Alison Stewart: This is All Of It on WNYC. I'm Alison Stewart. Now, we'll continue our series Silver Liner Notes when we take a look back, 25 years back, at a spectacular time for music, 1998. We've covered the Boy Band moment with NSYNC, the country music moment with The Chicks, the Indie moment with Neutral Milk Hotel, and the pop dance moment with Madonna.
Now, we're going to talk about how 1998 was a moment for electronic music with an album from the Scottish Group, Boards of Canada. The album was called Music Has the Right to Children. Boards of Canada is a duo, brothers Michael and Marcus. They grew up taking, using tape machines and tape in ways that weren't designed to be used. The result was modern electronica that was somehow nostalgic. Let's listen to a little bit of their track, Pete Standing Alone.
[MUSIC - Boards of Canada: Pete Standing Alone]
Alison Stewart: 1998's Music Has the Right to Children was Boards of Canada's first full-length album release, and it helped launch some sub-genres of electronic music. By the way, the name Boards of Canada comes from the National Film Board of Canada, which produced much of the source content they drew from, animated educational films the brothers actually grew up watching.
Joining me now to talk about it is Wall Street Journal music critic, Mark Richardson, who was formerly the editor-in-chief at Pitchfork, where he wrote a review of Music Has the Right to Children. He called it a beat music touchstone, a record that took the previous decade of home-listening electronic music and essentially perfected it. Mark, thanks for being with us.
Mark Richardson: Thank you so much for having me, Alison.
Alison Stewart: Let's talk about these two musicians, these brothers, Michael and Marcus. When they were first starting to experiment with music, what kinds of things were they doing?
Mark Richardson: When they started making music together in the '80s and they made some early tapes in the rock vein, but they were always very interested in collecting old gear and old tape machines and seeing how they could process sounds on their own. Starting throughout the '90s, in the early '90s, they started releasing some things on tape and then eventually some singles, couple of EPs, and that led up to Music Has the Right to Children.
Alison Stewart: They don't speak in public much about their music, but we have a clip from one of their few interviews when they appeared on the BBC's Radio 1 on the John Peel show. Here's John asking them about where they live.
John Peel: [unintelligible 00:02:43] someone very remote. Is this true?
Speaker 4: Yes, that's just about correct, actually.
John Peel: I'm not going to ask you where it is because obviously we don't want people come in there and squatting it all for you.
Speaker 4: I think it's probably been exaggerated a little bit, but I think as far from technology as we can get is about as good as we can get, as far as we're concerned.
John Peel: What is your favorite letter of the alphabet?
Speaker 4: M.
John Peel: Is it?
Speaker 4: Yes.
John Peel: I always liked M. Rest of the session going well for you, has it?
Speaker 4: It certainly has, yes.
John Peel: What are you going to do now? Back to your secret lair to do more tunes?
Speaker 5: We're off to the pub, actually.
John Peel: You're not completely aesthetic, then?
Speaker 5: No.
Alison Stewart: Is there anything in their music that lets us know that they like remoteness and quiet and are somewhat introverted, except in the poem?
Mark Richardson: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that makes their music really interesting is that they grew up on the coast of Scotland. It was a small town and their music really reflects a rural mindset. Even though it's electronic music, it's made with synthesizers, it's not urban music. It's more based in different kinds of folk music, even though they're using synthesizers
Alison Stewart: Now, they had released singles and EPs before this album, Music Has the Right to Children. What did they set out to do with this album?
Mark Richardson: Well, this was really a perfection of what they had been doing before. Actually, some of this music had been released in various forms before that, but they really made a full-length album that works from start to finish. It's built very carefully as an album, as a listening experience that's about a little over an hour long. One track builds on the next. There are a lot of really interesting minute-long, minute-and-a-half-long interludes, so it really flows as one long cinematic piece.
Alison Stewart: Oh, I like that. That's so interesting. This is one of those that you sit down at the beginning and you listen to the whole thing all the way through.
Mark Richardson: Yes, absolutely. Every time you hear a track in your mind, if you hear a track in isolation, you're like, "Where's the track that led into it?", because it all works as one piece.
Alison Stewart: My guest is Mark Richardson. He is a music critic at the Wall Street Journal. We are talking about Boards of Canada's album Music Has the Right to Children celebrating its 25th anniversary. It's part of our Silver Liner Notes series. Let's play the track, and I hope I'm pronouncing it right. Please correct me if I'm wrong, Bocuma.
Mark Richardson: That sounds right.
Alison Stewart: You wrote the melody we're about to hear, "becomes a lump in the throat meditation on man's place in the Universe through subtle pitch shifts and just the right mist of reverb." Let's listen.
