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Reindeer Games 

Sued by an old punk, Canadian electronica whiz Dan Snaith carries on as Caribou.

Dan Snaith has gone through a lot of therapy to forget - all about the Dictators' Handsome Dick Manitoba.
  • Dan Snaith has gone through a lot of therapy to forget all about the Dictators' Handsome Dick Manitoba.
When former Dictators frontman Handsome Dick Manitoba went all cease-and-desist on Dan Snaith's band Manitoba, the electronica artist didn't even know who the grizzled old punk was.

"I'd never heard of the guy," says Snaith, a Canadian who named his group after a province in his homeland. "And now I've gone through therapy to have all memories of him erased."

Snaith can now joke about the trademark-infringement suit filed in 2004 by Handsome Dick, who fretted that Snaith's band name might confuse fans of Manitoba's Wild Kingdom -- a short-lived band led by Handsome Dick that released only one album under his surname (in 1990). Snaith can joke about any subject, really. He holds a doctorate in mathematics, and he's as quick with quips as calculations. But all wisecracks aside, Manitoba's lawsuit almost bankrupted him, even though he didn't contest it.

"It cost me thousands and thousands just to give in and sign a document," he says in a cell-phone conversation while traveling down a Midwest highway. Suddenly, he shouts, "Cocksuckers!" At first, this seems like a cathartic outburst provoked by the lawsuit. But Snaith's actually addressing the other members of his band, traveling in a separate van, who just tossed garbage out of their sunroof while passing his vehicle, smearing his windshield with grime.

Several years ago, the idea of Snaith touring with a modest entourage seemed as far-fetched as his being haunted by a ghost from CBGB's past. The impressionistic intelligent dance music on Manitoba's 2001 debut, Start Breaking My Heart, favored ambient atmosphere over assertiveness. He performed scattered shows seated at his laptop, without even a slide show to enliven his sets. "I was phoning it in," he admits.

On 2003's Up in Flames, Snaith remade himself as a psychedelic rocker with a technologically advanced arsenal. Sonic squiggles and auxiliary instrumentation hid beneath the chamber-pop hooks: Adventurous audiophiles used headphones to find these Easter eggs. The stylistic switch-up so baffled some fans of Snaith's debut disc that, in a case of dramatic foreshadowing, they accused another act of swiping Snaith's handle.

"I got a bit of 'This isn't electronic music, I don't like it anymore,' but for the most part, the feedback was really positive," Snaith says. "People accept that I'm going to change the type of music I make, and that's very liberating."

Snaith never considered presenting Up in Flames live until he'd completed his studio sessions. "When I was making it, I thought nobody was going to want to hear it," he says. "Once I decided to tour, I realized it would be a farce without a band. When it came time to learn how to play these songs with other people, there were parts that human beings could not replicate. We had to reinterpret them for the live setting."

Snaith's touring trio donned bear masks at every Up in Flames gig, enduring "intensely enormous temperatures" as they rotated between guitars, keyboards, and a pair of drum sets. After Manitoba's lawsuit, the band changed its name to Caribou, a moniker that maintains its Canadian connection, since the caribou, a large reindeer, is native to northernmost North America. The group won't be sporting antlered headgear on tour, though Snaith maintains, "We go out into the forest, slaughter and gut three caribou, and wear their skins before every show."

The band will be hitting the road in support of Caribou's recently released The Milk of Human Kindness. "Yeti," the album's first single, revisits Radiohead's "Idioteque" with skittering rhythms, eerily calm vocals, and a throbbing pulse. "Hello Hammerheads," Milk's most conventional composition, pairs acoustic guitar slides with lyrical laments.

But Milk is mostly instrumental, with melancholy keyboard and guitar melodies quivering in the wake of seismic cymbal crashes. "Bees" comes off as a muted rocker -- like a Gary Glitter tune wafting in from some arena a mile away. "Brahminy Kite" contrasts urgent keys with massive multilayered percussion. And "Lord Leopard" recalls the hip-hop cassette-single cuts that would remove most of the vocal tracks, but leave scattered words to shout along to. The immense shifts of momentum resemble house music's epic ebb and flow more than rock's steadier verse-chorus-verse rotations.

Almost half the album's tracks are fragments, minute-long bursts of aggressive noise or orchestral grandeur. Snaith adores free jazz and progressive rock ("Live, we're like Yes meets Yngwie Malmsteen"), but he doesn't see Caribou shows as opportunities to expand the shorter songs into sprawling jams, mainly because of the band's visual presentation.

"The videos [from the animation company Delicious 9] are synchronized with the songs, so we have to maintain the structures," he says. "We do some improvisation, but we're far more focused on making it a bombastic fuckfest with total sensory overload."

Caribou concerts retain a Wild Kingdom feel, thanks to animal-heavy imagery. The songs' sampled vocals emerge from the mouths of owls, pigs, and frogs, and Delicious 9's gorgeous squiggly renderings make this talking-creature effect much more appealing than, say, that of Look Who's Talking Now. But fans won't get a glimpse of the band's namesake -- especially not any altered archival footage of a red-nosed Rudolph.

"We're trying to avoid all legal issues involving Caribou," Snaith quips.

More by Andrew Miller

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