imagine a nightclub that takes place in a town hall and
closes at midnight. it serves no alcohol, allows children and dogs, and the dj plays
cds while sitting on cushions
behind a curtain. half the clientele are frighteningly young ravers, the other half bearded hippies of indeterminate age.
the whole place reeks of incense, there are giant balloons bouncing around and the same people dance to the same
songs every week.
that club is the whirl-y-gig. on paper, it is a horrendous new age nightmare. in reality, it may be the best club in the world, some kind of alchemical anomaly guaranteed to
sucker punch the most grizzled rave cynic back to the glory days.
the knockout blow is the parachute. at 11:50, the ecstatic
dancefloor citizens suddenly topple like dominoes as a giant piece of fabric passes over their heads and across the
main room. good soldiers around the perimeter hold the edges of the parachute, waving it up and down as if
unfolding a bedsheet, blowing cool air through the overheated crowd as strangers pass around funny
cigarettes and smile at one another. on a good night, banco de gaia's exotic ambient classic
sheesha served as the perfect soundtrack to the parachute.
that's how i first heard banco de gaia. within months the parachute was a weekly ritual for me, and
banco's debut lp maya rarely left the stereo.
a lot has changed since
then, but the whirl-y-gig still seems like a very vivid dream, and maya still spends a lot of time in my
"i just listened to it for the first time in ages a little while
ago, and it still sounds good," toby marks replies when i ask him what he thinks of
world/techno/ambient debut, five years down the road. "one thing i'm really pleased about is that, for whatever reason,
i've avoided being fashionable. that's made it very hard over the years - to get press, get attention, get stuff out there -
but it also means that what i've done is write music first and foremost and worry about whether it's ambient or trance or
whatever else afterwards. that means that 10 years down the line, it still sounds good,
i hope. it doesn't date, the way
more fashion-conscious music does."
you don't have to spend much time with toby marks to
realize that fashion-consciousness is not a chief concern. draped in a hippish hooded poncho and looking
preternaturally relaxed behind tiny sunglasses, he might recall jeff bridges'
"the dude" from the big lebowski if he weren't so unmistakably English.
we're at the phoenix, a "legendary rock 'n' roll hotel," or the closest thing
san francisco has to such an establishment. the
have offered us a room for the interview, which is garishly decked out in the finest '70s synthetic fibres.
the room is hot. so hot that toby begins to hunt for a glass of water, only to think better of it.
"it's a freshly cleaned
room," he suggests. "i don't want to dirty their glasses." god bless the
it's difficult to take banco de gaia out of its english context. the collision between electronic,
eastern and jamaican music that occurred in the early 90s couldn't really have
happened in the u.s., and indeed, very few of its proponents (banco, transglobal
underground, astralasia, the planet dog label) ever made an impact stateside.
marks certainly recognizes the divide.
"to be honest, i haven't come across much american stuff in that style," he says.
aware of me being on one american compilation, which came out in '92 or '93...i'm not really aware of
much over here that's similar."
indeed, pop musicians of any ilk who have tried to bring world music fusion to
america have met with
puzzlement at best and politicised barbs at worst. i wonder if marks ever worries about the accusations
of cultural colonialism hurled at paul simon, david byrne et al.
"it's weird, it's such a big deal over here," marks
says. "every interview i do in the states is asking this question. in the
u.k., no one gives a shit.
"personally, i don't have a problem with it, because i don't think i'm being disrespectful.
i don't understand the cultures that i'm taking music from particularly
well, but i don't understand what goes on in nottingham, or new york, or paris.
so to me,
whether it's venezuela or northern england, it's as
foreign, or as close to home. i just try to take the sounds and music as music,
i don't think about the
political correctness of that."
it's a fair point - americans invented reactionary political correctness, after all.
but i wonder if we may
be uptight about the appropriation of ethnic music because the cultures in question haven't really been
absorbed into our society.
"i always thought of the states as this great melting pot,"
marks offers. "but it's not like that really, is it?" no, it's
more tribal than that. "whereas in the u.k., despite years and years of dominating and oppressing other cultures, we
now actually have a multicultural society. for me, i grew up in london, and it was very common to be surrounded by
indian music one minute and reggae the next, eating iranian food as you walked down the street.
that's the world i grew
up in. i just assumed the states was like that as well."
even if you aren't bothered by the political implications of
world music fusion, it's easy to get put off by the smug evangelising of some of its proponents, who seem to think
that it's every fan's duty to be a musicologist. marks, refreshingly, doesn't seem concerned about whether
de gaia fans discover the source music from which he borrows.
"i don't know what it is half the time," he laughs. "friends
go off travelling and come back and give me a tape - 'oh, i picked this up in
caracas, you'll love it' - and at best it's got
something scribbled on it in spanish in bad handwriting. personally, i don't really get into listening to a lot of world
music. i like western electronic fusion music. i don't particularly listen to
indian classical music, for example.
