Boards of Canada

How Boards of Canada's Debut Reached U.S. Shores & Quietly Changed the Course of Music

One of the bigger trends on YouTube these days is the search for “lo-fi hip-hop radio for relaxing/studying/gaming.” Type it into Google and you’ll fall down a rabbit hole of channels comprised of downtempo beats set to a backdrop of looped scenes of anime calm.

Back in 1998, however, there was no YouTube. But there was Boards of Canada. And the atmospheric beat science pulsing through the Scotland-based electronic duo’s proper debut Music Has the Right to Children provided ample brain candy for many a cramming session at universities across the country, not to mention background thinking music for editors, architects, graphic designers, video game programmers and anyone else who has worked in a placid, creative environment.

Originally released on April 20 of that year in Europe through a joint venture between influential English electronic labels Warp and Skam Records (Aug. 20 in America on Warp/Matador), brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin broke new ground by driving the trip-hop aesthetic into Brian Eno/Cluster territory. Across 17 tracks and 62 minutes, the sibling tandem would assimilate their shared love for Vangelis at his headiest, classic Wendy Carlos and Lalo Schifrin soundtracks from the late '60s/early '70s, a little deft turntablism trickery from the Brooklyn “illbient” scene, and the groundbreaking work of groups like Seefeel and My Bloody Valentine to create an innovative new sound at the dawn of the 21st century.

“It's a team effort,” described Sandison in a 1998 interview with the early online music publication Forcefield about the music he and his brother had been creating since 1986. “Usually the starting point is a melody. We write hundreds of little melodies, and the most attractive ones last in our minds. We go back to them and pick the ones that really stand out, then we start piecing together rhythms.”

“For me, the album was everything I wished it could be after hearing their Hi Scores and Aquarius releases on Skam and tracking down (an original) Twoism EP,” explains Kevin Foakes, otherwise known as the highly influential Ninja Tune recording artist DJ Food, who is currently touring an audio visual BoC-themed DJ set called O is for Orange. “Often, a new group lights a fire with their first few releases and the debut album can be long-awaited but a disappointment on arrival. Not so with MHTRTC. I remember receiving test pressings of it and enthusing to Steve Beckett at Warp about how good it was. I work out the beats per minute of any tracks I want to play out when I DJ, and nearly every track on those discs has the bpm written on the cover.”

It was shortly after the release of Music Has the Right to Children overseas that Matador Records founder Chris Lombardi happened upon it while record shopping in London.

“It was very different 20 years ago than it is today,” he tells Billboard. “When a record came out in England, it would take weeks or months or forever sometimes for it to finally reach your shores. And you would have to physically go into a record store to seek it out or read about it in a fanzine to find out it exists. So when I was in London at the record store Music Has the Right to Children had just come out, and I literally did not know about Boards of Canada or their Skam releases. I knew a little about Warp, and I wound up buying the record because it looked interesting. It had a great cover; it was mysterious looking, which really caught my eye. When I got back the next day to listen to my stack of records, I put that on and my mind was blown.”

Once Lombardi returned to New York, it wasn’t before long that he was on the horn with Warp to ask label owners Steve Beckett and Robert Gordon about their plans to release Children stateside.

“[Matador co-owner] Gerard [Cosloy] and I were playing it in the office when I got back, and I called Steve and Robert at Warp,” Lombardi explains. “I picked up the phone and told them how I just picked up this record by Boards of Canada when I was in England and asked what you guys are doing with it in America and how we would like to release it. And we did, and it stands as one of the great Matador releases. To stumble upon it in such a naïve way and discover this landmark recording was something I’ll never forget. The research wasn’t as easy as it is today, but it was a gamble worth taking. After that, we wound up licensing the whole Warp catalog for a couple of years.”

When Music Has the Right to Children arrived in North America on August 20, 1998, it was universally hailed as next level by critics at all the premium publications, including Spin, Ray Gun, CMJ and, most importantly, Pitchfork, whose impassioned championing of the LP through the years truly helped support its nomination as one of the most game-changing works of the 1990s.  

In his perfect 10 review of Warp’s 2004 reissue of Music, Pitchfork’s recently departed executive editor Mark Richardson wrote, “When you discover that Boards of Canada took their name came from an organization committed to educational film, the overriding idea of their project clicks immediately into place. I've no memories of the National Film Board of Canada but I remember tapes with narration and incidental music accompanying filmstrips, tapes that were always damaged from age and overuse on poorly maintained equipment. The warbly pitch and warped voices mirrored the anxiety that came with the 'carefree' days of being a kid and living subjugated to others. Boards of Canada tapped into the collective unconscious of those who grew up in the English speaking West and were talented enough to transcribe the soundtrack.”

