Growing up in a musical family, brothers Mike Sandison 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 join Mike's band that Boards of Canada was born, naming themselves after the documentary TV films by the National Film Board of Canada that they watched as children. 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 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 a 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 who were sent a demo EP. Skam issued what was considered Boards of Canada's first "findable" work, Hi Scores, in 1996.
The debut studio album, Music Has the Right to Children, was released in April 1998. The album consists of longer tracks mixed with song vignettes. It also includes one of the duo's most popular songs, "Roygbiv". Music Has the Right to Children received widespread acclaim upon release. It featured at #35 on Pitchfork's "Top 100 Albums of the 1990s" list. It was ranked #91 in Mojo's 100 Modern Classics list.
John Peel featured Boards of Canada on his BBC Radio 1 program in July 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 . 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 12" edition was pressed on sky blue vinyl.
Their second studio album, Geogaddi, was released in February 2002. Like Music Has the Right to Children, this album consists of longer tracks mixed with song vignettes. It also presents a darker sound than its predecessor. Geogaddi received universal acclaim from music critics.
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."
Their third album for Warp Records, The Campfire Headphase, was released on 17 October 2005 in Europe and 18 October 2005 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.
In late 2009, the Warp20 (Recreated) compilation featured two BoC covers, one by Bibio of their song "Kaini Industries" and one by Mira Calix of "In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country". Warp20 (Recreated) is part of the larger Warp20 boxed set, which also includes two previously unreleased Boards of Canada tracks, "Seven Forty Seven" and a 1.8 second sample of "Spiro".
On Record Store Day 2013, a vinyl record containing a short clip of music which was believed to be the work of Boards of Canada surfaced at the New York record store Other Music. Shortly after the release, Warp Records vouched for the record's authenticity. The record (titled ------/------/------/xxxxxx/------/------) contained a short clip of audio followed by a voice reading six digits similar to that of a numbers station. The record revealed what was to become one of six unique numbers that were part of a type of alternate reality game that was used to promote the release of their next studio album.
The rest of the codes were hidden through various websites and online communities, as well as being broadcast over BBC Radio One, NPR, and Adult Swim. After much speculation, the official website for the band redirected users to another website which asked for the user to enter a password. Once all six unique codes are entered, a video is shown announcing Tomorrow's Harvest, their fourth studio album. The album was released on 5 June 2013 in Japan, 10 June 2013 in Europe, and 11 June 2013 in the United States to widespread critical acclaim.
In the beginning of 2016, Boards Of Canada released two remixes. The first was a remix of NEVERMEN's "Mr Mistake", released on January 12, 2016. Shortly after, they released their remix of Sisters by Odd Nosdam on February 22, 2016.
Boards of Canada's music is reminiscent of the warm, analogue sounds of 1970s media and contains themes of childhood, nostalgia and the natural world. Mike 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. Other, more industrial sounds are often incorporated in their music, with usage of distorted, highly processed beats. The vast majority of their tracks are downtempo ambient, although some releases display faster, more abrasive sounds.
BoC's sound is a product of their use of analogue 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. For example, the duo have revealed that they use many old tape machines, such as those manufactured by Grundig; and it can be said that this is one of the key factors that contributes to their vintage sound. Because they avoid a purely synthetic sound, their music is often described as having a warm, emotive quality often meant to inspire nostalgia. This is helped by the use of samples 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 favourites". 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 allegedly 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 process. 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. When questioned about their aims in making such references, 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...").Music Has the Right to Children (Warp/Skam, 1998) #193 UK
Geogaddi (Warp/Music70, 2002) #21 UK
The Campfire Headphase (Warp, 2005) #41 UK
Tomorrow's Harvest (Warp, 2013) #7 UK, #13 US
Twoism (Music70, 1995)
Hi Scores (Skam, 1996)
Aquarius (Skam, 1998)
Peel Session TX 21/07/1998 (Warp, 1999)
In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country (Warp/Music70, 2000)
Trans Canada Highway (Warp, 2006)
Supposed early Boards of Canada recordings have been found online, claiming to be original tracks from Catalog 3, Acid Memories, Hooper Bay and other pre-Twoism albums. All unreleased albums are presumed to be inauthentic BoC recordings, with the exceptions of Boc Maxima, the Old Tunes tapes and the Random 35 Tracks Tape. While the Old Tunes tapes are believed to be authentic (mostly due to the inclusion of very similar tracks found elsewhere on official releases), there has never been any official recognition of their authenticity.Many Boards of Canada songs are used in the BBC's motoring show Top Gear, such as "Pete Standing Alone" from the album Music Has the Right to Children and "1969" from Geogaddi. Most recently, the songs "New Seeds" and "Gemini" from Tomorrow's Harvest were used in the third episode of the twenty-first series of the show.
The song "Dayvan Cowboy" from The Campfire Headphase was used in CSI: Miami, Kyle XY also a new Nissan commercial for their zero gravity seats, and the 2012 film, Now Is Good.
The composition "Rue The Whirl" was used in an episode of Spaced.
The composition "Amo Bishop Roden" was used in Season 3, episode 5 of Skins, while "Everything You Do Is A Balloon" was used in Season 6, episode 10.
A number of compositions including "Turquoise Hexagon Sun", "Aquarius", and "Sixtyniner" were used in the dark humour animated series Monkey Dust, which aired on BBC Three from 2003–2005.
The compositions "Gyroscope" and "You Could Feel the Sky" were used in the Norwegian Black Metal documentary Until The Light Takes Us.
The composition "Open the Light" is used in "Are we still evolving?" episode of BBC Horizon documentary programme.
David Firth often uses Boards of Canada compositions in his animations, notably "Beware the Friendly Stranger," a track from Geogaddi which was the backing to Firth's cartoon series Salad Fingers.
Adult Swim on Cartoon Network sometimes uses samples from The Campfire Headphase, Music Has the Right to Children, and Geogaddi for its bumps or messages to its audience.
The composition "Gyroscope" is featured in Blumhouse Productions's horror movie Sinister starring Ethan Hawke.
"Happy Cycling" was used in season two, episode twelve of the show Six Feet Under.
"Olson" and "Everything You Do Is A Balloon" were included in Louis Theroux's documentary Law and Disorder in Philadelphia.
"'A is to B as B is to C" is used in Nathan Barley.
CBC radio show Ideas for the program Mur-Écran, The Windscreen
"Smokes Quantity" was used in the Channel 4 Documentary series The Dark Side of Porn season 1, episode 3 Debbie Does Dallas Uncovered.
"Peacock Tail" was used in Ani*Kuri15 anime shorts.
"Everything You Do Is A Balloon" was featured in the 2002 Lynne Ramsay directed movie Morvern Callar.