Why Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children Is the Greatest Psychedelic Album of the ’90s

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title Why Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children Is the Greatest Psychedelic Album of the ’90s
author Simon Reynolds
publication Pitchfork
date April 03 2018

Original Text

"Why Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children Is the Greatest Psychedelic Album of the ’90s" is an interview by Simon Reynolds originally published online April 03 2018 on the Pitchfork website.[1]

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.

Why Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children Is the Greatest Psychedelic Album of the ’90s

  Once upon a time there was a London vintage clothing boutique that lured customers inside with the slogan, “Don’t follow fashion, buy something that’s already out-of-date!” Some musicians opt for a similar strategy: Avoiding the timely, they aim to achieve the timeless.

That’s what Boards of Canada were going for when they recorded Music Has the Right to Children in the late 1990s. At that time, the reigning aesthetic in electronic music was crisply digital, frenetically hyper-rhythmic, and futuristic. But the Scottish duo quietly and firmly abstained from these norms and conventions. Michael Sandison and his differently-surnamed brother Marcus Eoin came up with something completely different: a hazy sound of smeared synth-tones and analog-decayed production, carried by patient, sleepwalking beats, and aching with nostalgia.

What I still like about [the album] is all about everything it doesn’t do, in the context of the world of music it came into,
says Sandison today. This time-out-of-joint quality is all the more fitting because Music Has the Right is about the uncanniness of memory, the way we are each haunted by ghosts from a private image-bank as well as from the collective unconscious of shared public culture. It’s not so much that this persistence of the past inside the present is the subject of the record as that it’s the substance out of which Boards of Canada weave their music, its spectral warp-and-weft.

In the late ’90s, looking back was the last thing on the collective mind of electronic dance music. From drum ’n’ bass to trance, from gabba to minimal techno, the music promised the sound of tomorrow, today. Each scene saw itself as a vanguard—dancing to these beats, you were in some sense already in the future. Drawing heavily from cyberpunk fiction, dystopian movies, and scientific terminology, the track titles, the artist names, the sampled soundbites, and the record designs relied almost uniformly on futuristic imagery. Which could get pretty corny and kitschy at times—just consider of the garish hyper-real colors and baroquely biomorphic shapes in the Future Sound of London’s artwork of the era.

True, there was a countercurrent at work in a corner of IDM, what you could call idyllictronica: the spangly music-box chimes and ice-cream truck melodies of Mouse on Mars, certain Aphex Twin tracks, and a few others, evocative of childhood innocence and halcyon memories. BoC had something in common with this tendency but, crucially, they bent it to the sinister—as with the front cover of Music Has the Right, a faded photograph of a family of seven on vacation, their faces eerily bleached into featureless blanks.

The album came out in April 1998, a joint release by scene-leading Warp Records and the rising second-wave IDM label Skam. Although Music Has the Right has the feeling of a debut, a bold entrance statement, Sandison and Eoin—aged 27 and 26 when the album was released—had already accumulated a fairly substantial, if low-profile, discography across the previous three years, including an album and a barely released cassette on their own imprint, Music70, and the Hi Scores EP for Skam. Although BoC’s early sound sat fairly unobtrusively amid the Autechre-indebted crunchy beats and pensive melodies of the Skam roster, there were glimmers of a distinctive identity discernible to the sharp-eared: a certain elegiac, autumnal quality to the synth-tones.

While BoC were honing their sound, the IDM community was scrambling to catch up with the rhythmic innovations of jungle, which had come as an ambush out of the lumpen left-field. The dominant sound was a controlled paroxysm of percussion, with micro-edited breakbeats densely layered and texturized with digital signal processing. Practically all the big names in IDM were chopping breaks and assembling complex architectures of contorted polyrhythm: Aphex Twin with his Richard D. James Album and the AFX EP Hangable Auto Bulb, Luke Vibert in both his Plug and Wagon Christ identities, µ-Ziq with Lunatic Harness, and Squarepusher with a ballistic barrage of releases that included Hard Normal Daddy and Big Loada in 1997 alone. People nicknamed this style “drill and bass,” but “droll and bass” would have fit even better: The mood was antic and whimsical, with artists like Aphex favoring daft samples and an almost slapstick, cartoon-crazy feel.