[MUSIC - Boards of Canada: Bocuma]
Alison Stewart: My question for you as a music journalist is, when you have music that doesn't have lyrics, how do you approach understanding what the song is about?
Mark Richardson: Well, in their case, they give you some interesting-- their titles actually give you some hints about some of the inspirations behind the music. The title Bocuma being a little bit of a-- not the best example, but they have songs on here like Turquoise Hexagon Sun, The Color of Fire, Rue the Whirl. A lot of these tracks hint at ideas of childhood and from the album title on down, themes of memory and childhood.
In some ways, the way that we don't remember things perfectly, but have a distorted memory of what happened. Those are all themes that thread through the album. The titles give you a hint whether the music fills in.
Alison Stewart: We're going to listen to The Color of Fire, and it really gives us an example of some of the creative things they were doing with samples. Let's listen to it and we can talk about it on the other side.
[MUSIC - Boards of Canada: The Color of Fire]
Alison Stewart: Mark, how would you describe what's going on with the vocals there and the production on the vocals?
Mark Richardson: Well, as you alluded to early on, one of their inspirations was the National Film Board of Canada-made educational films that were shown to kids in Scotland, and both of them absorbed, and they were both born in the early '70s. If someone who's that age may remember that often in class, you would show film strips and you would have often records played that would accompany the film strips.
These were used year after year and they became worn out and stretched. They liked to experiment with sound in a way that reflected the-- you could hear something aging and decaying and dying right on the tape itself. A song like this, it's nostalgic in the sense that it evokes childhood but it's also creepy. It's like there's a darkness to it, which is one of the things that sets them apart. They have both nostalgic childhood memories mixed with creepiness and fearful-sounding music.
Alison Stewart: That's the kind of thing you're walking down the street listening to you and you're thinking, "God, if anybody else heard what I was listening to, they'd move away from me."
Mark Richardson: Exactly.
Alison Stewart: My guest is Mark Richardson. He is a music critic for the Wall Street Journal. It's our Silver Liner Note series. The 25th Anniversary of Music Has the Right to Children from Boards of Canada. You mentioned this a little bit, they would just take tons of fragments of things and they could end up with 400 song fragments and then cull them into a certain number of songs. Then whittle it down again to maybe 20 or 22 that would make the album. How can we see that process on this record?
Mark Richardson: Well, the individual tracks, there's always a beat, there's a lot of loops, and they bring sounds in and out, but it's like every individual sound suggests that a different track that it could have been part of. You hear all these small pieces, and it's very much a collage approach, but unlike a lot of music that you might hear in that vein, it's ultimately very melodic and memorable. They do craft these tunes that stick in your mind that get your foot tapping and have you humming the melody while there's all these samples of, the distorted voices we heard, or there's a song with seagulls flying through or different kinds of clicks and [unintelligible 00:10:55]. The sum of it all is what really makes the music special, the fact that it's this very musical melodic music with all these unusual collage sounds in it.
Alison Stewart: Let's listen to another track and we can talk about it on the other side. From Boards of Canada, this is Aquarius.
[MUSIC - Boards of Canada: Aquarius]
Alison Stewart: Marcus's album came in at number two on a rundown of Pitchforks list of best albums of all time in the genre known as Intelligent Dance Music. How are Boards of Canada in part responsible for intelligence dance music?
Mark Richardson: Intelligent dance music, that term was developed in the early '90s. The '90s were a very exciting time for electronic music. A lot of the energy in electronic music went into dance music. If you'll remember the '90s, terms of computer technology, digital technology, everything was changing very fast. Intelligent dance music as an idea was that while there's all this great music for the dance floor for clubs and raves, there's also this electronic music tthat is for listen to at home. It's for chilling out by yourself, putting it on in your living room, et cetera.
I think Boards of Canada, that's really all they did, they never made dance music, they never made tracks that were meant for the dance floor even though it was related to dance music, they kind of specialized in this area and they ended up being very, very good at making this music for late nights, potentially alone and just chilling out in front of your stereo or with your headphones.
Alison Stewart: Now, you have something you can do. This is some weekend plans you've just made for a lot of folks. Music Has the Right to Children, it is from Boards of Canada. It was our choice for Silver Liner Notes. The album came out in 1998. My guest has been Mark Richardson, current music critic at the Wall Street Journal. Thank you so much for walking us through the record.
Mark Richardson: Thank you so much, Alison. Great fun.
Alison Stewart: Let's go out on Boards of Canada with wildlife analysis from Music Has the Right to Children.
[MUSIC - Boards of Canada: Music Has the Right to Children]
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