In celebration of one of his all-time favourite bands, Getintothis’ Neil Grant gives us a personal tour of Boards of Canada.
Back in the late 90s I was roped into playing in an indie band with a few mates. We were called Ursaminor – you won’t have heard of us, but you may have seen the graffiti over the M57, which our drummer penned after four cans of Stella.
Our first gig in Lennon’s Bar was memorable for the bizarre fact that Jackie Dixon from Brookside was in attendance. Also, some scallies started nicking our gear as we were setting up (I lost a compressor pedal), and a fight broke out resulting in our singer getting punched, busting his nose and sending him flying over the drums. Thankfully, the scallies got filled in by the Rubber Soul bouncers – then we played an adrenalin-fuelled set of contrived Britpop to a shell-shocked audience. I remember one punter dropped an insulting 2p at my feet as he left in disgust – while some Argentinian tourist filmed the entire sorry scenario on a massive VHS camcorder.
Similar disheartening live episodes unfolded over the next four years or so. It was hilarious and exciting to my band mates, who were always hammered; but scary and panic-inducing for me – as I invariably played taxi driver for most gigs and rehearsals, and so was usually stone cold sober.
The band came to an abrupt end one evening after playing the Zanzibar. Our bass player hoisted his massive amp into the boot of my already-knackered Vauxhall Astra hatchback, then, with a complete lack of spatial awareness, slammed the boot shut – shattering the back windscreen. After scooping millions of tiny shards of glass off the back seat, I then had to drive all the band kit back to Kirkby, the wind whistling through my hair whilst my mates got drunk and had a good laugh at my expense.
That would have been the end of my interest in playing live music, hadn’t it been for a chance encounter with one of those free compilation CDs you got with the NME. During a rehearsal brew and ciggie break in my mate’s kitchen, we skipped though the tracks – it had some good stuff on it: Elliot Smith, Royal Trux and Mercury Rev then BOOM! Roygbiv by Boards of Canada.
It’s difficult to explain how much of an impact that track had on me, or why. Being a 60s psychedelia afficionado at the time, there were some obvious parallels to be drawn. It also struck me that this was the first electronic music that didn’t seem to be preoccupied with technology or the future – it sounded like a distant memory captured on reel-to-reel tape.
All I can say is from that opening synth bassline (a Roland SH-101 I reckon), to the loose hip-hop beats, to those gorgeous counterpoint monosynth melodies – I was absolutely hooked. It was over all too soon though. It clocks in at a paltry 2m31s, no longer or shorter than it needed to be of course – but as soon as the track finished I had to listen back, again and again, to experience that psychedelic, poignant beauty one more time. The influence it’s had on my music is immeasurable – and I’d say the same about lots of producers I listen to now: Tobacco, Machinedrum, Tycho, Bibio etc.
In fact, as anyone involved in electronic music production will tell you, it’s near impossible to escape their shadow. At once familiar and peerless, the band at one time sounded like nobody else – and they’re responsible for inspiring a million clone bands of varying quality and success, as well as providing a starting point for the genres of hauntology and chillwave. It’s easy to spot BoC’s influence on countless artists and albums since they became a mainstream electronic outfit – check out Tycho’s first LP, Sunrise Projector and Bibio’s Fi, for notable early examples; or Manchester-based Horizon Fire LP Earthlight as a recent good one.
Not long after my surprise induction, I sourced a copy of their debut LP, 1998’s Music Has the Right To Children, from Napster (I’ve purchased it since then). BoC became a permanent fixture on my midi system and on my car’s tape deck – where I’d bore unsuspecting passengers with anecdotes about the band’s reclusiveness, their interest in numerology and David Koresh, plus any other info I could glean by obsessive listening, dissection and analysis – the favoured pastime of any self-respecting BoC fanboy.
Early frustration in the band’s deliberate air of mystery, their lack of interest in interviews or touring and their glacial and meticulous production process, has been rewarded by patience. In addition to the various LPs, EPs, remixes and reissues we’ve been drip-fed over the years, some of their earliest material has surfaced online too in the form of the A Few Old Tunes and Old Tunes Vol 2 cassettes – distributed by the band to close family and friends before they started releasing EPs through their own Music70 label.
So here we are now. We have a rich back catalogue to mine and what follows is a list, perhaps not the general consensus when it comes to the best of BoC, these are my personal highlights. I haven’t included Roygbiv because you already understand the importance of that track, and because 10 isn’t enough to begin with…
- Nothing is Real
From BoC’s most recent LP, the imagined sci-fi soundtrack to an impending man-made environmental disaster, Tomorrows Harvest. It may be easy to miss in some cases, but the band have subliminally expressed various themes and interests through their music. If civil liberties, numerology and spirituality have been subtly alluded to in the past, the environment is a topic that nails their colours to the mast. The album can be listened to as a narrative, warning us of the perils of rampant technological innovation, overpopulation and disregard for the inter-dependence of life in the natural world. Nothing Is Real is another good example of pretty, simple melodies that over time become gradually infected and degraded with dissonant pads and textures. An interesting thing to note about Tomorrow’s Harvest is the use of palindromic structures – where the second half of the album, tracks, chord structures and melodies mirror the first half.