Boards of Canada stood aside from all this pell-mell puerility. Where jungle and its not-so-early adopters in IDM’s first division were reversing conventional musical priorities by turning the drums and the bass into the focal foreground, BoC reversed that reversal and restated the primacy of melody and mood. In early interviews, Sandison and Eoin stressed their disinterest in going along with the jungle program, which they regarded as a fashion trend. For them, rhythms were “just a vehicle for carrying strange and beautiful melodies.” And that was the first thing that struck you listening to Music Has the Right to Children—how songs like “Roygbiv” featured gorgeously elongated melody lines stretching over many bars, whereas most electronic music of the era tended to involve concise melody-riffs and brief, flickering vamps.

I always felt rhythm is the part of music that dates it, for better or worse,
says Sandison today.
It gives away the era, it’s the replaceable part in cover versions. But people get attached to a chord progression, or a figure of notes, because those are timeless. We have a subtractive way of putting our music together. So a lot of what we were doing with [Music Has the Right] was actually the process of removal; discarding the things that other people would do that annoyed us, until the skeletal remains didn’t annoy us anymore. And this pushed the whole sound into a kind of apparition of the music that was not quite all there.

It’s not that there aren’t some imposing beats on Music Has the Right. In fact, there’s a surprising amount of hip-hop in the mix, a sort of sedated boom-bap feel at times. Featuring scratching and a looped break, “An Eagle in Your Mind” is like a GIF of faded footage of old skool B-boy crew West Street Mob spinning on their backs and knees to their 1983 track “Break Dance-Electric Boogie.” Other tracks, like “Rue the Whirl,” with its clattery drum rolls, similarly conjure a bygone Bronx, but relocated incongruously to rural Scotland. Overall, though, the beats on BoC tracks create a dreamy sensation of suspension from time rather than a surge forward through it.

The other thing that separated Music Has the Right from contemporaneous releases by apparent peers like Autechre and Two Lone Swordsmen was the record’s overall sound design, which broke with the clean, clear, clinical aura of the era. Instead, BoC used a mixture of analog and digital techniques to give their music a wavering, mottled quality redolent of formats like film, vinyl, and magnetic tape that are susceptible to decay and distortion with the passage of time. Listening to tracks like “Wildlife Analysis” or “The Color of the Fire,” you can’t help but think of yellowing photographs in the family album, blotchy and washed-out Super-8 films, or the drop-out addled sound of favorite cassettes left too long on the car dashboard.

In interviews around Music Has the Right, BoC talked about how they barely listened to—or even liked—contemporary electronic music, citing instead such seemingly unlikely synth forebears as Devo and Tomita, and gushing about the acoustic lushness of Joni Mitchell. The brothers talked of applying “a process of corruption” to their melodies, the vocals they sampled, and pretty much every texture in their music.

Arriving at that sound was a really gradual thing with us,
says Eoin now.
We’d been recording in various forms of the band as teens through much of the ’80s, and already had a big collection of our own old crappy recordings that we were really fond of. Then, around 1987 or 1988, we were beginning to experiment with collage tapes of demos we’d deliberately destroyed, to give the impression of chewed up library tapes that had been found in a field somewhere. That was the seed for the whole project. In those days, everyone used to have drawers full of unique cassettes with old snippets from radio and TV, it’s kind of a lost thing now, sadly. To me, it’s fascinating and precious to find some lost recordings in a cupboard, so part of it was an idea to create new music that really felt like an old familiar thing.

The origins of the BoC sound go back as far as 1981, when the brothers engaged in rudimentary experiments with tape-editing. “We used to chop up shortwave radio recordings on an ancient portable recorder and make tunes out of them by punching-in and layering tracks in a crude way,” they told the Scottish electronic music website EHX in early 1998, in what appears to be BoC’s very first interview.

These schoolboy stabs at musique concrète suggest a proximity with the UK’s industrial scene, the tape collages and ambient dronescapes spun by Nurse With Wound and Zoviet France from the early ’80s onwards. But by the early ’90s, BoC were closer to a proper band, with guitar, bass, live drums, and the occasional vocal. They weren’t the sort of band that rocked out on stage, though, but nearer to what they described as “experimental atmospheric rock” outfits such as Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine, dedicated to exploring guitar textures and the studio’s sound-painting possibilities. Like Kevin Shields on Loveless, BoC experimented with sampling their own guitars. A shoegaze inheritance lingers right through to Music Has the Right tracks like “Smokes Quantity,” a gaseous quality that recalls MBV at their most indistinct and tonally warped.

