|| We Are The (Folk) Robots
|| Fabio Cagnetti
"We Are The (Folk) Robots" was an interview (In Italian) by Fabio Cagnetti originally published Nov. 2005 in LOSINGTODAY Magazine Issue 08. The English version of the interview appeared on losingtoday.com 2005-11-14.
The first thing which stroke me while listening to “The Campfire Headphase” was the wide use of guitars. What brought you to this choice?
Marcus – Using guitars wasn't new to us. We've used all kinds of real instruments since the beginning of the band in the early 1980s. And even since we became more electronic as a band ourselves, we've always listened to guitar music, especially going back to 60s and 70s styles of music, which is what we're hinting at on this record. On the previous Boards of Canada records, there are guitars, but they're so processed that you could easily miss them, thinking they were synths. With the new album, we deliberately went for a lo-fi guitar sound on a few of the tracks because we were going for a sun-bleached, Californian summer kind of sound, it's almost reminiscent of a Joni Mitchell sound in places.
Did you actually play the guitars or sample them? Do you usually play all the instruments which appear on your works? I think so, as I can't remember of any guest musicians on them.
Mike – Yeah of course we play it all ourselves. We've been playing guitars, drums, piano and a few other things since we were little kids. On our records it's maybe an unconventional use of guitars, because although we play all the parts ourselves, they're also sampled. On this record we recorded deliberately naïve-sounding guitar phrases into the sampler then we manipulated them from there, it's a variation on the technique we've had with simple childish melodies played on keyboards on our past records. The drums and percussion on this album sound a bit different for us because this time it's almost totally live drums played by me, so the whole record has more of a ‘real band' kind of sound, that's what we were going for.
Why did you not use any intelligible vocal samples, this time?
Marcus – We just didn't need to, for what we wanted to do on this record. It's important to not rely on signature techniques, and I think if we did another record with overt vocal samples on it right now, our style would become a bit predictable. I don't think we've abandoned vocal sounds altogether, it's more like we're taking a break from it right now.
The overall sound of the album seems to me less playful and more introspective than usual; I've always thought as your previous albums as the expression of your inner child, driven to its full potential by incredibly skilled adults. This time it feels like if the inner child has aged into early manhood…
Marcus – On our last two albums we were deliberately writing melodies that sounded a bit basic and musically simplistic, because sometimes those kinds of melodies can become really iconic, almost like well-known nursery rhymes or something like that. We're really into that kind of thing where you're listening to something and you're not able to conceive of an intelligent author behind it. It gives you a real sense of detachment from the origin of the music, because it's less transparent, it's easy to imagine there was no human involvement at all. On the new album we're still generally doing things this way, but we decided to include some tracks that are obviously a bit more sophisticated in their musicality. The side-effect of doing this is that those tracks sound a bit more musically intelligent, and maybe more mature in a way. But I also reckon that it's just down to the lack of vocals and speech on this record. If you were to take all the vocals off our previous records, they'd probably seem less 'child-like' too. I think synthesizers can have the effect of making music more playful too, so with there being less synth on this album I guess it's going to sound a bit more serious.
Looks like nostalgia is as strong as usual as a source of inspiration. Can you tell us a bit about your obsession for the ‘70s, and especially for the movies and TV of that period?
Mike – We grew up watching a lot of American film and TV, and amongst that there were a lot of educational programmes and animations. Back at that time, in the late seventies, there was a common style of soundtrack and voiceover for those TV shows that heavily used synthesizers, and played introspective, melancholy melodies. I think it left an impression on us as kids, that we carried to the present day in our own music. We also took a lot of influence from the 'paranoia' movies of the 1970s, things that were in the realm of science fiction or things that were morbid in some way. The Cold War was still a big thing back then and it seemed to seep through in TV and movie culture in various cryptic ways, from dark science fiction movies like Silent Running, Logan's Run, The Andromeda Strain and Soylent Green, right through to all the Argento and Fulci movies and their abstract, synthetic soundtracks. There was a constant picture of the future that was some kind of Armageddon but at the same time it was often depicted disguised as a Utopia, for instance in Logan's Run. And the soundtracks and visuals reflected that bitter-sweet idea. I think there was something deep, and darkly emotional about those films that still acts like a fuel for us today.
The album title suggests a deeper communion with nature: do you see these songs, to a certain extent, as analog-digital campfire songs?
Mike – We're not really trying to make a 'nature' record. Even on the most organic-sounding tracks that we do we've always got some kind of queasy, synthetic undercurrent going on. And that's the thing with this record, it's like a futuristic western or something. There are elements in some of the tracks that hint at traditional American folk-rock or some vintage road-movie soundtrack, but there's always something subtle and surreal going on in the tracks to remind you that you're hearing something that has been tainted or spiked in some way by unfathomable futuristic technology. It's maybe like campfire music played by android cowboys.
