|| Boards of The Underground
|| Richard Southern
|| Jockey Slut
|| Vol. 3 No. 11 (Dec 2000)
"Boards of The Underground" is a 2000 interview by Richard Southern. It originally appeared in Jockey Slut magazine.
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.
Boards of The Underground
They're the fire-starters, the rustic fire-starters, who've influenced everyone from Air to Radiohead. Boards of Canada invite Richard Southern to their secret den and share with him their bluffer's guide to making the perfect bonfire and why they have little time for Leo Di Caprio.
"One time we were out in the woods on a really wet day," remembers Boards of Canada's Marcus Eoin. "My friend bet me I couldn't start a fire using only one match. But I managed to get this meagre little flame going in this damp little patch of ground. Then when we were about a mile down the road, we looked back and it was like, 'whoosh!' - the whole wood was on fire!"
Everybody's favourite commune-dwelling creators of pastoral electronica, arsonists? Whatever next? Adverts for Shell oil?
"I love the countryside," Marcus protests, adding, "I hate the idea that animals or trees or anything might get hurt. I had dreams about it for months afterwards."
This isn't the only fire that Boards of Canada have unwittingly started. Just over two years ago, their debut album Music Has the Right to Children, a muted, un-ostentatious collection of haunting, home-made melodies initially just seemed like one of electric haven Warp's more consistent releases. Then, slowly, word of mouth began to crackle like sparking kindling. Here was a record not only spotters and electronic obsessives could love - a hazily nostalgic record which snuck its way into your head and set up a commune. The album's muttering voices seemed to speak in tongues; rumours of occult dabblings only added to the Boards of Canada enigma. Sales, while impressive for a leftfield release, were a meagre glow compared to the blaze Music Has the Right. caused amongst Boards of Canada's musical peers.
Suddenly, those slo-mo, slightly melancholy synth-loops were everywhere. On Super Furry Animals' Guerilla (see:: "Some Things Come from Nothing"), on Danmass' "Happy Here" on the Sunday Best compilation, on Air's Virgin Suicides; even on the ever trend-tailing Texas' new material. As if that wasn't enough, Boards' influence can also clearly be heard on new albums by both the barometer of all things buzzworthy, Madonna, and Radiohead, whose much puzzled-over Kid A sounds rather closer to Music Has the Right. than it does to the stadium-conquering OK Computer.
"We never expected to have anything like this kind of impact," confesses Michael Sandison in the rather sterile confines of Warp's new London offices. "We've had people ringing up wanting us to produce them and it's been like (mimes covering the receiver while gesticulating excitedly), 'Marcus, you'd never believe who's on the phone!"
The pair are sprawled relaxedly on the purple sofa, Michael long-haired, Marcus shaven-headed, hooded-topped and baggy-trousered, gear simultaneously eterna-hip and, as is the way with country folk, strangely practical.
"We don't mind influencing people like Super Furry Animals," continues Michael in his precise, (Miss Jean) Brodie-esque brogue. "We know they're really into music. But we've got fed up with the magpies. The people who just pay minions to keep their ear to the ground and check out what's hip."
"No. We think they're brilliant," Michael demurs. I think Kid A's the best thing they've ever done," adds Marcus in his thicker Scots slur.
So who are we talking about?
"Bigger people than that."
"Artists whose status is somewhere between Radiohead and God," answers Marcus, mystifyingly. They wont' be drawn any further.
Secretiveness is congenital to Boards of Canada. These, after all, are people who refuse to reveal the location of the commune they inhabit in the Pentland hills near Edinburgh, who won't give out their phone number or even, for the most part, give interviews. They've chosen Jockey Slut in favour of the covers of a number of major national publications, and, in person, these childhood friends radiate a warmth and amiability that'sanything but enigmatic. They finish each other's sentences, listen intently to questions and in contrast to most ego-blinkered musicians even ask questions themselves.
"It's one of the reasons we don't like playing live," says Marcus, still running with his theme. "You worry about who might be in the audience, scouting for ideas." He pauses. "Then again, last time we played live, it was a disaster." "The monitors exploded in the middle of the set," Mike explains, laughing. "People were cheering because they thought it was deliberate pyrotechnics!" Marcus adds. "Yeah, well, shame it was out of time," says Mike.
While an EP, In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country, is issued this month (a BoC manifesto if ever there was one), the eagerly-anticipated second album is running more than a year behind schedule with no release date in sight. Hmm, three year gaps between records:: you're proper Warp artist now then? Slightly embarassed grins.
"When you've got Aphex on your label, everyone else seems easy."
So did the impact of the first album just make it hard to follow?
"No," says Marcus, thoughtfully, "I think we lost about a year just rebuilding our studio."
Less Stone Roses than My Bloody Valentine, then?
"Well, we haven't put sandbags around it yet!"
Equally, you don't need a City & Guilds engineering diploma to deduce that the densely atmospheric, otherworldly aspects of the Boards' music is painstakingly achieved. "We take such long, individual paths to get where we go, paths that nobody else could ever follow," says Mike.
