"Northern Exposure" is a 2002 interview by Ken Micallef. It originally appeared in Remix Mag.
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Although Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison - the duo known as Boards of Canada - allegedly live in a commune on the northern coast of Scotland, near Edinburgh (not the Great White North as their name suggests), their music is neither pastoral nor hippie-dippy-like. Instead, their odd combination of ambient electro and downtempo experimentalism is about as warm and fuzzy as a horror-porno B-movie soundtrack.
Boards of Canada's debut album, the oddly titled Music Has the Right to Children (Matador, 1998), was a mini-revolution in ambient electronic music, a travelogue of spiraling space loops and woozy melodies that introduced the post-Nevermind generation to the Brian Eno-esque joys of chilling out. BoC's sophomore effort, Geogaddi (Warp, 2002), is even more stripped-down and beautiful than its predecessor, featuring simple circular rhythms, eerie melodies and unusual samples that create an airless, ethereal ultraworld. An overwhelming feeling of darkened, almost dangerous sentimentality permeates Geogaddi's surreal atmosphere, like a child recalling a nightmare to another small friend. Perhaps this is music for the inner child who everyone has left behind.
Many of Geogaddi's songs use spoken-word samples to embellish their bizarre moods, such as the sexually heated female voice that repeatedly counts from one to 10 in "Gyroscope." Naked Gun actor Leslie Nielsen speaks of "when lava flows underwater" in "Dandelion," and from there, the album grows more involved and detailed, with all manner of deranged children and computer voices mumbling over hopscotch hip-hop and cranky trip-hop.
"We wanted the general sound to be simple melodies played on unrecognizable textures," says Eoin about Geogaddi.
"We want to evoke the feel of old TV recordings," adds Sandison. "We go to ridiculous lengths sometimes to make a piece of music sound dated and damaged." Although Sandison notes that they generally tried to accomplish this sound without simply sampling old TV recordings, a few notable exceptions made their way to the final recording. Trainspotters will enjoy ferreting out various actors' voices or bits of '70s television-show and commercial dialog, which, according to BoC, could originate anywhere from ill-fated actor Robert Blake's Baretta to The Rockford Files to the horror-movie schlockfest, Final Victim.
Eoin and Sandison learned to play various musical instruments when they were children. Sandison formed a band and began making experimental tracks with old synths, drums and tape decks in 1980, when he was only nine years old. Influenced by television documentaries and soundtracks, particularly those by the National Film Board of Canada, Sandison named his band Boards of Canada. When Eoin became the band's bassist in 1986, Boards of Canada were mixing real instruments with computer effects and found sounds from radio and television broadcasts. Sandison dabbled with Super 8 home-movie visuals for the band early on, and by the late '80s, BoC were making full-length films accompanied by their own soundtracks.
BoC's first official release was Twoism (1995) on their own Music 70 label, followed by the 1996 Hi Scores EP on the Skam label. Gigs at the UK's Phoenix Festival and opening for Autechre brought the group to the attention of Warp Records, which signed Boards of Canada in 1998. BoC's first Warp release, Music Has the Right to Children, was met with overwhelming critical and popular acclaim, scooping up several Top 20 spots in 1998 year-end polls in UK music publications such as DJ Magazine, Jockey Slut, Muzik, NME and The Wire.
Since releasing Music Has the Right to Children, Boards of Canada have remained conspicuously out of action. They performed only a small handful of live performances, including a John Peel Session for the BBC's Radio 1, and released the 4-track EP In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country in 2000. Eoin and Sandison spent most of the past four years recording Geogaddi, which, incidentally, is exactly 66 minutes and six seconds long. Like its predecessor, Geogaddi is garnering rave reviews from critics, showing skeptics that BoC's early success was not a fluke.
The incredibly elusive duo stepped away briefly from the soothing hum of the analog machines in their studio to give some insight into the thought process behind Boards of Canada's strange, beautiful music.
What role does reflection or memory play in your music?
"Eoin: I suppose it's a big part of what we're about, whether we like it or not. We need that element to give tracks some sort of emotional purpose, because it's always been a driving factor in what we love about our favorite music - the time period that you mentally associate with whatever you're listening to. Sometimes even new music that you've not heard before can still achieve that effect of throwing your mind back through time and triggering some sort of feeling. It's nice when you get a potent, sad vibe from a bit of music that ultimately has a positive, inspiring effect on you, like reminding you of an excellent summer or something."
