from london to lhasa
having little or no surface knowledge of who was behind england's underground ethnic dub guru, banco de gaia, i felt rather naive arriving at the showbox theater for my interview with toby marks. i left, however, with a deeper understanding and respect for one of today's finest musicians. among four men encircled in expanding wisps of herbal smoke, i found banco's toby marks. surprisingly the most haggard-looking of the group, he shattered the stereotypical image of a techno artist: mid-thirties, ripped jeans, long hair, and unshaven. as we moved to a side room to begin our interview before the last show of his american tour, it seemed clear that toby marks was not a man of airs.
originally hailing from london for the first eighteen years of his life, toby marks gained his interest music early on as a child singing in choirs and playing the drums. at the age of fourteen he formed a heavy metal band with some friends, learned how to play the guitar, and soon discovered other forms of music such as jazz. it was the explosion of house music in england, though, that intrigued marks and struck him dumbfounded: "when the whole house thing started in britain, i was really blown away by it and thought, 'yeah, that's the one,' and have never looked back." marks attributes his early interests in rock and roll as the reason he attributes his own musical path lead him to create the eastern-surreal rhythms of banco de gaia rather than pure house. "when i was growing up i was really into pink floyd, so that's why i'm into the ambient side of things. i've never really been into straight-up dance music at all."
despite banco de gaia's celebrity status in world electronic music, it's ironic that in his mother country of england, marks profile remains low: "as far as i'm concerned, to the english i don't exist. there was a bit of a resurgence of interest in ambient music a year ago, but it's died down again. i have a problem because i'm not doing straight techno, i'm not doing straight ambient, and i'm not doing dub; but it's all kind of mixed up in my music. it's on the fringes of those genres with no pigeonholed market for it. but i'm quite happy with what i'm doing, and there is a fan base who know what's going on."
living in a small town in england's midlands, it's not as if marks has chosen to place himself in the middle of things, either. "i live out in the middle of nowhere with no one around," he admits, "i'm quite cut-off, which is good in a way because it means i'm not pressured to be fashionable all the time and i can do what i want to do."
marks has managed to make a few friends in the city, though. "i have gotten to know william orbit recently - he's a real cool guy. i did a gig with him in london before i came here. the people from trans-global underground are good friends, as well. we do a lot of gigs with the same people."
in general, marks says, he's perfectly content having his music backed by the u.k. label, planet dog, away from the sticky fingers of major labels looking to exploit the next "deep forest or enigma." in fact, the shallow realm of big business in the music industry couldn't sicken him more. marks seethes: "the music industry is full of really horrible people; the longer i'm involved in it the more unpleasant people i get to meet. when it comes down to it, the actual musicians aren't very important to the industry. we're just the machines that make the products, as far as they're concerned."
as one of the many artists using modern technology to shape his craft, the exotic tone of banco de gaia depends on the collection of numerous samples from around the globe. avoiding the legal landmines of sampling is nothing new to marks, who elaborates in depth when i ask him about his use of this controversial sound medium.
what's your strategy for using a sample without getting sued?
"there's about three ways to go about it," he begins, "first, you can get it cleared by the rights holder of the original piece you sampled. that can be a complete nightmare, and be quite a bit more expensive. the second way is you distort the sample to such an extent that it's not recognizable. as far as i understand it, under u.k. law, that's legitimate. if it's not recognizable as the original, then you're clear and your piece is considered a new artistic work. the third way is to use really obscure samples, which probably no one is ever going to know where it's come from. a lot of my samples come from all over the world, and i don't want to rip people off and not give them any credit. for instance: i find a chinese sample which is lovely, but i can't track down where it came from - i'm going to use it any way. samplers have opened a can of worms: the samplers allow anyone the ability to reproduce any sound they can find, but the problem is most of the things you can sample you need permission for using."
where do you usually search for new samples?
"i'll find new samples in an old album, or hear something in a commercial, or see an advert for a broadcast and tape it. films, old b-movies are good. just anywhere, really, but it's pretty rare to take something straight. usually i'll find a starting point, i'll filter it, reverse it, slow it down or something so that it's different from the original. on one of my songs, amber, the vocal is actually backwards. it actually sounded more natural backwards. it was from this really weird language. i just slowed it down a bit, reversed it, and thought: "that sounds fucking gorgeous!" played forward it sounds fucked up; played backwards it sounds like someone is singing it. it's weird. some of the best things are what you do by mistake, like when channels get assigned to the wrong place and start triggering an instrument in a completely different manner, coming up with a sound that you would have never even have thought of."
one of the noticeable aspects of banco de gaia's latest album, last train to lhasa, and the video for the single of the same title, is a plea for awareness concerning the plight of the tibetan people under the strangling force of chinese oppression. rarely can a trace of any political viewpoint be found in the world of electronic music, but marks realized that even in something as simple as a cd's liner notes, there is a medium to educate, to expose injustice. as the tibetan conflict centers on the right of a people to religious expression, marks comments on tibet and ends our conversation with his personal views on religion and spirituality.
how did you gain an interest in tibet?
"i used to read a lot about tibet, and it seemed like a really special place: a very pure, uncontaminated, spiritual culture. it seemed almost ideal the way the culture worked, but then the chinese came and ripped it apart. the chinese have been very brutal about the way they've gained control of tibet: torturing, killing, destroying the culture. this goes on everywhere, even our countries have done it. in this day and age there's no reason this should be allowed to happen, the rest of the world can stop it. they won't, though, because china is such a big trade market, which is a perfect example of the way governments work these days. countries would have to take a moral stance that china has no right to invade tibet, but they won't because they don't want to lose all those wonderful trading dollars from china. governments have become big banks, or corporations."
the title of your album has a political reference to tibet. could you tell us little about that?
on the inside sleeve of the cd (last train to lhasa) i've put a short history of what's going on in tibet and i've put contact addresses if people want to get involved. i'm not into political music, i don't have slogans chanted over the top of my music or anything. but i felt i was lucky to be in a position to affect the world, and i felt this was important to me, so i mentioned it on the album sleeve and thousands of people are going to see it. i thought i should take advantage of the opportunity.
thoughts on religion?
spirituality is great, but most organized religions on the whole are full of shit. but somewhere in the origins of most of those religions there was something true and something important. we need to look beyond our everyday reality. there is something bigger than us out there...it's called the universe actually.
so in that respect, do you believe that there is life elsewhere in the universe?
totally. whether it's actually three-dimensional physical beings, or some form of life based on energy or some other plane of existence, i do believe there is something, i'm sure of it.
both of banco de gaia's albums, last train to lhasa and maya, are available in the u.s. on mammoth/planet dog records.
© copyright 1997-2002 gavin stok. all rights reserved