Two Aesthetes of Electronic Music
|| Yves Leloup
|| Virgin Megaweb
is a 1998 interview by Ariel Kyrou & Jean-Yves Leloup. It originally appeared in Virgin Megaweb 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.
Two Aesthetes of Electronic Music
Two aesthetes of electronic music caught between nostalgia for childhood and paranoia of the future.
At the heart of the Marais district of Paris, right next to the Picasso Museum, it would be easy to take Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison for a couple of British Students on a culture spree. The two "Boards of Canada" look more like travelling hippies than techno freaks, with their backpacks, soppy grins, and woolly hats. It's hard to imagine that standing there are the creators of an electronic album of pure crystal, released jointly by two labels that could not be further apart: Skam and Warp; respectively, the cutting-edge Manchester label, and the legendary nerve-centre of "Made in Sheffield" electronica. This album, "Music has the right to children", is much as its cover suggests. The image of a family or a group of friends, standing on the stones of a ruined castle. A naïve image like the world of "The Magic Roundabout" or "Animals of the World". Perfectly ordinary. Cheerful. Except that the image is flooded with a turquoise light, as though caught in the glare of a flying saucer that is coming in to land. And then there are those faces, smooth as pumice stone. Disturbing. The faces of zombified people. What are Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin hiding in this picture of troubled innocence? The two Scots, whose replies we have merged in this interview, seem to act as one; the first a little more talkative than the other, who has a very striking accent.
Your biography is written in such a way that it's not easy to tell who you are or what you have done. You're Scottish, aren't you?
"That's right, we live in Scotland, out in the country, a few miles from Edinburgh."
It seems that you've never been tied to any particular scene, or style of music. Are you quite isolated?
"Yes, in fact, it's only in the last couple of years that we've started getting in touch with other musicians, in particular, those of Skam Records and Warp. In fact, the group has been going for a long time, among friends. It goes back to the early 80's, while we were still at school."
So you really started making music as teenagers?
"Yeah! We were both about 10, something like that. We had started playing instruments even younger, and very soon we were playing around with recordings on cassettes and magnetic tapes, making audio collages. We began writing and playing music in a more serious way at some point around 1987, for about the last decade now in our own style."
Just the two of you?
"No, with other musicians within the framework of a much larger collective. But, a few years ago, after having played with guitars and acoustic drum kits, we returned to a more starkly electronic form."
So, really, when you began to play, it was more like a teenage game, experimenting with recordings of films and instruments. You weren't looking to make a career out of it?
"We played about with sounds we liked, wherever they came from. Our career has been a little tortuous. At first, we experimented without setting ourselves any questions, with whatever means were available to us, then we worked a lot with other musicians and with real instruments, which brought more complexity into our music. Five years ago, we sounded a lot more Gothic, much closer to experimental rock, with the occasional vocal. Though it was heading for electronic music; already we were sampling our own instruments. Then we went back to something closer to our original spirit: simple and instinctive, the only difference being that from then on, we could use all the wonders of digital technology, and so it was a lot easier to experiment and to get what we wanted."
Do you feel close to the generation that worked with home studios?
"Perhaps, in a way. Our original approach to recording with our old equiment was an inferior version of what others did later on with their home studios. But if we were close to the spirit of that generation, it was by luck, and only at times, since we always pushed ahead a little isolated, off in a corner, drawing inspiration from rock music as well as electronic music."
You have no connection to the Acid House generation?
"No. Really, at that time - the start of the 90's - we were recording music with vocals and guitars, greatly influenced by experimental atmospheric rock groups like "My Bloody Valentine". It was only before and after the acid house explosion, totally out of step with them, that we were perhaps close to the movement."
What made you finally go back to electronic music?
"It was more natural for us. We always worked hard, polishing off our tracks all the time, even those that had more of a "rock" feel to them. For a month or two we would come back to the tracks, changing a sound here, adding one there. We sampled ourselves all the time, heading for a sound that was almost entirely electronic, and it was easy to take that to its logical conclusion."
Being able to use sampling, courtesy of the new technologies that weren't available when you started up; was that one of the reasons for your return to an electronic sound?
"Yeah! The technology allowed us to simpify our way of working. With the sampler, you have total control over your music. You can take the sound of an instrument, and make it sound however you like, with the ability to go back again. For example, on our last album, there are some tracks where we have used a piano. Through sampling, we've transformed the sound of the piano in lots of different ways, to the point where it sounds like a very very old piano, or even to the point where no one listening to the album would think that there was a piano there. It's the same story with guitars. We played electronic and acoustic instruments on "Music has the right to children", but we completely reworked their sound electronically."
Why the melodies evocative of childhood on your album? Where did that come from?
