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Revision as of 17:31, 15 February 2017

title The Charms of the Sphinx
author Michael Döringer & Thaddeus Herrmann
publication De:Bug
date 2013-06-17
issue Online

"The Charms of the Sphinx" is a 2016 interview by Michael Döringer & Thaddeus Herrmann. It originally appeared online at De:Bug [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.

Exclusive interview in all of its unabridged glory (English)

Board of Canada are masters of the big guessing game: What is all this dark beauty about? In an exclusive interview with the Berlin based monthly magazine DE:BUG, Marcus and Mike Sandison shed some light on how their new album “Tomorrow's Harvest” came about, how they explain their influence and how they see the world they live in. But they leave us with many more questions: Is there a really mystery or just the allurement of a Sphinx without a secret?

The following interview will appear in an edited, translated version in DE:BUG 174, July/August 2013, hitting the newsstands in Germany, Austria and Switzerland on June 28th.

Interview: Michael Döringer & Thaddeus Herrmann

You’ve just returned from the future, bringing in the harvest. You know what we don’t know: What will we be feeding on from tomorrow onwards?

"Marcus: Breakfast, hopefully."

What took you so long? And how new is the new record, anyway? Was getting Tomorrow's Harvest together a concentrated effort, a focused process, or are you recording all the time anytime and suddenly realised that there were no more loose ends that needed tying up?

"Mike: It was more the latter. We’re always working on new material, all the time, and we had quite a singular vision for what this record should be. But back around 2006 we had taken some time out to concentrate on other projects for a while too, non-musical things. Later we built new expanded studio spaces, and so the process of wrapping up this record was interrupted from time to time."

The album makes one bold statement after the other. Both sonically and from a visual point of view. Starting with the latter: The city’s silhouette on the horizon, captured on 8mm, colorful yet strangely distant, something we urge to explore and are afraid of at the same time. Musically, the album to me represents the same abeyance, and I do not mean that in a negative way. The tracks seem deeply rooted between darkness and some kind of abstract warmth, hard to grasp, yet strangely familiar. In a nutshell: utopia or dystopia?

"Marcus: It’s about finding something beautiful in desolation, something draws us to the atmosphere of destroyed, abandoned places. It’s a bitter-sweet thing that we’ve always tried to achieve in our music. It seems too obvious to make music that is just purely dark, that just seems too easy and naïve. We always try very hard to create something that balances between dark and light. If you can achieve that ambiguity in music, it makes the listener do some work, emotionally. It allows you to put something subversive inside the music, that doesn’t necessarily just declare itself outright."

Why is this the right path?

"Mike: I think people are naturally attracted to dystopian imagery, especially post-human imagery, and it might be to do with a subconscious awareness that our day-to-day life is become more and more crowded and busy and unnatural."

Going back through your back catalogue, Tomorrow's Harvest to me seems to be both a 101 to BoC and an extremely well defined exploration of certain musical areas you’ve been working on before.

"Marcus: We didn’t consciously go back into early territory with this record, but I think we might have used instruments and tools on this record that are familiar from our very early material, especially with the synths and arpeggios and so on. What you get to hear on our releases is only a small fraction of what we write, because we tend to lock each album down to a theme and stick with that until it’s finished. We’re always writing and recording material that doesn’t end up on any records."

To be more precise: The album to me sounds more like Hi Scores than The Campfire Headphase. It has the heavy loops, all the mysterious sample arrangements and the dedicated electronic approach. How strong was your urge to change the sound compared to your last album? I’m asking because on previous records you were experimenting with unusual approaches. Like “An Eagle In Your Mind”, where you said the percussion was completely done with the voice of Mike’s girlfriend?

"Marcus: For every album we usually settle on a deliberate restricted palette for the overall sound. It helps to keep the project tied together and consistent within itself. The moment we finished the last record, the idea for Tomorrow's Harvest was already forming. Like any musician, I think there’s always a hunger to surprise yourself or take some sort of 90-degree turn with each new project. I don’t think it’s necessarily a return to an older sound, although the synths and self-sampling on this record are more or less core things that we’ve always returned to over the past twenty years or so because they offer endless new possibilities in the sound."

If this impression makes any sense to you: Were there technical aspects as well? Did your recording technique change? If so, how?

"Mike: The way we make tracks always changes between albums, but in the case of the new record it was changing from track to track. Towards the end of working on the record the material was sounding different from the earliest tracks, so it was challenging to contain everything under one album theme."