"the womad [world of music and dance] festival, which
we've played at a lot, their tradition is world music. and they've embraced the kind of stuff that
i do, or that
whirl-y-gig or transglobal underground do, but there are plenty of purists who feel that what we do is western pop
music and it shouldn't be there.
"and you also have the evangelists, who say, 'come along,
have a listen to the latest recording by these monks from the ukraine' or something, which no one can fucking stand.
so no, i'm not one of them."
toby marks has a sense of humour that so many of his
dance music peers seem to lack. even better, he's not overly precious about his music: the first single from new
lp the magical sounds of banco de
gaia is an
uptempo stormer called i love
baby cheesy. it's what you might call a party record.
"yeah, i don't like taking it too seriously," he admits. "the
last album, big men cry, was relatively serious, in part
because of what i was going through at the time. but this album is much more light-hearted, a bit tongue-in-cheek.
"the people who can enjoy life the most are the ones who
can laugh at stuff. it's really the best way to get through stuff, to not get too serious about it.
i guess i get a bit
embarrassed about it as well, being so public. so i sort of make jokes to help me get over the
there's no need for marks to be uncomfortable. after nearly
ten years of making electronic music, he's still on his stride. the magical
sounds... is his fourth studio album and
fifth overall, and it's arguably the freshest, most immediate work he's done since
"the new album, to me, is more like maya than any of the
others," he agrees. the vibe of it, the energy - i actually reach 135 bpm i think.
that's a record [for me]."
marks is half-kidding, but his relative immunity to techno's
ever-accelerating tempos is illustrative of banco's trend-oblivious approach.
emerging in britain at the tail end
of the ambient/trance's trendy years, banco plowed an increasingly out-of-favour furrow in the middle of the decade.
"ten years ago, when the whole acid house thing was
kicking off, everything was 118-120 bpm, and it worked," he reminisces.
"that was the 'magic tempo,' and everyone got
off on it. but over the years, things have just gotten faster and faster, it's like,
'well, i thought  was the magic
tempo, how come 127 works?' (laughs). but it kind of left me cold, some of the faster tempo stuff.
it was a completely
different kind of music as far as i was concerned."
planet dog label mates eat static, like so many trance and
techno outfits, came to embrace jungle over the last few years. but while
banco's music shares
dub wise roots with drum 'n' bass, he was unimpressed by the genre's sudden rise to prominence in
"the funny thing about jungle and drum 'n' bass is that it's
been around for years," marks says. "we called it hardcore in 1992.
suddenly it went big and everyone's like, 'what's
this amazing new thing?' and i thought, 'well, yeah, it's hardcore, innit?' it was never what
i was into."
the sub-genre that spawned banco's fusion techno was anchored by planet dog, the label owned by
michael dog and associated with the extremely popular megadog events. banco parted ways with
planet dog after the big men cry album, although marks and michael dog remain friends.
set up his own label, gecko, and has spent the last year discovering how much effort running that
business is going to be. as much as he'd like to recruit talent to join him, he doesn't consider it a
possibility right now.
"part of the appeal of running a label is thinking that
it could be really cool, maybe do some compilations, sign a few people, be the new
skint or something,"
he says. "but the amount of work in putting the record out, it's like wow,
i don't want to take this too
far. so at the moment i've got no plans to do that. sometimes it drives me mad,
i hear people doing
really good music who can't get a deal. i think that's why a lot of people start labels."
stateside, banco is now hooked up with san francisco-based label six degrees, who approached
him when they read on the banco website that he was on the lookout
for a u.s. deal. the banco site is worth checking out - it's one of the few official sites
that is consistently
fresh, fun, and informative. that's largely because marks stays involved, and his self-deprecating
humour shines through. the choose-your-own-adventure bio section, in particular, is a clever dodge of standard
press kit cliches.
"i like to have a lot of input in it," marks says. "it's
like the artwork of the albums, i always like to make sure it's to my spec. i piss off designers a lot."
"when we first set the site up in 94, so many band sites were just selling spaces.
'here is the photo of
the band….ORDER HERE!!!!' which seems like a waste of the opportunity of the
net, to just treat it
like a big billboard. a lot of sites seemed very serious, very geeky as well. so
i thought, let's make
marks has relocated to the somerset countryside, so his clubbing opportunities are few.
he reports that
the whirl-y is still going strong, though, more than a decade old and now in its fourth location.
interestingly, despite the short dj tour of the states he's doing with some six
degrees counterparts, he
insists that "i'm not a dj. to be honest, i find it a bit unsatisfying.
maybe after doing it for a few weeks i'll
have changed my mind."
instead, he's focusing on a live show that has him out from behind the machines.
"we're basically a
3-piece rock band with backing tapes," he reveals. "it's really good fun.
and i love the idea of doing
acoustic versions of old banco tunes. i've actually had this plan for years, to set up some windmills and
solar panels, use recycled energy, and do an acoustic, "unplugged" recording.
banco de gaia unplugged on mtv! a few years ago was probably the window to do it...but you never know..."