|| The Colour & The Fire
|| Steve Nicholls
"The Colour & The Fire" is a 2000 interview by Steve Nicholls. It originally appeared in HMV magazine, February 2002.
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.
The Colour & The Fire
As a corollary to Brian Eno's famous rumination on Velvet Underground's first record ("I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band"), it might be time to draw a link between Boards of Canada's seminal 1998 debut Music Has The Right To Children and the reams of nurturing, organic electronic music that have since followed. After a brief survey of the current experimental electronic music scene, it's difficult to make the case that many more are as influential as Boards of Canada.
Perhaps more striking than the advent all this subterranean success is the way in which Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison have arrived there. Even within comparatively anonymous electronic music circles, Boards of Canada are commonly regarded as nothing short of an enigma, an inscrutable pair who rarely disperse release information, grant interviews or perform live. It is generally accepted that the duo record from a secluded studio nestled somewhere in Scotland's Pentland Hills; we also know that they tend to litter their fiery, kaliedoscopic records with oblique references to various mathematical phenomena, the Branch Dividians and (as their name implies) snippets from the curiously gauzy soundtracks that accompany National Film Board Of Canada documentaries circa 1970.
What follows is the unabridged transcript of a one-pass e-mail interview we recently conducted with Eoin and Sandison, where the refreshingly articulate pair gave us their thoughts on the state of electronic music, eBay bidders, their long-awaited Geogaddi and "cosseted suburban American internet music-pirating kids." Naturally, the honour was all ours:
Geogaddi was one of the most highly anticipated electronic records in recent memory. Be honest: were you aware of the pressure?
"Mike: We try not to pay attention to it. I think the best music we've made previously was written when there were no expectations on us. So now we just imagine nobody's going to hear it. The moment you start thinking about people waiting for your music, that's when you start damaging your creativity."
With Music Had The Right To Children, you had the luxury of plucking and/or reworking songs from previous, lesser-heard records. With Geogaddi, you were faced with the prospect of having to fashion a new record from scratch. Did this pose a problem at all?
"Mike: Not at all because we recorded a hell of a lot of tracks in that period. The only difficult part was selecting them down to the tracks that worked well together on the record."
From a stylistic standpoint, there has been a consistency to Boards of Canada's work over the years. The conscious inclusion of certain signature elements (samples of children's voices, specific analog synth sounds, etc.) on Geogaddi implies that you went into this record with the intent to further build on your own established identity as artists. Is that a fair assumption? Is this a difficult thing to do without seeming regressive?
"Marcus: I don't think it's as studied as that. We didn't consciously try to use signature sounds, because that's just the way we've always made our music. But I suppose maybe deep down we did want to reinforce the sound of the last album, because it has ended up sounding quite consistent with it. It kind of acts like a partner record to the last one before we do what we do next.
How do you respond to people who suggest that you didn't explore enough new territory with this record?
"Mike: Well that's up to them. It's not meant to be a record that everyone will like. We didn't feel any need to change after only one previous album. It's our sound!...We love our music and we only expect a few people to click with it like we do. We see Boards of Canada as being as much about what we don't do as what we do, if you see what I mean. We're used to recording a lot of different music that never gets released. I guess we wanted to make Geogaddi sound the way it does so that we can go off at tangents on future records whilst keeping that sound as the foundation."
geo- or ge-: Earth: geocentric. gaddi n : a cushion on a throne for a prince in India; I'm not close at all, am I?
"Marcus: Hehe, no. It can have several meanings. We have our own definite idea of it, a combination of words that describe an idea we had at the time of writing it, but we want listeners to make their own minds up."
The general consensus seems to be that Boards of Canada labour over their work. Is your creative process really as difficult as it seems to the outside world?
"Mike: Not especially. We write lots of tracks simultaneously, I mean hundreds, that's what uses up our time. We're a lot more prolific than we let on. In the time between the last two albums we sketched out something approaching four hundred tracks, that's enough to put together several records. Some of the tracks on Geogaddi took quite a while to put together, maybe a few months, but there were also one or two tracks recorded in a day."
