|| The Downtempo Duo
|| Heiko Hoffmann
"The Downtempo Duo" is a 2005 interview by Heiko Hoffmann. It originally appeared on Pitchfork.com. 
This is an original text copied verbatim from the original source. Do not edit this text to correct errors or misspellings. Aside from added wikilinks, this text is exactly as it originally appeared.
The Downtempo Duo
With their Warp albums Music Has the Right to Children and Geogaddi, Boards of Canada have become one of the most well-loved and critically revered contemporary artists without releasing singles, videos, or even going on tour. At the same time their sound of electronic psychedelia has been copied so often as to make the duo wonder what to do next. In this interview, which took place at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland, Mike and Marcus Sandison speak for the first time about their backgrounds, obsessive reactions to Geogaddi, and their upcoming new album The Campfire Headphase.
In the interviews you've given over the years and in the bios that your record label sends out it's never been mentioned when and how you got to know each other. So at what age did you guys meet?
"Mike: Oh. Mmh, just very, very young, actually. We lived in the same place near Inverness in Scotland, a very small coastal town in the middle of nowhere. Our parents were in the same gang of friends."
How old where you when you started making music?
"Mike: We were about 6 or 7 years old when we started to learn instruments and play together. We actually started to record our own music when we were about 10. If your parents have tape recorders, pianos and stuff like lying around in the house you are just going to play around with them."
Are you coming from musical families?
"Mike: Yeah. And of course it's a big help when your parents play instruments...[pauses]. Actually can I just stop the recorder there for a second?"
Recorder is switched off. Mike asks Marcus if it's ok to talk about it. Marcus says yes. Mike checks if the recorder is off and explains that they are in fact brothers, but have concealed that as they didn't want to provoke comparisons to Orbital, the electronic duo of brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll, when they started to release records in the mid-90s. Recorder is switched on again.
"Marcus: Obviously, certain people know us as real people. We haven't gone out of our way to conceal the fact we're brothers. It's not that big of a deal. If people don't ask about it then we don't bring it up. When we started releasing records we just wanted to avoid comparisons to Orbital...
Mike: Or even the Osmonds or the Jacksons [laughs].
Marcus: I never thought about it but Ween are brothers as well, aren't they?
Mike: No, they are not.
Marcus: I thought they were. Are they not?
Mike: No, they just pretend that they are. [Laughs]
Marcus: That's fantastic! [Laughs]
Mike: See, some people go out of their way to do things like that, while we are trying to avoid it."
So who had to adopt a new family name for the sake of Boards of Canada?
"Mike: We are both Sandisons. And Eoin is actually Marcus' middle name. So that's a pretty simple explanation."
When did you live in Canada?
"Mike: From 1979 to 1980. I was eight years old and Marcus was a bit younger. Our father worked in construction. He helped to build the Saddle Dome in Calgary. There was a lot of work at that time in Canada so that's why we moved there. We moved around quite a lot and then relocated to Scotland. We've been based around Edinburgh for the last 20 years, so this is home."
Why did the educational TV films from the National Film Board of Canada, that you named yourself after, have such a big impact on you and your music if you'd only been exposed to them for a year?"
"Marcus: We saw them in both Canada and Scotland. The films were on television in the UK for years. For a long time we weren't sure what [the NFBC] would think about a band being named after them. Only recently did we find out that they had used our music on some of their films. So we took that as approval.
Mike: They have a newsletter and even ran an article on us a couple of years ago. So that's a strange feedback loop.
Marcus: Back then television was a really big deal for us because we were so bored. We weren't old enough to go to the cinema and we were in a town where there was absolutely bugger all to do. So we just went out and vandalized property. [Laughs] Or sneak in video nasties from the local video store. Or got our friends together to make films. We had our crappy early-80s bikes and went out with my dad's super-8 camera making films."
And you really started recording music at the age of 10?
"Marcus: Yeah but I wouldn't describe it as Boards of Canada music at that time.
Mike: Obviously we didn't have a multitrack recorder, but we had two tape recoders. What you could do is record something on one tape recorder, play it back across two feet of air and while it was playing accompany it with something else on the guitar, the piano, the drums, whatever. We would do this, swap the cassettes over and do it again and again until the tapes started getting so distorted that you couldn't do it any longer. So it was really crude old-school multitrack recording. But it was a good way for us to learn how to compose our own stuff."
Was it always just the two of you playing together?
"Mike: Well, I went to high school before Marcus did, and I formed a band there with friends.
Marcus: Initially we were in different bands in high school.
Mike: But when we came home [from school] we were recording music together. At one point in the mid-80s Marcus was in a really trashy heavy metal band and I wasn't into their music at all. So I invited him to play with my band. We then started to play around with synths. We were the only group at our high school to use synths."
You only started sending demo tapes to record labels in the mid-90s. Why did take you such a long time to approach a label to release your music?
"Mike: We just didn't think that we were good enough. We kept changing what we were doing. The problem with us as a band is that we have a schizophrenic approach to music, which still haunts us. We had a kind of battle when we worked on this album [The Campfire Headphase]. A lot of what we did for this record was really electronic stuff and a lot of what we did was really guitar-y music. I mean much more guitar-y than what ended up on the record. But this problem-- how to fuse these two things-- always plagued us.
Marcus: For me, there's an era of music in the early 90s when people started to combine electronic music with guitar music, forcing them to come together, and I always hated this music."
Do you mean bands like EMF or Jesus Jones?
"Marcus: Exactly! I wasn't going to name names but, yes. For me it didn't really fit together. It was really rubbish.
