Boards of Canada: enlightening or alarming?

Boards of CanadaOne of the more unusual names in contemporary electronic music, not to mention sounds, Boards of Canada derived their identity from the 1970s documentary films of the National Film Board of Canada, and consist of Scottish brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin; interestingly enough they hid their sibling relationship from the listening public for over ten years, claiming to be “just childhood friends” until a recent magazine interview.

Boards of Canada make music for a genuine love of music; the majority of their releases are without advertising and few interviews. They have only performed a handful of times, and not in public for over 5 years; by way of explanation say they make their music firstly for themselves rather than commercial release. Their albums, each an individual project, separate from what went before and what will happen afterward, are the result of selecting complimentary pieces from a vast arsenal of current work; the 23 tracks that comprise the album Geogaddi (2002) were chosen from 400 song fragments and 64 complete songs; one of them consisted only of silence. Unusually, Geogaddi premiered with performances in six churches around the globe.

The Boards of Canada “sound” is reminiscent at times of the warm, slightly scratchy, artificial sounds of 1970’s television, and often features samples of children. Stylistically, it would correctly be categorised as ambient, but with a unique, nostalgic yearning for childhood, for happier days. As Michael Sandison describes the group’s music: “We’ve touched upon the theme of lost childhood a few times because it’s something personal to me that gives me real inspiration through its sadness. I think sometimes the best way to get inspiration is to face up to the things that make you very sad in your life, and use them.”

Boards of Canada round the campfireUnusually for electronic musicians, they credit most of their influences as non-electronic, artists like Joni Mitchell or The Incredible String Band:

“There’s a sort of purity of sound that they have, and I guess we are striving for that ourselves, in our own way. We actually record a fair bit of music that is in that direction, though it’s not been released yet. Most of our musical influences are things like this, not electronic music.”

They also claim the Beatles as an influence, although mostly during their psychedelic phase, and also the enigmatic, infrequently recording My Bloody Valentine—last sighted in the Lost in Translation soundtrack—whom many critics claim single-handedly influenced almost every British band of the 90’s.

Marcus Eoin: “The idea of the perfect album is this amorphous thing that we’re always aiming at. For us it can mean something that’s full of imperfection, because part of our aim has always been to destroy the sound in a beautiful way. It doesn’t mean that we expect everyone would like it. I’m not sure that we will ever get there, to make the perfect record. But the whole point of making music is at least to aim at your own idea of perfection.”

A sound which can only be described as uniquely their own is the product of a strong use of analogue sounds, a mix of instruments real and synthetic, and often unrecognisably distorted samples, all layered and blended together into new forms: “A lot of the synthetic-sounding things you hear are actually recordings of us playing other instruments, pianos, flutes or twanging guitar strings…”

Amateur sound-engineers with tape-recorders since childhood, they continue the same ethos, securing ‘found-sounds’ with portable tape recorders, like electronic beeps in shops or from vehicles, which are then distorted beyond recognition. They also build songs around vocals lent by friends.

Despite the abundance of sounds available to the contemporary electronic composer, Boards of Canada seem to intuitively grasp the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi (‘sad-beauty’), their music an example of a belief that less is more, in minimalism, and leaving a space for implicit meaning to emerge:

“It’s important to leave a certain space there for the listener’s imagination.”

Their ‘In a Beautiful Place in the Countryside’ (2000) is possibly one of the most beautiful, haunting examples of modern electronica, a profound depth—and space—evoked through intelligent use of reverb, subtle changes of volume and intensity, and silence; children’s laughter mixed with somewhat askew, vocoder distorted vocals adds an air of disquiet to a song whose only lyric is a phrase from a religious flyer: “Come out and live with a religious community in a beautiful place out in the country.” For a pair of musicians living in self-imposed isolation in rural Scotland, one suspects if anything their sentiments are sympathetic.

Their music is full of subliminal messages and cryptic messages, deliberately; the sources or meanings are seldom acknowledged by the group themselves, yet references have been found by listeners to religious groups, electrical pioneer Nicolai Tesla and the occult. Boards of Canada deny the accusation by some that they are Pagans, Christians or even Satanists—rather than being alarming, their intention is simply to be inspiring:

“We just put symbols into our music sometimes, depending on what we’re interested in at the time. We do care about people and the state of the world, and if we’re spiritual at all it’s purely in the sense of caring about art and inspiring people with ideas.”