Can you recall one standout moment during the process of recording this record that was completely fulfilling from a creative standpoint?
"Marcus: Yeah for me it would be the track Gyroscope. I dreamed the sound of it, and although I've recreated dreamt songs before, I managed to do that one so quickly that the end result was 99% like my dream. It spooks me to listen to it now".
"Mike: We played out an early version of the album to some friends at a beach bonfire back at the end of last year before it was cut. It was a great night and now when I listen to those tracks I think about that night. That's how music should be."
The pre-release security on Geogaddi was incredibly high. Have the Internet and its various file-sharing utilities taken the glory out of proper release days?
"Marcus: To an extent, yeah. There's been a lot of debate about whether the internet is helping bands like us or not. I think it's actually different depending on the style of music. In our case, I realize that bands who use a lot of electronics maybe attract a fairly web-literate audience so we're maybe more at risk of piracy than average rock bands. When our last EP was released, a journalist leaked it onto the internet many weeks before it's release date, and I think it does spoil the fun a bit. When I was a kid I used to get a buzz out of that 'day of release' thing, you know when you dive into the record shop at 9am to get an album. The world's gone a bit weird lately, everyone's attention span is so short, people don't seem to get excited about things as much anymore."
Like many of your contemporaries, you've gone to great lengths to maintain a certain degree of anonymity. Is music tangibly better when it's faceless?
"Mike: We don't crave publicity. I suppose it can go too far, you know, sometimes these faceless bands are only like that because they don't have personalities in the first place. I think in a lot of pop and rock there's nothing wrong with a bit of glamour and personality because it's all fun, and it inspires people. But I think that with largely instrumental electronic music like ours, it just seems to sound better when you're not thinking about the people behind it.
"For us the whole point of writing music is to get something infectious into the back of the listener's mind, something that feels so personal to you that you couldn't even possibly convey it in words to a close friend....There's a sort of knowing connection there between the listener and the musician that ordinary language would never be able to achieve. In a way it's like the closest you'll ever get to being psychic."
Your reticence to talk to media outlets has resulted in a lot of conjecture about your origin and day-to-day lives. What's the most popular misconception about Boards of Canada? Do you enjoy the mystery?
"Marcus: There are tons of misconceptions about us, but it just makes us laugh. Some of the most common ones are based on complete misunderstandings of what we're about, and people missing our sense of reference and irony. Another popular misconception, particularly amongst cosseted suburban American internet music-pirating kids, is that bands like us are making a lot of money. Those kids are probably getting more pocket money."
You've probably had this one many times, but I'd be remiss for not asking. Radiohead name-dropped you on numerous occasions during the Kid A/Amnesiac rigamarole. Were you honoured, irritated or somewhere in between?
"Mike: It's great... I'd have to admit that neither of us were fans of their early stuff, but their last couple of releases are great records. I think they come across as some of the most decent people in music. They got so much flak just for having the balls to do something different."
How different would your music really be if you were creating it from the belly of some urban, metropolitan area? Is isolation always good for the creative process?
"Marcus: We don't hate the city, just the homogenized culture you get in urban areas. I think for musicians, being isolated away from certain scenes can keep you focused doing your own thing."
The sounds on this record imply a particularly high level of craftsmanship. How long do you spend programming synths and toying with samples to achieve the BOC sound?
"Marcus: A long long time. Usually I start with a sound that is half way towards what I want it to be, and I can spend days tweaking it until it's right. A lot of the synthetic-sounding things you hear are actually recordings of us playing other instruments, pianos, flutes or twanging guitar strings or field sounds we get from walking around with portable tape recorders, like electronic beeps in shops, or vehicles, then they are mangled beyond recognition. We have an arsenal of old hi-fi tricks up our sleeves and we basically destroy the sounds until they're really lovely and fucked up. So we're using sounds that are totally our own thing."