- Happy Cycling
This was first aired on a Peel Session in 1998, along with the superb XYZ. It was later included on reissues of MHTRTC, much to my annoyance. Some have speculated that the title of the track refers to ‘Bicycle day’ – Albert Hoffman’s infamous cycle ride home, after synthesizing LSD for the first time ever, and giving himself a massive dose to see what the effects were. The track has a repeating sample of a seagull, not the first or last time the band would use field recordings from nature. The arrangement is similar to Aquarius (see below) in that around the halfway mark, just before it gets too repetitive, there’s an unexpected changeup in the chords and melody that throws a welcome curveball.
A classic BoC track and an obvious choice, but it feels ignorant to leave this one out. Originally released on an EP of the same name through Skam and later on MHTRTC, the band originally sampled Aquarius, performed by Ren Woods from the film, Hair – but they couldn’t get copyright clearance for it, so had to meticulously rebuild the sample themselves in the studio. It features BoC’s trademark of children’s voices, in this instance from various episodes of Sesame Street. As is usually the case with BoC, the track takes no hurry in establishing a hypnotic rhythm over the course of three minutes, then at precisely the halfway mark, elevates into another chord progression over the same sample – with synthesized vocals being read out over the top, adding to the sense of being put under. There has been lots of speculation over the significance of the numbers, but I won’t pretend to understand any of that.
- Poppy Seed
A remix of Slag Boom Van Loon that appeared on their So Soon release. It’s a fairly simple in structure and features beautiful fluttering flute melodies throughout, which are very reminiscent of 1970s nature documentaries produced by the National Film Board of Canada, a major influence on the band. It’s also one of those occasions where I spent £16 on a CD from HMV just to hear one track – how times have changed.
- Orange Romeda
I first heard a short clip of this whilst poring over their old website. I thought I’d never hear the whole thing but it was thankfully released on a We Are Reasonable People (WARP) compilation in 1998. Consisting of a looped kaleidoscopic synth motif and drum loop, Orange Romeda is a good example of how BoC use repetition and microscopic tweaks and breaks to allow their tracks to organically evolve over time, which seems to result in less repeat-listening fatigue in my experience.
One of their darker tracks from Geogaddi, Gyroscope samples shortwave radio messages from the Conet Project – recordings from mysterious number stations believed to be used by government agencies to communicate with deployed spies. Overlaid over a rolling crescendo percussion loop, it all adds to an increasing sensation of (drug induced?) cold war paranoia and fear.
From their Hi Scores EP and later on a reissue of Boc Maxima, the track samples Indeep’s Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, gradually metamorphosising from a steady, reassuring beat into bad trip territory – emphasized by dissonant melodies and Doppler-shifted tones, which will forever remind me of a fateful night in the Hare and Hounds pub.
- Left Side Drive
From BoC’s more subdued Trans-Canada Highway EP released in 2006, Left Side Drive (LSD innit) was subject to an unofficial remix by Solange Knowles, a massive BoC fan by her own admission. Solange later worked with the band officially to produce This Bird – which, as far as BoC collaborations go, doesn’t really stand up against their remix of Beck’s Broken Drum or Boom Bip’s Last Walk Around Mirror Lake.
- 84 Pontiac dream
A personal favourite from The Campfire Headphase LP, their most accessible work in my opinion. The band’s penchant for creating atmospheres of nostalgia is ramped up here with riffs and melodies reminiscent of American TV idents, evoking wasted summer days sat in front of a cathode ray tube TV, watching commercial breaks between The A-Team. Given that the Sandison family emigrated to Canada when the boys were bairns, before moving back home to Scotland, the track feels like a longing-infused childhood memory of a time that can never be relived.
- Kid for Today
Released on 2000’s In a Beautiful Place out in the Country EP, the percussion loop is a sample of a slide carousel projector and, according to the definitive nerdfest info source that is bocpages, the tambourine sample that kicks in halfway through appears to have been sampled from The Beatles’ psychedelic classic, Strawberry Fields Forever. I actually heard this before it was released, there was some snippet floating around on Napster called Kid For Today (Merck Construct) – but nobody believes me. This instantly whisks me back to long, hash baked summer days watching Bob Ross in between university semesters – and still remains to me an important lesson in less equaling more, when it comes to music composition.