As promised; at last.
The Face – Volume 3 #48 - Jan 2001
Breaking into heaven
Text Emma Warren
Photography Boards Of Canada
Boards Of Canada make music from the top of the world, in a twisty parallel universe where it’s 3am all day. They’d like to take you there.
Kings Of Quiet
Arthur’s seat is an 850ft outcrop of volcanic rock that melts into the outskirts of Edinburgh’s; Scottish electronica duo Boards Of Canada are perched halfway up.
It’s not quite, as the new EP would have it A Beautiful place out in the county, but it’s near enough to the grainy, rural influences that seep through everything they create. This is as close as we’re allowed to get to their secret countryside studio. ‘It’s only to keep unwanted visitors away,’ explains Mike Sandison. ‘We receive a lot of strange mail. On guy sent us mail addressed to ‘Jesus’ and ‘Alien’. I’m not sure which one I was…’
Myth: boards Of Canada are easy to define. They don’t let other people photograph them. They conduct media relations by email. They live out in the wilds of Scotland, making distressed, nostalgic electronica and esoteric short films. Truth: Boards Of Canada are all this and more. But also: Boards Of Canada want to make parallel-universe pop records that sound like an electronic version of the beach boys ubermotional zenith, Pet sounds. Sandison and his musical partner Marcus Eoin supply artwork instead of posing fro photographs – because, they say, ‘we look like potatoes.’ Actually that’s not strictly true. But this is: Boards Of Canada are the kings of quiet, grand rulers of tune-laden analogue electronica, and despite their insistence that it is not the sound of coming down, it is the sound of 3am…only more so.
Their 1998 debut album Music Has the Right To Children became a word-of-mouth sensation, selling 100,000 copies worldwide. Electronic, quiet, sonorous and off kilter, every track showed that electronic experimentation could live in peace with beautiful melodies. Boards Of Canada tunes became a fixture on Chris Morris’ Radio 1 show Blue Jam (‘he’s a ten-times-more –intelligent Jeremy Paxman who woke up one day and decided not to lie anymore,’ says Sandison). Doves were desperate to tour with them. Then a type of quiet (or quietist) revolution happened in music. Folksy Norwegian duo Kings Of Convenience called their album Quiet is the new loud. The most successful indie bands (Travis, Coldplay) were no longer loud and macho, but more mellow and folky. The current stream of bedroom electronica, from Melodic labels Minotaur Shock to Warp’s ambient trash-can hip-hop outfit Prefuse 73, makes calmness the new virtue in experimental music. Shh!
Boards Of Canada may be influential, but they wear it lightly. ‘We just want to make something that sounds like a pop record from another dimension,’ shouts Eoin over the noise of a growing downpour.‘ Something that everyone is listening to, but that sounds really, really strange.’ Standing between the clouds and earth, looking over a busy city from an ancient explosion of rock, Boards Of Canada, with their ageless, melancholic, otherworldly music, seem uniquely placed to do just that.
Though they’d rather die than be bombastic about it, like all great pop bands, Boards Of Canada define themselves by what they dislike as much as what they love. They stand for childlike innocence, not adult cynicism; natural awe, not chemical thrills; and above all, a rural ideal completely opposite to the fast-paced urban excitement that has powered pop music for nearly 50 years. ‘Our music is a negative reaction to the city,’ declares Sandison in a voice that mixes well-bred Edinburgh vowels with a softer, countryside burr.
‘In cites, the clubs and DJs all influence each other. It’s like a soup,’ agrees Eoin, enjoying the very non-urban view of the North Sea with a rainbow high above. ‘Like clothes-shop music. If I ever heard any of our music in a clothes shop, I’d quit!’ Not that they’ve anything against commerciality per se. After meeting Chris Cunningham through their label, Warp, Boards Of Canada composed music for a handful of his promos including a 1999 Nissan ad and a 30-second Telecom Italia short that featured Leonardo Di Caprio. ‘Chris gets very excited about the music,’ they smile. ‘He was nearly exploding on the phone last time we sent him some tracks. He reckoned the new EP Sounded like vocoder music at a Sunday school.’
Surely drugs must have inspired such weirdness? Boards of Canada – typically – disagree. ‘We want to reiterate this,’ says Sandion. ‘This isn’t drug music. I’ve always imagined it as daytime music: it’s a beautiful day, in the middle of the afternoon, and you’re with your friends listening to twisty music’. Boards have, of course, done time under the influence (‘mushrooms!’), but now their musical vision is unadulterated. ‘Imagine going back in time to a point where music branched off, but it went down a slightly different alley.’ Sandison sighs. ‘So it’s still music, and it’s still 2000 but it sounds brilliant, fresh and strange.’ In a parallel universe of their making, there would be ‘more colour’ (Sandison), ‘more extremity and less grey’ (Eoin), and ‘no Starbucks!’ (both).
