Lost in Trance
Banco de Gaia
Currently opening the show for the Megadog Midi Circus, Toby Marks (aka Banco de Gaia) is living proof that one man and a rack full of gear can get an audience to its feet and keep it there. And as Phil Ward discovers, Toby enjoys meeting people, likes to travel and drives a small red van.
Banco de Gaia - if the name sounds exotic, wait till you hear the music. Phil Ward meets Toby Marks, a bloke from the Midlands with banks of great sounds, a debut album and a growing reputation on the live circuit.
It's easier to satisfy musical wanderlust today than ever before. Libraries of recorded music take even the most passive listener far and wide in the imagination, and for those who make their own sounds, borders are meaningless. For Toby Marks, a sequencing and sampling soloist and a pretty itinerant sort himself, technology has quite simply given him a passport to the whole world.
And seeing the world as a whole is big stuff with Toby. He named the band, originally formed as a duo in 1989, in true holistic style.
"Gaia is a Greek Earth Goddess," he explains, "and some years back this guy called James Lublock came up with The Gaia Hypothesis: the Earth itself is one living organism, and everything on it is a cell of this organism. So unless we treat it as such, we'll destroy it."
You could view his studio in the same way. Growing naturally around his multifarious talents, Toby's equipment has become a unit which he plays almost as an instrument in itself, designed to bring the sounds of the whole world into his grasp.
"When I was a session guitarist I had a 4-track Portastudio, which I later upgraded to 8-track, and for a long time I was using a 505 drum machine with the guitar - plus lots of pedals, like pitchshift. I had these sonic landscapes in my head which weren't really coming out with this gear. So I got hold of a guitar synth, which opened up a lot of possibilities. Because it had MIDI, it seemed logical to hook it up to a sequencer; it then seemed obvious to use sequences instead of bits of tape. That led to getting a sampler, so gradually, step-by-step, the options opened up. Especially with the sampler: once I'd got that, I thought, who needs a guitar..."
Toby used a Roland S550 before upgrading to the current S750. It made a big impact on him, but it was still only a 2Mb/12-bit unit. "Until I got the 750", he admits, "I didn't realise how poor the sound quality was. If you compare the two, obviously the 16-bit machine sounds much better. But even on its own you can hear the difference. There's one track on the first Ambient Dub album recorded with the 750 and just a Tascam 8-track cassette machine, and that transferred to CD quite nicely."
Certainly did. The overall architecture and warmth of sound kept Toby with Roland rather than switching to, say, an S1000. "The filters weren't actually a major consideration when I bought it, they were just a lucky find," he says.
Always as much interested in the effects as in the guitar, Toby claims MIDI was the key to a new world of sound, and now the multitimbral sampler is the cornerstone of his sonic empire.
"You can put anything in there, including an Egyptian vocalist. Any sound you hear, you have the option of using it. And you can build up layers of different sounds, from all sorts of obscure sources."
Does he go out and about, sampling with the portable DAT?
"I have done, although not for a while. The last time, I stuck a couple of mics out of the window and got an hour and a half of traffic noise. But, not having thought about it very carefully, I got all sorts of phase distortion between the two mics. Without the necessary recording skills, I could never get as good quality samples as those which are commercially available." He's content with the range and quality of sample CDs, such that he no longer feels the need to risk any location sampling.
"Sample CDs, and other sources, can provide plenty of material," he says. And the way he says "other sources", with a mischievous glint in his eye, leaves you in no doubt that the skill of keeping one step ahead of the copyright police is alive and well in Leamington.
The final piece in the jigsaw of the Banco sound is analogue... "Yeah, the sampler was the turning point, and I got the M1 shortly after that because it seemed like a good controller and source of sounds. But around 1991, acid house was still about, analogue sounds were becoming more dominant in techno, and they were the sounds I was missing. For a while I coped, but not having any analogue sources did dictate the kind of music I could do. So I picked up the Juno for a hundred quid, and began sampling arpeggios and sounds from that.
"When I got the S750, about two years ago, I found that the filters were so good that I was actually using that for analogue sounds as well. But it's not ideal, especially live, where you can't control a lot of the parameters in real time. Then I came across the Jupiter for a ridiculously low price, and that was that. I picked up the SH-09 quite recently for fifty quid - but it is a bit rusty."
I'll say. What was once a sleek black casing now looks like the boot of my 1984 Metro, which is probably illegal. Fortunately, you don't need an MOT for phat bass riffs, and Toby's SH-09 sounds mint. All the knobs work, and that suits Toby just fine.
"I hate programming synths. Like with the M1, I've hardly done any programming at all. I've changed the envelope on one sound and that's it. I can't stand all these multifunction buttons. For me, the interaction of the analogue synth is very important - turn a knob, hear the change.
"I've come to grips with editing the sampler. I find that easy and intuitive now, but mainly because I've got the big Philips screen to work on, and the mouse, plus the sheer amount of time I spend on it. It does seem to work in a much more user-friendly way than most digital synths."
Banco tracks tend to be focussed, concentrated affairs, conducive to meditation as much as dance...
"What tends to happen is that a track will start from one source, whether it's a sample, a melody, a bassline or whatever. I'll consciously write a tune based around that. Say, for the sake of argument, it's a vocal sample, I'll load it into the sampler with a variety of drums and percussion and a couple of bass sounds. Once the vocal is looped, it might suggest a harmony, a chord sequence or a rhythm, and from then on it's kind of improvisational. I can just experiment until it falls into place.
"Quite often, a tune will start around a particular vocal or percussion sample, and three days later the original sample has gone. I've got a completely different tune, but it got the ball rolling. If it's a dance track, as opposed to something completely ambient, then obviously the groove is important. But I never regard the groove as the only important thing. Some people work on the groove, and then fill it out with some notes, whereas I always find the notes are at least as important as the beats. I guess it's because I didn't grow up with dance music. I grew up with rock, psychedelia, heavy metal and blues. I discovered dance music quite late on."
But not too late to make a big impact on the dance scene. Gigging up and down the country in a red van is where you'll most likely find Toby these days. Appearing at blissed-out clubs like Megadog and Oscillate, the burgeoning club/festival scene is his oyster - with a full tank of petrol and a tail wind. Ironically, this aspect of Toby's full schedule recalls the Transit tortures of rock'n'roll folklore, which if nothing else scotches the rumour that electronic musicians are an idle bunch of bedroom dabblers.
Certainly, club audiences appreciate Toby's presence in the flesh. Whilst not exactly a recital, a Banco gig does offer a coolly technical performance, and is more interactive than a DAT-based sound might suggest. Plus, the kind of event at which you're most likely to find him on the bill is something new. Much more than a rave with mimed PAs, Megadog and its peers offer bands - and I mean 'proper' bands like Fluke and Seefeel, rock fans - sandwiched between the finest remix DJs and hi-tech performers like Banco, Orbital and The Grid. And don't be surprised if, one day, Toby's up there with a bit of attitude and an axe himself...
"I'd like to get a real drummer and a real bass player involved at some point. I am a guitarist, rather than a keyboard player, and the one thing I miss doing this is playing in bands and getting that buzz and interaction. Plus the freedom to improvise, stretching out the arrangements if everyone's working well together."
Interview by Phil Ward
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!