Brothers Who Make Electronica by Hand

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title Brothers Who Make Electronica by Hand
author Jon Pareles
publication The NY Times
date 2013-06-11
issue Online

"Brothers Who Make Electronica by Hand" is a 2013 interview by Jon Pareles. It originally appeared online in The NY Times. [1]

Original text

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 Canada thrive on making themselves scarce. A duo of brothers from rural Scotland, Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin, the group has been releasing electronic music since the mid-1990s — music that eludes most standard pop notions of electronica and has built a fiercely dedicated following among fellow musicians and producers.

It’s usually amorphous, not crisp; it doesn’t aim for the dance floor. Bits of melody or rhythm, or stray human voices, surface, only to dissolve into disorienting ambiences; even brief tracks are eventful. They work on their own time frame; the new Boards of Canada album, “Tomorrow's Harvest” (Warp), is their first release since 2006, and it’s rich in moody suspense, with even fewer bucolic moments than past releases.

The brothers stay largely private; they have not performed since 2001. The following exchange — their only United States interview for this album — took place via e-mail, and has been slightly edited.

Six and a half years — what took you so long?

"MIKE SANDISON We spent some time overseas and then we were busy expanding our studio space back here in Scotland. A couple of years ago we decided to start collating and cataloging all our early recordings, just for ourselves really, to know that we could tidy it all up and hand it on to our kids someday, but there are literally thousands of tracks going way back into the ’80s. It’s a huge task, and this just seemed to eat up time. We’ve been working on new music all the time throughout this, so we have a lot of material to wade through."

Did listening to your earlier recordings feed into the newer music?

"SANDISON We kept surprising ourselves, finding old things we’d completely forgotten about. We have cases full of tapes. The thing I notice about the really early stuff is how empty and abstract a lot of it is, so that reminded me of my love for a kind of “distance” in the music."

Did you go into making “Tomorrow's Harvest” with a plan? Some of the early reactions have called it less ingratiating than previous albums, more challenging.

"MARCUS EOIN I like the description “less ingratiating.” There’s a definite theme on the record. Without blowing it all for the listeners, there’s a core to it about an apparently irreversible vector we’re already on as a species. The world population has doubled in my lifetime. If you really let that fact sink in, you start to realize why it is that in so much of popular culture, in books and movies and TV, we’re fantasizing about a depopulated world in one way or another. In terms of the actual textures and melodies on this album, we wanted to loosely evoke some familiar things from older movies that have touched on these ideas."

Older movies? Which ones?

"SANDISON I wouldn’t want to pin it down to any specific films, we’d have to list about 50 of them, to be fair. We approached this with the intention to evoke certain styles from memory rather than directly studying something in particular. For example, in the mid-’80s there was a fashion for inappropriately positive or uplifting synthesizer music in grim sci-fi and horror films, so that was certainly something we were going for."

The titles on “Tomorrow's Harvest” are somber: “Sick Times,” “Collapse,” “Come To Dust.” Do you create the titles before or after the tracks? And what do these intend to tell us?

"SANDISON We usually get the titles down at the same time as writing the tracks. A title can be like a vessel. What’s unusual for us on this record is that we knew the album title as far back as 2006, so it was difficult sometimes keeping that to ourselves for so long. There’s a kind of chronology and narrative in the track titles, they’re really chapters in a document of an event. We want the listener to piece it together rather than us just explaining it verbally."

Could you offer some step-by-step details about the making of one track?

"SANDISON One technique we like is to create entirely new instruments by sampling ourselves performing on real instruments and then destroying the sounds. So we’ll maybe spend days just playing various things, wind instruments, strings, guitars, bass, synths, for hours into the samplers and then feeding those sounds through stacks of destructive hardware and resampling them to make unrecognizable new sounds. This is all before we even begin writing any tunes. So in the case of “New Seeds,” for example, some of the core tracks are real live percussion and bass, and then for layers of subsequent takes we captured ourselves jamming on these self-sampled sounds, to get a really slack, krautrock-y backbone. With that track we went back over it a few times overdubbing more hand-played parts, which gives it a really nice untidy energy. There’s a point where the melody blossoms into something new, like a clearing in the clouds, and the timing of that moment just happened naturally while we were jamming it down."

Is there a particular sound or timbre on the album that you are happiest with, and how did you make it?

"EOIN If I had to pick something in particular, maybe the texture of the strings in “Semena Mertvykh.” It was performed into a dissected VHS deck with the motor running super slowly, so you can hear all the pockmarks, the dropouts on the tape. It’s mono, too, which gives it something special. More people should record in mono these days."

To me, much of your music lingers in boundary zones between melody and loop, between explicit beat and implied pulse, between pitch and noise. Do those distinctions matter to you?

"SANDISON I don’t think we use those distinctions at all. You can pick out a melody from the squeaking rusty chains of a swing. I once zoned out to a melody I could hear in the TGV [high-speed train] from Paris to Geneva, and it turned out to be harmonics coming from the rails vibrating under the train. If you’re willing to spend a long time experimenting with sound sources, you start to find yourself curating little moments, sometimes happy accidents."

Boards of Canada favors very analog sounds that are combined and manipulated digitally. Is this a strategy with a message? What are your thoughts on the way we now spend so much of our lives experiencing digital and quantized content?

"EOIN I think the digital world suffers from being just so literal, so deliberate and sober. As with digital photography, people have gotten used to applying simulated filters onto their pictures just to inject a bit of romance into the thing, because the raw pictures are so flat. But in the analog realm these beautiful things just happen by themselves without your conscious effort. You could say the wobbles and flutters in our music are equivalent to something like weeds overgrowing an old building. Nobody puts the weeds there, but nature comes along and makes the scene very tragic and beautiful."

Just about every recording musician now feels compelled to create a public persona and image, a bid for celebrity. You’ve rejected that mode of careerism. Why? And does the music reflect that?

"EOIN I don’t think we have those sorts of personalities, we don’t need that kind of attention. I think a lot of showy artists have a kind of high-maintenance neediness in their personalities as people, and the music they make becomes a bit subordinate to that, arbitrary even. We’re fairly self-sufficient and normal people, but O.K., we’re obsessive about music itself."

Your most dedicated fans — and possibly your typical fans — analyze your every release down to submicroscopic levels. How does that affect your music making?

"EOIN We really have to ignore that when we’re purely in music-making mode, because it’s important to keep in touch with your gut instincts with melodies and sounds. So we do seal ourselves away from it much of the time. I think we let that awareness creep in when we start weaving themes and messages into the music. I suppose we’re relying on people to be extremely analytical of the music, in order to get out of it all the work we’ve put in."

The album is just over an hour long. Can you estimate how much was recorded? What’s on the cutting room floor?

"EOIN Hundreds of tracks. But that’s pretty normal for us. During the time we were recording this record there were lots of finished tracks that didn’t quite fit the plan we had for it, so yeah, a few albums’ worth."

How, in an ideal world, would you like your album to be listened to?

"SANDISON I think it works best in a solitary setting. The word I hear a lot is “oneiric,” and that’s a nice way to put it. So yeah, headphones, on your own."