Toby Marks - Banco de Gaia
It was the magic of music that helped Toby Marks escape Suburbia, and his continued love of music that has made his career. Despite almost giving up and moving to the Bahamas, he has made a name for himself as Banco de Gaia, a world electronica band. Toby Marks talks to Localeyez about the importance of authentic expression, the transcendental power of music, and how he came to be a wizard for a day!
Tell us about your background and where you grew up.
I grew up in South London, in the extremely boring suburbs, in the Bromley area. And I finally escaped there in 1980 to go to university in Leamington Spa in Warwickshire. I ended up staying there for almost 13 years.
What drew you to Bruton, Somerset?
I have always loved Somerset, and often came to visit. In the late 1990s, my wife Sandy and I found what seemed to be the perfect house and ended up moving to a small village near Cheddar. The only problem was, it was so dull, and just not happening for us socially.
One day, when I was passing through Bruton on a train journey from London, I felt drawn to visit the town. Soon after, my wife and I ended up going for lunch in the Sun Inn. It just so happened, that an old friend of ours from Leamington, who we had lost touch with and who had since moved to Bruton, walked into the pub as we were eating! He then introduced us to a number of his friends who were also there, and we spent the rest of that day socialising with all of these really inspiring and creative people. So, we decided to move to Bruton, and bought a house in the centre of town.
What makes this area special for you?
This part of Somerset seems to have a magic to it that you don’t find in other parts of the country. I like to imagine that it has something to do with the line running through Somerset, where the Romans got stopped by the Saxons or the Celts, which meant that the land beyond was not changed much by the Romans. This may have contributed to the landscape here remaining so untouched and sacred.
How did you begin your musical career?
When I was a boy in 1971, I remember seeing Hawkwind on Top of the Pops, and thinking, I want to do that! From that point on, I knew what my future career was going to be. I then spent the next 20 years trying to make it happen! But it wasn’t very easy. I busked for a while, played in bars in Portugal, had rock bands and dabbled in Jazz as a guitarist. And then in the late 1980s, I got really interested in the whole Acid House thing, and started experimenting with sequencers and audio samplers. This opened up a whole new world of possibilities in terms of what I could achieve musically.
And when did the breakthrough happen?
I spent a lot of time trying to make it in the music industry, and nearly gave up at one point. In the early nineties, I remember thinking that I’ve got to be realistic here, and that my dad was right, I need to give this up and start training to be an accountant or something! However, through continued belief, sheer determination, and a number of coincidences and good contacts, my first commercial release came out in 1992 on a compilation album.
How did the name Banco de Gaia come about?
This is my least favourite question ever! [laughs] In a nutshell, a friend of mine had been working in Sudan teaching English as a voluntary worker in villages. She had just returned back to England and was having a rant about the World Bank, and how little it was doing to really help the poor and deprived people in that area. I had probably had a glass of wine or two at the time, and started daydreaming about the term World Bank, and quite liked the idea of using it for a band name. At that time, I was also interested in doing music with a strong world music influence. I started playing around with the term and translating the name World Bank into different languages and came up with Banco de Gaia.
Some people categorise your style as ambient dub, but your music seems to cross genres. What was the inspiration behind this and how did the style evolve?
It partly came about because the technology allowed me to realise musical ideas that I simply couldn’t achieve with just a guitar and vocals. It’s probably also because I love all different types of music. In the early days of Banco de Gaia, I was definitely trying to recreate the House Music I was hearing in all the clubs. However, I only became successful when I started exploring my own ideas of mixing House and Techno with Middle Eastern vocals and world music instruments. Also, I’ve always been keen on mixing organic and human elements into my productions, and not just relying on electronic composition.
In 1997, you put together a five piece band and did some live work. Do you still find time to play live or is most of your time now spent in the studio?
Not really. I still perform live, but that’s just me and computers. I’d love to have a live band again, but it’s a hell of a lot of work and very expensive. I do miss playing music with others, and would like to explore that avenue again. However, due to the amount of time I spend doing my other work, it’s a rare privilege when I get to pick up and play my guitar these days.
What makes you passionate about music?
When I was growing up as a teenager and felt miserable a lot of time, music was my escape. It was a wonderful colourful and magical world that I could enter into and leave my drab, suburban life behind. Music also has the power of transcendence, and is one of the most powerful forms of expression that we have. I remember coming across a quote in a Chinese spiritual text stating that music is the bridge between the gods and the earth. I love that idea that music is reaching out beyond the mundane, and that you can transmit something much bigger through music.
How does your creative process work in terms of composing new music?
Sometimes I’ll have a very clear idea, like a chord sequence, sample or drum loop and I create things from there. I suppose it’s a bit like a sculptor who looks at a lump of stone, and already knows exactly what the end piece will look like. The other way I work is where I’ve got no idea and just play with what’s there. This is often the case when I’m remixing other people’s music. More recently, I’ve been experimenting with electroacoustic composition, where I have a very definite concept of a story or a theme, and then try to work out how to express that in sound.
What tracks would be on your desert island mix-tape?
One piece that definitely would be in there is Agnus Dei by Samuel Barber, because it’s such a gorgeous piece of music and so emotive. Then I’d probably chuck in a Sigur Ros track, not that I can remember or pronounce any of them!
