It’s not every day you get to meet your heroes. 18 years ago (bloody hell), as young things, we all but worshiped Banco de Gaia. If Yoda had access to music production kit, a sampler, some speakers, say, and was let loose on the rave scene – you might hear something similar to Banco’s eclectic, ‘anthem for the light’ sounds, giving him as an artist, a mythical, unicorn-like, status.
This was the era not just of an underground dominated by the likes of Escape From Samsara, or Return to the Source, huge underground soundsystems filling that anarchic gap in UK subculture left by punk. But of the super club, when dance music was a million pound industry. Up in Sheffield, then still home to Warp Records, Gatecrasher was attracting ‘crasher kids’ (a kind of neo love-cheese-punk hybrid, addicted to glowsticks and furry boots) by their thousands, from all over the UK. The Music Factory had not yet burnt down. Designers Republic had just reinvented the face of graphic design worldwide with political satire. NY Sushi was host to world class drum n bass legends pretty much every week. And Squarepusher was crashing onto the world’s electronica radar, with his post-Aphex Twin brand of contemporary cut beats. Banco de Gaia was a calm, haunting reminder that behind the hedonism, for many of us, rave culture – music, even, itself – could help unify the world, rather than just escape from it. His critically acclaimed album, Last Train To Lhasa was to our crew of friends, a personal soundtrack to two years of curating rave and underground culture as a form of activism, to support Free Tibet.
I’m more likely to be caught having Sunday dinner with the in-laws when up in Sheffield now, than at the sweat-dripping box that was Sheffield’s underground venue The Arches (now closed, broken into once last year for an illegal rave) – where we played Banco de Gaia’s tunes, to help open our first ever ‘Shiwa’ night (the Tibetan word for peace). So hearing that Banco de Gaia is coming to Cambridge – is an unmissable chance to finally meet this tour de force, legend and electronica unicorn.
I tell him all this in one of Cambridge Junction’s dressing rooms, containing my excitement, just about. He’s a bit bemused. He’s also grappling with a coffee machine; so we settle down, waiting for the coffee to brew.
So, how old were you when you started out?
Well I’ve been doing this for 25 years, now; was about 25 when I started Banco De Gaia. Had a couple of CD releases before that, cassette releases too.
Did you have any training?
I’m self taught in music production. Played trumpet, drums as a kid, then got into guitar. We used to back in the old days, the band I was in, save up for these 4 track cassette recorders, with a little mixer, hire one for a weekend, and be like “we’ve got a studio”. Someone saw us at a gig somewhere, and said – you are amazing, he worked in a studio on Denmark St, come to the studio and record a demo, which was really exciting. So we had a free studio for four hours. I’ve always watched other people, learned how to do things through others, would read music magazines, talk to people. When sampling on computers became a reality, in the early 1990s, suddenly that changed everything. I could have my own recording studio in my bedroom. That’s how Banco started, but got more and more sophisticated ever since.
Was there ever a particular message that you wanted to communicate with Banco?
What I was interested in was combining music from all over the world, because I’d been listening to all sorts of stuff – from jazz, to reggae, was fascinated by music from other cultures. I got into acid house and the whole dance scene and loved the idea of combining world cultures with electronica. So it wasn’t like I was trying to spread a message that we are all one, or anything, but it was obvious to me that music is music. You take African drummers and Egyptian singers and Australian Aborigine musicians and find the right bits – when you sit back and listen, you realise, it just exemplifies how people are just people, all these borders and boundaries are just ridiculous. So there was never any key message, but I hoped the music would represent that somehow, a meeting of different cultures that would show how we are ultimately just the same.
The Tibetan thing was pure chance. I was working on this track which sampled a train, and couldn’t think what to call it. My wife said – “how about Last Train To Lhasa?” – and I was like “that’s cool, I like that”. It wasn’t meant to be about Tibet. There is a remix which features Tibetan vocals, but the original, everyone assumes they are Tibetan vocals, but they aren’t. I really liked the sound of ‘Last Train To Lhasa’ as a name, it sounded really catchy, so we used it for the whole album. I was conscious of the fact that most musicians, pop stars, artists whatever, were using their platform to promote themselves – I realised I had an audience of thousands, to raise awareness, to talk to. So used the album cover as a way to explain what was happening in Tibet, so that’s how all that came about. Everyone just assumed it was a concept album about Tibet, but it never was. People would come to me with a detailed analysis of the album, “so I see what you’ve done here, is…” and I’d be like “um, no. But it’s fine if you think that.” [Laughs] But it was good to be able to keep talking to journalists, telling them “well, what’s going on is this…”
Whilst I don’t want to make my music political, ranty-lyrics, I like the idea of having ideas floating around the music, having something implied within the music, with the artwork, that’s getting something useful across.
