For those new to their tale, it’s difficult to imagine just how strange, how mysterious and inscrutable Boards of Canada were.
The vastly influential pairing seemed to emerge from the ether, with fans unsure of their real names, location or tastes. With the release of ‘The Campfire Headphase’ in 2005, though, the duo suddenly became willing to step outside of the shadows.
Granting a handful of interviews, Boards of Canada opened up about their method, their background and – tantalisingly – their future. Never before seen online, here’s a classic Clash interview with two seminal voices in electronic music.
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Boards of Canada don’t give many interviews, the vast majority are by e-mail, and to the select few who do get to meet them, their studio, their homes and many key details of their lives and work are strictly out of bounds. In the gaps where the fiercely private band leave the silence, grow the myths that have made the enigma that is Boards of Canada.
In magazines and on forums, media and fans alike have speculated for years about who Boards of Canada really are. If you believe what’s written they’re two reportedly unapproachable and reclusive producers permanently locked in an isolated Scottish highland studio bunker, studying their meticulous musical science and obsessing nature whilst laying mathematical secrets and cult-like messages in their magical music. They are the victims of what they call “the flood of bullshit that fills in your silhouette.”
For those that don’t know them, here is a brief history. And while we’re at it, let’s dispel a few myths.
Known originally as Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin, Boards of Canada, it has recently transpired, are actually brothers. Both are members of the Sandison family, with Marcus initially carrying his middle name as a surname. They don’t see this slight deception as a big deal, as Marcus explains: “ We didn’t go out our way to conceal the fact we are brothers. If people don’t ask about it we don’t bring it up. When we started releasing records we just wanted to avoid comparisons with Orbital…” “ Or even the Osmonds or the Jacksons,” Mike laughs.
Mike and Marcus were born early in the 1970s to musical parents in a small coastal town just outside Inverness in Scotland. Between 1979 and 1980 they relocated to Canada to follow the construction work income that dictated their father’s movements, before relocating back to Scotland a few years later. For the last 20 years they have lived within half an hour’s drive to Edinburgh.
“We’re not trying to accurately pastiche the past, it’s about inventing a past that didn’t really happen.”
Yes, their studio is slightly rural and they dio value the isolation and creativity that being alone and close to nature brings. Mike explains why this is. “Working from a rural studio is probably an advantage because we can create a lot of ad noise and nobody complains and it’s a great place to switch off. When we walk out the doors we don’t see hundreds of pedestrians with the mental interference of their individual lives and fashions, instead there’s just a couple of horses. It’s imagine you’re wherever you want to be, and that helps to stay focussed on specific musical ideas that work outside current sounds and trends.”
Growing up with recording equipment and instruments littering their homes, naturally the boys experimented, and by the age of 10 started to record music. Using the two tape recorders they’d play sounds on one and record on the other across two feet of air before swapping tapes to repeat the process and learn to layer sound. Mike, the eldest by around 2 years, was first to go to high school and start experimenting with live drums and guitar in various bands. When Marcus started a particularly bad trash metal band they decided to join forces as they were both far more interested in synths and programming.
In the early 1990s, after leaving school and their respective bands behind,m their university years led to the creation of a collective of friends knows as Hexagon Sun. Musicians, graphic designers, photographers and artists would gather for woodland parties where music, chat and laughter would be enjoyed round a campfire in the outdoor air. These select gatherings exist to this day.
After years of limited, self-circulated tape and CD releases, in 1996 Boards of Canada grew the confidence to send their compositions to those they respected. Sean Booth from Autechre was the first to pick up on them and the hugely respected Skam records put out the first serious Boards of Canada releases, the ‘Hi Scores’ and ‘Aquarius’ EPs. Warp Records soon noticed the synergies in the sound of band and label and they had the power to take Boards of Canada to the next level so partnered Skam for the next stage. 1998’s resultant debut album, ‘Music Has The Right To Children’, redefined the electronica landscape.
This album is still to many, BoC’s masterpiece. It firmly established certain sounds as their signature and techniques as their trademarks. Samples of radio and film speech, sporadically narrating distant messages and interjecting with child-like vocal samples were placed alongside strings submerged under layers of atmospherics, creating a sound and feeling as nostalgic and warmly familiar as looking at a treasured Polaroid of a distant time past. Live instruments and samples were put through the wringer again and again in a reverse processing cycle learned over years and far removed from popular production techniques to achieve this feeling. Untreated sound was dirtied, dragged through a muddy mix of analogue effects, synthetic textures and distortion to warp the linear and blur the clean. Little vignettes, fragments of speech and sound, intended to catch a feeling or define an instant and recorded to last only a minute or so were everywhere in their music also. These smaller pieces make up some of Mike and Marcus’s favorite parts of the Boards of Canada jigsaw.
2002’s ‘Geogaddi’, their second long player, involved the creation of 400 such song fragments and 64 complete songs, with 23 selected, one of which was silence, as Boards of Canada tried not to let the new weight of expectation deviate them from their earlier, less scrutinised path. If anything, ‘Geogaddi’ was more stripped down than its predecessor; eerier and darker but still aged under the same smoky hue.