Advances in music technology have made professional quality equipment available to the masses. What do you think makes the difference between it all sounding the same or sounding unique and innovative?
There’s a big problem, because a lot of what is being produced today does sound the same. There are 4 or 5 main digital audio work stations that everyone uses, and each one has its own sound, so it’s easy for things to start to sound generic. Ultimately, the thing that makes anything stand out, is the honesty and the integrity of the person creating it. The difference comes when someone is expressing where they are, who they are, and what they are. It’s all about allowing that authenticity and uniqueness to shine through the music.
You’ve also recently completed an MMus in Creative Sound and Media Technology. How did this come about and what was the motivation?
It’s becoming harder and harder to make a living just from selling records in the music industry, especially with free downloads and piracy. More and more people are listening to music and paying less for it. It’s just the way it is and that’s the free market in action. So, I’ve been branching out into other areas, including running a record label and doing my own management. Although I had never had any desire to teach, it was something that kept coming up as a viable option.
Deciding to do an MMus was a way of getting a qualification to have a better chance of getting a teaching job. When I started the course at Bath Spa University, a whole new world of possibilities opened up to me, like innovative ways of approaching music production and new technologies. The unexpected result of gaining my qualification, was that I want to continue exploring all of these new and innovative areas, and also, I really liked the idea of lecturing at a university level. So, now I’m starting a PhD at Birmingham University in October in electroacoustic composition, and I’m also going to start doing some part-time HE teaching at a college in Bristol.
What’s your philosophy in life?
That instantly reminds me of Spinal Tap’s keyboard player. When asked the same question he said: “have a good time, all of the time!” [laughs] For me personally: be creative and express what’s truly meaningful.
What was the biggest challenge in your career?
Having to deal with my own personal issues that were brought up by challenging circumstances around me. One example was, the first record label I was licensed to ended up going bust after my third album was released. At some level, I had been aware that this was coming, and had also been unconvinced by the level of accounting. I felt that I was potentially being taken advantage of, and this brought up a lot of anxiety and bigger personal issues for me. Having people that you’ve trusted fail you is something I’ve found really difficult. This has taught me to be more tolerant and accepting of the perceived imperfections of the world.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve had to do?
I was in the US doing a video for one of my tracks ‘Obsidian’. I arrived at San Francisco airport from Los Angeles, and because I’d been on the road for such a long time, had no idea of what the plan was. All I knew was the film producer had a basic idea. We had one day to shoot the whole thing. I got to the airport, came through to arrivals and there was the film producer and a guy from the record label, who handed me a plastic bag and said: “put this on, we’re going!”. So, we headed off to the first location. Basically the bag contained this ridiculous wizard’s costume, for want of a better word. The producer then had me standing on a wooden box on the streets of San Francisco. Some people even gave me some money down at Fisherman’s Wharf! The video was well received, even though I have my reservations about it [laughs]!
Has there already been a high point, or is there still something you’d like to achieve?
I hope that the high point is still to come! I have some huge ideas about what I would like to do musically. I’m talking large operatic, multimedia productions! Having said that, I’ve often had “I can’t believe I’m doing this” moments throughout my career. For example, I used to love The Orb back in the early nineties, and I went to see them at Brixton Academy. It was an amazing and massive show with 5000 people watching. Three years later I found myself performing at Brixton Academy! It was an incredible feeling. Also playing guitar on stage with my childhood idols, Hawkwind! I never dreamt that I would ever be invited to play with them.
Who would you most like to work or collaborate with musically?
There are lots of people I would love to work with. Some years ago I tried to work with Liz Frazer from the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. It didn’t come about at the time but I would still love to work with her. Lisa Gerard is someone I’ve more recently come across, and who would be fascinating to work with. I also would like the challenge of working with some people from the classical or jazz world. The saxophonist, Jan Garbarek, is another name that springs to mind. Working with him would be quite something!
What does the future hold for Toby Marks and Banco de Gaia?
I have to be realistic about earning a living, and at the moment that comes mainly from Banco de Gaia. I enjoy doing that, and would like to continue producing more material. Other things I would like to do I currently see as non-commercial, and unfortunately that rather limits the options at the moment. I’m happy to speak to any wealthy benefactors who might be out there and reading this!
The electroacoustic stuff I got into is a whole new way of composing. It’s all about using sound as the medium rather than music. It’s a bit tricky to explain in a nutshell, but the idea is that all sounds and frequencies can potentially be part of the musical creation. This opens up infinite possibilities. Because my upcoming PhD will be practice-lead, I’m hoping this will give me plenty of opportunities to explore creating music in that way. Another area I’m fascinated by is spatial audio and multi-channel surround sound, and using space as a compositional element. The last production I did involved using twelve speakers, and one of the reasons I’m going to Birmingham University is because they have a massive system with 96 speakers. The experience of good surround sound is bit like going from black and white to colour.
What advice would you give a budding producer or musician?
Don’t have any illusions that you’re going to make any money from it (although you might)! Do it because you love doing it. And be yourself.
Tell us a secret about yourself?
When I was struggling to become a musician I nearly gave it all up to become a scuba diving instructor in the Bahamas instead! Not a very realistic plan B! [laughs].
What makes you happy?
People! Whether they are being ridiculously stupid, or incredibly wonderful!