|| We've Become a Lot More Nihilistic over the Years
|| Louis Pattison
|| The Guardian
"We've Become a Lot More Nihilistic over the Years" is a 2013 interview by Louis Pattison. It originally appeared online at The Guardian. 
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.
Few groups of recent times have been quite so mythologised as Boards Of Canada. Whether it's down to their veiled musical references to numerology and occultism, or their impressively low public profile – few interviews, even fewer live shows – but you could say that these two brothers have become something of a cult themselves, with an online fanbase that picks over everything Boards with forensic vigour.
Hailing from rural Scotland, Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin started making music together as children, influenced by sci-fi cinema and the documentaries of the National Film Board of Canada. Their music – which first properly crystallised on their debut album, 1998's Music Has The Right To Children – is a spectral, nostalgic electronica into which is encoded a wealth of half-submerged samples and subliminal messages, from robotic voices and the sound of children at play to references to the Branch Davidian cult that perished at Waco, Texas.
The new album Tomorrow's Harvest was announced back in April in a manner designed to stoke their mystique – a 12-inch record that popped up in the racks of the New York record shop Other Music, blank but for a shimmering melody and a robotic voice intoning a string of numbers: a cipher for the fans to crack. The record itself, their first in eight years, strikes a darker note than 2005's sun-dappled The Campfire Headphase, its pulsing synthesisers and woozy drones implying a creeping, radioactive menace.
Having agreed to a rare interview with the Guardian, the duo insist that it is conducted via email and they are not altogether keen to unpick the themes of Tomorrow's Harvest. "I think it would kind of neuter it if we completely spell it out," writes Sandison. But their answers provide plenty for Boards of Canada cult members to pore over in the months to come ...
What have you been up to during the eight years since your last full-length record, The Campfire Headphase?
"Marcus Eoin: "We took some time out, and spent some time travelling. Then we expanded our studio space a great deal, and these things take time. But we're always working, all the time, whatever else is going on. So we'd begun sketching out things for this record straight after the last one, and got heavily into tying it all up last year.""
Where are you both based at present? Are your surroundings urban, or rural?
"Eoin: "We're based in Scotland, although some of the early sketches on this record were done in New Zealand. We have a main studio that is literally on a farm surrounded by deer and rabbits. We definitely prefer working away from the city because there's a timeless thing in our environment. In an urban setting you can't really escape being reminded of the current year, and music fashions and so on.""
Is creating music a long and drawn-out process for you? How did making this album compare to previous ones?
"Mike Sandison: "It's different with every track. We often jam something down quickly and you tend to find those things are the ones with a great instant melody. The challenge with this record was crafting the tunes into a specific style and time period we want to reference. In fact it's not just the time period – we analyse the specific medium we're going for too. In this case there's a deliberate VHS video-nasty element throughout the record and to get there it wasn't just a case of processing sounds through old media, which is a given with us anyway, but we even went to the extent of timing changes in the music and the composition of the pieces, in really specific ways to give an impression of something familiar from soundtrack work that was around 30 years ago."
In what ways?
"Sandison: "For example, I guess the timing of the whole intro section to the album, the neutral tension in the high strings hanging right at the start of the record, or that short glimmer of hope that takes over in New Seeds near the end of the track. Those things hopefully imply a visual element. Some tracks deliberately finish earlier than you want them to, like actual cues in older soundtracks where they've been ripped out of much longer original masters that nobody ever gets to hear. Another example would maybe be at the end of the whole album, you've reached some sort of sanctuary and then the whole thing is stolen away from you again with the final track. That last track has a deliberate feeling of complete futility that I find kind of funny. That's where the obsessive, scientific work comes in, and yeah, it takes us ages.""
Could you elaborate on the "deliberate VHS video nasty element" a little? A few people have noticed the arpeggiated synth bits have a sort of John Carpenter feel ...
"Sandison: "There are quite a few influences on this record. Carpenter is kind of an easy reference point for most people though I'd say the main ones would be Fabio Frizzi, John Harrison and Mark Isham. We're very much into grim 70s and 80s movie soundtracks so there are maybe nods to composers such as Stefano Mainetti, Riz Ortolani, Paul Giovanni, Wendy Carlos, even Michael Nyman.""
One of the early hallmarks of Boards Of Canada's music was the way that through artificially degrading or treating sounds, it employed a sense of nostalgia in a way that was by turn dreamy or creepy. Now it feels as if you can hear this sense in a raft of music, from Ariel Pink and chillwave to Broadcast's later work and the hauntology-inspired groups such as those found on Ghostbox. Can you hear your influence on other groups?
"Sandison: "I don't think we hear our own music the way other people hear it, so it's difficult to say whether we hear our sound in other people's work. I've definitely noticed some newer electronic artists latching on to specific techniques or styles from the past. Some of them are great.""
