|| The Great Escape
|| Mark Robertson
|| The List
|| Oct 2005
|| Issue 533
The Great Escape
They have made some of the most evocative and uncategorisable music of recent times. Mark Robertson speaks to BOARDS OF CANADA about making records, starting families and the spaces between the notes.
Boards of Canada's music is weird. Weird in a good way, that is. Good music should make the listener feel, be it happy, sad, adrenalised, even angry or confused. An emotional response is the most an artist can hope for from the listener. Boards of Canada’s music - and even after speaking to them it's still not entirely clear why - is among the most emotive, touchy feely noise you could find.
There is a sense of vast space, an air of melancholy. Keyboards burble, snare drums twang and barely audible children giggle and shriek in delight. And there’s an odd, off-centre, almost wobbly quality to the music that is truly their own. It casts up vivid shapes, colours and landscapes. It invokes the spirit of old kids' TV shows, corny 70s sci-fi and the noise made by the wind. Few moments of modern music feel quite this nostalgic.
Quick history lesson: they formed in earnest in the early 80s - their moniker derived from the National Film Board of Canada - in and around Edinburgh as a sextet playing trippy indie rock which 'still had a deﬁnable edge that made it Boards of Canada‘. Alter several years of experiments the hand was pared down to a duo - who are in fact brothers, though they refrained from divulging the fact, keen not to be likened to Orbital's Hartnoll brothers or indeed the Osmonds. Alter several highly sought alter. limited run sell-releases, they hooked up with Warp to release Music Has the Right to Children in 1998. Regarded by many as one of the finest electronic albums ever made, it has a quality and texture that sets it apart from most conjuring with sounds of this kind. Hip hop beats roll against pastoral surges of synth and unidentiﬁed noises pulse and surge. In the same way as no one quite sounds like Bob Dylan, Mogwai or Shellac, no one quite sounds like Boards of Canada. A second record, Geogaddi followed in 2002, sounding like a huge maths equation unfolding extremely slowly, and went deeper and darker than its predecessor. A clutch of re-releases and a couple of EPs surfaced in the meantime. including the tremulous In a Beautiful Place out in the Country EP. Skip forward to 2005 and the arrival of The Campfire Headphase, a record which builds on the energy and otherness of what has gone before but broadens their palette, with more live instruments recorded, stretched and mutated while remaining quite odd, sad and mostly brilliant.
The pair happily exist outside the radar of any cultural scene. ensconced in the Scottish countryside with their own studio and alchemist‘s cupboard, Hexagon Sun. They continue to thrive and seem as content as any musicians you‘re likely to meet.
Was this record any more difficult to make than its predecessors?
Marcus: No, we don‘t find making records difficult at all. We love it. We only take so long to finish albums because we‘re always going off at tangents. We record something like 20 songs for every one that appears on the finished record.
Would you regard yourselves as perfectionists?
Mike: I think that‘s been levelled at us enough times now for me to start believing it! I don‘t know, we‘re just not able to let things go unless we‘re totally happy with them, so we do tend to spend a lot of time on tiny musical details that some other musicians might think are trivial.
Is that frustrating in itself at times?
Mike: It can be. There are times when I‘d love to just simplify things by rocking out like the Foo Fighters or something. But there would always be a part of me that was looking for someone else who was making really subtle music. I think a lot of mainstream pop and rock music is fantastic. I listen to everything really, but you need the ‘Clair de Lune‘ moments...
What do you think of the idea that some of the most special moments of Boards of Canada music are when things sound ‘wrong’: wow, flutter or general wonkiness?
Mike: I would say that‘s exactly the point.
Do people take your music too seriously?
Mike: I think some people do. Especially since Geogaddi, we sometimes hear about people finding things in the music that aren't even there. A lot of what we do is done with a sense of humour that can be missed if you‘re not careful.
How does it feel to have people drawing up deep theories about your music?
Marcus: Well, we do try to put themes and references into most of our tracks, usually as a kind of ‘spike‘. Sometimes we put things into tracks where we think the idea is so obscure and arcane that nobody will ever notice it. But they always do, and it gets a bit crazy at times when we realise people are really going to incredible lengths to analyse everything we do, you know, even stripping tracks apart with spectral analysis.
How might your music change if the environment you make it in did?
Marcus: I don‘t think nature and rural life is really what it‘s all about. The main thing for us about being based away from the city is that it allows us to switch off. We can create a hermetic bubble where our music exists without any outside influence at all. When your studio is out in the country you can easily imagine that you‘re in any place, or even any era that you like.
This record in places sounds more ‘live’ than its predecessors. It even sounds like Arab Strap at one point.
Mike: I‘d take that as a compliment. We just decided for this album that the sound we wanted to go for was more of a loose, amorphous 70s pick-up-truck acid jam.
There is an air of melancholy that pervades loads of your work. Why do seemingly happy people make such beautifully sad music?
Mike: That‘s a good question. I've never really been interested in ‘happy‘ music. It seems kind of pointless. I think when people are feeling sad, they actually find it therapeutic to wallow in it a bit with some sad music. Having suffered some pretty savage depression in the past, I've always found sadness to be the strongest emotion in music.
Are Boards of Canada a modern folk band?
Marcus: No, our music is often working from the perspective of current music shifted onto another branch in time, so when you hear things that sound folky or traditional in our melodies, they‘re usually sitting together with odd hip hop rhythms or some atonal electronic riff. None of it would make any sense unless you were listening to it with a specific set of experiences, I mean people of our generation. Folk music, on the other hand, is something that uses traditional motifs and repeatedly translates them into new arrangements for new generations, almost the opposite of what we‘re trying to do.
Is anything sacred nowadays?
Mike: In a world where people watch execution videos for entertainment, I think we can safely say nothing is sacred anymore.
What records could you claim have been an inﬂuence on Boards of Canada’s music that fans might not expect?
Mike: That‘s a good question. Maybe ‘Geno‘ by Dexy's. That‘s my favourite song.
Mike, has fatherhood changed your approach to music?
Mike: Well. I have to run all our tracks past my daughter now. She‘s a tough critic: she just stares intensely and sometimes breaks out into a jiggle.
How does growing up in Canada compare with growing up in Scotland?
Mike: Canada‘s a bigger, colder version of Scotland. It‘s possible to get colder than Scotland.
Are you paranoid or just being canny?
Marcus: We just try to be prepared for anything.
Are you fucking with our heads? Or is that just us?
Mike: Ha ha, we prefer to get the listeners to fuck with their own heads.