"So it takes us ten times as long to finish things," says Marcus.
"Where some people will work on a track solidly for four days, we'll spend that long just on a hi-hat sound," Mike laughs.
"It'd be funny if it wasn't true," Marcus chuckles.
"Than again, if there was a way of doing it easily, by pushing a button, we'd do something else because it wouldn't be special anymore," says Michael.
"We like to make things hard for ourselves," shrugs Marcus.
Sequestered away in the Scottish hills, "getting it together in the country", is a way of life for Boards of Canada. Even taking into account childhood sojourns in Canada, they've never known anything different. Hardly listening to contemporary music, keeping away from the back-slapping musical backstage, rarely reading magazines, living in what was once a commune (Mike:: "People had kids, or went off travelling. It's down to a hardcore of four or five now") but is now effectively a hill-bound artists' colony - theirs is a deliberately rarefied world. "It's the only way to do it," says Mike. "Cut yourself off, pull the shutters down."
"The world's getting smaller and smaller now," continues Marcus. "We're all sharing the same clothes, the same magazines and the same ideas:: everyone's got the same reference points." He laughs. "It's globalisation, man!"
"It's never people who are part of the general flow who make amazing art, " says Mike.
"Everyone's collectively going down one particular branch of music. With the last album we were too affected by what was going on in that particular moment in history. But the new one is going to be in its own outlandish and unique universe. It's like we're inhabiting an alternative, parallel present where maybe someone in the past took a different branch to the way things actually went."
At times, the pair's penchant for privacy can border on the paranoid.
They're so concerned about hackers that they've both got completely separate computers for using the net.
"They can't jump through thin air," says Mike. "I'm really paranoid about security," adds Marcus. "We've got all these tapes and discs going back 15 years or so. I've got this really complicated solar alarm on my house so that it's impossible to switch it off without cutting five different wires in different places simultaneously."
Aware that their bunker mentality may be getting out of hand, the pair have made a conscious effort to get out more recently.
"You have to remember you've got a body with two legs," says Michael. Before mhtrtc took off, theirs was a more leisurely isolation, their music simply soundtracks for the Red Moon events they and their friends would organise in the hills near the commune:: "Just 50 people around a bonfire with a ghetto blaster."
These days, they still drive out into the country with their friends, set up camp and make bonfires. Bonfires, you will notice, figure large in the Boards of Canada world. You can almost hear the crackling twigs on many of their cuts.
As the title indicates, the new EP is typically BoC. "Kid for Today" sounds like what it is - a Music Has the Right to Children contender, while "Amo Bishop Roden" and "Zoetrope" (named after Francis Ford Coppola's San Francisco studio) go deeper into the hazy territory between sleep waking.
"It's like when you glaze over when you're listening to something," says Marcus, "but you're still there at the same time."
"There's a sort of running theme of melancholy to it," says Mike, "but it's true, it's not a great leap from Music Has the Right to Children The nearest clue to where we're going is on the title track. But a lot of it will be even more outlandish than that. If you could call the last album electronica, you definitely couldn't call the new album that."
"We've split and gone in two directions," continues Marcus. "There are some things which are just acoustic instruments playing acoustic music, while we've also done some even more electronic tracks. Some of the best ones manage to achieve both at the same time."
Apart from this EP, the only Boards of Canada music that's emerged since their characteristically immaculate contribution to Warp's tenth anniversary album has been the music for, of all things, an advert for Telecom Italia. Not just any old advert, either, but one which also features Leonardo Di Caprio. Today Boards of Canada are full of surprises.
"It's not the first one we've done either," grins Mike. "We did one for Nissan last year. Then again, I drive a Nissan."
Always did, or do now?
"I'd have been more than happy to have been paid in cars, believe me!"
The explanation is that both adverts were done with filmmaker du jour Chris Cunningham, "because he asked us and we respect him". They're not saying, but rather than heralding that Shell advert, could it be that the Boards have their eye on Cunningham's future feature work? It isn't, after all, a big step from imaginary soundtracks to actual films, and it'd be hard to contemplate a more perfect union.
"We actually gave him an hour and a half's worth of music, of which he used one 20 second fragment. He was just really excited to have new Boards of Canada tracks that no one else has heard, that's why he likes working with us. But we trust him. We know he wouldn't do anything else with it."
Marcus grins:: "He also knows we'd break both his legs if he did.
And no, they didn't get to meet Leo. "He utters one word. God knows what he got paid. We wanted to record 'Leonardo Di Caprio is a wanker' and put it in the advert music backwards."
The future of music may be uncertain, but Boards of Canada seem very definite about their own future musical direction.
"We've got a better notion now than we ever did of what Boards of Canada is," says Mike. "Now we know that we're supposed to be doing really psychedelic, organic-sounding music. I think to some extent we've pandered to the electronic scene previously, putting elements in that we're not necessarily into."