Where most of the first wave of British IDM artists started out making banging techno and shrieking acid for the hardcore ravefloor, BoC’s trajectory was more like Seefeel, a guitar band that passed through post-rock into abstract electronica, or Ultramarine, which evolved out of the second-wave industrial outfit A Primary Industry.
Our angle coming into electronic music in the late ’80s was more from experimental alternative stuff,
recalls Eoin.
All these artists had some sort of agenda. But when dance music took over in the ’90s it just seemed really disposable to us. We’ve never had much interest in techno or dance music.
In the interviews around Music Has the Right, the brothers candidly indicated that making people move was not a priority: “If you can dance to one of our tracks, well and good, but it’s not what we’re aiming at.”

BoC were making music for the head and the heart, then, not the body. But rather than IDM, their true bearings came from psychedelia. From their earliest EPs through to their most recent release, 2013’s Tomorrow’s Harvest, their work is shot through with psychedelia’s abiding obsessions: nature, childhood, higher (or simply other) states of consciousness, and the allure of a tribal mode of communal living. Like Donovan’s and the Incredible String Band’s attempts at living communally in remote and unspoiled regions of Scotland and Wales during the late ’60s, BoC made their music amid the glens and cairns of the Pentland Hills outside Edinburgh, as part of a collective of artistic and spiritual kinsfolk. Around the time of recording Music Has the Right, they lived right beside a wildlife sanctuary.

The group’s name came from the National Film Board of Canada, whose nature documentaries and educational animations they remembered from school days. The brothers found inspiration not just in the subject matter of these programs but in their “grainy and wobbly” look, and from the music: electronic under-scores and themes largely made by the Quebecois composer Alain Clavier. Some of the shorter electronic interludes and codas on Music Has the Right could almost be direct sonic grafts from the synthesizer audio logo that starts each National Film Board of Canada documentary.

When I was 9 years old, back in the early ’70s, my ambition in life was to be a naturalist: Canada seemed like paradise, a barely populated expanse of forest and prairie teeming with unique wildlife and birds. To my child-mind, wholly uninterested in urban thrills and temptations, it seemed like you could never get—forgive me—bored of Canada. As youngsters, Sandison and Eoin were lucky enough to live in the prairie province of Alberta for a few years, when their parents worked in the construction industry there. “My memory of Calgary is a picture of boxy 1970s office blocks dumped in the middle of nowhere against a permanent sunset,” Sandison told NME in 2002. The family photo on the front of Music Has the Right was actually taken at Banff Springs, a picturesque vista in Alberta’s stretch of the Rocky Mountains.

The album contains a profusion of allusions to Nature, and some actual sounds taken from the great outdoors. There are bird cries, sometimes sourced indirectly from records (the seagulls on “Happy Cycling” come from Vangelis’ La Fête Sauvage) and sometimes documented by the brothers. While making “Rue the Whirl,” the window to the studio got left open unintentionally; during the playback of a prototype version, Sandison and Eoin realized the birdsong enhanced the music, and it was incorporated into the final track. “An Eagle in Your Mind” features no actual eagles, alas, but instead there is a voice-over from an otter documentary, using terms like “holts” and “spraints” that would have thrilled the 9-year-old me. “Chinook,” a non-album B-side of this era, takes its name from a wind that wafts through the Pacific Northwest and into the Canadian Prairies.

Another hippie-era obsession detectable on Music Has the Right is what Canadians now call the First Nations: Native American tribal peoples like the Blackfoot. “Kaini Industries” borrows its title from a company set up to create employment for inhabitants of Alberta’s Blood Reserve, while “Pete Standing Alone” shares its name with a young Blackfoot who appears in National Film Board of Canada documentaries like Circle of the Sun. From late-’60s types like Jim Morrison, through goths like Southern Death Cult, to rave-era anarcho-mystics like Spiral Tribe, Native American folkways have had a romantic allure, representing a pre-capitalist way of life at once more grounded and more spiritual in its non-exploitative co-existence with the natural world. BoC themselves have often struck an anti-urban and neo-tribal note in their interviews, talking of how their idea of a good night out is not going clubbing in the pumping heart of the city, but convening a gathering of a few dozen friends “somewhere in the hills” around “a huge bonfire.”

