It began with a satellite image– a location in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
Included on that aerial photo was this: “May 27th, 17:00 PDT.”
These were the only clues released by the Scottish electronic-music duo Boards of Canada last Sunday, via Twitter, but it’s all the information needed for the 90 or so die-hard fans who, at the last minute, eschewed their Memorial Day plans to make the drive out to the abandoned Lake Dolores waterpark in Newberry Springs. I was one of them.
I’d planned to spend the day poolside with some friends at their new house– barbecuing, swimming and drinking in their upper-middle-class neighborhood in Los Alamitos. A pretty typical but pleasurable Memorial Day. Instead, I graciously (as possible) bowed out of those plans and ended up driving two hours and 15 minutes to the middle of nowhere for an afternoon amid derelict buildings and dying palm trees. And it’s a day that has left an indelible mark on my imagination, my sense of adventure and my artistic sensibilities.
Traveling from Los Angeles, Riverside, Long Beach and other California cities, the fans began arriving at the mysterious spot shortly before 4pm, which is when I got there. My GPS took me to a location just outside the waterpark, but there were no signs indicating what to do. Placards with words like “Boards of Canada event here” would have been helpful, but disappointing; part of the appeal of this venture was the fact that everything about it was so cryptic.
I drove by the front entrance, where I did see a sign, but its message was discouraging– “No trespassing, 24-hour security.” However, the chain that would normally prevent cars from entering had been removed from the posts that mark the entry. Still, whatever this strange day turned out to be, being arrested for trespassing was not part of my plan.
So, I kept driving, until I came to another parking-lot entrance– this one still had a chain blocking the entrance. I pulled over, left my engine running and got out to take some wide shots of the park.
Right away, a car appeared. Since this was indeed a desolate area, there was likely only one reason this driver– a spry-looking twentysomething– would be here. I looked at him, smiled and asked, “Boards of Canada?”
“Yeah!” he replied enthusiastically. We both laughed, then shared information. We surmised that the entrance with the unleashed chain must be the way in and that, since a few other cars were now going in there, it must be the portal to this “event” we were about to experience, still unsure what that would be exactly.
As soon as he drove off, another car emerged, this one with three individuals: two male and one female. The guy sitting in the back seat yelled “Canada?!”
“Yep! Follow that guy,” I suggested, pointing to the first person I’d encountered.
Then the backseat fellow howled, and their car was gone. Fueled by my newfound sense of communal spirit, I jumped into my own vehicle and joined the others. By this point, there were about 10 cars parked in the lot. As people got out and headed into the park, we would kind of look each other’s way and ask, sometimes simultaneously, “Where’d you drive from?” I was forging a unique bond with these strangers. It wasn’t quite the same as showing up at a concert or music festival and sizing up all these other people who love the same band you do. In this case, we’d obviously been hardcore fans enough to be “in the know” about this obscure occurrence. This was something special.
As we trekked onto the property, what dominated the conversations was speculation about what exactly was in store for us. A concert? A social experiment? Free CDs? A music-video screening?
The week prior, Boards of Canada (which consists of brothers Mike Sandison, 42, and Marcus Eoin, 40) had issued other cryptic clues that led fans to a large video screen at a busy intersection in Shibuya, Tokyo. Shortly after midnight on May 22, indeed, a music video for a song from their upcoming album Tomorrow’s Harvest was broadcast. So, here in the California desert, so far away from that refreshing swimming pool, I was declaring how disappointed I’d be if I had driven all this way for a music video– hardcore fan or not. This sentiment seemed to be the consensus among those with whom I chatted as we walked together before splintering off again to explore the ghost town of a waterpark.
But, in fact, even if the main event had ended up being merely a four-minute video screening, the photo ops at this place alone would have rendered the excursion worth it all. I’d already been reading about and viewing YouTube videos of theme parks that have been left behind, such as the abandoned Six Flags in New Orleans. There’s something sad but alluring about their post-apocalyptic landscapes, and their now graffiti-laden structures that were at one time brightly painted in cheerful blues and pinks make great fodder for an artist like me. To see the Dolores Lake park first-hand was an unusual treat– like eating Fun-Dip– you know you shouldn’t be eating it, but you just can’t help but keep going back for more.
Exploring amid the vacant buildings, deconstructed waterslides, shredded signage and thirsty palms, I snapped photos of just about everything. I took video of graffiti artists turning concession stands and souvenir shops into their canvases. I got footage of skaters who were in Heaven among the Hell-on-Earth dreamscape of curved surfaces, broken slide parts and stairs to nowhere.
Eventually, all these taggers, skaters and indie-music fanatics found their way to a landing where an old Ford pick-up truck with a camper hitched to its rear end was parked, flanked by two large speakers. Whatever was going to happen was clearly going to happen here.
Closer to 6pm than 5pm, a young man’s voice suddenly emanated from those speakers, thanking the group for attending and requesting that, as per Boards of Canada’s wishes, only sound-recording be conducted of the first three songs. Still photography and video-recording were fine, however. “And without further adieu,” the voice announced, “Tomorrow’s Harvest by Boards of Canada.” Cheers and applause arose from the crowd. It would be a “first listen” playing of the new album.
As it turns out, the barren landscape of Mojave is an ideal locale to hear music, especially that of Boards of Canada. Theirs is reminiscent of sounds from the ‘70s, the decade when I was a kid. I’m but a few years older than Sandison and Eoin, so their sonic references resonate with me in some obscure way. It’s as if I’ve entered a malfunctioning time machine that is trying to transport me back to my childhood; it’s all so familiar but also distant and intangible. There are sounds of nature, but they’re distorted and mixed with more “computerized” noises. Believe it or not, what results are emotional works that lead to meditative, transcendental states. In fact, they are one of my go-to bands when I paint, and, at Monday’s event, several people were in meditative poses as they listened.
Though this “listening party” may seem insignificant to many, for fans of this enigmatic pair of brothers from a land that’s a continent and an ocean away, the wait for their new album had been nine long years. As one individual commented on the YouTube page for the band’s latest video: “People have died waiting for this album to come out.”
I realize that, by filling up my gas-guzzler and heading into the high desert for an album’s debut, I’m really just a pawn in the offbeat marketing campaign of a musical act. But I do it all willingly.
For me, it’s not about being on the cutting edge of news within the electronic-music scene; it’s about jumping right into the rabbit hole. It’s a fun place to be.
To view the writer’s video of this event, go to youtube.com/watch?v=IsQ6yOvD7F0 .