90 Minutes to Love: Boards of Canada

by Darren Clarke, October 22, 2021

As a Canadian, when I first heard there was a band named Boards of Canada, my natural inclination was to think of the National Film Board (NFB), which meant, I couldn’t wait to listen to them. The National Film Board of Canada after all supplied people of my age with endless reel-to-reel film magic in our time throughout school. 

School, as we know, can be boring, particularly when you are age eight and being regaled by another less than charismatic teacher. The projector being busted out, the white projector screen being pulled down in front of the chalkboard, the seven light switches at the front of the class being turned off, the classroom door being closed and the projector light flickering to life- this was a truly exciting break in a day. 

The National Film Board then elevated those moments beyond simply escapism into the wondrous and sublime. There was 1966’s Paddle to the SeaBill Mason’s, “film adaptation of the classic tale of an Indigenous boy who sets out to carve a man and a canoe. Calling the man “Paddle to the Sea,” he sets his carving down on a frozen stream to await spring’s arrival. The film follows the adventures that befall the canoe on its long odyssey from Lake Superior to the sea.” There was, The Railrodder, starring sixty-five-year-old Buster Keaton as, The Railrodder, crossing Canada from east to west on a railway track speeder. “True to Keaton’s genre, the film is full of sight gags as our protagonist putt-putts his way to British Columbia. Not a word is spoken throughout, and Keaton is as spry and ingenious at fetching laughs as he was in the old days of the silent slapsticks.” There was 1949’s, How To Build an Igloo, which featured two Inuit men making an igloo with simply knives and snow. 

For me, in those darkened class rooms, drinking in the fluttering images on the projection screen, I was fully awed by the whimsical renderings provided to me. The films, in sound, in appearance, in the unhurried story telling, were the best kind of magic in that they provided space to let my mind wander free from the tedium of Grade 8. Those NFB films offered up room to roam, sparking my imagination, whispering, “Go ahead and dream.”

And that’s what you get in this 90-minute playlist of my favourite Boards of Canada tunes- an inviting place to dream. Hearing Boards of Canada’s music for the first time I felt like there had to be a connection to the National Film Board. But when I looked to find information on the band I discovered that Boards of Canada were a Scottish outfit. 

iTunes playlist Link

Boards of Canada go to quite the effort to avoid interviews and maintain a level of secrecy about who they are and what they do. Their musical career actually began more as an exercise in sharing music with friends than anything else. And I think I get why they wanted to have that veil between their work and and their identities in that it’s the exact same reason you needed the lights off to watch those National Film Board films in class- The mystery compliments the magic. But there’s one thing you need to know-  brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, aka, Boards of Canada, lived (and attended school) in Calgary, Alberta, in 1978 and 1979. Also know as pretty much exactly the same time I was watching Paddle to the Sea and Railrodder in Social Studies class at A.T. Clancy school in Thorold, Ontario. In Calgary the Scottish brothers were introduced to the National Film Board. In those darkened classrooms the brothers were equally entranced by those NFB creations to the point not only did they shape their future band name but also the spirit of their music.

In the end what Boards of Canada music brilliantly accomplishes resonates with listeners in precisely the same way The National Film Board’s films do in that they create a beguiling landscape in which to dream. And you don’t need to have seen a National Film Board creation to get the connection here. In his review of Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right To Children album in Pitchfork, 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. No need to get hung up on specifics; however we lived and whoever we were, Music Has the Right to Children reflected back the truth for a lot of us. You can’t ask more of an album than that.”

You can’t ask for much more from a band than that. So go ahead, dream.