So who is Banco de Gaia?
Banco de Gaia is me. The rest are session musicians, though when we are on stage, we are a band.
There’s a limitation with computers and samplers, it’s harder to create that a human feeling. But working with others brings the humanity back. Plus samples are great, but you’re kind of limited to what the samples are so I’ve been working with sample libraries for years, you might like that bit of violin, but you are stuck with it – up until recently, you’ve not been able to change it, where’s now technology is so amazing you can do anything. But working with people, if I’ve got a tune in my head, I can say to someone, this is what I’d like you to play, it’s a different way of working.
What advice to you have to emerging electronica artists?
The manufacturers are all telling you that you must get a certain bit of kit, etc. But my first track that was released on a compilation CD in the early 1990s was recorded with a computer, doing very basic sequencing, a sampler, with two and a half seconds of memory, total, and an 8 track cassette recorder. So the quality was pretty rubbish. And one keyboard. But with all that, managed to record a track which was licenced to a Hollywood film a couple of years ago. So, if you’ve got a smartphone, you’ve got more equipment than I had back then. If I can get a track recorded like that into a Hollywood film, you don’t need all this stuff. What you need is to know how to use it. One thing you can’t skimp on, is environment. a) You need to train your ears to listen properly but b) you need good speakers. That is where I’d recommend bedroom artists spend their money, save up and get some really good speakers. Treating your room right, tone down the reverb, put sound absorbing panels on the walls etc. The better your environment, the better sound you create. Sound Magazine is great, has got a whole section on home studio design in its forum.
What business savvy advice would you give to younger musicians? Do you need a manager?
I don’t have a manager, haven’t had one since 1998. But I do have an agent who books gigs for me, but it’s not essential, if you have networks and contacts. One bit of advice I heard recently, was if you get approached, to write something for someone, just remember that these people have probably been on a contract negotiation course, have been trained to get the best deal. So have the confidence to trust in yourself to say, no, I’m worth ‘etc’. If they come to you in the first place, they want you, if you are having to pitch to others, not in such a strong position. There’s a lot of debate about whether you should work for free, especially when starting out. Get the exposure, etc. Other people say you should never work for free as it devalues it for everyone. I don’t have a firm opinion on that. I won’t do commercial gigs for free. If someone is putting on a commercial event, then they have to pay me – how much depends on the commercial event itself. I would never do a gig for free like that. If it’s my mate’s birthday party, no problem, or a Free Tibet benefit, no problem, then I would happily donate my fee to that cause. But even if you are just starting out, try to avoid doing gigs for free. Draw the line at giving money to venues to play, though. Don’t ever do that.
Where are you going next on the tour?
We’re in Bristol and Nottingham. It’s an absolute joy to play with these guys, they are so good. And Patrick who does the visuals, his visuals are stunning. Every gig, I think, I can’t believe how lucky I am having people this good to play with. Every gig we have loved doing it and so far, the audience seems to have felt the same way, so it’s lovely.
Tell us about the upcoming album The 9th of Nine Hearts.
It’s not finished yet, so there’s a limit as to how much I can say. It’s partly a joke. I quite like the idea of the Ninth, like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I did toy with calling it The Ninth, but thought that would be a bit boring, plus thought people might think – ‘that’s a bit bloody arrogant, comparing himself to Beethoven’. But then the phrase ‘The 9th of Nine Hearts’ popped into my head. You know the idea of the seventh wave in Aboriginal culture? I like the idea of how as you grow up you experience love in many different ways, you fall in love, you have your parents, climbing mountains, first girlfriend or whatever. So I liked the idea that each of these loves is special. And because it’s the ninth album, each album is like a love to me. Someone said, it’s like portraits of your girlfriend. It’s like, no, it’s not. It’s something to spark ideas, to start from.
How would you describe your sound in three words?
