Some artists are of the tortured variety, loosening their pouty expressions only to wax apocalyptic on the morose symbolism supposedly evident in their music.
Dan Snaith is not one of them.
With only a couple of hours until show time at San Francisco’s Bottom of the Hill, Snaith is less than concerned about either the show or his audience truly “understanding” him. While the venue’s sound technician works feverishly to fix some fuzz in the connections, the one-man fountain of sound that makes up the entirety of Manitoba drops what he’s doing to discuss…the Humanzee?
“I saw some shit about this chimpanzee that looked really like a human, and kinda behaved like a human, and there was this guy who committed his whole life to it, and he really, really believed in it. He tried to convince people to get DNA tests done, he took it over to Japan, and it was on all kinds of TV shows and stuff. Kinda sad though, I think the Humanzee died recently. I mean, first Aaliyah, and now the Humanzee.”
Maybe Snaith has a short attention span, but it’s definitely served him well. The abstract IDM of Manitoba’s tremendous debut album, Start Breaking My Heart, released in 2001 on Leaf, was heaped with critical praise and drew countless comparisons to Boards of Canada, the reigning kings of the genre. Shortly after completing Breaking, Snaith began recording songs for a follow-up, but soon found himself unsatisfied with his newest project.
“I just got bored doing the kind of stuff I did on Start Breaking My Heart, consciously trying to continue on from where that left off,” he explains. “I just wasn’t excited by the results and other music that was in that same vein wasn’t really exciting to me [either].
“I got really frustrated, and I just said ‘Fuck it, I’m just going to make music and not worry about whether it’s going to be put out.’ I wanted to make a way bigger sounding record; I didn’t want a bedroomy-sounding record. I wasn’t even really thinking about it being put out. When I started realizing that maybe I was going to put it out, I didn’t know what people would think. To some extent I didn’t really care what people would think about it, but I didn’t want everyone to think, ‘Hey, this one’s a stinker.’ “
A stinker it isn’t. The “bigger sound” that Snaith imagined blossomed into Up In Flames, which has deservedly received nothing but glowing press. Instead of grizzled beats, Snaith methodically and patiently assembled tracks blending live instrumentation with as many as 1,000 samples. The result is a dense collage of psychedelic pop songs that harkens back to the glory of the ’60s and has people name-dropping everything from the Beach Boys to My Bloody Valentine.
Completely changing his sound wasn’t even the riskiest thing about Up In Flames for Snaith: he reserves that honor for the vocals he recorded for the album.
“I can’t sing at all,” he confesses, blushing slightly. “The album was recorded in tiny little bits and assembled to make it sound reasonable. I can’t even believe I put out an album with me singing on it. These guys’ll tell you. In the van when I’m singing, they’re like, ‘You’re fuckin’ tone deaf!’ It’s horrible.”
“When I listen to songs, I barely listen to the lyrics. I’m a sound junkie, I’m not so much about lyrics or whatever, and then I gotta put names on them at the last minute. It’s a pain in the ass, but lots of people say they like ’em.”
With tracks like “Tits & Ass: The Great Canadian Weekend” and “If Assholes Could Fly This Place Would Be An Airport,” the fact that the titles don’t reflect the lyrics is most likely for the best.
Most artists are considered right-brain types, but Snaith is surprisingly balanced: he’s currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program for higher mathematics. With tour guitarist Ryan Smith currently enrolled in a journalism program, the traveling version of Manitoba is quite studious. “Oh yeah, they’re total nerds,” says Eric Morgan, the band’s tour manager for their trip across the West Coast. “But they’re not naive nerds, they’re hip nerds, which actually makes them cool.”
Snaith has no intention of picking one path or the other anytime soon. “I’d love to keep doing both [music and math],” he says. “I like the fact that I’m not always doing the same thing.”
That fact may rear its head yet again on Manitoba’s next album. The tour wraps in November, at which point Snaith will start seriously working with the instrumentals and samples that he’s been putting together in his head over the last few months. But even he has no idea what the future will hold.
“Now that I’ve put out two totally different albums,” he explains, “I feel like I can either do something totally different or continue on from where this is going. I’ll just start fucking around and see what happens. It seems to work.”