Which is surely inspiring, rather than alarming.

Listen to Boards of Canada’s ‘In a Beautiful Place in the Countryside’

  • alf
    Posted at 20:47h, 01 March

    Hey John, i am very keen to check out this band but I had a problem with the link? You have reminded me of a song called Lakes of Canada by The Innocence Mission which I like. 😎

  • Jaitra Gillespie
    Posted at 21:01h, 01 March

    It appears that all the flash movies have gone from my site, not just this one. It’s possible I that I changed some settings accidentally, but I can’t discount the possibility of a smite from the hand of God…

  • Jaitra Gillespie
    Posted at 21:10h, 01 March

    Ah, note to newbie WordPress users: turning on “gzip compression” disables the Anarchy media plugin for embedding content.

  • Jessica N
    Posted at 12:23h, 30 May

    😯 My finance had a night with his buddies, i need some way to get a message across…
    He listened to BoC on headphone, he was on psychedelics, pretty soon he thought that boards of canada was talking to him through their music…

    he got into his car and drove off still under the influence. This music is evil, and messes with you head.

  • Jaitra Gillespie
    Posted at 12:42h, 30 May

    Finances always suffer after a night with the buddies 😉

    Seriously though, psychedelics mess with your head, regardless of the music you are listening to. I know people who’ve seen walking trees, scenes out of history, angels and demons, unbelievable beauty and unimaginable hell under the influence of drugs, sometimes to their benefit, sometimes otherwise.

    With regards to myself I will neither confirm nor deny, but will recommend meditation as the only safe way to expand one’s consciousness, slowly, steadily and permanently.

    Music is a form of consciousness—made with awareness it is actual communication, beyond words or mind, and you can connect with the creator of music through their creation. And other forces as well.

    I’m going to defend BoC on this one, although maybe not all of their influences.

  • Jim Mirkalami
    Posted at 19:50h, 08 February

    I have been visiting this site a lot lately, so i thought it is a good idea to show my appreciation with a comment.

    Jim Mirkalami

  • Jaitra Gillespie
    Posted at 12:54h, 09 February

    Thanks Jim. I appreciate visitors, even more so those who leave comments!

    Are you really from though? 😉

  • Hilda Rich
    Posted at 11:16h, 26 March

    grandeval maternality rousseauist sandbag reactive fee zymosis tenderloin
    Touch Rugby

  • Jaitra Gillespie
    Posted at 11:32h, 26 March

    Very innnn-terrr-resting Hilda. I tried touch rugby once but it wasn’t my thing.

    Can’t really make much sense of anything else you say—although if you are making a subtle reference through onomatopoeia to the Boards of Canada sampling and distortion process, I’ll take my hat right off.

    If not, you’re either on medication, or dare I say it, need to be 😉

  • WSummer
    Posted at 08:50h, 27 April

    Oh! Perfect job!
    Very good and actual post.
    I add your interesting blog in my Netvibes page!

  • Pavitrata
    Posted at 11:19h, 10 June

    Wow! Excellent music! Me like mucho mucho!

  • Jaitra Gillespie
    Posted at 11:27h, 10 June

    Hey thanks Pavitrata! They’re not too bad for a couple of Scots!

    Jaitra Gillespies last blog post..Howard Jones: Best-selling Buddhist Pop Star

  • Bodyundut
    Posted at 17:35h, 22 January

    Nothing seems to be easier than seeing someone whom you can help but not helping.
    I suggest we start giving it a try. Give love to the ones that need it.
    God will appreciate it.

  • WepItevaMep
    Posted at 19:06h, 24 April

    I’m the only one in this world. Can please someone join me in this life? Or maybe death…

  • Jaitra
    Posted at 16:09h, 05 May

    Steady on WepItevaMep, you’re not making a lot of sense, even for a spam posting robot!