There is not only an orchestral feeling to some tracks on Geogaddi but also a surreal, nightmarish quality. Do you consciously seek to evoke dynamic swings in emotion?
"Eoin: Yeah, the surreal element is deliberate. It's there on Music Has the Right to Children, too, particularly in the voices, but I think we went further this time because there was a vague plan to compile a record that had a sort of Through the Looking-Glass, mashed-up adventure feel about it."
Do specific childhood musical memories influence certain tracks?
"Sandison: Definitely. I once did a track that starts with a synth flourish that sounds like an amalgam of every ABC, Lorimar, Stephen J. Cannell musical ID I'd ever soaked up as a kid. Most of the musical memories we try to put back into our music come from TV rather than pop music, especially stuff from the '70s or early '80s, like John Carpenter soundtracks and cheap American matinee TV movies that are about a fat kid with magic powers or something."
"Gyroscope" has a vocal that sounds like a woman in a porno movie counting to 10. Do you ever sample pop-culture sources such as TV and movies?
"Sandison: That's not from a porno, although we've used porno speech a few times in the past, such as on "Sixtyniner." The voices are sometimes from old TV shows or tapes we've made. We have a lot of stuff we've collected, going back to the early '80s. But half of the time, it's things we've had friends record especially for us. We create tapes all the time. Practically everyone we know has been roped into recording something for us at some point. We don't sample music, just occasional bits of speech."
Does a vocal sample sometimes spark a track?
"Sandison: Sometimes it can. I think that's what I did with "The Color of the Fire" on our first album."
Some tracks have disembodied, even ominous-sounding vocal samples. Do the vocal samples act simply as texture, or are they meant to imply meaning?
"Eoin: Sometimes the whole point of the track is about what the voice is saying, so we create a song around it, like with "In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country." We often get friends to sing things for us with the intention of building a melody around it. It's different every time. Sometimes we deliberately disintegrate the vocal so your brain has to do a bit of work to reconstruct the phrase. Often, a tune can work beautifully with no voices on it at all, so you have to know when to say "hands off" and just leave them as they are."
You reside in a rural environment. What influence does nature play in your music, and did it play any role in the "geo-" prefix of the album title?
"Sandison: Usually, our titles are self-explanatory, but this record's title is a composite that has more than one meaning. We have a meaning we understand from it, but it's up to listeners to choose their own meaning. I suppose the nature thing has an indirect effect on us while we're writing, because we're out here in the country most of the time. We're both heavily interested in science, too, which crosses over into nature and probably comes through in the music."
Does "Music Is Math" have anything to do with the mathematics and geometry that run through nature and, consequently, art, music and architecture?
"Sandison: We've been interested in these things for a while, but on this album, we thought it'd be fun to put it in as a theme. The golden mean is nothing new in architecture and music. All through history, there have been guys like Mozart who got into the Masonic knowledge and were fascinated by this stuff. On Geogaddi, there's a vague theme of math and geometry and how they relate to religious iconography."
How has your gear changed since Music Has the Right to Children? Do you still rely more on tape and samplers than synths?
"Eoin: We use computers, too, but shortly after Music Has the Right to Children, we started trying to work differently. We were composing primarily on computers, but pretty soon, it just started to bog us down and take away the spontaneity. So, now, we use computers sparingly for arranging things. Our stand-alone samplers are our primary instruments. Lately, we've returned to a really simple, stripped-down approach: just getting a sound or melody in a sampler and jamming it down to tape quickly, because it captures the moment."
Do you play the bulk of the instruments yourself and then treat them in the mix?
"Eoin: We both play piano as our first instrument, and we both play guitar. Mike's a good drummer, and you can hear bits of that in there, too. We record a lot of stuff that doesn't make it onto BoC records because, stylistically, it doesn't fit. Maybe one day, we'll put that stuff out somehow. We've got a pretty weird collection of instruments at our studio - quite a few cheap guitars and a lot of flutes, percussion and old foreign instruments. We don't have that much money, so we just pick things up in second-hand shops for pennies. Mike recently picked up an Aeolian harp for £30 that plays itself in the wind. Our studio looks like a junk shop. A lot of the time, we play things quickly on a "real" instrument, get it into the sampler, and then we just destroy the sound. There are a lot of tunes on our records where you think you're listening to a synthetic sound when it's actually an acoustic guitar or voice that we twisted into something unrecognizable. It's a nice idea taking slack organic sounds and regimenting them in an unnatural way with a sampler and a sequencer."
