Big Country

title Big Country
author Steve Nicholls
publication XLR8R
date 2001/03
issue 47
pages 30-33

"Big Country" is an interview by Steve Nicholls originally published Mar. 2001 in XLR8R magazine Issue 47, pp.30-33.

Original Text[edit]

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.

Music fans around the globe wait patiently for the second full-length release from mysterious Scottish duo Boards of Canada, who turned music on its head with their debut recording's gentle, psychedelic ambience. Fan to the core, England's Steve Nicholls fulfills a dream, travelling north to the group's Scottish hideaway to investigate the source of their sorcery.

I'll never forget the first time, over two years ago, I heard Boards Of Canada's debut album Music Has The Right To Children. Prior to its arrival I was expecting something kind of special, because of the quality of their previous single "Aquarius" and the "Hi Scores" EP, released on the UK guerrilla-tactics electronic label Skam. I clearly remember receiving the album, by then released jointly with Warp Records, and time stopped. I sat and listened to the whole album, overpowered by the myriad kaleidoscopic layers, messages, hallucinations and images it relayed. It was like the tantalisingly elusive parts of a beautiful dream that you struggle to grasp after waking.

Two years later and I finally get to interview Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison, Boards Of Canada. I say finally because I firmly believe that, in Music Has The Right To Children, they made one of the great records of the last decade, and with the advent of a new album in the next few months, there is a distinct possibility that they might repeat the feat. And it's not just me-Eoin and Sandison also freely admit that they are trying to make the perfect record.

We are being pretty ambitious with what we are trying to do with it musically,
says Sandison.
We want to do this one at our own pace and only deliver it when we think we've got something that is absolutely perfect, with no flaws. We want it to be so that every track on it is a really long lasting track that we personally love, and keep on loving, and play over and over again. It's a difficult thing to achieve, and the chances are that we're not going to do that because no one ever gets to that point. Sometimes I hear albums by bands that are so perfect that they could have, and in some case should have, retired, like My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. I would've been happy if they had never made another record after that.
It's like that thing...
adds Eoin.
What do you do if you make the perfect album?

In some ways, for Boards Of Canada to have disappeared after releasing one album would have suited the image of mysteriousness that has sprung up around them. Partly due to the cut up and addled vocal samples that littered Music Has The Right To Children and instantly initiated talk of subliminal messages, and partly due to the unavoidable feeling that there was something very strange going in their music just beneath the surface, people were fascinated by what they were all about. But the fact that they live in Scotland has far more to do with their lack of involvement in the still remarkably London-centric UK music scene than any kind of Howard Hughes-type elusiveness.

On their new EP, "In A Beautiful Place In The Country," it is gratifying to hear that they have continued to strive for the perfect beat, because Boards Of Canada were an anomaly in the '90s electronica scene into which people tried to fit them, and it's still impossible to fit them into any kind of timeline of electronic music. They admit to liking late '80s and early '90s industrial electronic bands like Front 242, Consolidated and Meat Beat Manifesto, and then the Cocteau Twins and Siouxsie and the Banshees, but that's about as far as they go. As Eoin rightly says,
I don't really like singling people out as influences because it's too specific. I prefer to see all that as just branches coming off a completely chaotic, random tree, where some people are closer to each other than others.

Eoin's analogy with nature is one that constantly reappears when discussing Boards Of Canada's music. Much has been made of the strangely rural and organic sounds and images they create. In the countryside area surrounding Edinburgh, it is not uncommon to see a double rainbow appearing over the barrenly beautiful countryside, the image a visual analog to much of their music.

Eoin and Sandison fully admit that if they lived in a city it would be detrimental to their work, and you can see how a more structured environment would hem the natural ebb and flow of ideas and sounds that emerged from Music Has The Right To Children. On that album, sounds or loops or melodies would only be heard once in a track, and other tracks frequently only lasted for thirty tantalizing seconds, a simple melodic refrain, a ghostly beat, or a plaintive note, disappearing as quickly as it appeared, taking on the presence of a fleeting memory-a cloud that momentarily takes a recognizable shape, or a captured snowflake that melts on your hand.