  • pavitrata
    Posted at 08:42h, 06 May

    Hello WepItevaMep,

    I Googled your name. Nada. Zip. Zilch. I’m impressed! I looked every which way at your name, anagrams, onomatopoeia, I said it fast, I said it slow, can’t get it. I took the capital letters, WIM, and there is something; that leads us to Wim Wenders, and I know for a fact you in your present state need to go and watch ‘Wings of Desire’. Me, when I start feeling like Morrissey I watch the Marx Brothers. Does it for me. BTW even miserabilists have Buddha-nature.

    yada yada

  • Jaitra
    Posted at 10:35h, 06 May

    Right on Pavitrata, I’m likewise beginning to suspect that WepItevaMep may not be an actual person! You’re absolutely right too about feeling “Morrissey”—personally, when I have a case of Late Night Maudlin Street coming on, or am feeling like a Girlfriend in a Coma, I pull out my copy of The Million Dollar Hotel, a film directed by Wim Wenders and written by Bono guaranteed to put one to sleep, and proof if ever was needed that when not singing rock stars may sometimes act in movies, but should definitely never write them!

  • pavitrata
    Posted at 10:59h, 06 May

    If it be so, ain’t it kinda Blade Runner, tho’, ‘bots trawlin’ Cyberspace to leave prsnl msgs on blogs? Re the aforementioned rock star, say the name backwards, it fits him better. Ya REALY wanna yawn? Check:


  • Jaitra
    Posted at 13:05h, 06 May

    Some people should really stick to the decade they were best at—the 1980s!

  • pavitrata
    Posted at 10:02h, 07 May

    I guess he still hasn’t found what he was looking for!

  • Jaitra
    Posted at 10:06h, 07 May

    Perhaps it wasn’t an Unforgettable Fire!

  • StevieLevineYork
    Posted at 23:51h, 12 March

    Hello there my name is Steve Levine and I am living in York, that is in the Midlands of Great britain. I am 36 years of age and I have been married for 4 years. I have 3 small children. I look forward to meeting together with you all in here.

  • Jaitra
    Posted at 10:38h, 13 March

    Hi Steve Levine of York, nice to meet you. Hang on a second, isn’t York in Yorkshire, and the North, rather than in the Midlands? Oh you talking and writing spambots, you almost had me fooled…

  • Rathin
    Posted at 11:17h, 05 May

    Sounds like The Orb from 20 years ago… hardly groundbreaking but still good!

  • Rathin
    Posted at 11:29h, 05 May

    OK, that was a little harsh… it’s very, very good in a lot of ways…

  • pavitrata
    Posted at 15:54h, 05 May

    Hi Rathin,

    We have a curious expression in England: ‘It ain’t half-bad’ which is the Cockney way of saying it’s actually very good!


  • Jaitra
    Posted at 03:09h, 18 May

    One really does need to listen to recording in a quality better than this embedded YouTube clip — there are galaxies of subtlety going on which are lost in the uploaded for web compression.

    Again, it is no slight to be compared to The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, even if near 20 years old, for it remains 20 years ahead of its time…
    .-= Jaitra´s last blog ..There Was a Child Went Forth =-.

  • Kate
    Posted at 05:32h, 08 August

    I’d have to say this is a great article.

    Boards of Canada have become a huge part of my life and who I am. I love everything about the music.

    I’m also quite impressed with how little media attention they’ve received. These guys are a HUGE influence on the electronica music scene and they don’t seem too bothered about it. That’s hard to find now-a-days. It seems most artists now are in it for the fame and not for the love of music.

    I’m a huge BoC fan and I will be forever, I just hope these guys start making more music. I’m fiending more, they are seriously like a drug for me.


  • Jaitra
    Posted at 05:36h, 08 August

    Cheers to you too Kate!

    I have good news for you… BoC confirmed a few months ago via their Facebook page that they are indeed working on a new album!

  • John Doe or maybe Jane Doe
    Posted at 12:23h, 24 February

    LOL @ Jessica N’s comment. Sorry to disappoint you, but it wasn’t BoC music that made him drive off under the influence. It was most likely his stupidity… which was increased because he was under the effect of psychedelics.


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