‘Geodaddi’ exercises similar basic principals to ‘MHTRTC’ but launched the suggestion of subliminal trickery in their music, through the use of mathematics like Fibonacci in song structure and the placement of hidden symbols and phrases woven into the tapestry of their songs. Boards of Canada have admitted to this to an extent, saying that what they’ve been watching, listening to, or learning about at any given time has appeared in some way in all of their music but in ‘Geogaddi’ the messages were a particular theme.
At this time they also stated that the next album was well on the way to being ready. But a three-year wait followed until the last month when ‘The Campfire Headphase’ finally appeared on Warp.
According to them it’s simply been another three-year treatment and aging process. Oak smoking boats and immersing guitar melodies under swathes of static recorded and reverberated over and over to create the perfect atmosphere. Mike explains, “Some of what we do takes much more than two or three listens before we realise we’re addicted to even a simple chord progression or melody. And part of the way we get our music to work is by living with our own tracks for a while before releasing them.” Their aim with this third album is to dominate our emotive headspace once again with an album sounding older than ever, more beautiful than ever and more strangely reminiscent of far-off places and past feelings.
In comparing the new album to their pervious work, Mike says, “This record is more visual than ‘Geodaddi’, which means much more abstract. It’s our take on a pop record, pop music that has been melted on a hot dashboard in the sun. The melodies are hopeful on the surface, with an undercurrent of sickness or giddiness.” Marcus adds, “I think more than ever we tried to get the music to simulate a visual event, for instance ‘Satellite Anthem Icarus’ has a kind if super-slow-motion swelling sound that’s reminiscent of slow-mo action shots from old oceanographical
As they made this album BoC said their aim was to take the playing of traditional instrument sounds far into unconventional places. Marcus says, “On some of the trcks we’d set up a straightforward backing, maybe a simple guitar riff, and we’d change what the original melody was doing, to give it a kind of uneasy undercurrent. We sneak synthetic melodies in on top, sometimes you’ll hear twisty things like reversed instruments join in, playing in the relative minor. We set things up one way and then try to make you hear the melody in a completely different way.
I ask Mike if they employ any particular or new techniques in creating these hopeful moods and textures with sick and giddy undertones. “We spent a lot of time destroying the sounds, throwing parts onto overloaded tape or amping them up and re-recording them back in through low-quality mics,” he says. “And we put a lot of work into incidental sounds and events that flit in and out of the music, things like multi-coloured glissandos or synthetic bird like sounds that tweet in one ear and out the other.”
Symbolism, however, is not such a strong part of this album. “We moved away from the burying hidden messages in the music because that was the theme on ‘Geodaddi’. But of course there are little elements of what has been influencing us lately hidden in there somewhere,” Mike intimates. “But the fun is finding them! This record and its influences are mostly about the music. We’ve tried to hint at the kind of guitar sounds you’d hear on an old Joni album or something from that era. The guitar-based music we listen to is usually from artists who have been totally entrenched in guitar song-writing from the word go, people like John Frusciante . We also took some rough ideas from low-budget 70’s western films. We’re really into Peckinpah’s movie.”
“It’s our take on a pop record, pop music that has been melted on a hot dashboard in the sun.”
On songs like the amazing ‘Chromakey Dreamcoat’, which wobbles like tape being slowed by hand over its beautiful string plucks or the start of ‘Peacock Tail’ through ‘Dayvan Cowboy’, the most uplifting section of the album, the use of guitars is more evident than ever. “It suited the sound we were going for on this record,” Marcus says. “They’re all fairly futuristic sounding tracks but they have a 70’s acoustic flavor. “ Mike adds. “We’d known for quite a while, since ‘Geodaddi’, that we wanted to make a guitar record next. In the end what we’ve actually made is really more of a weird crossbreed.”
‘The Campfire Headphase’ is Boards of Canada at their absolute best, reminiscent of the finest moments of their debut, soaked in nostalgia and poignance with sounds eroded for what feels like an eternity. “We like playing around with memory triggers in music, usually in the melody parts. We come up with little phrases or ornaments that are reminiscent of something. A large part of what it’s about is the quality of the sound itself, corroding the sound. We’re not trying to accurately pastiche the past, it’s about inventing a past that didn’t really happen, like finding your own 8-track demo tape that has been lying in a box for years.” I ask them if they feel their music looks forward or back to which they reply, “We feel it does both.”
So how do they feel about the enigma that is created around their music? Marcus answers quickly, “I think it’s funny really. It was always going to happen. We do put a lot of details in there that you might not expect people to pick up on. But the listeners always get it. There are some occasions when it would probably be best to just kick back and feel the music instead if analysing it.” One particular perception they did like is fondly remembered by Mike: “I remember a nice comment someone made when they reasoned that we didn’t use a singer because no words could do the music any justice. I like that, because I’ve always felt that in music words are a really low-res way of conveying ideas. What I mean is, music is a much higher-resolution medium to convey feelings than words could ever be.”
Words by Brian Murnin