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(by jesse fahenstock)

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 cd player.

"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 banco's still-striking 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 innkeepers have offered us a room for the interview, which is garishly decked out in the finest '70s synthetic fibres. unfortunately, 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 english. 

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. "i'm only 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 banco 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 uncomfortableness." 

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 maya

"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 [120] 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 britain. 

"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. marks has 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 it fun." 

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..." 


reproduced without permission from inkblot. to be used for private and research use only. original article is here.

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