Marcus continues:: "It's going to be simultaneously more listenable and more out there, psychedelic, gorgeous and strange."
THINGS BOARDS OF CANADA LIKE
- The wobble you get on an off-centre record ("We even decide if it's wobbling at 33 or 45 rpm!).
- The little bursts of music you get behind a logo.
- Things that are a little bit out of tune:: "Space Oddity" by David Bowie, "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys, "Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong, and "Tomorrow Never Knows" by the Beatles (Marcus:: "In modern music everything is perfect, rationalised, bland.").
- "The sounds between notes."
- Progressive rock (Mike:: "For at least trying to get somewhere no one's been").
- "Listening in increments."
- Devo, Twins Cocteau and Aphex, Nitzer Ebb, acid folkies, the Incredible String Band, the Wu-Tang Clan. "RZA," it seems, "listens like we do."
- A record Marcus found in America which features a Christian robot that sang songs if you pressed a button in his stomach ("The scary part is that it was very Old Testament, slitting the throats of first born and stuff").
- "Geno" by Dexy's Midnight Runners.
- "The sound when you're at a fairground and you're caught between two different sound systems and they combine to create something new and outlandish."
THINGS BOARDS OF CANADA DON'T LIKE
- Electronic gadgets that don't work (Marcus:: "It makes me sad to see things that have just been thrown away. I'll pick it up and take it back home and try and make it work. I've still got a brown valve television set from the '70s and it works better than my friends' wide screen TVs").
- Meat (in Marcus' case).
- Napster (Marcus:: "It's not the big rich artists who'll suffer, it's the smaller artists. Why should people buy their records when they can download them for free? The issue of choice is illusory. If lots of musicians go out of business, then there's only going to be a smaller number of extremely commercial crap artists to choose from."
BOARDS OF CANADA'S TIPS ON BONFIRES
- Marcus:: "For kindling the best way to ensure it catches is to get loads of pieces more or less the same length and lay them in a grid, then overlay them in a lattice."
- Mike:: "You don't need matches or a lighter. If it's wet or windy they often won't work. But two twigs will. The trick is to tie string to either end of one twig, then you can rub them together faster than your hands ever could."
- Acid Memories (Music 70, 1989)
- Absurdly rare, cassette-only release from the barely teen Boards, then six-strong. Guitars meet electronics in embryonic but recognisably Boards-ian melodicism.
- Play by Numbers (Music 70, 1994)
- Five-track CD from what was now a trio, boasting a My Bloody Valentine influence in places, shifting further into electronics in others.
- Hooper Bay (Music 70, 1994)
- Closer still:: the use of kids' voices was a hint of what was to come. People pay small fortunes for copies.
- The last record as a trio when everything slipped into focus and pricked up record company ears.
- BOC Maxima (Music 70, 1996)
- Twenty tracks:: half of which would appear on later EPs and albums; the others remain an impossibly elusive prospect (50 copies only).
- Hi Scores EP (Skam, 1996)
- Essential for the Eno-esque "Everything You Do is a Balloon" and the spooky electro of "Nlogax".
- Korona (from Mask 100 compilation) (Skam, 1996)
- Darkness visible:: slurring synths and an uneasy, off-kilter rhythm.
- Untitled (from Mask 200 as Hell Interface) (Skam, 1997)
- Even darker, harder, faster side of the Boards. "Who are Hell Interface?" they ask.
- Michael Fakesch "Surfaise" (Boards of Canada remix) (Warp, 1997)
- Spacious, dissonant, slightly disembodied ambience.
- Mira Calix "Sandsings" (Boards of Canada remix) (Warp, 1997)
- Boards render Warp's press officer's warblings intelligble.
- Jack Dangers "Prime Audio Soup" (Boards of Canada remix) (Play it Again Sam, 1998)
- Respectful to the Meat Beat man, this is a curious, slightly gothy hybrid.
- "Aquarius" (seven-inch single) (Skam, 1998)
- A different version to the one on Music. Sesame Street meets Kraftwerk meets the between-scenes bits from Seinfeld.
- Music Has the Right to Children (Skam/Warp, 1998)
- Music has The Right to Children claimed not just children but grown adults of shock both sexes.
- Bubbah's Tum "Dirty Great Mable" (III, 1998)
- Unusually beat-heavy, balanced by their trademark use of kids' voices and big, spooky chords. Their final mix.
- "Orange Romeda" (from We Are Reasonable People compilation) (Warp, 1999)
- Very much in the Music. vein. Children's voices, bird's wing percussion and yearning, half-heard synth melodies.
- Peel Sessions (Strange Fruit, 1999)
- Reworks of "Aquarius" and "Olson", plus newie "Happy Cycling".
- In a Beatiful Place Out in the Country EP (Warp, 2000)
- OK, so it's an EP not an album, and it's not exactly a revolutionary departure, but when familiar ground is this gorgeous, who's complaining?
interview by Richard Southern, December 2000.