Mike: Because we've always listened to huge amounts of different music we experiment with lots of things. So you play guitar one minute and then something extremely electronic the next minute. But if you're gonna be a band you can't really afford to do that. You have to stick with something. Nobody's gonna want to listen to a record where there's an electronic tune and, let's say, a banjo tune right after. You have to stay with a flavor.
Marcus: Some of the tracks that we worked on are so extreme in one direction that we just can't use them. They don't fit the BoC
thing at all. We can't release them under this project. We're already seeing from the reactions to this record that some people love it and are really happy that we've done something different. But there are some people having a problem with the guitars. So if we'd really gone full-on with that they would have just never believed that it's the same group. You would never know that it was us."
Don't you underestimate your audiences openness for change?
"Mike: Maybe. In the late-80s the three bands that were a huge influence on us were Front 242 to some extent, and-- to a large extent-- Nitzer Ebb and the Cocteau Twins. And they don't actually fit in the same category...
Marcus: ...but we would listen to them at the same time. Maybe it's a slightly gothic thing. You can imagine that there was already a seed planted there where that was going in two different directions. I actually rate bands like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson who are a hybrid of electronic and guitar music. I think they are brilliant but the kind of people who are into that kind of thing now are not as broad-minded as maybe people were 20 years ago. Now there's a feeling that if you are one of these kids wearing black eyeliner who's into Marilyn Manson you will never be open-minded enough to listen to electronic music. I think there's a narrowing of taste rather than an opening up of taste.
Mike: Or maybe it just seems like that from our point of view here in Scotland.
Marcus: We've actually been in touch with the Cocteau Twins. Simon Raymonde of Cocteau Twins is a fan of our music. He's been trying for about four years to persuade us do some work on his label Bella Union but we are contractually not allowed to do that. Plus we don't even have the time. But it's a shame because we are such huge fans of theirs."
It seems that on one hand you're afraid to alienate your audience but on the other you try to avoid being pigeonholed.
"Mike: Yeah. The new record is probably the slowest record that we've done. And it's got guitars on it as well. This is something that we've done slightly deliberately. We knew that we had to break away from this thing. It bothered us that if you go into the big stores our stuff is always sitting in the dance music section. We never made a dance record in our entire career but our stuff stilll gets thrown in there. Our drive with this record is to try and get us out of the dance section and into the main section with all the others bands, like ABBA and A-Ha. We're just a band. Not an IDM band, not an electronic band, and not a dance band."
But this will not happen. It's a losing battle.
"Mike: Maybe not now, but in five or 10 years-- if shops are still selling CDs. [Laughs]"
One reason why you feel quite a lot of pressure, surely is the fact that it takes you such a long time to put a record out. Your last album, Geogaddi, was released three and a half years ago.
"Mike: We've really experienced high expectation regarding the new record, partly because it took such a long time. And we think this works against us as well."
So what took you so long? When Geogaddi came out you were saying that the new album was already half finished.
"Mike: We both relocated and built new studios. That took us about a year. Then I became a father last year and that was another year lost. Personal things happen in everyone's lives and you find that it's very difficult to get on with work. That was part of the problem.
But it's correct that we had done a lot of work on this record by the time Geogaddi came out. We have this system of working where we never work in a linear fashion. We work parallel on lots and lots of music at once.
Marcus: Instead of starting on one song and working on it until its finished we have hundreds of songs on the go at one time and depending on our mood we try working on different ones. We both have pretty short attention spans.
Mike: We always have enough material for several other albums but what tends to happen is that our tastes move on and we kind of get fed up with what we're doing. We actually have a huge amount of music that people will probably never get to hear.
Marcus: It's just another manifestation of this schizophrenic problem, trying to do too many things at once.
Mike: We also started working on an acoustic version of Music Has the Right to Children years ago and it still exists.
Marcus: The reason why we haven't put something like this out is that it can seem like a retread of something you've already done."
Is The Campfire Headphase a direct reaction for you on Geogaddi?
"Mike: Yes, to some extent I think it is. The whole mood of this record is really uplifting and happy generally. It's really a case of saying: All the mystery and magic and all this kind of nonsense that built up around the last record got to a point where it was just silly. People were understanding things from our music that we didn't put in there and were saying there was an evil underrcurrent to everything. And we are not like that at all. It was a theme that we wanted to persue on that record but people have understood from that that we always put secret, dark, sinister, and satanic things in our music. And that became more important than the music itself.
Geogaddi was also the most abstract and surreal record we've done. A lot of the tracks don't really have much structure. Some songs are more soundscapes. With the new record we wanted to simplify the whole thing, [to make it] just about music.
Marcus: We realized that there are some people who would listen to our records but instead of listening to the music they would start looking for some hidden things immediately.
Mike: People will look for secret things now in this record even if there aren't any."
More than any of your records before this one reminds me most of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless.
"Mike: Well, that's a great compliment. Of course we are massive fans of My Bloody Valentine. Loveless is probably one of my top five favorite albums of all time. I think that, even if we don't sound like them, there's a connection in terms of the approach to the music. The idea of making music where it's really difficult to figure out which instruments you are listening to but you just don't care. At the same time we also tried to get away from the notion that our music is entirely contained within electronic boxes. It never has been and we are not big fans of laptop music. So this time we really wanted to try and break out. We're not trying to be an IDM band and we're not trying to be a Warp band or anything."
But Warp Records have changed a lot too, if you think about bands like Maximo Park, Broadcast etc.
"Marcus: Definately. And I think it would have been harder for us to release a record with guitar sounds if that hadn't been the case."
interview by Heiko Hoffmann, September 2005.
- ↑ http://pitchfork.com/features/interview/6151-boards-of-canada/