“I think it had to do with Pink Floyd – a few years ago they did their 40th anniversary version of Dark Side of the Moon and I was thinking, ‘It might be good to do something like that, look back at my old stuff.’”
Toby Marks, better known under the name of his long-running electronic project Banco de Gaia, is talking about his recent series of reissues of his earliest work. Last year’s re-release of 1994’s Maya was the first, but this year saw the 20th anniversary of his most famous early record, Last Train to Lhasa. Originally released in one-, two- and three-CD editions, the re-release is a full-to-the-brim four CDs’ worth, containing all the tracks from the original release, some in longer edits, plus some bonuses and a slew of new remixes from other artists.
Marks is a quick, thoughtful conversationalist, and it’s easy for him to reflect deeply about the scene that brought him to wider attention. He specifically singles out the experience of the London club Megadog, along with the spinoff Planet Dog label which he was signed to, as a crucially unique experience that helped encourage him and others.
“A lot of London clubs then were elite, exclusionary,” asserts Marks. “Megadog was a space where so many different tribes and subcultures could come together: young kids, old hippies, ravers. There was a spirit of exploration and of learning from each other musically.”
“I wanted to call attention to the realities in Lhasa and what had happened.”
Working with regular collaborator Andy Guthrie (“He and I would get in the studio and just jam to create songs”), Marks created in Last Train an album that still stands for many as a high point of any number of intersecting approaches, from moody 70s experimentation to churning beat-driven explorations combined with a variety of samples sourced from around the world, all within the context of the first few years of techno’s big impact throughout the UK.
The lengthy title track was an experience of the imagination, he says. “I hadn’t been to Lhasa – and still have never been! When I was younger, I would do a lot of reading about spirituality, beliefs, which is how I learned about Lhasa and Tibet. To my mind it seemed like this almost unspoiled place — you would read these descriptions from Europeans who had to sneak past the borders to get there, disguised as pilgrims, because it was a closed society for so long. Then later I learned more about the current political situation, how the Chinese government had invaded and occupied Tibet, fully taken it over. That was honestly a shock to learn. So in making Last Train to Lhasa I wanted to call attention to the realities there and what had happened.”
Given the relative compactness of many live setups these days, Marks’ memory of his own setup back in the 90s is a reminder that live electronic music was still very much an on-the-fly experience – and not everything worked out as planned:
“I bought my first laptop, an old Mac, god knows what it was! A little grey plastic thing, cost me a fortune. That was basically the sequencer live on stage. Then I had two samplers, half a dozen keyboards, a load of reverb, delay and effects units, all of this MIDI wired up together through a mixing desk, then out to the desk to be mixed by the engineer. The potential for things to go wrong was pretty huge. There were so many leads involved, any one of which could not be in right or could choose that night to break. It’s amazing the whole thing actually worked! But it was basically taking a recording studio on the stage.
“The first gig I did for Last Train to Lhasa was just outside London and was intended to be a tester, because the second gig I had was at Brixton Academy, which is 5,000 people. High profile show, the launch gig for the album, so it had to work. So I did the gig the night before in this little club and it all worked perfectly. I’d spent months in the studio setting up the system, troubleshooting everything, getting the sequencer to work properly, getting the computer to be reliable. and it all worked fine. So I was like, great! Yes, this works.
“So I turn up at Brixton Academy, and of course things don’t work properly at all. The computer decided to start jumping, and I’m still to this day not 100% sure what happened. About five minutes into ‘Last Train to Lhasa’, which was the opening tune of the set, suddenly it skipped to about three minutes earlier in the tune. I was thinking, what the… what?! The live version of that track was about 10 to 12 minutes anyway, and it became about a 16-minute version, it skipped a couple more times! I just thought, why now? Don’t do this to me, please! I think the vibrations from the sub-bass coming up through the stage probably meant some keys were thinking they were being pressed when they weren’t!”
“A DJ sticking a USB stick in the desk and waving their arms in the air is okay up to a point – but we’ve all seen that quite a lot now.”
Marks then went on to tour the album widely, and noticed the album getting a different reception at home and abroad.
“In the UK it was weird – the press reaction to the album when it first came out was good but not amazing. It’s better now than it was when it first came out! I think there was a wariness in the press at the time about whether it was okay to like this album or not. The journalists weren’t always sure what they were hearing and how to categorize it, where it fitted in the great scheme of things. The audiences loved it — I remember at the Womad Festival just wandering around the market stalls and it seemed like every third stall was playing that album. As an artist, that’s very gratifying!
“Then we went to the US. It was my first tour over there, and it felt like very early days for electronic music. And I was really surprised at how many people were familiar already. There was a show in Austin, Texas – I don’t know why it stands out in my mind so much. It was a relatively small club and it was absolutely rammed. It was one of the best gigs I’ve ever played. The atmosphere was just unbelievable. There was a sense of everybody completely getting every nuance of every track, every mood, every drop, every build. The emotional reaction of the audience to the music was exactly where it was supposed to be. It never wavered, it just built up and built up and built up. At that moment, I thought, ‘This works. As a composer, I’ve achieved what I’ve set out to do here. I’ve written music which communicates the same thing to everybody.’ Unfortunately I don’t have a recording of it, or else I might be able to work out why!”
In later years Marks expanded the live Banco de Gaia lineup to a five-piece band, and after returning to solo work he has since settled on a regular three-piece live band, including longtime drummer Ted Duggan, who’ve performed at various anniversary shows throughout this year. Marks is quietly adamant about the need for a live element on stage for electronic shows.
“I do think that the future of electronic music has got to be in performance somehow. I think a DJ sticking a USB stick in the desk and waving their arms in the air is okay up to a point, but we’ve all seen that quite a lot now. There’s such a liberty and scope for gesture. When you play an instrument, people can visually and aurally get the same experience. They see your fingers move and they hear the results of that. I think that’s really important in live performance. It’s great to bring that back into electronic music, it’s been missing for quite a long time.”
And as for the future? “I have so much on my plate and in my diary at the moment, it’s ridiculous. The compilation [Strange Eyed Constellations, which Marks released on his Disco Gecko label, featuring a variety of newer artists] was great – I’ve wanted to do something like that for a long, long time, because I got my first chance to release stuff commercially on an ambient compilation, without which I probably would still be languishing in obscurity!
“I’m already considering more downtempo and ambient stuff, maybe a collaboration. As part of the live show with the Lhasa reissue I’ve been playing guitar on stage again, and that’s inspired me to want to play guitar more. I also have the next Banco album in my head, I know exactly what it is – the concept, the title, the cover art. I’ve just need to actually write the music, minor detail!”