A good knowledge of North American TV shows of the late seventies helps in an understanding of the ideas and sounds of Boards of Canada. As children, Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin taught themselves to play various musical instruments whilst soaking up the American cathode-tube culture of the likes of ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ and ‘Sesame Street’, as well as the bleak vision of movies like ‘The Andromeda Strain’, ‘Logan’s Run’ and ‘Silent Running’. The duo was also picking up influences from the more synthetic exponents of new-wave pop of the time, in particular Devo and The Human League. For a few years Mike focused on creating a band, to keep himself anchored whilst his family relocated several times between northern Scotland, London in England and Alberta in Canada. By the age of ten, now based back in Scotland, Mike was making his own home recordings on old worn-out cassette tapes.
The sci-fi paranoia and flawed TV soundtracks of that era were a big influence on the duo, as were the early arcade videogames of the time. At the beginning of the 1980’s Mike and Marcus had begun writing tracks that imitated the warbling, damaged-sounding music found on the soundtracks of 16mm educational documentaries made by the National Film Board of Canada, and they later named their band as a nod to this early influence.
The band spent the early eighties near the beaches of north-east Scotland making crude multi-track recordings with friends, using borrowed tape machines, analogue synths and live drums. Around 1981 they had begun producing home-made movies on Super-8 cine film, and were creating the films’ soundtracks themselves. By 1984, aged thirteen, Mike was already visiting a local recording studio and making rough demos. Mike and Marcus were by now producing more structured songs with any instruments they could lay their hands on, as well as completely abstract tape collages of found sounds from radio and TV.
In the mid-eighties, now based near Edinburgh in Scotland, Mike recruited a few friends to form the first of several incarnations of a ‘proper’ band. Marcus Eoin was drafted in, initially as a bass player, but he soon emerged as co-writer and co-conspirator for what the band was later to become. At this point the band had a fairly traditional live set-up; guitars, bass, keyboards, drummer and occasional vocals, but the emphasis was on minimal, atonal electronic songs, a sound that easily stood out amongst the abundance of traditional rock and hair-metal bands the audiences in their local area were used to. The line-up of the group changed frequently, and Marcus was later quoted as saying that they had gone through at least fourteen other musicians during this period, a statistic Mark E. Smith would be proud of.
During the late 1980’s whilst working on a series of film and photographic projects, the group decided to create a studio of their own. Unrewarding day-jobs funded the purchase of audio gear and a variety of exotic acoustic musical instruments, and with the acquisition of samplers the band began producing do-it-yourself garage demos on their own label ‘Music70’ which they distributed mainly amongst friends. Soon the band was producing cassette EP’s and even entire albums of demo material, some of which have since gone on to become legendary collectors’ items. It was during this period that the name ‘Boards of Canada’, initially an EP project title, became the name of the band.
Around 1990 Mike and Marcus, frustrated by the traditional line-up and the lack of commitment of other band members, started to mould the band’s performances into something altogether more bizarre. Every summer Mike and Marcus collaborated with friends under the name ‘Hexagon Sun’ to throw late-night outdoor parties in the countryside near their studio in Scotland, where bonfires were accompanied by electronic music, processed television themes, films, projections and reversed speech tapes to create an exciting, if slightly threatening, atmosphere. These nights, which the band still occasionally organise to this day, became known as ‘Redmoon’ nights after an early event which was dramatically backdropped by a blood-red full moon.
In the summer of 1995 Boards of Canada recorded and self-financed a vinyl-only limited-edition album called ‘Twoism’. It was essentially a well-produced demo, and the intention was to mail it out to record companies and artists that the group were listening to at that point. The album was a breath of fresh air to those who had grown tired of the frantic and polished sci-fi studio acrobatics of jungle and drum&bass which were the predominant trends in electronic music of the time. ‘Twoism’ was a collection of spacious, gnarled and glacial tones and dissonant, melancholy melodies over sparse hip-hop beats, but with a curiously deliberate ‘broken-ness’ to the production. Every melody had been created to wobble and flutter slightly, like damaged music from an old worn-out cassette. In an era of clean, digital music, and with compact discs having largely replaced vinyl as the primary format for commercial music, this nostalgic, imperfect sound was to earn Boards of Canada huge respect as innovators in subsequent years.
At the beginning of 1996 a copy of ‘Twoism’ arrived at the headquarters of Skam Records in Manchester, England, and within a day of hearing it, Autechre’s Sean Booth had contacted Boards of Canada. Mike and Marcus recorded the ‘Hi Scores’ EP for Skam and it was released later that year. A string of live dates followed, notably including an appearance at the 1997 Phoenix Festival, where BOC brought their anachronistic sounds and Super-8 visuals to play alongside various luminaries of the electronic music scene.
In February 1998, amid much speculation, the announcement came that Boards of Canada had signed to Warp Records, and after a few remixes and single appearances, the band completed the album ‘Music Has the Right to Children’ which was jointly released between Warp Records and Skam Records in April 1998.
‘Music Has the Right to Children’ combined beautiful sparse melodies with off-pitch analogue synths and moments of unsettling fragmented speech, all produced with the band’s trademark ‘damaged’ sound. The record closes with the wry anti-censorship message ‘One Very Important Thought’ which pastiches the messages usually found at the end of 1980’s porno videos: a very ‘BOC’ moment.