What kind of vision do you want to achieve with Tomorrow's Harvest?

"Marcus: I hope that it works to make the listener pause and consider where we are right now, where we’re going… I guess it’s essentially a political album, but we shouldn’t spell it all out, it’s important that the listener finds their own thing in there."

It seems you moved away a little bit from your general interest in damaged, imperfect sounds – many of your new tracks sound more ‘polished’, sharp and perfect than almost everything you’ve done before. Like the fantastic “Cold Earth” or “Come To Dust”. True?

"Mike: In the studio we still spend a huge amount of time destroying the sounds in our music, though on this record we wanted to use older electronic instruments in the kind of well-produced, precisely orchestrated ways that film composers did back in the late seventies and eighties."

You once said your records sound like phases you’re going through and depend on what you’re listening at that time – what music has influenced you in the last years and especially during the making of this record? I would be surprised if you didn’t follow what’s been released in the last years. The new album sounds almost ‘contemporary’ in some respects.

"Marcus: Actually we haven’t really been listening to much contemporary music recently although we do keep an ear to the ground for anything really special or weird that comes along. Mike tends to deliberately avoid listening to other artists’ music when he’s writing, and much of what I’ve liked over the past few years is just isolated tracks by underground artists, or film soundtracks."

Could you give us some names? Which movies and soundtrack composers should we regard as related to Tomorrow's Harvest?

"Mike: If we’re talking about contemporary composers there are too many to mention really. I’d say maybe Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek. Also Mark Isham, Thomas Newman, Clint Mansell. 

Any other new influences that poured into the album?

"Marcus: Much of the energy for the album comes from written word, thinkers like James Howard Kunstler and Dmitry Orlov. These writers are like modern day prophets, and it’s a much more fertile source of inspiration than just listening to other people’s music."

Talking about influences: The Campfire Headphase was thematically set in the U.S. already. What’s the story behind Tomorrow's Harvest? The skyline of San Francisco on the cover, the listening session in the desert, the video to “Reach for the Dead” …

"Mike: There’s no specific intention to confine the album’s narrative to the US, but I suppose there is recognizable familiarity within certain imagery and places with existing survivalist culture, and with 70s and 80s cinema that we hoped to evoke."

Let’s talk more about the events leading to the release of the album. We’ve had random 12″s with not so random numbers, a billboard in Shibuya, covert hints to the listening session in an abandoned amusement park in the middle of the desert. All painstakingly dissected by your fans, re-assembled on message boards, looking for clues. Meanwhile, you decline to meet journalists in person, chose e-mail over phoners. It’s like Detroit Techno revisited. Let the music do the talking. The face in the crowd is more important than anything else. Coming back to my point: How involved were you in planning these events?

"Marcus: We were involved with the art direction and we helped devise some of the ideas but we had a really great team of people helping us to make it all happen. We really wanted to bring back a feeling of anticipation for new music that has largely been lost in recent years, mainly because of the internet. As with movies these days, everybody already knows absolutely everything that happens in a film before it even hits theatres. It kills the magic. So we were trying to figure out how to get younger listeners to experience some kind of buzz for the record in the way we used to as kids, which is really difficult to do these days because kids can have everything they want, almost at the press of a button."

You must be pretty proud of your loyal fans, spreading the word.

"Mike: Our listeners seem to be really cool, savvy types of people. They didn’t let us down."

Are you following what is written online about you, especially in these fan forums? The people there are mad for you. In that regard, you’re one of the world’s biggest pop groups.

"Mike: We get indirect feedback from our record company, and other people around us, but we really try hard not to read things about our work because it can be quite a damaging thing. Even positive comments can give you a false sense of what’s good about your work, so it’s really better to try to ignore it."

Where have you been living over the years? Since when are you back in Scotland, if that’s true so, and why?

"Marcus: We’re primarily based in Scotland, where we have a great studio, though we have done some writing and recording whilst living overseas, in the past few years. Some of the core ideas on this album were put down in New Zealand."

What impact has your surrounding on your music? I know you once were really sick of that connection, like everyone could do certain music if he was in a particular place. And I’m still curious about how you’d assess the time you spent in Canada as kids today – I feel like that period was the crucial element that formed your artistic personality. What if you had not been there at that time?

"Marcus: I wouldn’t really put any particular importance on our time in Canada because we moved around a lot when we were kids. I think from travelling a lot I’ve been left with a personal association between the west and the past, and that’s a strong source of inspiration for me in the music."

