Dan Snaith is probably sick of talking about his mathematics PhD. He received it in 2005, the same year he released his third album, The Milk of Human Kindness; his new album, Our Love, is his seventh. He has sold a heartening amount of records for an indie artist (2010's Swim moved 175,000 copies, according to his label), won rave reviews and prestigious awards, but profile writers (including myself) keep circling back to his former life as an academic. It's as though his dissertation is being recited in tones only journalists can hear.
After speaking with Snaith (a.k.a. Caribou) by phone from his base in London, I have a theory about why we're PhD-crazy. Even though the Dundas, Ont., native's brand of electronic dance-pop can be downright hedonistic – it would take a strong constitution to resist the hands-in-the-air filter-sweeps of Our Love's Julia Brightly or the sneakily infectious flute loop anchoring Mars – and although Snaith isn't dour or pretentious, it's tempting to reach for the shorthand of a doctorate to describe one of his most compelling traits: his intellectual curiosity.
Some musicians moan about the arduousness of touring; in his precious time off, Snaith and his young family pull out their suitcases. Their trips have included using tour dates opening for Radiohead in Mexico in 2012 as a jumping-off point for Snaith, his wife and their then-eight-month-old to explore the country's ancient ruins, as well as flying to China's Yunnan province to dig into the origins of a rare type of tea – a fascination of his wife.
"The Western perception of China is so narrow and limited," he passionately explains. "You think of the massive cities on the east coast or whatever, but [Yunnan province] is so distinctive. There's so much culture, the indigenous and tribal cultures and all of that, even the culture of tea production."
It's hard to imagine an established DJ/producer-type of artist relying on the kindness of strangers to tell him – using hand signals in lieu of a shared language – that he and his wife were on the wrong bus, an anecdote Snaith recounts in order to show the friendliness of the locals. (Maybe it would be easier to envision such a scenario for an EDM superstar if contraband psychedelics, or at least getting to a gig, were involved.)
Snaith's desire to learn more about the world than you can see from a DJ booth manifests in his music partly through his choice of collaborators. I put to him the idea that his roots in Dundas – hometown of several Canadian dance-pop artists including Junior Boys' Jeremy Greenspan and Jessy Lanza (who croons on one of Our Love's best tracks, the shimmering Second Chance) – and now, being in London with contemporaries such as respected producer Four Tet, has partly defined his music.
He rejects the idea politely but firmly, saying he likes to work with friends no matter where they're based, and cites the example of Canadian violinist and synth-pop whiz Owen Pallett, a long-time friend, as a guest on the album. "I definitely have the sense of building up a musical family over the years, and that's really wonderful. … It's much more about that kind of thing – I've never collaborated with somebody who's musically interesting but whom I don't know at all personally."
For some, this could be a limitation. Yet Snaith fearlessly plunges into unfamiliar cultures, not only to understand them (how many dance-music producers have a whole Sun Ra section in their record collection?) but also to make genuine connections, as when he collaborated with Sun Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen, which he describes as "a high point of my life."
Another example comes via his boutique record label. Fascinated by an emerging style of South African music called shangaan electro, Snaith released a single by a scene pioneer known as Nozinja in 2013 on Jiaolong, a small label Snaith had started two years earlier to produce one-off singles for himself and his friends. ("The record label is not a business in any sense," he says.) When Nozinja went to London for a gig, he and Snaith not only DJ'ed together, but Snaith attended a dance class put on by Nozinja and his dancers to demonstrate the style.
"I got to meet him, and look like an idiot trying to learn how to dance, alongside 60-year-olds, and three-year-olds – we brought my little daughter along."
Snaith says the title of the record, Our Love, refers not only to his love for his wife, but "for my family, for my friends, and also for music and for the people who are going to listen to it." He says the album came about during "a taking-stock moment in my life; like, what are the things that really matter to me about what I'm doing? What do I want to be in my music, what do I want to kind of capture of my life in it, and try to communicate to people?"
Aside from communicating just how much fun there is to be had at a Caribou concert, Our Love conveys his ravenous appetite for being out in the world, experiencing it and engaging with it in a serious way. And like his math PhD – something he shares with his father, a math professor – Snaith apparently comes by that desire honestly.
"I had my daughter in a sling, and we were walking up this pyramid," he says, recalling his post-Radiohead travels in Mexico. "And I thought, I have photos of my dad with me on his back, in a kind of carrier thing, climbing up the Pyramids of the Moon or of the Sun in Mexico. It made me very nostalgic; the experiences of travelling with my family when I was younger were my happiest time as a kid."
Caribou's album Our Love is out October 7 on Merge. They play Montreal Nov. 10, Toronto Nov. 24 and Vancouver Mar. 5.