And how much are you directly influenced by the landscape surrounding you? Do you believe in sound geomancy (i.e. do you think natural landscapes have their own sound and one of the duties of the artist, who is more sensitive than other people, is to translate and explicit this hidden sound in order to make it enjoyable by other people)?
Mike – I think if that happens at all in our music then it's happening subconsciously. I guess there's an open-country environment that we come from and it's conducive to a kind of anachronistic approach to music, I mean it lets your mind wander easily, even back and forward through time. One of the things we were doing on this record in particular was to create instrument sounds that were very anechoic and outdoors-sounding, so we used barely any reflection effects on the album. And we often stick low-level sounds into the backgrounds of our tracks, it can be anything from traffic moving to birds chirping, and that's done in an almost subliminal way. So I suppose those things may be an attempt to reflect certain environments we've been working in, but it's not a big conscious effort.
Do you have an interest in environmental issues? And if so, would you ever consider taking an explicit position over such issues, e.g. releasing a protest song or making any strong statement on your website, or do you prefer staying away from the whole matter?
Marcus – Actually we hold fairly radical views about environmental and political issues. We just avoid being public about it within the context of the band. I think the moment a musician shows that they care, the moment they try to make a difference by using their success to communicate alternative political or environmental ideas to their audience, the mainstream press assassinate the band. I've seen it happen so many times, that I've learned I have to choose to either make music, or become an activist. The media doesn't really allow artists to do both.
Many clues suggest a less cerebral (and more emotional) approach has been used. Does this mean “the devil is no more in the details”, i.e. you have abandoned the plethora of easter eggs and hidden references which was present on “Geogaddi”?
Mike – Well that was part of the theme on ‘Geogaddi' and we wanted to do something different right now. Especially on a record that immediately follows it. We've always been into music for the melodic, emotional aspects more than anything else, and it's important that the focus stays on that. So yeah, on this record there's much more of an emphasis on hopeful-sounding melodies and fuzzy, tactile sounds because that just reflects the summer period when we were working on it.
When that album was out, did you expect so many people would have tried to decode all of its hidden elements?
Mike – I think we knew that once people found one or two elements like that on ‘Geogaddi', they'd go looking for more, but we didn't anticipate just how far it would go.
Is it just a case that the artwork for “The Campfire Headphase” recall so much “Music Has the Right to Children”'s?
Marcus –It's deliberately reminiscent of ‘Music Has the Right to Children'. Musically it's like an echo of that record, all bleached-out blue skies and so on. In some ways it sounds older than ‘Music Has the Right…' because of the choice of instruments and the sheer amount of damage we've done to the sound.
Do you still have an interest in performing live? Do you think you will ever make a real tour? I am very interested in this because you're among the few living artists I would bloody want to see perform live without ever being able to, and I have the bootleg of your 2001 performance at ATP festival and it's *so* stunning.
Mike – Thanks very much, well, we're hoping to get out there in the near future..
I think your songs have a strong cinematic feel, and you were making movies since childhood. So, why did you never actually make a DVD or even a single video for any of your songs? Shall we expect anything as such to be released, sooner or later?
Marcus – The main reason we haven't put out a video so far is just a lack of budget. Up until recently we've not had the money to get our film work properly produced or distributed or to have a video made for one of our songs. We're maybe going to release a track with a video this year though. We have to work on visual projects between albums because when you spend as much time as we do on crafting the sound of a record, it's hard to take on and complete a big parallel project like a film.
You are considered among the world's greatest remixers and with a reason, standing the very unique and brilliant feel you manage to give to other people's songs, bringing them to a second life. Which way do you approach to them? And which is your favourite remix? I'm particularly fond of the work you did on cLOUDDEAD's “Dead Dogs Two”. Last but not least, is there any particular artist/song you would like to work with/on?
Marcus – We usually try to make a very different sounding track, and we usually start by throwing away most of the musical parts of a song that we're given. In the case of vocal remixes it's easier, because we just throw away all of the backing track and only use their vocal. This is how we see remixing, taking something that is already familiar and complete, and shifting it sideways until it's a totally different song. I think the cLOUDDEAD mix is probably my favourite. If I had to choose someone to work on, that would be difficult, I think most of my choices would be dead people!...
Do you have any other particular project under your belt?
Marcus – We've already started work on our next album.
interview by by Fabio Cagnetti, November 2005.