Can you explain to yourself why your music had and still has such a strong impact and influence on some people? Not only musically, but also emotionally, both to mere listeners and musicians.

"Mike: It’s very difficult to answer that one as we’re on the inside of this music. I can tell you, from the very beginning we’ve just been trying to make something that we would have loved somebody else to come along and do, but nobody else was coming along and doing it, so we had to make it ourselves. It always felt to us like some kind of a dead zone in music, like an obvious space to us, but somehow nobody was there. So it was like “okay, that’s where we belong”."

And what would that zone be that you filled up, from your perspective? The need for more personally informed, dreamy electronica, that didn’t chiefly strive for futuristic sounds and super complex beats and rhythms? Was there a lack of human element in mid-90s electronic music?

"Marcus: In the early nineties mainstream electronic music had mostly become really terrible dance music. We’ve never been into dance music. We were big fans of all the great industrial bands in the eighties, so when dance music came along it was almost as though all that great dark stuff in the eighties had never happened. In the early days of the band our music was much more influenced by what you might call new wave or post-punk and industrial. We’d begun making very experimental music ourselves in the mid eighties, and then by the start of the nineties we were making melodic ambient electronic music, and it felt to us that almost nobody else out there at the time was interested in melody. I think that is why we gravitated towards the artists on Warp. It felt to us that there was actually a strong connection between artists who wanted to make really extreme noise-based music and those who wanted to make extremely minimal, melodic ambient music. Anything as long as you’re not just somewhere in the middle."

Simon Reynolds strongly relies on you as the forefathers or originators of certain musical and theoretical concepts of the last ten years, like Hauntology or Hypnagogic Pop. You’re actually the starting point for one aspect of his Retromania concept – making music sound old, worn out, triggering memories etc. Those were things you did and talked about almost 20 years ago and have become the principles of many young producers. What are you thinking about that today?

"Mike: That’s still absolutely a driving force in our work. It’s something we love doing, we can never run out of inspiration in this direction, because if you only pay attention to current music then you can’t help sounding pinned down to the fashion of today. But when you allow yourself to explore music from various eras in the past, you can find starting points that were never fully explored, like tangents that didn’t actually occur in the real history of music, and that’s really exciting to me. Especially in the face of so much current music that is becoming indistinguishable because all the producers are basically using the same tools."

Talking about the past: Are you still in touch with any of your old friends from school, the notorious Hexagon Sun Collective? What happened to all of them?

"Marcus: Yes of course. Everyone grows up of course and in some cases they start families or have careers of their own, but yeah we’re still all very much in touch."

Coming back to the topics of Tomorrow's Harvest: if it is a reflection or statement on the sad state of nature & environment – is it just something you’re ‘interested in’, like religion & cults on former records? Or is it something more important, also in your private lives, that you’re worried about?

"Mike: It’s not really an environmental thing, it’s much more to do with people and the direction our civilization is taking us in. We’re not literally talking about plants when we use the term “seeds”, so you have to think sideways about the song titles. We’re living in a time of very dramatic change in terms of population numbers and insidious political events and in some ways it now feels that some sort of crash on the horizon is not just inevitable but in fact necessary."

That said, you’re rather pessimistic about the future of mankind? The crash is necessary because people, governments and industry are just not able to change their direction and thinking?

"Mike: Yes that’s part of it, humans are essentially selfish. So I feel that real radical change is more likely to come from external events rather than from within."

One of you once said: “I like the idea of doing things that in five, ten, or twenty years time will be able to reveal something about our music, that will make people completely re-examine what we’ve done, and see it in a completely different light.” So you’ve inspired many people with your ideas – would that fit your statement above?

"Mike: Yeah I’d say quite honestly if we were able to inspire one person to go out and make their own mark in some way, whether through art or politics, it would make it all worthwhile. On the one hand you can argue that it’s only music and of course that’s right, it’s trivial in the context of history, but all art inspires and moves somebody somewhere, and that’s like a kind of energy passing down through a chain of generations, and it’s all you can ask for as a musician."

There’s no way to not call it a comeback. Question is: Is this record a new beginning or maybe the end? How does it feel for you?

"Marcus: It feels like neither of those things from our perspective because we’ve always been working! We’d be making music anyway even if nobody was listening, and we’ve no intention of stopping, so this is just a continuation."

And finally, the most important thing: Please name your 3 favourite number stations and tell us why you like them.

"Mike: Do people really have favourite number stations?"