sensory overload, Caribou tours with full visual accompaniment, synched up to the music, created by special commission for the show by the Irish animation collective Delicious 9.