Decoding Caribou’s Divine Math

Andy Battaglia

By Andy Battaglia

on 10.09.14 in Features

“He’s a bit like a machine,” says Kieran Hebden of his friend Dan Snaith, who’s better known as Caribou. “He gets interested in things, then applies a formula.” The two met over a decade ago, when Hebden was playing a mathematical board game on break at a festival and Snaith, a fan of Hebden’s work in Fridge and Four Tet, asked if he could join. Over time, they became friends and collaborators. “I remember him getting interested in Werner Herzog, then systematically watching every single film he’d ever done and reading everything that existed. A few years ago, he decided he wanted to perfect his swimming technique, which is why his last record was called Swim. His wife got him lessons and every day he was there, in the pool. That’s a characteristic I see him apply: He decides he’s going to do something and then does it in this focused, organized way. He’s like, ‘I am interested in this — I will look at everything, and then I will understand it.’”

‘“He’s a genre tourist, but he does so effortlessly. It never feels zany or quirky — it speaks of the deepest understanding of how music works.” — Owen Pallett’

Snaith has come to understand a lot during his years as Caribou, a fact that turns up in his work. He has zigged and zagged, careening from ’60s psych-pop to atmospheric IDM, from mantric, floor-stomping house to anthemic quasi-rock about the temporality of love. His machine-like method of discovery has played out over seven albums, with the most recent Our Love showcasing an uncanny ability to assimilate styles and present them in transformative ways. Its mix of imagination, musicality and accessible abstraction is, in some ways, a continuation of 2010′s Swim. As is often the case with Caribou, however, change is more important than consistency.

“I often ask him, ‘How do you do what you do?’” says Mac McCaughan, whose Merge Records has been Caribou’s home in the U.S. since 2007. “What has struck me about his records is that you don’t always know what you’re hearing. Are those real drums, or is it a sample? Is that a flute or a synthesizer? Is that someone singing? He melds things together in a way that, in the hands of someone less thoughtful, might just be a mishmash.”

Owen Pallett, a composer and sometime Caribou collaborator, has similar questions. “He is a fantastic synthesist,” Pallett says. “There are times when I’m dancing or cooking to his music, and I suddenly realize how it’s [recalling] Steve Reich or Flying Lizards or Ornette Coleman. He’s a genre tourist, but he does so effortlessly. It never feels zany or quirky — it speaks of the deepest understanding of how music works.”

Snaith himself, humble and reserved when we meet him in a New York boutique hotel that’s considerably hipper and haughtier than he is, doesn’t accept such praise without blushing deep red. “I’m curious to a fault, or that’s what I’ve thought sometimes,” he says. “I love lots of different kinds of music, and I follow that impulse. But it’s a process of learning, so it makes sense that the music that I’m making now is the most ‘me.’ That becomes more important. How is this music me?”

The me at the heart of Snaith’s music is a considered, contemplative artist who came to his calling via a circuitous route. Before music, he devoted most of his working time to math — and not just ordinary math, but a specialized realm of pure mathematics that is deeply detailed and brain-bending. In 2005, a few years into a music career already on the upswing, Snaith earned a Ph.D. in math from Imperial College London. The source of his focus was number theory, and the subject of his thesis was “overconvergent Siegel modular forms from a cohomological viewpoint.”

Is there a way to translate this for the less mathematically inclined?

‘“All of mathematics is a mental construction. The remarkable thing is that you start with something…and then you build this immense elaborate logical construction out of it in a way that is really creative.” — Dan Snaith’

“No, unfortunately not,” Snaith says. “The closest approach to it is Fermat’s Last Theorem, which was a big theorem in number theory that…” He pauses, redirects himself. “My thesis was very rudimentary as far as the field goes, but every single word would need a definition that relies on learning 10 other words. It’s such a cumulative, vertical discipline that there’s just no way in.”

He continues, a little wistfully: “It’s hard to communicate the beauty of it and why it’s appealing, which is kind of an amazing thing about it. At a time when the ivory towers are no longer ivory towers so much — when the academic world is no longer what it used to be — pure mathematics is still this discipline that is, in many ways, set apart by the fact that it’s not relevant to anything. It’s impenetrable but also beautiful in a poetic, philosophical way.”

He speaks of math as an almost aesthetic experience, and smiles when asked if “beauty” is really the right word.

“Yes, exactly the right word,” he says. “All of mathematics is a mental construction. You start with a definition and some axioms, and you build whatever you can with those things, with logical consequences. The remarkable thing is that you start with something — distances or numbers of things that we all experience in day to day life — and then you build this immense elaborate logical construction out of it in a way that is really creative.”