But the biggest psychedelia-flashback element to Music Has the Right is its cult of childhood. A high proportion of the pre-teen voices that litter the album come from “Sesame Street”: “The Color of the Fire” features a little kid adorably sounding out the phrase “I love you,” while “Aquarius” is laced with glorious giggles and the refrain “Yeah, that’s right!”’ from a pair of children. Framing the whole album, there’s that mysterious title itself. On the one hand, “music has the right to children” seems to propose an ideal listener or listening state for this music: impressionable, receptive, open to the in-rush of experience. That interpretation is strengthened by the duo’s own description of the title as “a statement of our intention to affect the audience using sound.”

But Music Has the Right to Children could also be taken differently: not so much about listeners coming “under the influence,” and more about BoC as a generative force, inspiring other musicians. And BoC have indeed been genre-ative, creating a style of music in their own image. For better or worse, they’ve spawned a legion of sound-alikes within the IDM field (such as Tycho, to name just one). And they’ve scattered their sonic seed far and wide beyond strictly electronic confines, audible in groups as far apart as Black Moth Super Rainbow and Radiohead (Thom Yorke referenced BoC frequently during the Kid A/Amnesiac era).

Although BoC’s use of filtering and phasing effects occasionally sounds like an actual acid-rock flashback, for the most part they are in the business of reinventing psychedelia: misusing technology to simulate or stimulate hallucinatory or “non-sane” states of mind. Speaking about “Nlogax,” a track on their 1996 EP Hi Scores, Sandison and Eoin have described its effects as “like your brain is starting to malfunction in the middle of the tune.” They’ve talked about aiming to induce a sort of wide-asleep trance state: “It’s like when you glaze over when you’re listening to something, but you’re still there at the same time.”

Glazed and diffused is pretty much how I felt when I first fell deep for, and deep into, Music Has the Right. The album had bypassed me initially: as a jungle fanatic, my metabolism was wired to the frantic futurism of breakbeat science. But something drew me back several months later—perhaps testimonials from others, or a gathering sense of its reputation. And that time around, Music Has the Right took over my life for a good while. The wistful ripples of milky synth in “Roygbiv” felt like a twinkle in time, a cinematic dissolve into my private past. Like fast-moving clouds casting shadows against a hillside, the melody-loop of “Rue the Whirl” shuddered with a sense of the sublime, the awful unknowable majesty of the world.

Like many others, I found that Music Has the Right had an extraordinary power to trigger memories. Partly this was a side effect of the wavering off-pitch synths, redolent of the music on TV programs from my ’70s childhood. But in a far more profound, fundamental, and deeply mysterious way, BoC seemed to be tapping into those deepest recesses of personal memory. Blending intimacy and otherness, the music put you back in touch with parts of yourself you’d lost. That was their gift to the listener.

Reaching for some kind of parallel or precursor, I could only think of David Byrne and Brian Eno’s 1981 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, with its use of speech snippets as one-shot singularities (as opposed to the looped vocal samples that tend to figure in dance music and hip-hop). But where Bush of Ghosts, with its Arabic singers and Born Again preachers, worked through an exoticism of geography and cultural distance, Music Has the Right involved an exoticism of time. The memories it triggered for me were actually rather mundane: I pictured municipal spaces like parks and recreation grounds, classrooms and school science labs, back gardens or rainy afternoons indoors watching kids’ TV. They carried no particular emotional charge, but they were numinous with significance, akin to the way dream images can linger long into your waking hours, without ever revealing anything as legible as a meaning. Music Has the Right, in fact, was like a dream you could turn on at will.

As much as Boards of Canada harked back to Bush of Ghosts, they also harked forward to Ghost Box, the British label whose ectoplasmic sound and elegiac sensibility has come to define the 21st-century genre known as hauntology. Perhaps “memoradelia,” an alternate genre tag briefly floated by the critic Patrick McNally, is a better umbrella term for the audio traits and cultural preoccupations that BoC share with Ghost Box artists like the Focus Group and the Advisory Circle.

