While Toronto has become comfortably ensconced in the annals of electronic music, who knew that Dundas, Ontario was about to become the next big thing in cutting-edge, organic electronica? When composer/DJ Manitoba (aka Dan Snaith) quietly released his first EP, which included a track named after his hometown, in 2000, he put the tiny hamlet on the electro map in a big way. His ensuing album on the UK’s upstart Leaf label, Start Breaking My Heart, topped critics’ year-end lists and catapulted the unassuming 22-year-old former U of T math student to international success.
The surprise success of Manitoba’s melodic, accessible take on electronic music meant that Snaith went from being a complete unknown to moving to London recently in order to take advantage of all the opportunities being thrown his way. Not only is he in demand for live DJ sets all over the globe, he continues to pursue his doctorate in mathematics at London’s Imperial College at the same time.
The indefatigable Snaith was in T.O. for a rare hometown gig in February at Gypsy Co-op for the fifth anniversary of early supporter Denise Benson’s weekly Glide party. His brief return home marked a flurry of activity—endless radio interviews and the cover of NOW Magazine made for relentless buzz. But if the unassuming, bespectacled Snaith was at all fazed by the “hail the conquering hero”-style attention, he didn’t let on.
“It’s especially nice to have success here in Canada—that’s been really, really rewarding that things have been going so well here,” he said. “But also it’s crazy to go to Japan and have guys come up to you, and they want you to sign the album and shit like that … It’s pretty surreal.”
Start Breaking My Heart found a home on the well-regarded Leaf label after Kieran Hebden of like-minded Brit outfit Four Tet passed on Manitoba’s music to the folks there.
The album, a tuneful mix of low-key electronic touches underscored by Snaith’s skilful keyboard and guitar melodies, struck a chord with a wider spectrum of listeners than the usual electronic-heads. Influenced by diverse musical interests from hip-hop to electro, Manitoba’s hybrid sound was quickly dubbed “folktronica” by critics, a term Snaith himself eschews.
“‘Folktronica’ is bullshit, some journalist made that shit up,” Snaith declared. “But as far as I’m concerned, I want to do a lot of different things because I have a lot of varying tastes in music. I’d prefer to—I know it’s already a cliché—but to try and avoid, like, describing it as some kind of music or other. It’s sort of like my music ends up being more electronic more by accident, because that’s the kind of equipment I can afford ’cause I’m poor and shit like that, rather than like, me being a really tech-y, electronic kinda nerd or whatever.”
Snaith hopes to release his second full-length later this year, and said it will yet again confound expectations of what electronic music should be.
“Even though I’m making it in exactly the same way I made the first one, it’s going to be less obvious that it’s, like, an electronica album. And it’s going to be more sort of song-based and more influenced by, like, a lot of the indie and rock and psychedelic pop stuff,” Snaith explained. “Just less sort of woozy, sleepy electronica-sounding and more dramatic, decadent, richer-sounding.”
Though he’s been embraced by the electronic music scene, Snaith has been critical of the genre’s inability to think outside the box. His crossover success has proven that electronic music doesn’t have to sound a particular way for music lovers to embrace it.
“I just think it’s a bad idea, being so insular, and being so, ‘Well, we’re electronic musicians and this is what we do’, and everything’s gonna be minimal, or everything’s gonna be, like, deep tech-y house or something,” Snaith declared. “I just think that’s a really boring and restrictive attitude to have.”
As a DJ, Manitoba has long been known to rock a party with sets heavy on hip-hop and old-school electro, but his February Glide visit was the first time he unveiled his current live setup at home.
A mixture of manipulating his own music via laptop and spinning on the decks, it’s a good compromise between the languid headphones feel of the album and his need as a DJ to get the dance floor movin’.
“Obviously I want it to sound like music that I made, but also having a live show demands that you have some kind of energy or something that’s exciting.
“I wouldn’t want to go see Boards of Canada press ‘play’ and reproduce their album exactly, because they really don’t need to be there for that to happen! So definitely, I’ve been trying to get a live show happening that has some sort of energy and is sort of halfway entertaining.”
International success, hometown kudos and famous friends all add up to pretty heady times for the kid from Dundas, Ontario. So perhaps it’s fitting that when asked why on earth he’s called “Manitoba,” his simple reply was: “I’m just keeping it real.”