Eoin and Sandison grew up in Cullen, a small fishing village on the west coast of Scotland. Their fathers were both construction managers. Each family emigrated within a few months of each other, and between 1976 and 1980, Eoin and Sandison found themselves living only a few streets apart in Calgary, Canada. ‘We knew each other before, but it was just coincidence that both our families went,’ says Sandison. ‘It was a thing to do in the late Seventies – everyone seemed to be going to try something fresh, to get some mores space.’ Canada, they say, wasn’t that different from home (‘its just a big, inflated Scotland’). But the place had a lasting influence, if only in Boards Of Canada name – inspired by the hours they spend watching nature documentaries made by the Film Board of Canada. After their families moved back to Cullen, Eoin and Sandison spent their adolescent years getting into trouble (for breaking windows and stealing things), experimenting with electronic music and making basic stop-start animation with an old Super-8 camera and zombie movies with masks and fake blood. Their work still mines this freewheeling, innocent, DIY aesthetic. Live, Boards Of Canada perform banked by TV sets playing clips from safety information films, grainy images of children in faded rainbow colours, and their own family cine films showing them cycling round in circles in bright suburban gardens. Their record sleeves are decorated with pictures of trees, birds, buses and children’s paintings. It’s a hidden, half-forgotten world, a million miles away from sophisticated, grown-up, personality-led pop music. ‘Cullen’s one of those places where there’s nothing for kids to do, but that’s a good thing because you’re creating everything yourself,’ reckons Eoin.
‘I’m still conscious of being in our own little world,’ says Sandison. The pair finally ventured out of village life to study at Edinburgh University. Sandison studied music; Eoin dropped out of an artificial intelligence degree. The students, he says wanted to ‘do mad things with like grow DNA and leave it to learn’, but the lecturers were more interested in equations. In 1996 the pair released Twoism, an EP of grainy melancholia on their own label Music 70,. Autechre’s Sean Booth heard it and hooked them up with Manchester electronic label Skam, who released their single Aquarius’. Autechre’s links with Skam made a move to Warp almost inevitable: MHTRTC was joint release between the two labels. Driving around the outskirts of Edinburgh, drying off in (the) warmth of his plush, silver BMW, Eoin ejects a Stevie Wonder CD out from the car stereo and rummages through his rucksack. ‘You have to hear this. It’s the Mysterious Voices Of Bulgaria – 30 women in traditional dress singing these unbelievable harmonies! It’s the kind of music that is totally divorced from normal music, bit I love it. It resets my clock.’
The new album, as yet untitled, also promises to rest your clock. ‘Some artists air their dirty laundry. We know which songs fit the Boards umbrella,’ they say. Neither Sandison or Eoin will be drawn into specifics, although they say things like ‘my dream album would be an organic, really melodic electronic album’; ‘it’s a lot darker, and some tracks sound like they’re 25 years old’; and ‘ we use a lot of subliminal messages. You have to reconstruct them in your mind.’ They have based a number of new songs on mathematical equations (working out frequencies for melodies that directly correlate to the changing amount of light in one day, for example). They’ve also painstakingly downgraded the production, so that it sounds like it has been made on ancient equipment: ‘We like the nostalgia of it.’
Two books of their photography and artwork are also planned: one to accompany the album, the other a ‘proper, glossy’ coffee table affair. All of which goes some way to explaining the long gaps between releases. ‘Someone wrote that we smoke too much and that’s why we the music takes so long’ splutter’s Sandison. ‘They have no idea!’ The fact is that , like the countryside itself, Boards Of Canada can’t be rushed. The gentle, ageless beauty of their art is the result of months and years of evolution; and of constant, backbreaking work which brooks no metropolitan distraction. Their sound may happen to be fashionable, but they themselves are beyond fashion.
Mike Sandison once had a dream that he was in Edinburgh, near the castle. All the stonework of the buildings and the roads were covered in flowerbeds sown with a tapestry of bright flowers in concentric patterns. ‘It was the most amazing thing, and it stuck with me for ages. It made me think: there’s nowhere in the world like this! Nowhere at all! So I thought we should try and make tunes that people in that town would be listening to’.