To Richardson’s point, a lot of what makes Music Has the Right to Children such a resonant listen is the way by which its samples and frequencies bring to mind daydreams in a dark science classroom as a documentary about the cosmos plays and you try your best to stay focused. The sampled voices of children laughing, counting and learning to read -- which drift in and out of the music -- further pepper the digitally assisted haze of nostalgia imbuing such songs as “Triangles and Rhombuses” and “Color of the Fire.”  

“It’s something that has a peculiar effect in music, it ought not to be there, especially in atonal, synthetic music,” Sandison told Uncut in 2002. “It’s completely out of place, and yet in that context that you can really feel the sadness of a child’s voice. Being a kid is such a transitory, fleeting part of your lifespan. If you have siblings, then if you think about it, you’ll have known them as adults for a lot longer than you ever knew them as children. It’s like a little kid lost, gone.” 

“If you’re in a position where you’re making recordings of music that thousands of people are going to listen to repeatedly, it gets you thinking, ‘What can we do with this? We could experiment with this…,’” added Eoin in the same interview. “And so we do try to add elements that are more than just the music. Sometimes we just include voices to see if we can trigger ideas, and sometimes we even design tracks musically to follow rules that you just wouldn’t pick up on consciously, but unconsciously, who knows?”

Upon reaching these shores in August 1998, Music Has the Right to Children might not have shattered the Billboard charts, but in the 20 years since its initial release the album has proven to be a most crucial ingredient in the advancement of creative pop music heading into the 21st century. For a story in Fact Magazine published on June 6, 2013 for the album’s 15-year anniversary, writer Maya Kalev argued Four Tet, Ulrich Schnauss, Bibio, Leyland Kirby’s recordings as The Caretaker and Tim Hecker’s classic sixth LP Ravedeath, 1972 are direct descendants of the MHTRTC creative process; and it's not hard to hear BoC in the subtleties of contemporary R&B through the works of Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and Willow Smith.

“I've seen a couple of different ones,” explains Foakes in regards his observations on the influence of Music Has the Right to Children within modern music. “The IDM scene, which took its sonic influence and added it to their sonic palette in much the same way they did with Aphex / Autechre / Plaid etc. You have plenty of BoC clones now, some who still take from the early albums whilst Mike and Marcus have moved on. Nothing wrong with that at all, in fact, I love so many artists that have taken elements from parts of BoC's productions (Lone, Machinedrum, Clocolan, Lost Idol). Then you have the British movement, Hauntology, that has taken the remembered nostalgia aspect and put a very UK-centric spin on it. The fuzzy, half-remembered signs of youth mixed with analogue electronics and pagan elements.”

Naturally, Radiohead has cited Boards as a primary influence for their directional shift in the early '00s with Kid A and Amnesiac. In fact, there are more than a couple of Reddit threads out there alleging how the song “All I Need” from the group’s 2007 LP In Rainbows is a bite off the MHTRTC fave “Roygbiv." Yet for Boards, at least in the era of their acclaimed second album, Geogaddi, imitation was indeed the sincerest form of flattery.

“I’d have to admit that neither of us were fans of their early stuff,” admitted Sandison when asked about Radiohead in a 2002 interview with “But their last couple of releases are great records. I think they come across as some of the most decent people in music. They got so much flak for having the balls to do something different.”

Unfortunately, with only four full-lengths and a small handful of EPs (namely the excellent In A Beautiful Place Out in the Country from 2000), the studio output from Boards of Canada is not as abundant as the wealth of new talent born from the arrival of Music Has the Right to Children. The brothers have only released three full-lengths since 1998, rounded out by 2005’s The Campfire Headphase and 2013’s Tomorrow’s Harvest, each title transitioning into a darker, more cinematic context that finds the roots of their halcyon days growing smaller in the rearview of their glacial artistic trajectory. Yet a cursory browsing of BandCamp or SoundCloud will pull up a multitude of artists who’ve grown from the seeds the brothers planted back in the early days of the World Wide Web.  

While fans await news of a fifth full-length, Music Has the Right to Children perseveres in valiantly serving as the catalyst for a whole new generation. Those curious souls losing themselves in the floating hemispheres of YouTube channels by mysterious curators like ChilledCow and Chillhop Music continue to ensure the Scottish siblings’ experiments in headphone therapy 20 years ago remain at the cusp of our collective consciousness as we head into the third decade of the new millennium.

"Music Has the Right to Children is definitely one of the most seminal electronic albums out there,” proclaims renowned Canadian turntablist, musician and graphic novelist Kid Koala. “I've bought that album at least 12 times just to gift it to friends. It's just so beautifully produced. So many delicate layers that reveal themselves with every subsequent listen. I think it's a perfect balance of beats and beautiful melodies, vintage warmth and modern electronics. They were able to create something truly timeless in this album. It's a record that remains in my crate to this day when I DJ at one of our drawing events. It just casts a wonderful spell on the listener."