Among the many common concerns, a nostalgic fascination for television stands out as the major connection. During the ’70s especially, children’s TV programming in the UK featured a peculiar preponderance of ghost stories, tales of the uncanny, and apocalyptic scenarios (like “The Changes,” in which the populace rises up and destroys all technology). In between this creepy fare, young eyes were regularly assaulted by Public Information Films, a genre of short British programs made for TV broadcast and ostensibly designed to educate and advise, but which often seemed to be scripted and directed by child-hating sadists whose true goal was to increase nightmares and bed-wetting. Featuring the macabre voice-over tones of actor Donald Pleasence, “The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water,” for instance, warned of the dangers of ponds and lakes, while “Apaches” showed in grisly detail what might befall a bunch of kids messing about in a farmyard.

The unsettling content of all this vintage kids-oriented TV seeped into the brains of Sandison and Eoin at a vulnerable age. But what seems to have lingered even more insidiously in the memory of BoC, and the hauntologists that came after them, is the music. For many Brit kids, the sound effects and incidental motifs made for these programs by outfits like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were their first exposure to abstract electronic sounds. Speaking in 1998, Sandison claimed that these theme tunes and soundtracks were “a stronger influence than modern music, or any other music that we listened to back then. Like it or not, they’re the tunes that keep going around in our heads.”

Another hauntology theme that Boards of Canada anticipated is the notion of the lost future. Again, this tends to be identified most with the ’70s and that decade’s queasy ambivalence about runaway technological change: On the one hand, there was still a lingering post-World War II optimism abroad, but it was increasingly contaminated with paranoid anxiety about ecological catastrophe and the rise of a surveillance state. {{boc|Looking back at TV and film from that decade, a lot of what you see was pretty dark,” says Sandison. By the early ’90s, when BoC were finding their identity,
all the sounds and pictures from back then seemed like a kind of partially-remembered nightmare. For us, it was a great source of inspiration. We couldn’t understand why it hadn’t occurred to anyone else to do it, it was a really obvious, natural thing to use.

Another ’70s-in-vibe obsession of the brothers is what they call “strange sciences,” that zone where the boundary between reason and superstition gets muddy: bodies of renegade knowledge and “independent research” such as  parapsychology, Erich Von Däniken’s best-selling books about “ancient astronauts,” New Age with its beliefs and techniques concerning healing vibrations and energy-flows, and many other forms of quasi-scientific magic and mysticism. “I do actually believe that there are powers in music that are almost supernatural,” Eoin once argued. “I think you actually manipulate people with music, and that is definitely what we are trying to do.”

Part of that manipulation of the listener goes beyond the sound itself and involves the framing of the music. BoC’s work is intricately brocaded with arcane references and encrypted allusions. They have cultivated cultishness. For a measure of their success, just check a BoC fan site, where you’ll find a feast of annotations and speculations: competing attempts to decode the meaning of titles, to locate the sources of samples, to decipher the half-buried fragments of speech.

“There is a story behind every title we use,” the brothers revealed in their first interview. It’s as if they were setting out the terms for future engagement with their work. Yet, as Sandison admitted in a later interview, most of those carefully placed meanings remained elusive and impenetrable. “If we were to explain all the tracks and their meanings... I think it would ruin them for a lot of people. It’s more like viewing something through the bottom of a murky glass, and that’s the beauty of it.”

For Boards of Canada, this deliberately hermetic aesthetic is designed to induct the listener into a deeper mode of engagement, and to conjure a sense that something more is going on than just sound for sound’s sake.
If it’s not about something, it feels unfinished,
Sandison says now.
Even as instrumental artists, you don’t have to neglect having a message or agenda just because of the absence of a vocalist. The kinds of bands we like have something going on that is way beyond just the music itself. I appreciate all that world-building, especially if the artist is doing something separate from the main flow.

With Music Has the Right, BoC did build their own world, set apart from the wider currents of late-’90s electronica. After such an achievement, it would be unreasonable to expect the brothers to unfurl a wholly new sound and vision on each subsequent album. As their discography unfolded over the ensuing 20 years, Sandison and Eoin first intensified their approach with In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country and Geogaddi, then inflected it with the shoegaze-tinged The Campfire Headphase, and finally simply reiterated it with Tomorrow’s Harvest. But then the idea of Boards of Canada “progressing” or “evolving” goes against their very essence. Their intent with Music Has the Right to Children was to create a haunted haven outside the onward flow of Time. Why wouldn’t they want to live there forever?

Highlights and Notes