|title||Around The Campfire|
"Around The Campfire" by Paul Clarke
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As Boards Of Canada release their new long-player, the plot thickens………..
It’s easy to imagine Boards Of Canada as electronic music’s own equivalent of ‘Brigadoon’. Or it would be were not the Gene Kelly musical not insufferably twee and full of elaborate tap-dancing routines – neither of which applies to the spectral sound world so lovingly crafted by Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin.
But in other ways the comparisons between the story of a mysterious Scottish village and Boards Of Canada hold firm. Both, after all, only appear at sporadic intervals and seem curiously out of time, shrouded in the ambience of the Scottish highlands from which they materialise.
Although we have proof of Boards Of Canada’s existence in records like ‘Music Has The Right To Children’ and their latest long-player ‘The Campfire Headphase’ these have become like mythical artefacts in themselves, electronic enigmas which fans dissect with almost scholarly obsession – their aura only heightened by their creators’ self-imposed isolation. Plus, on the rare occasions when they do break their silence, the mysteries only seem to thicken like the sea mist around the ‘artistic commune’ outside Edinburgh where the pair have spun their eerie instrumental fables for over a decade.
‘I’m very grateful to be living in a situation where I can easily choose to cut myself off from the world while I’m writing music,’ says Marcus. ‘I don’t think it’s so much about a ‘rural’ environment as it is simply about having an observing distance from contemporary culture. ‘Where we’re based, we’re so geographically isolated that we’re more or less able to imagine that we’re in a different decade – let alone a different country – and that makes it easy to generate the self-contained bubble in which our work exists.’
‘We got into creating music when we were very young, years before anyone heard any of our work,’ Mike elaborates. ‘We got into it because we love music, not because we want to be in the press. In fact, it’s all the industry bullshit that makes us stay away in the first place.
‘But our reticence has backfired on us on occasions because if we stay quiet it creates a vacuum where speculation and bullshit can thrive.’
Of course such speculation is encouraged – whether intentionally or not – not just by the Boards’ suspicion of the press but by the many layers of meaning, almost arcane references and microscopic attention to detail woven into their records.
There are numerous internet messageboards dedicated to interpreting the ‘subliminal’ messages fans claim to have heard in the dislocated child’s voices and old TV samples which have become Boards Of Canada’s sound signature – such as the allusions to the Branch Davidians on 2000’s ‘In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country’ EP.
‘The theme of that EP was the idea that you can try to have an idealistic way of life out in the country, but only on the condition that the authorities approve it,’ explains Marcus, in reference to the ‘doomsday’ cult led by David Koresh, who died alongside around 80 others in a fire after federal authorities attempted to storm their Texas compound in 1993. ‘The Branch Davidians were just an illustration for a bigger issue. Disregarding the fact that David Koresh’s beliefs were maybe crazy, that whole incident was a brutal reminder that we’re all basically toeing the line.’
‘"The Devil Is In The Details"’ you might say – to use a track title from ‘Geogaddi’, Boards Of Canada’s 2002 album which had an overall running time of 66 minutes and 6 seconds as well as what some saw as a horned figure on the cover. Coincidence or conspiracy?
‘We are interested in pushing music as an artform that can be suggestive, or even subversive sometimes,’ says Marcus. ‘We’re always getting into different subjects because we read a lot, so it’s likely these things will fuel us for a while. We didn’t expect people to pick up on every single obscure detail that we put into our records, but they generally do. Sometimes we have a laugh at it all – especially when they start finding things that aren’t even there.’
‘The Campfire Headphase’ will undoubtedly spark such intrigue again. There are slight shifts in sound here – such as a greater use of guitars inspired by their love of country musicians like John Denver – but the overall darkly supernatural atmosphere is the same one that has engulfed all their records since their first Warp release ‘Music Has A Right To Children’ in 1998. And the development of their fragile beats and haunting melodies can be traced much further back than even their first official EP release ‘Hi Scores’ on Skam in 1996. It goes back to the days when the pair and various friends would create music for bonfire parties on deserted beaches, emulating the sound of My Bloody Valentine, synth-pop artists like Devo and even psychedelic folk groups like The Incredible String Band on the old analogue equipment they still love today. Warp re-released their early ‘Twoism’ collection in 2002 but the Boards are still sitting on vast amounts of music which was originally distributed on a few hundred cassette tapes. Mike talks about the possibility of bringing them to light one day, but for now the closest anyone outside their inner sanctum is going to get is listening to ‘The Campfire Headphase.’
‘We distilled things a bit with this record,’ he explains. ‘Instead of concentrating on abstract tracks we decided it would be nice to make a record that had an underlying pop structure. Each record we do has a vague theme, with ‘Music Has the Right…” it was public information films, with “Geogaddi” it was a kind of psychotic look at mathematical patterns in art, and “The Campfire Headphase” is pretty much an imaginary road trip in a rusty pick-up heading west through the brain. So we’re re-setting the clock now to a point where it’s all about structured tracks with simple, instantly gratifying melodies again.’
Sensations of childhood
And – as with so many Boards Of Canada records – that journey takes us back into the past rather than the sterile future envisaged in so much electronica. Specifically to the sensations of childhood which have always been an overarching influence on their oeuvre. Their name is a tribute to the National Film Board of Canada who produced many of the public information films the pair watched as kids and their music also has the same feelings of wonder and dread that comes from trying to make sense of the world at an early age. It’s made with childlike intuition rather than adult calculation, with sounds writhing under the surface like vague recollections of formative experiences – such as Mike’s earliest memory of ‘freaking out in a swimming pool when I was four years old because a woman told me that little men in boats were going to come out of the drains.’
‘This feeling seems to be so important to me in all of our music,’ he says now. ‘Like anything, it’s down to personal experiences that mould what you do in later life. I just can’t see the point in making music that doesn’t somehow hint at something tragic. I lost something back in time and I’m trying to get back to it. ’