“When you hear that I've done a math PhD you assume something about the kind of person that I am, and those assumptions are largely right I think. I’m a kind of nerdy, cerebral person in a lot of ways.”
Dan Snaith, mastermind of electronic music act Caribou, is in his home studio in his London basement, surrounded by an encyclopedic floor-to-ceiling library of vinyls. The rows of albums aren’t the shelves of textbooks you might expect from an academic of Snaith’s stature; rather, they stand tall, a respectable flex on his expansive, chosen music education, as he chronicles his departure from mathematics for a life in music.
“By the time I finished my math PhD, I was going on tour all the time,” says the 43-year-old Canadian born mathematician turned electronic music veteran, remembering his academia-electronica balancing act. He says he had an album coming out and a tour booked around the time he finished his degree. “If I had had the choice between music and math at any point, I always would have chosen music. It was just always more exciting,” he says.
“At that moment I didn't mourn anything — I was out the door. I literally remember passing that exam being like ‘I'm out of here, you'll never see me again.”
Lucky for Houston, we’ll see Snaith with Caribou this Thursday at White Oak in support of their 2020 album Suddenly
. That record, Caribou’s first since 2014, stemmed from major life changes. A family death. A divorce in the family. Lyrics from “You and I” (You can take your place up in the sky / I will find a way to carry on down here
) and “New Jade” (And we’ve got to join with you / To give you the strength to get through
) seem to navigate diary pages from those trials. But the pandemic was a seismic shift, a common denominator for Snaith and fans to experience the album through.
“It felt weird how those sudden things that happened in my life — in the five years previous to the album coming out while I was making it — were very personal to me but with the view that everybody goes through those kind of things, and learning to remain positive and make something positive out of those sudden unexpected developments. Things that aren't positive developments in your life. But then all of a sudden everybody shared the same sudden change.”
In some ways, Suddenly
is suited for home listening. It’s introspective, refreshing, inviting. Snaith’s production drapes his bullseye songwriting in electronic, hip hop, pop trappings and an array of sudden, punctuated transitions. Perhaps the album’s ultimate magic trick was back-dropping a new world for its listeners during times of uncertainty. Suddenly’s
soulful centerpiece “Home,” likely couldn’t have been timed better. The Gloria Barnes sampling track says the H-word no less than fifty-some-odd times, and naturally it was, of course, re-contextualized in lockdown with everyone being at…
“It wasn't what I wanted. I didn't want people to be listening to it in that context, or the world to be going through that.”
was released in that precarious early 2020 window that spanned the end of the before times to at the earliest of the after, when albums and artists, subjected to a volatile business landscape, pivoted to the virtual frontier. Given the life and labor baked into Suddenly
, its release rollout probably didn’t call for house arrest to the highest power. It needed the road.
“Without that second chapter – the sharing with people, seeing how it affects people – it felt very weird and very dislocating. I was so desperate to play again.”
In March 2020, Snaith and the band were in production rehearsals, staring an oncoming lockdown in the face, about to get on a flight to begin the tour, when the now all too familiar tour cancellation night terror ensued.
“We were packing everything away the night before we were going to get on the flight, and we just looked at each other and we were like, this isn't going to happen this it?”
It didn’t happen for a while. But Snaith was finally able to resume touring in support of Suddenly
last summer after multiple pandemic related postponements. Before COVID, he used to play around 100 shows a year. That typical itinerary dwindled to 30 shows last year. Despite being fewer in number, the shows and the crowds are as meaningful as ever.
“All the shows have been special. But those ones where we knew that lots of people in the audience haven't seen live music in two years — we're just so fortunate to be able to be in that position.”
It isn’t lost on Snaith that the tour actually is happening, or how in a fast paced music industry, the pandemic was an insanely long stretch of time for fans to internalize an album before hearing it live.
“If your album’s been out six months, everyone's forgotten about it already, you know what I mean? That's the kind of thing that you're supposed to believe. And here we are, two years after the album came out, going on tour. I was like: what do people want to hear?”
He says touring an album this long after its release is a different experience compared to hitting the road the day it’s hit the shelves.
“Sometimes you tour a record the day after it's come out and people have heard it once, or they've heard it twice, or they've not heard it at all. They haven't bothered to check it out before the show, they're just like: ‘Oh yeah I kind of like this.’ But by the time we got on tour with this record, people really knew the songs on it which was really cool. And in a different way too, they are kind of still new songs, in the sense, as a band – we haven't played them onstage as a band. So they were new for us.”
It’s been eight years since Caribou played Houston, but Snaith, who has extended family here, recalls his journey in Space City well. He remembers playing to empty warehouses here early into his career. He remembers Toro y Moi opening for Caribou in 2010 (“The place was packed and it totally kicked off.”) and going to a party afterwards. He remembers the teenagers dancing up front and the “people my age sipping a beer at the back” at the last show eight years ago.
“The last place we played, I wish I could remember the name of the venue.”
This writer asks if it was Fitzgerald’s.
“Is that almost like a saloon-y… it's got that vibe to it…maybe Elvis has played there or something? That show was absolutely crazy as well. So it's kind of completely changed my perspective over the years [from being] ‘It's going to be fun, but it's not going to be too crazy,” to being ‘This is going to be one of the awesome shows.’ I'm really, really looking forward to the show.”
Dance in the front or sip a beer in the back on Thursday February 10 when Caribou plays Downstairs at White Oak Music Hall. Opening support from Ela Minus. Tickets $26. Doors open at 7. p.m.