I would not [laughs]. No, global, ambient, techno? That just sounds wrong. I can’t. Far too much to encompass. One word – indescribable. It’s been called everything, over the years: one problem I’ve had is that it can’t be put in one category. It’s like “it’s ambient, but that track isn’t. It’s rock, but that track isn’t”. Eclectic electronica is probably the closest to it, but that doesn’t really mean anything. With the band, it goes from everything, ambient, to banging techno, with guitars, rock.
And will there be visuals tonight?
Yes, they are superb. I did a music and video technology MA a few years ago and someone on my course was specialising in computer graphics, we became really good friends. Patrick’s actually a classically trained, very accomplished musician, so approaches visuals like you would a tune, he knows how to compose music. Rather than just make flashing lights – and because he’s not from a dance music background himself you don’t get those very generic club visuals. It’s observed all of that stuff and there are bits of it, but what he does is very unique. He’s not here tonight because he’s playing with Afro Celt Sound System though. Music with visuals is such a powerful combination.
Particularly with global issues. I remember interviewing Nitin Sawnhey years ago and it was the day after the UK had started bombing Afghanistan – he had a live stream of footage from there broadcast straight into the Corn Exchange here in Cambridge, very powerful.
Yes, that’s why I wanted to start working with visuals, to have that extra power. Sometimes with music, especially instrumental music, it’s hard to get across a meaning. You can make it sad, happy, uplifting, but I just wanted to get something with more – and at that time, it was 2004, the album I was working on was – politically motivated, the Gulf War, Bush. With visuals you can really emphasise what the music is trying to get across. You can overstate it too, of course. But if it’s what you want to do, it’s a great way to do that.
So the current tour features people who are likely to appear on the new album?
Not necessarily, but quite likely. When I first started out there were two of us, that quickly went down to just one, so I used to go out gigging by myself, which is fine , that kind of thing in dance culture is great, I’d just turn up with some samplers, but by the late 1990s I was getting a bit bored of that. I used to be in a band before Banco de Gaia and was actually playing instruments, not just, well, twiddling knobs. So we had a five piece band for a while, which was fun, but very expensive. So that went down to a three piece, then a two piece. Until a couple of years later I really wanted to start working with video live, but didn’t have the budget to employ musicians as well as a video artist – so went back to being solo again, working with a VJ. That was great for about ten years until last year, with the re-release of Last Train To Lhasa, I wanted something a bit special. I was getting a bit bored of the solo thing, so got back in touch with Ted, who was the original drummer on the 1997 album. James, the bass player, I got to know through friends, has played with likes of Jonny Marr, is brilliant, and I just said “do you fancy playing” and he jumped at it. It’s not his background, but he’s loving it, it expands his experience, too. They are both playing on the album. Sophie Barker who’s supporting, am also talking to about doing a track, because she is a fantastic singer.
You may not know the name Sophie Barker (yet) but you will know her distinctive voice from Zero 7 and also Groove Armada. There’s a warmth to her tone, that here at Cambridge Junction, charges the room, with sensuality, like perfume. Fused with a wry, down to earth stage presence, she has the audience spell bound. Watch out for her own album, planned for 2017.
With the re-release of Banco de Gaia’s acclaimed album, Last Train to Lhasa in 2015, to celebrate its 20th anniversary, plus a clutch of accomplished remixes from the likes of Cambridge-based Kuba, adding to his eclectic sound, his current tour has seen crowds all over the UK, flock to see him perform. Tonight is no exception, Cambridge Junction’s J2 is packed with fans, heckling, dancing, gazing at the visuals throughout the performance, political, imagery touching on global politics, mesmerising the audience.
Last Train to Lhasa weaves itself across the audience, visuals cut with footage of Tibetan culture, dance, music – still a poignant platform for Tibet, full of empathy, joy. Sophie reappears to help finish the set with a fitting tribute to David Bowie, with Heroes, the crowd going wild. It’s clear that Banco de Gaia is not only here to stay, but that his music, a rich cut across musical genre and mix of cultures, is a timely reminder that any one of us can become makeshift activists, changemakers, be our own heroes ‘just for one day’.
All you need is that belief that behind the barriers, we are all human. In today’s world never, perhaps, has the world needed Banco de Gaia’s music, more.
Banco de Gaia releases new single Le Foucauld, on March 25th. For full live dates in 2016 see here.
Words from Ruthie Collins.