Toby Marks is one of the UK’s leading electronic musicians. Born in South London in 1964, he formed Banco De Gaia with Andy Guthrie, who left for other things. Marks’ adventures in electronic music began in 1989, when he bought a sampler and recorded “Maxwell House”. He is now recognised as one of the world’s leading exponents of globally inspired electronica with a distinctive style. In 1994 he released his first studio album, the Mercury Music Prize-nominated “Maya”, on Planet Dog records. This was followed in 1995 by the critically-acclaimed “Last Train to Lhasa”. Both albums reached number one on the UK’s independent charts. Since then Banco de Gaia has continued releasing albums, most recently FAREWELL FERENGISTAN. This interview is a little old now we spoke in 2006, but there’s still some interesting bits and pieces there, especially as this never appeared online, only in print.
Q: When did you realise you wanted to make music?
A: I can’t remember wanting to do anything else. Sometimes I wish I did something else to earn money, so I could play music for itself.
Q: What was the first record you bought?
A: I remember asking my Mum to buying me Top of the Tots. Later I started buying Top of the Pops albums – cover versions – it took years to understand why they sounded different on radio,
Q: Why does music matter?
A: There’s several answers to that. The first is the serious highbrow answer. The Chinese saw it as the bridge between man and the gods. A less serious answer – it’s always been an antidote to the drudgery of human existence. For some, making music is a way to articulate what they can’t say. There’s a million reasons.
Q: Digital music – good or bad?
A: iTunes and iPods are great, but Apple’s decision that all tracks cost 79p doesn’t give me any control: I can’t give tracks away, or charge more for rarities. It’s like Tesco’s charging the same for every vegetable – all vegetables aren’t the same.
I like to write long songs – an album may have eight tracks. If I wrote three minute songs, there might be 23. There’s pressure to write short tracks to make more money. I shouldn’t earn less for writing longer pieces.
Apple says 128k is good enough for digital music. Well, sorry, I have literally spent my recording career trying to make things sound better. I recently got into 5:1 surround. I absolutely hate the fact that it’s possible to release music at the same quality it was created, yet the market has moved backward to something that’s little better than cassettes.
A: Some people think you must have plenty of money to release music. It’s not true. When musicians travelled around, people paid them because they saw the value in what they offered. Today people think anyone can make music. If Radiohead creates an amazing piece of music, it’s seen as the same as other music. Audiences forget that some music is truly and monumentally important.
Q: How do you approach writing a new song?
A: Each time is different. I might have a chord sequence, a bass line or a sample…
Q: Do you record tracks directly to the Mac?
A: When I began I used hardware samplers because software samplers didn’t exist. I moved to a Mac and Notator software (now Logic), because it was more flexible. Nowadays the Mac is everything: sampler; effects; synths; post-production. Short of human performance it does everything.
Q: What software do you use
A: I use Logic. I know it quite well, despite the awkward transition from eMagic to Apple.
Q: How awkward was that?
A: It wasn’t a smooth transition. Logic was created by enthusiasts. Now it’s like the music arm of the entertainment division of a major company. Apple is not a music software company. Logic just helps sell hardware.
Q: What would you like Apple to change?
A: I had no problems in the last 12 months. Before that I may as well have been ringing PC World’s consumer hotline. It felt like Apple’s tech support guys had just been handed the manual. The transition was very painful and very poorly supported.
Saying that, the current version of Logic is a fantastic piece of equipment and integrates really well with Mac hardware (of course that’s the point of Apple owning it).
Q: What can you do with a computer you couldn’t do before?
A: Working on the new album, at one point I thought, “This is too easy, It can’t be any good. It’s only taken me half a day. It used to take me weeks”. Then I realised – it wasn’t that I was writing faster, just I was wasting less time engineering. I can stay with the creative flow.
Q: And you like that?
A: I’d like to just keep going with the creative flow and not have to keep stopping to engineer. Those things are distractions from getting what’s in my head into something people can hear. I can make complex music, but it’s not instantaneous. If I sit down with a guitar it’s more immediate. I wish I could have that with computers.
Q: What equipment couldn’t you live without?
A: To do what I’m doing these days, the computer and decent monitors. If I could only have one thing, I’d pick the guitar.
Q: What are you listening to right now?
A: Manu Chou, Radio Bemba Soundsystem Live; my new album; Sigur Ros; Radiohead; Miles Davis, the odd Sinead O’Connor track.
Q: Which of your tracks would you like someone who had not heard you before to try?
A: There’s no one track that sums up what I do. My website offers Last Train to Lhasa, because it’s the most popular track I’ve ever done, Shinala as an example of the dubbier side, and Down From The Mountain, the first track from the last album.
Q: How has music changed since you started out?
A: I came into this electronic thing on the back of the acid house explosion. I wasn’t there at the beginning, but by the end of the 80’s I was immersed. It was very, very exciting. People like myself had only a few albums or tracks to listen to, so we had an idea of what could be done, but really it was just open ground with so much to discover. No real rules. For a few years in the early 90’s it was really exciting. People like The Orb were pushing the boundaries, and people weren’t just doing dance music, they were experimenting with the fringes of electronica. These days people categorise electronica as “rave music” or as dance, which it’s not. It seems to me that the interesting stuff which isn’t mainstream dance music has gone out of the public eye or people have stopped doing it. It’s a shame because for me straight 4/4 dance music is basically just regurgitated 70’s disco. There’s a place for it, but there’s so much more you could be doing with technology. It’s a shame that nowadays in the UK electronic music seems synonymous with dance and rave.