I think we are trying to do that more and more now,
says Sandison.
I like to think that where we are going is trying to compose totally horizontally. The vertical way of composing is the lazy way, where you just build stuff up and build stuff up, and then just bring them in and out. I think the way we work is so much more orchestrated, so that you can hear something that just happens, and you want it to carry on because it's so tantalizing, and you want to hear it again and again. We both understand the principle that if you put something beautiful into a piece of music just once, it makes people put the record back on because they want to hear it again.
Someone criticized me once,
recalls Eoin,
and asked why we'd made 'Roygbiv' so short. For us, that is exactly how long it should be. It's like that famous bit at the end of 'Strawberry Fields' by The Beatles, where you get the little voice at the end that says something like 'I buried Paul,' and it happens once, and it's such a transitory thing that's mixed in one ear really far away, but people went on and on about it for decades.
You know,
Sandison says,
if a contemporary producer, with that kind of '90s or 2000 mentality did something like that, it would be going 'bang, bang, bang, I buried Paul' over and over again all the way through it, and you would never want to hear it again. I really like putting things into songs that don't initially jump out at you, and you're not quite sure that you've actually heard it, like putting things really far away in the mix, so people are like, 'Am I imagining that, or is it just on my copy?'

It all adds fuel to the fire that there is something mysterious about their music. As sweet, and frankly, listenable as their melodic head music may be on the surface, you can't escape the feeling that still waters run deep, and that there are strong currents running beneath the surface. Indeed, although it's always asking for trouble by drawing the parallel, Boards Of Canada's work has far more in common with something like The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper than anything from the more recent past, as its unerring tunefulness and song craft masquerades and alludes to something far deeper.

Those allusions are there all the way through Music Has The Right To Children, particularly come the last track, "One Important Thought," which warns of the dangers of censorship, and leaves you wondering what you might have just listened to that could ever be censored, so sublime, relaxing and apparently innocent was the music. So you have to listen to it again with new ears. Although Eoin and Sandison are still struggling with the idea that a lot of people are going to hear this new record, unlike many an experimental producer, they want their music to be listenable, to be a pleasurable experience, but one in which, if you choose to delve deeper, the rewards are there to be had.

We've had that a lot with the new EP,
says Eoin.
People have said they liked it instantly, and that's kind of amusing because it's hitting the nail right on the head. For us the aim is to try and make something that you like instantly, but the important thing is actually the hidden mystery hypnotism that happens after ten listens.
Its almost like bait,
Sandison joins in.
You disguise a track as a nice big juicy worm, and then put a hook inside it! There is almost a critical point, a threshold, and if you get past that, then you are going to be completely immersed in what we are doing musically. We always assume that the listener is the most intelligent person imaginable. If you always think like that, you never insult the listener, and someone wanting to analyse what we do will always get something out of it.

As well as crediting the listener with intelligence, which, as Eoin later points out, so few electronic "dance" producers do, Boards Of Canada also credit us with an imagination. They leave space in their music for us to project our own ideas, images, and thoughts. Their messages are in there, but they are encrypted allusions hinting at what might lie within. It might explain why they are becoming so popular, because in a way each Boards' track becomes very personal to the individual listener, alluding to different things in different people's lives. I ask them about the often-mentioned nostalgia element in their music-people have constantly remarked how their music vaguely reminds them of something else, and how that differs from being retro.

Retro is a consensus isn't it?
says Eoin.
Like the '70s where everyone shares that popular myth of what the '70s were like. Nostalgia is very personal, and music is very powerful at recalling images or feelings from your past.
I do actually believe that there are powers in music that are almost supernatural. I think you actually manipulate people with music, and that is definitely what we are trying to do. People go on about hypnotizing people with music, or subliminal messages, and we have dabbled in that intentionally. Sometimes that's just a bit of a private joke, just to see what we can sneak into the tracks.
If we were to explain all the tracks and their meanings, though,
says Sandison,
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.

And happily, after finally meeting them, Boards Of Canada's music remains as much of an enigma as it always has, because some myths and mysteries you don't really want to be explained away. Later on, Sandison goes on to talk about their music as a spiral or a fractal that gets more detailed the further you go in, and how they have experimented musically by using Fibonacci's Golden Ratio, a fraction close to two thirds that strangely occurs again and again in nature, and has allegedly been used in works of art by Da Vinci, Mozart and many others over the centuries, to space moments in tracks, write melodies and tune frequencies. And all of a sudden a friend's blithe request prior to the interview, to "find out what their magic ingredient is" begins to ring almost eerily true.

Whatever that ingredient may be, at the start of the 21st century, where, culturally and in terms of music, we are being increasingly discouraged from thinking for ourselves, where our attention is directed more than ever, where the gaps for our own imagination grow ever smaller, Boards Of Canada are an anomaly of timeless artistry that should be cherished. As Sandison says:
The original reason we started was just to make a beautiful little string of tunes which you just love playing in your car, and you don't really care whether anyone else is going to hear it, but I really like the idea of planting bombs. I'm not a bomber, but I like the idea of planting bombs of some kind, 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.



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