"We're recalling the echo of the melodies that marked our own childhood, and these melodies mostly come from TV, especially from films and programmes for children. It's the world that characterised our generation. We're the same ages. We grew up watching the same TV programs, and for us they're a stronger influence than modern music, or any other music that we listened to back then. Like it or not, they're the tunes that keep going around in our heads."
Are you very nostalgic about your own childhoods?"
"Yeah. It's the same with groups like Autechre, where, beneath a surface that's very experimental, very mininal and industrial, you can pick out echoes of that nostalgia. I think they'd like to take that further; it's a natural creative process. We create things starting from these memories every bit as much as we do from our current wishes and moods. We reinterpret them constantly."
Do you use samples from TV programmes?
"We try to avoid it. We do it sometimes. But, on the whole, we make our own melodies and vocal samples using the people here. Even tunes that sound like samples are really made by us, but destroyed by the sampling process."
Sometimes, when listening to the album, there's an impression of hearing birdsong and other sounds of nature. Aren't those samples?
"It's a big influence - it's certainly true that nature influences us, especially when the studio windows are open! (laughs). There's this track on the album called "Rue The Whirl", where you can hear birds singing. What happened was that I was listening to the track, and, oddly, I could hear birds singing. Then I realized that the window was open in the studio, and since the birdsong went so well with the music, we recorded it to capture the feel of what we experienced listening with the window open."
Is it also perhaps because of the name of the group, which evokes lots of images?
"The name of the group comes from the soundtrack of one of the nature films that had such a big influence on our childhood. That's our nostalgic side. But there's also a more raucous side, harder, and darker. Our music is born from a strange union of the air of childhood and more troubled feelings, representing a more terrible reality which blends paradoxically with our childhood dreams."
Why? Because of ghosts?
"(laughs) No. It reflects the range of subjects that we feel strongly about, for example, psychedelic experiences (there are echoes of those in the album), good trips and bad trips. And also numerology, with its darker connotations. It's the grown-up face of our work, the pessimistic side. We move around in the space between two extremes, light and shadow."
Do you live in the country?
"Yes, we've not been there long. We set up our studio in the Pentland Hills. Now we can start to live for our music, instead of being distracted by having to do other jobs, as before."
What sort of jobs?
" Nothing to be ashamed off. Working in universities, for example, but we prefer not to talk about it."
Have you always had the name "Boards of Canada"?
"No; officially, only for four years. But the name existed for years before that, as the title of one of our tracks, before it became the name of the group."
At the start of the interview, you spoke about your friends and family around you, is it like a community of artists - students of the history of art?
"Some of our friends are students of the history of art, or they teach modern art. Some are artists, others are just enthousiastic friends. There are photographers, film-makers, artists, and musicians. And lots of friends we've kept in touch with from school. When we were at school, all our friends were in rock bands. We were the only ones making electronic music. Back then, we started making videos, films to go with our music. We made some for our friends, about expos and documentaries."
Do you make videos in the same way you make music. Is it high-tech?
"Absolutely. It's sort of "Do It Yourself Video", except that we use reasonably high-tech gear. We like to degrade photo and video images in the same way that we degrade sound, making the images harder, more primal, dirtier. We try to subvert the technology."
Do you ever think of making the music and images all in the one go? Do you think of your music in terms of images?
" Of course, but more in a natural intuitive way, rather than being deliberate about it. The most outstanding electronic musicians, like Aphex Twin, like their music to sound "cinematique", in other words, in terms of images. It's a way of working that is all the easier for musicians who don't specifically have the dancefloor in mind when they're making a track. If you can dance to one of our tracks, well and good, but it's not what we're aiming at. We give ourselves the greatest possible freedom to work in, with the goal of translating emotions rather than trying to make people dance. There are plenty of people who can do that better than we can. So what would be the point of setting ourselves up to make a worse job of it?"
There are some tracks on the album which would be ideal for the dancefloor.
"That's true. Yes, we do work with rhythms, but for us it's just as a vehicle for carrying strange and beautiful melodies. We try to vary the effects; that's particularly important for live performance. Also, we like rhythms that are strong, almost binary, because that really goes with our aim of creating dark, obsessive backdrops to go with our melodies."
You can see that sort of duality in tracks like "an eagle in your mind".
"Quite so. On the one hand, we have melodies and almost naïve vocals; on the other, a process of corruption of these melodies and vocals, by means of a certain ambience, or through transformations, as in the track you mentioned, or "sixtyten". We don't want to go in the direction of jungle beats, which, by their very ambitiousness and complexity, can really mess up the feel of the type of effect- the troubled emotions and ambiguity - that we are trying to achieve. The rhythm has to remain simple; it's a matter of balance."
In live performance, do you try to mix sound and images, as though they were responding to each other?