He goes on, exhausted by the quick trip to a city far from his London home but clearly energized to be talking about more than just music. “The amazing thing is that when you’re somewhere way up here” — he gestures above his head, as if into an abstract realm — “then you find out that, ‘Oh, if you want to fly an airplane, you need all of this that you’ve built, even though nobody was thinking about airplanes or anything in the real world at all. There’s this kind of elegance in that. Even though it’s something totally of the mind and closer to philosophy, in some way it says something inherently truthful about the world that we exist in.”

Toby Gee, a professor of mathematics at Imperial College London and a Ph.D. peer of Snaith’s, says, “I remember Dan having a really impressive way of working and of understanding things. We had seminars where we had to give talks on specific subjects that we didn’t know much about, so we had about a week to learn something completely new. Most people, including me, would end up giving sketchy talks, having tried to get an overview without getting the details. But Dan would just sit down and work through from the beginning and understand everything.”

There were other important matters at hand, as well. Gee continues, “I remember him being shocked that at the time I didn’t like jazz at all, and him converting me almost instantly by getting me to listen to John Coltrane’s ‘India.’”

‘“This album…is about how our lives are so cluttered and so complex, in our relationships with people: with our wives and our kids and our partners and our parents, everything knotted together and complex. That’s my experience of ‘love’ in the title.”
— Dan Snaith’

As a musician, Snaith has ventured far from his number-theory days. But he still applies a similar mindset to his work. “Mathematicians are so solitary, and the connection that they’re seeking is…not a ‘spiritual’ one, but some sort of communion with the cosmos. They’re trying to find some underlying truth. This album for me, definitely in the lyrical content, is about how our lives are so cluttered and so complex, in our relationships with people: with our wives and our kids and our partners and our parents, everything knotted together and complex. That’s my experience of ‘love’ in the title.”

Our Love opens with a heartrending club song that, over a patiently building beat, pledges allegiance to togetherness. “I can’t do without, can’t do without, can’t do without you,” goes a repeated a vocal loop, pitched down and jacked up to run at different speeds, but always with the same message — one of pristine love and sometimes messy dependence. It’s the first of 10 tracks that venture far and wide stylistically, yet circle back to a deeply human core, each in their own way.

Snaith delves into irrational emotions like love and loss in his music and yet speaks of them in the same patient, rational manner he applies to math. “Everything is knotted,” he says again. “It’s about the construction of density in life and contingency and compromise and how wonderful all of those things are,” he continues. “Those things scare mathematicians. That’s why a lot of the time mathematicians can’t operate very well in the real world, because they’re used to this rarefied, simplified idea where everything is congruent. That’s the idea of love that I’m trying to dismiss: ‘Oh, you find your soul mate and you’re happy together forever in eternal love.’”

“People ask, ‘Oh, you’re a mathematician, what’s the formula for making music?,’” Snaith says. “And I’m like, ‘You’ve already missed the point.’ The point is it’s this fucking mess, and you’ve got to get in there and grapple with it. And it’s the same in personal life, social life, politics, whatever.” Love, like music, he seems to suggest, may be best assessed less as a state than as a process.

From his vantage, Pallett, who worked on string arrangements for Our Love, finds certain wisdom to be gleaned from Snaith. “I feel a little overwhelmed by how he’s figured it out,” he says. “He’s a straight-edge, good-eating hard worker, an advertisement for how clean living equals good work. His emails are long and detailed and filled with empathy. He is the greatest man, a model for living. If I felt like I wanted to kill myself, I would call Dan first.”

Even just sitting across from him in a hotel, it’s easy to see at least part of what Pallett means. As he tells deeply personal stories, including a tale of reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest out loud to his wife while driving across China in search of tea, he seems shy while also exuding an aura of warmth and generosity, offering cashews that he happens to have on hand. In his music, that translates into contemplative, introspective love songs that become ecstatic, communal affairs.

McCaughan hears a yearning in Snaith’s work for commonality. “One of my favorite moments of our 25th-anniversary festival was when Caribou played,” he said. “All day it had been guitar rock, basically, and then Caribou played and the crowd was going crazy. It was so awesome: These were the same people who loved Ex Hex and Bob Mould, but they were equally into Caribou. Dan doesn’t just gear things toward one group of people. His approach is very open.”

Snaith himself has come to love what once might have seemed like logic-busting paradox. “There’s contradiction everywhere,” he says. “I have friends who are political science professors or philosophers — the very people who should be able to entertain the notion that there’s not one framework that makes sense of everything but can’t. In everything, there is its opposite.”

He continues, “Things are not that simple, but it’s such a strong human impulse to simplify and want to understand everything in one simple way, and to look for that everywhere. realizing that, as much as that’s a totally strong impulse in me too, everything I love — including music — is irreducible.”