Name: Banco de Gaia / Toby Marks
Occupation: Producer, Sound Artist
Current Release: In the Blink of an Eye compilation on Disco Gecko
Recommendations: Alex Ross – ‘The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century’.
Trevor Wishart – ‘Encounters in the Republic of Heaven’
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Toby Marks aka Banco de Gaia, visit his expansive and informative website for more sounds and news.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I wrote my first song when I was about 9 or 10, and started playing around with recording a few years later. As a teenager I was into rock of various sorts, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and later more and more prog rock. After that I got into jazz for a while. Music has always given me both a sense of escape and also a sense of perfection. Great music reminds us how immense life and the universe are.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Definitely true, I started off trying to sound like my favourite bands. In the early days that meant playing in rock bands, later on I started trying to create house and techno of sorts. Gradually I developed my own approach incorporating all of my favourite elements – rock, jazz, world music, ambient and classical – into what I suppose was a form of house music. Copying other people teaches you what works, but developing your own voice uncovers your own uniqueness as well.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Early electronic dance music was based around synths, samplers and sequencers, and each one couldn’t do that much at first. That meant I had to build up a lot of equipment in order to do the things I had in my mind. At one point I was using 3 Roland samplers plus 4 or 5 synths on every track I did. Also the sequencers were very limited and inflexible, they tied you to strict rhythms and time signatures. Now I can play freely, change tempo, key, groove in real time all very easily. And almost everything I use is software now so I can take almost my whole studio on a train, and work while I travel.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first gear was a 4-track cassette Portastudio, a DX7 synth, a drum machine and a guitar. The sound quality wasn’t great and the hiss built up very quickly but it was a good learning tool. Over time I upgraded to better gear as I could afford it and it became available, and also put more time and effort into having a good room to work in. My studio now is a purpose built space designed purely to be a studio so it sounds great. The heart of it is a MacBook Pro running Logic, but it is important to have good monitors in order to produce good sounding recordings so I use Genelec 8050s, which I love.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Machines can ‘perfect’ things very quickly, get things bang in time, or perfect pitch. Humans are better at doing things imperfectly, swinging the groove or pitching between the notes. The combination of the two opens up all sorts of possibilities. For example I can record my mediocre guitar playing and make it sound much closer to what I was trying to play. Technology also gives me access to sounds that wouldn’t exist on earth otherwise, my job is to know which sounds are useful.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
Working in Logic gives me huge scope to explore things I couldn’t actually play myself. I can layer many sounds at once and create sonic worlds that can only exist as a result of the software. Increasingly I can let the software make ‘choices’ too, I can programme a set of parameters and let the computer generate sounds and patterns within that which I can then interact with. This is an area I am particularly interested in right now, using that artificial intelligence in tandem with my human intelligence.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I have no regular schedule although I do try to start the day with a cup of tea in bed and a good book. I seem to absorb information best first thing in the morning so it can be a great time to learn new things. After that my time is split between running the record label and the admin that goes with that, organising live shows and sorting out equipment, production jobs, i.e. mastering and remixing, and occasionally working on creating new music. This last bit should happen more, but there seem to be too many other things needing attention all of the time. Once it gets to the evening, I generally switch off with a good meal and maybe a film or listen to music before bed.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
To be honest my creative process is pretty chaotic and very variable. I find ideas in words, sound, rhythms, anywhere really. If I take ‘To The Nth Degree’ which I wrote a few years ago, it started with a recording of a vicar preaching in the Gaelic language on a small Scottish Island in the 1960s. It had a unique, otherworldly atmosphere and made me want to create a slow piece which gradually drifted from human voice to instrumental melody. I tried various sounds and chord structures before I found one that seemed to fit the atmosphere, and then from that drew out a melody. Then I sculpted the arrangement in various ways until it seemed to flow well from start to end.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
No phones and no email make a big difference! Not being interrupted so I can lose any sense of time lets me immerse myself if what I’m doing. Also I find it much better to allocate a chunk of time to writing/recording rather than trying to do little bits here and there. That way I can get deeper into the heart of the piece and stay with it. Usually I find the process of trying to create is all I need to draw me into that creative space. I do need to recognise when I just don’t feel it though and do something else instead.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Playing live is a good way to test out pieces, if you’re brave enough! It is usually obvious pretty quickly if something is working or not when I play it to an audience in a way I may not have been able to see when on my own. Playing live also lets me try new things or doing things differently, sometimes with good results sometimes not. A moment of inspiration when improvising can become the core of a new composition in the studio.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
These days I see less and less distinction between sound and music. I am working a lot with field recordings and it is amazing how we as humans can hear musical elements in natural, and man made, soundscapes. Looping things especially brings out the musicality in ‘unmusical’ sounds. As I produce and write at the same time, the sonic sculpting becomes part of the writing process. The nature of a sound in part defines what it should do and the nature of the notes or rhythm in part define how it should sound.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
An obvious example is the use of sub-bass in dance music (for example) to physically pummel the listener. That connection between tactile sense and sound can have a variety of effects from creating unease to sexual stimulation. More subtly, visualising music is very rewarding and I am interested in combining sound with its visual representation, and vice versa. Also, sound stimulates imagination, a phenomenon used heavily in the movie industry, and I am fascinated by the idea of being able to create a scene in the listener’s mind with just a few sonic cues.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I don’t really intellectualise it like that these days, art is just what humans do. And other animals too, perhaps. Sadly many people don’t have much time to be creative but we all do it whether we realise or not and some of us get to call it art. Economic and political realities can get in the way of free human expression on many occasions but to be truly human we need to be truly expressive, and I guess that is what art is all about.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I’m not sure everyone would agree that it is still intact, there are many, and increasing, diverse views about what constitutes music beyond the popular sphere. Personally I like the idea of ‘organised sound’ as a defining principle, anything you do to organise sound into a deliberate structure is music. We are looking more and more beyond just notes, timbres and rhythms, the traditional boundaries of all popular musics. We need to include larger structures in our thinking, forms of sonic evolution over the duration of a piece or a section, transformations which are now possible but were almost impossible using traditional technologies (i.e. instruments). Our ears and minds get used to the unfamiliar so let us immerse ourselves in the unfamiliar to find what beauty lies therein.