By René Passet
'Strong emotional melodies'. That pretty much sums up the essence of what Boards of Canada is about. After various hard-to-get releases on cassettes, Skam Records (and it's enigmatic offshoot Mask) the Scottish duo has just released their debut album Music Has The Right To Children on Warp Records. The first of five on the Sheffield label!
Five albums. That might explain why Mike Sanderson and Marcus Eoin are extremely busy in their Hexagon Studio and reject most interview requests. So many tracks to finish, so little time. But Forcefield managed to enter the bunker, which hosts the Hexagon Studio. Via E-mail, here is what they said.
The name Boards of Canada is inspired by The National Filmboard of Canada. Could you explain what was so special about the nature-documentaries and their soundtracks?
Yes the NFB films were one of our influences when we were younger. I think most of their films have been socio-political, but there are animations and suchlike. The thing about the older films is that the quality of picture and soundtrack wasn't perfect, it was grainy and wobbly. We used to record compositions on cheap tapes which gave a similar rough quality, and we've always returned to that sound because it feels personal and nostalgic.
We saw a lot of those films here in the UK during the 1970's, but we both lived in Alberta briefly in the late 70's.
Apart from these soundtracks, you also name-drop Joni Mitchell and the Incredible String Band when it comes to instrumentation. What was so special about their musical approach?
Much of the music we like is not electronic, although we've probably been influenced by Devo. We love acoustic music on old recordings because they tend to have natural qualities such as tape compression and distortion. But I think Joni Mitchell's voice is so beautiful it almost sounds synthesised, so maybe there's the connection. The Incredible String Band still sound unusual today, because they changed the arrangement for every song, and their own influences were far and wide apart, and they always wrote emotional melodies which were a bit unusual, you know, with melodies which took unexpected twists. A unique band.
Devo, Walter/Wendy Carlos, DAF, television themes, corporate jingles from TV and film, Jeff Wayne, Julian Cope, My Bloody Valentine, 80's pop music.
Could you tell me more about your so-called psychedelic approach, the alterations from start to finish in a track?
We sometimes make a tune metamorphose as it plays. An example is "Nlogax" from the Hi Scores EP on Skam, which begins like an old electro or disco track but halfway through it suddenly becomes something nightmarish, like your brain is starting to malfunction in the middle of the tune. Psychedelics make music sound entirely different. Tiny details become massive, a five-minute track can feel like it's five hours long on psychedelics. You know when you're on a ride at a fairground, the pitch of the music rises and falls because of the Doppler-Effect? That's another thing we love to do in our tracks, and it's a fairly psychedelic-sounding effect too.
How do you write music? What's the starting point? A feeling, a sound or an idea? And who of you two makes the first sketches?
It's a team effort. Usually the starting point is a melody. We write hundreds of little melodies, and the most attractive ones last in our minds. We go back to them and pick the ones that really stand out, then we start piecing together rhythms. Both of us write the tunes and rhythms. On the album Music Has The Right To Children 50% was by Marcus, 50% by me (Mike). Not one of the tracks was totally written by one person.
The album is joint release by Skam and Warp. Was this done to improve promotion and distribution?
We began work on the album at the beginning of 1997 and it was meant to be for Skam, but in the summer Warp came to us and said "we'd like this album", so the labels decided to co-release it.
Skam gained respect amongst IDM-minded musiclovers in very little time. A new Skam record is considered something special nowadays. But they're always hard to find.
Skam is truly underground, truly independent. I'm sure that if we asked Skam to release only one copy of a new release, they would do it.
But why make music that (almost) no one can get their hands on, like the two MASK EP's, which were released in issues of 100 and 200 copies?
We've been making music since we were at school in the early 80's, and nobody will ever hear most of it, so it doesn't bother us to do a really limited release. Our friends and families hear all the music we write, and that's all that matters really. You wouldn't believe how much music we have on tape.
But why release records at all, if all that matters is that your friends and families hear all the music? You must feel some sort of proud when records are bought by music fans and get good press reviews. Or don't you?
Of course, it's lovely to hear that people we've never met are really enjoying our music, because it feels as though we must have something in common, I mean psychologically, with those listeners. So it is satisfying, and fascinating.
Yes, that's part of what you accept when you sign to a bigger label.
Warp has announced a second BoC album, to be released at the end of this year. In what ways will it differ from the first album?
I won't give away our plans for the next one, but it will be different. It's going to be stranger, more concentrated, more melodic.
Melody is very important in most of your work. While many other electronic musicians focus more on rhythm. Is this perhaps one of the secrets of your success?
We're much more interested in melody than rhythm, and we appreciate the emotional power of a melody. Maybe that's too uncool for a lot of electronic artists.
Some people might argue that Boards of Canada make “depressing” music. What would you like to comment on that? Are you pessimistic or optimistic towards life?
We're very optimistic. We might sound melancholy, but that's just the way we write music.
What kind of special equipment do you use? I understand some of your machines are quite big. And you have something what you call “the Secret Weapon”.
If I told you what the secret weapon is, it wouldn't be a secret anymore. We have more than one really. We use a mixture of old and new equipment. We don't have lots of synths, we use hi-fi gear and other tricks to achieve our sound.
Music70 makes short films and creates images, paintings and other art. It's done purely for ourselves and our friends, and it has no commercial aims at all. Most Music70 work is like D.I.Y., but it's always emotional.
That film will start shooting in summer.
You use a bunker in the Pentland Hills as a studio. Does the atmosphere of the Hexagon Studio reflects in any way on your music?
We don't have an urban lifestyle, so that might make us unusual in electronic music. The things we do with friends are more rural or organic, like outdoor gatherings and so on.
Our titles are always cryptic references which the listener might understand or might not. Some of them are personal, so the listener is unlikely to know what it refers to. Music Has The Right To Children is a statement of our intention to affect the audience using sound. "The Color of the Fire" was a reference to a friend's psychedelic experience. "Kaini Industries" is a company that was set up in Canada (by coincidence in the month Mike was born), to create employment for a settlement of Cree Indians. "Olson" is the surname of a family we know, and "Smokes Quantity" is the nickname of a friend of ours.
Is “Bocuma” perhaps named after Bochum Welt? It sounds very “Bochummy” :)
Sorry, I'm afraid not... It's an abbreviation/crossover of BOC Maxima and Documa, an obscure reference to 80's video culture.
The album Music Has The Right To Children is out now on Warp/Skam, as is their remix of Mira Calix' "Sandsings". WAP100 will contain an exclusive track by Boards of Canada, called “Orange Romeda”. Soon the Turquise Hexagon Sun website will open it's gates.