‘Music Has the Right to Children’ received rave reviews in the international music press, and after landing a licensing deal with Matador Records in the USA it went on to become one of the most highly acclaimed records of 1998 and received multiple end-of-year awards. "Album of the Issue" - Jockey Slut, April/May 1998, "Album of the Month" - Wax magazine, May 1998. "No.16" – NME Albums of the Year 1998, "No.3" - Jockey Slut Albums of the Year 1998, "No.5" - The Wire Albums of the Year 1998, "No.8" - DJ Magazine Albums of the Year 1998, "No.19" – Muzik Albums of the Year 1998.
Boards of Canada recorded an exclusive session for the John Peel Show on the UK’s Radio 1 in June 1998, and performed live on the show during the recording of the session. Peel described it on air as an "excellent session." Warp later released the session as a single.
‘Music Has the Right to Children’ returned to the UK Independent Chart Top 20 in February 1999, and after staying around for three weeks it peaked at number 7. Simultaneously the Peel Session single hung around the Top 10 of the Independent Singles Chart for several weeks. Boards of Canada soon found themselves in demand for remix work and obliged with a handful of mixes for various artists, including the hugely influential Meat Beat Manifesto.
In May 1999 NME included Boards of Canada in its "Top Ten Nu-Psychedelic Bands," alongside Mercury Rev & The Beta Band. In the same issue, NME ranked Boards of Canada's debut album 'Music Has The Right To Children' in its “Top 25 Psychedelic Records of All Time”. 'Music Has The Right To Children' sat alongside other luminaries such as 'Tomorrow Never Knows' by the Beatles, 'Interstellar Overdrive' by Pink Floyd, 'The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam's Dice ' by Hendrix and 'To Here Knows When' by My Bloody Valentine to name but a few.
From 1999 onward various tracks from the BOC back-catalogue were being licensed for compilation albums, TV synchronisation and film soundtracks all over the world.
In the summer of 1999 Boards of Canada commenced work on their second full-length album for Warp Records. Meanwhile they contributed two exclusive tracks to Warp’s 10th Birthday celebration albums which were released later that year.
In November 2000, after a few more live dates in the UK, the band released a four-track EP called ‘In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country’. It was a deceptively optimistic title for a collection of beautifully sad, melancholy tunes, especially as closer inspection revealed references in the artwork and titles to the 1993 killings by FBI agents of David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult at Waco in Texas.
In April 2001 BOC headlined at All Tomorrow’s Parties, a festival on the south coast of England with an esoteric line-up including Lambchop, Television, Yo La Tengo, Tortoise, Broadcast, Sun Ra Arkestra, and many others.
In February 2002 Boards of Canada released ‘Geogaddi’, the long-awaited follow-up to ‘Music Has the Right to Children’. Described as a darker partner to the previous album, with its swirling psychedelic melodies and layers of dense ephemeral detail, it managed to be both beautiful and disturbing. ‘Geogaddi’ immediately entered the Top 20 Album Chart and stayed there for several weeks. In interviews, Mike and Marcus revealed that the album had included many so-called ‘easter eggs’, and that some of the music had been developed using number theory and equations such as the Fibonacci Ratio. This led to some of the band’s fans setting up entire websites devoted to decryption of the ‘back-masking’ and other hidden details on the record. Ultimately, BOC’s true intentions were written there clearly all along; in typically sardonic style they had even included a track on the album entitled ‘The Devil is in the Details’, as a kind of knowing ‘wink’ to the astute listener…
In September 2002 Boards of Canada produced a lush remix of US artist Boom Bip’s track ‘Last Walk around Mirror Lake’ for a single taken from his ‘Seed To Sun’ LP, and in February 2004 BOC created a giddy reworking of the song ‘Dead Dogs Two’ by US band cLOUDDEAD from Oakland. The BOC version brought in the whole gamut of retro psychedelic elements including reversed guitars, flutes, sitars and strings, and culminated in a wigged-out Beatles-esque climax reminiscent of ‘A Day In The Life’.
In the summer of 2004 Mike became a father. His daughter was born during the writing sessions of the band’s third studio album for Warp.
At the end of 2004 US artist Beck asked Boards of Canada to remix a song for his upcoming album ‘Guero’. BOC took the vocal lines of his beautifully wistful track ‘Broken Drum’ and created a whole new melody around them, with an epic, heavily layered crescendo. In an interview with Clash Magazine in the spring of 2005, Beck described the remix as “…my favourite remix I’ve ever had done … they brought out something that was there but then they just added a whole new dimension. I guess it’s quite an emotional song and they brought out something bittersweet in it that was kinda hippyish, but it doesn’t maim you with saccharin. It kinda gets you right in the chest.”
In summer 2005 Boards of Canada completed work on their third album for Warp Records. “The Campfire Headphase” was released in October 2005. Described as an ‘epic sci-fi western’, the album is a surprising deviation into 1970’s guitar licks and graceful, summery lysergic melodies. A video was released for the track “Dayvan Cowboy”, featuring a sky-diver falling from space into the ocean then surfing into the sunset at the song’s euphoric climax. This was the first publicly-available video to be released outside the band’s live shows.
The album was followed by the release in June 2006 of the “Trans Canada Highway” EP. Originally intended as a single release of the track “Dayvan Cowboy”, BOC took the opportunity to create several supporting tracks, and drafted in friend and collaborator Odd Nosdam for a cinematic remix of the single, thus expanding the release to EP status.