What do you look for in terms of musical equipment? In places, the percussion sounds like drum machines, but in other places it feels like you're using live drums…
"Sandison: "We're definitely vintage hardware freaks. We've always used older gear. Everything we use is decrepit. Our studio is full of wooden things covered with red LEDs. We'll go to great lengths to get hold of a specific instrument just to get a particular sound. For example, there's a sound in Cold Earth
that is something like only one second of audio. It comes from an obscure old effect unit that cost us a lot of time and road miles to source, and it ended up being one second of audio on the record. As for our percussion, it's never just a drum machine or a sample, we put a lot of real live drumming or percussion in there, woven into the rhythm tracks, and it brings a bit of chaos into the sound that you just can't achieve any other way."
Do you have roles in the studio? Is it possible to divide the workload in any definable way?
"Sandison: "We throw tracks back and forward at each other. Sometimes we jam the core idea down as a take, or one of us will start something and hand it over, and vice-versa. There isn't really one method or any particular strength for either of us because it changes from track to track. We both write melodies but at the same time we're both technicians in some way, so the process is quite unpredictable and messy.""
You've spoken in the past about how mathematics and science have been an inspiration on Boards Of Canada. One Tomorrow's Harvest track is called Split Your Infinities. Another is called Jacquard Causeway, which seems like it might be a reference to the Jacquard Loom, a sort of rudimentary mechanical computer. Have you found more musical ways to integrate mathematics into the fabric of the music on Tomorrow's Harvest?
"Sandison: "Yes, it's loaded with patterns and messages. There are various tricks embedded throughout the whole body of this album, so it'll be interesting to see whether people pick up on these things. Some things are just simple structural things. For instance, Come To Dust
, the second-to-last track, is a musical reprise of Reach for the Dead
, which comes in as the second track. There's a palindromic structure centred around the track Collapse
in the middle. There's actually more use of subliminals on this record than on any previous album we've done, so we're interested to see what people will pick up on.""
There was a lot of speculation that the six-digit codes on the Records Store Day vinyl were a reference to number stations, short-wave radio broadcasts that are thought to be connected to international espionage. The cover appears to be a photo of the San Francisco skyline, shot from the vantage point of Alameda Naval Air Station, a now defunct military base operational during the cold war. Is this coincidence, or does it point to something thematic/conceptual about the record?
"Eoin: "Yeah, definitely – of course that's an ingredient of the theme on this record. In fact if you look again at the San Francisco skyline on the cover it's actually a ghost of the city. You're looking straight through it.""
A spot of web sleuthing reveals that Tomorrow's Harvest is the name of an online clothing and supplies store that seems to cater for crisis scenarios – frozen and sealed food supplies, gas masks, solar power. I gather that you're both fathers. Could we maybe read Tomorrow's Harvest as a sort of anxiety or fear for one's offspring in an unstable or uncertain world?
"Sandison: "Being a father fills you with a healthy understanding of your own mortality, and on a bigger scale that responsibility highlights the fragility of our society, or the problems with it. We've become a lot more nihilistic over the years. In a way we're really celebrating an idea of collapse rather than resisting it. It's probably quite a bleak album, depending on your perspective.""
You mentioned earlier that you were "prepar[ing] the audience for the tone and the message in this album" – is it fair to say that the tone of this album is post-apocalyptic?
"Sandison: "It's not post-apocalyptic so much as it is about an inevitable stage that lies in front of us. But it's better if listeners find the narrative themselves, in the titles and the sounds.""
In the context of history, we live in an age of unparalleled science and rationality. But despite this, religion and ideas of mysticism – along with other fringe concerns such as conspiracy, etc – continue to thrive. I gather that you're rationalists, atheists, etc – but the idea of the mystic obviously has an appeal to you ...
"Eoin: "There's a lot to play with there, for an artist. It affects people even if they don't consider themselves to be religious. Nobody really wants to accept that we're just a colony of organisms hurtling through a void on a ball of rock. I'd guess that's it, that the most rational individual doesn't really want to have his beliefs completely confirmed. It's in human nature to pursue spiritual or fantastic things, for whatever reason, that's why we like art and escapism, isn't it? Humans like to feel there's a purpose, even if there isn't one!""
Ok, so random question: three books that you'd recommend?
"Sandison: "This changes from month to month. Right now, maybe Why The West Rules – For Now: The Patterns Of History And What They Reveal About The Future by Ian Morris, You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier, and Musicophilia: Tales Of Music And The Brain by Oliver Sacks.""
I've read the Jaron Lanier book that you mention, which I thought was fascinating – I think one of the bits that's stuck with me, and would also seem to be relevant to the way you work, is his concept of design "lock-in", where keeping up with new technology actually ends up shepherding the creation process along quite restrictive lines.
"Sandison: "I absolutely agree with that. Modern technology often gives an illusion of empowerment while in reality it's increasingly all about removal of liberty, and homogenising the user base.""
And finally ... will there be live shows taking place around the record? Do Boards Of Canada still exist as a live entity?
"Eoin: We've been busy in our rehearsal space lately, so never say never."
- ↑ https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/jun/06/boards-of-canada-become-more-nihilistic