Boards of Canada's music is reminiscent of the warm, scratchy, artificial sounds of 1970s media and contains themes of childhood, nostalgia and the natural world. Michael and Marcus have mentioned the documentary films of the National Film Board of Canada, from which the group's name is derived, as a source of inspiration.
Early years (1980s–1995):
Growing up in a musical family, brothers Michael and Marcus Eoin began playing instruments at a young age. They experimented with recording techniques at around the age of 10, using tape machines to layer cut-up samples of found sounds over compositions of their own. In their teens they participated in a number of amateur bands; however, it was not until 1986 when Marcus was invited to Michael's band that Boards of Canada was born.
By 1989, the band had been reduced to Sandison and Eoin. In the early 1990s, a number of collaborations took place and the band put on small shows among the "Hexagon Sun" collective.
In early 2000, the website for the band, Music70.com, removed the early discography of Boards of Canada, although some information has been preserved by fans. Early tape releases by Boards of Canada include Play By Numbers, Acid Memories, Hooper Bay, and the earliest known release by the band is titled Catalog 3. None of the material from those days is readily available, and since official Boards of Canada sources ignore the existence of this material, there seems to be little chance for this early material ever to resurface.
From Twoism onwards (1995–present):
In 1995, the band made their first Hexagon Sun studio release, the EP Twoism. Like earlier Music70 releases, it was produced in a self-financed limited run and was privately distributed, primarily to friends and labels. Unlike previous releases, however, a small number of copies were also released to the public through the IDM mailing list. Though not a widespread commercial release, it was considered of sufficient quality and worth to be subsequently re-pressed in 2002.
The band made another release in 1996; titled Boc Maxima, it was a semi-private release that was notable for being a full-length album, and was the precursor to Music Has the Right to Children, with which it shares many tracks.
Boards of Canada's first commercial release occurred after attracting the attention of Autechre's Sean Booth, of the English label Skam Records, one of many people sent a demo EP. Skam issued what was considered Boards of Canada's first "findable" work, Hi Scores, in 1996. Music has the Right to Children was subsequently released in 1998. John Peel featured Boards of Canada on his BBC Radio 1 program in January of that year. The session featured two remixes from Music Has the Right to Children — "Aquarius (Version 3)" and "Olson (Version 3)" — along with the tracks "Happy Cycling" and "XYZ". Excluding "XYZ", the set was released on a Warp Records CD titled Peel Session TX 21/07/1998.
Though never an actively touring band, Boards of Canada did perform a handful of shows. Early shows saw them supporting Warp labelmates Seefeel and Autechre in a handful of UK dates. They also participated in a few festivals and multi-artist bills, including two Warp parties: Warp's 10th Anniversary Party in 1999, and The Incredible Warp Lighthouse Party almost one year later. They made their most prominent showing in 2001 as one of the headliners at the Tortoise-curated All Tomorrow's Parties festival. They have not performed a live show since.
The band released a four-track EP, In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country, in November 2000, their first original release in two years. The LP edition was pressed on sky blue vinyl. A full-length album, Geogaddi, was then released in 2002. It was described by Sandison as "a record for some sort of trial-by-fire, a claustrophobic, twisting journey that takes you into some pretty dark experiences before you reach the open air again."
Throughout most of their career, Mike and Marcus chose not to publicize their brotherhood and were simply portrayed as childhood friends. Their kinship was finally revealed in a 2005 Pitchfork interview.
Their third album for Warp Records, The Campfire Headphase, was released on 17 October 2005 (18 October in the United States). The album featured fifteen tracks, including "Peacock Tail", "Chromakey Dreamcoat," and "Dayvan Cowboy." Two versions of "Dayvan Cowboy" — the original and a remix by Odd Nosdam — are on the six-track EP, Trans Canada Highway, which was released on 26 May 2006.
Sound and methods:
BoC's sound is a product of their use of analog equipment, mix of electronic and conventional instrumentation, use of distorted samples as well as live and recorded lyrics, and their layering and blending of these elements. Their avoidance of a purely synthetic sound gives their music a warmer, emotive quality often meant to inspire nostalgia. This is helped by the use of samples sourced from 1970s television shows and other media prevalent in the era of the brothers' shared childhood, especially the nature-inspired documentaries produced by the National Film Board of Canada.
Brief interludes or vignettes feature prominently in BoC's music. Such songs are often weaving melodies or speech accompanied by atmospherics to capture a specific moment or mood. They often last less than two minutes, but, as BoC state, "we write far more of [these] than the so-called 'full-on' tracks, and, in a way, they are our own favorites". BoC have written an enormous number of such fragments as well as full-length tracks, most of which have been held back from release. It does not appear that their music is made exclusively for commercial release; rather, albums seem to be the result of selecting complementary songs from current work. For instance, Geogaddi's development involved the creation of 400 song fragments and 64 complete songs, of which 22 were selected (possibly 23, if the final track of complete silence is included). Says Marcus: "The idea of the perfect album is this amorphous thing that we're always aiming at […] the whole point of making music is at least to aim at your own idea of perfection."
Interviews with the Sandison brothers provide some insight into their creative inspiration. They have cited several acts that have influenced their work, including Joni Mitchell, The Incredible String Band ("we have all the String Band records […] our rural sensibilities are similar"), The Beatles ("[they] really became enthralling to us through their psychedelism") and My Bloody Valentine ("even if we don't sound like them, there's a connection in terms of the approach to music").
They have also expressed a strong interest in the power of subliminal messaging and their work is full of cryptic messages, including references to numerology and cult figures such as David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, amongst other vague hints. When questioned about their aims in making such references, which have been said to have distanced some listeners from their work, BoC express themselves in neutral terms ("We're not religious at all [...] and if we're spiritual at all it's purely in the sense of caring about art and inspiring people with ideas.") while remaining fascinated with the ability of music to influence the minds of others ("[We] do actually believe that there are powers in music that are almost supernatural. I think you actually manipulate people with music...").