Which do you hear quoted back to you more frequently: "Orange!" or "Yeeeeeah, that's right!" (Two vocal samples featured prominently in BOC's landmark track 'Aquarius.')
"Mike: 'Orange', definitely."
I realize you're not about to go in-depth about your setup, but in general terms: what does your working environment look like? Do you get these sounds with modern gear or older, analog equipment? How big a role do computers play?
"Mike: It's a mix of old and new technology. About half of our kit is old gnarly broken gear, and the other half is pretty new stuff. We have a lot of cheap instruments, it's like a junkshop. The best way I'd describe it is that our sound sources are almost always something like a real instrument or an analog synth, and our recording techniques and processes are a bit unorthodox. We don't like using digital things or computer effects so we get sounds by doing things like running whole parts through a really bad tape recorder or something like that. Like the intro on 'Julie and Candy' for example, we just played the melody on a couple of whistles and then we bounced it back and forward between the internal mics of two tape-decks until the sound started disappearing into hell. Like when you look at an image reflected within two mirrors forever, in the distance it gets darker and greener and murkier. We record a lot of live stuff, just for fun, most of what we record hasn't been released. We tend to break equipment frequently. We'd probably make professional studio engineers weep if they saw us working. And some of our electronic tracks are not sequenced, we just put them down as samples onto multi-track tape, because it can sound more real and characteristic. We use a hardware sequencer for arranging but it has incredible glitches at the end of every pattern of music, which is interesting up to a point. We usually only use computers for accurate sequencing now, you know, German timing."
Your music is often described as a playground for the drug-addled mind. Surely you're not thinking along these lines when you're creating it...
"Mike: No, not really. I like to think of the music as being the drug. People shouldn't have to take drugs to enjoy music."
There's a restraint to your compositions that is often absent from contemporary electronic music. Does that reflect your faith in the listener?
"Marcus: I think it's a lot to do with why we write our music. We're not trying to get people to dance or anything. I want it to be listened to, and part of that is respecting the listener's intelligence, to know that they will notice the little things you put in there, you don't have to surround ideas in explosions and neon lights."
Are you satisfied with the general state of electronic music at the moment? Doesn't it seem like there are a lot of artists running around in circles?
"Marcus: I've heard some incredible new music in the last couple of years, people really breaking the rules of what's gone before. It's in my nature to lean towards the artists who are mixing organic with electronic, I think that's where the most interesting music lies. But you're right about people going in circles, we get sent a lot of music to our postal box, and I try to listen to as much of it as possible. I've noticed that it falls into two camps, a small amount is really original stuff that's beautiful, like Aspera, and the Anticon stuff, but a lot of the other music going about is just samey laptop clicky tracks."
Imitation. The sincerest form of flattery or hard evidence of creative bankruptcy?
"Mike: I'd guess it's a bit of both, I mean all musicians have to start somewhere and usually they're inspired to write music because of someone else's music that they love."
Somebody somewhere once said that the best electronic music is music that you could never quite imagine on your own; yours seems to fall distinctly in that territory. Are you aware as to how strangely your music seems to co-exist with the subconscious?
"Mike: I don't know if we hear it quite the way the listener does. For us the whole point of writing music is to get something infectious into the back of the listener's mind, something that feels so personal to you that you couldn't even possibly convey it in words to a close friend. I find personally that I only really enjoy music if it has that effect on me, so it's a challenge for me to write tunes that do that for other people. If you listen to a tune by some musician and it really gets to you emotionally, it's as though for a few minutes you've tuned into the feelings that were in the musician's head. There's a sort of knowing connection there between the listener and the musician that ordinary language would never be able to achieve. In a way it's like the closest you'll ever get to being psychic."
(Early release) Twoism was going for 600 pounds on eBay! Discuss.
"Marcus: Some people have clearly got too much money on their hands."
And so where do you go from here? Another four years 'til the next one? Any North American shows lined up?
"Mike: The next album will be a lot sooner.There aren't any live dates planned at the moment, because we're already working on new records."
Interview by Mark Pytlik, February 2002.