"Sandison: We made a lot of our percussion sounds by just wandering about with a portable DAT, denting things with drumsticks. On some tracks, we get people we know to record their voices making weird phonetic sounds. We chop it all up and use the plosive and fricative sounds for percussion and so on. All of the percussion on "An Eagle in Your Mind" was done with my girlfriend's voice."
How do you create your drum patterns?
"Sandison: It's a mixture of live performance and step sequencing. Sometimes, we make up sounds and then program them tightly in a really synthetic way. Other times, we want it to sound really rough, so we'll just jam on the drums live. For instance, "Dawn Chorus" is a single-take jammed beat that I played, while "1969" has a live beat all the way through mixed with other beat tracks."
What are your favorite instruments?
"Sandison: I have a lovely new Taylor Big Baby steel-string guitar. It didn't cost much, but it has a really great crystal sound with long sustain. And it's unvarnished, so it still smells like the workshop, like sawdust in the woodwork classroom. Our electronic gear is a mixture of old and newer stuff. We like early-'80s analog synths quite a bit, and we have some other things from that era that we're a bit protective of. We don't use any of the recent analog-modeling kit. I'm convinced I can hear the difference between modeled and real analog in music. We drop a lot of our music down onto a Tascam 4-track that has a great saturating effect on the sound. We have five or six samplers, but my favorite by far is still the Akai S1000. It's an old tank now, and the screen has faded so that I almost can't read it, but I know it inside out. It's the most spontaneous thing for making up little tunes. It adds something to the sound - maybe the lower bit depth has something to do with that.
But most of our sound is achieved through a bunch of tricks we've taught ourselves. We've been experimenting for years. One of our techniques is to use a lot of hi-fi gear and outboard stuff. We have a brilliant old Rotel hi-fi that we run sounds through to get the feel we want, and we use various Drawmer compressors and filters to give sounds a specific time and place. Sometimes we get a bit carried away with the science of it, like even specifying what year we're imitating by the type of filtering used on the drums or the synth parts. It's a bit of a joke between us to aim at a specific sound, like the subtle difference between the graininess on a synth in a PBS jingle and a bit of incidental music from a British public information film from the same year."
How has your recording process changed, and can you elaborate at all on your creation process?
"Sandison: Our songs almost always start with a melody. We usually make up little melodies, like sketches, and when you hit on something you really like, the rest falls into place around it."
Do you try to avoid blatant complexity in your compositions?
"Eoin: Certainly on Geogaddi that's what we were going for. In the past, we've taken a much more minimal approach to the texture, like single melody lines where you could clearly hear the instrument. I guess we're heading back toward that empty sound now after Geogaddi, but sometimes it's nice to make a track that just sounds like a weird cacophony of undefined instruments. Most of "Julie and Candy" was actually made up of recorders and flutes."
You don't seem to be too concerned about having all the latest technology.
"Sandison: Not really. If you let yourself get carried away with technology, then you end up spending all your time reading magazines and talking about high-tech gear but never actually writing any music. We'd much rather use what we've got and push it to do things it was never designed to do. But we do keep our ears to the ground, because there are certain instruments we've kind of invented in our minds and we're waiting for somebody to come along and make them. We read a comment recently where someone said they didn't like our use of digital plug-ins to make distorted sounds, which made us laugh because we don't use digital plug-ins. We use analog hi-fi units and overloaded tapes!"
Do you want your music to reflect a clean, futuristic ideal or more of a rough, nostalgic archetype?
"Sandison: A bit of both, really, although I think we lean towards the old rough sound. So many people in electronic music are making clean, futuristic sounds. There's nothing wrong with that. It obviously has its place, but then again, all you have to do to make clean, futuristic sounds with electronic gear is to switch it on. It's a lot more appealing to us to make dirty music."
Is your music new music or folk music?
"Eoin: I think it's obviously new music because it references older things, and those references only work in the context of it being understood as being new music, if you get my drift."
interview by by Ken Micallef, July 2002.