"No, not really. Certainly, we try to make the images fit the sounds. We try to make images that go with the sounds, within the bounds of what's technically possible. We've been very much influenced by a group called "Test Department", who played around a great deal with sound and images, and who had nothing to do with dance or pop music like most of the other artists of that period. They always followed their own path, without worrying about what was trendy. In 1998, the rhythm of the time was jungle. In 1988, it was acid. A group like Test Department, while they could make people dance, went against the rhythms of their day. They were really good, especially on stage, because there was no one else quite like them. They made industrial music, but they sometimes threw in some Celtic influences, or dance beats. They showed us that it was possible to survive, and to gain respect, while following your own path, without trying to imitate the style of others. It isn't so nowadays when the fashion is jungle, and you can't get by in the world of electronic music without making jungle music."
Are your concerts very well rehearsed, or is there still a place for improvisation, particularly, with images?
"It isn't really possible to improvise with images. It's something to strive for, but it would be really difficult. We'll start along this route with the help of computers, using captured video, in order to treat video clips as sources for sampled images. Today, on stage, you can't play around with video in the same way you would with vinyl records. All the same, there's still an element of chance involved. We wouldn't want a show to be perfect, because we don't like perfection. We want there to be an element of chaos in a show, or in our music; a raw edge; surprises. That makes it all more exciting."
Is your big studio in a small town?
"It's in the country, with other houses, several miles from Edinburgh. It's not really a big studio, but it is full of gear."
A sort of commune?
"No, just a bunch of pals, each with their family."
So it isn't a bunker as the biography claimed?
"That's just an exaggeration on the part of the record label."
In places like Glasgow or Edinburgh, is there an active artistic scene, in the arts, video, electronic music, of course, with young artists; festivals, etc. Are you involved in this?
"There are lots of great things going on, it's impossible to keep up with it all. There have never been so many places and initiatives for electronic music, and, on the larger scale, for all sorts of bold artistic enterprises. There have been video shows using the Internet, for example; live mixing of videos; and all sorts of bizarre goings-on that the general public can get involved in. There's also a very rich techno scene, which there wasn't before.
Do you know Soma Records?
"Yeah. Not personally, but we know of them."
So, all the voices you use are those of friends?
"Yes, mostly. Sometimes they come from old video tapes, but that's the exception. It's a bit of a mix: for example, we might use a video we taped ten years ago, that we listen to like that, and we take one word from it. We let ourselves rediscover things by chance."
You mentioned Chaos a moment ago. Are you interested in Chaos Theory - sciences that are a little offbeat?
"Yeah. Fractals. I don't know why, but strange sciences have always fascinated us."
Artificial life, etc.
"And numbers. Marcus studied Artificial Intelligence. That has influenced what we've done. With me, it's more numbers and their form. I've always been fascinated by the connection between music and numbers. Psychedelic experiences lead in this direction; they help us to see things in terms of numbers and their forms, of structures, as if the music was made out of crystals.
Does that influence you? Is it a part of your world?
"I can't really say that, hey, there it's robots who will influence us. No, strange sciences are part of our world, and you can find that in our works. Not science-fiction, but the sciences which have made the sci-fi visions of the past into a reality today. We grew up in the 70's, a time of great paranoia about science, a paranoia which comes across in the science fiction of that era, in books as well as in films. It's this paranoia, this pessimism, this fear of science, which can be found in our music along with other influences. When we were growing up in the 70's, the view of the future shown in TV and films was very dark, very powerful. That has changed, especially now with video games."
You also mentioned psychedelism.
"Yes, we immersed ourselves in the art and psychedelic music of the time. We often listen again to groups from the late 60's."
"Yes, that's exactly the sort of thing we mean: the Beach Boys of the "Good Vibrations" era, the Beatles of 1967. The Beatles really became enthralling to us through their psychedelism. Also, some inspired moments in films, not to mention the Incredible String Band."
How do you get in touch with Skam Records?
"We had made an album, an EP. We sent it around various people, one of whom was Sean Booth of Autechre. The very next day after he got it, Sean gave us a call, and said that we ought to do something with Skam. We had dealings with them for a couple of months. We gave them a track for a compilation album, and last year we started work on an album for Skam. Around September, we were also having friendly dealings with some folk at Warp. They told us that they would also like this album, but they didn't want to tread on Skam's toes, so that's why the album came out under two labels, Skam and Warp."
What about the Internet, do you use that?
"Yes, a lot; we spend quite some time on it. We've been using it for a while now. For the last few months, we've also been making use of it in the studio, to look for sounds and images. There's an important artistic site, a platform, which has got a page on us, but at the moment we're working on making our own site, which will be a little work in itself, a mini-opus of sounds, pictures, and experiences."
interview by Ariel Kyrou & Jean-Yves Leloup, June 1998.