Banco de Gaia — Last train to Lhasa. Story behind the album

George Palladev 30.12.2020

Banco de Gaia — Last train to Lhasa. Story behind the album

Last train to Lhasa—is not a concept album. The album’s not particularly written about Tibet—there’s nothing about Tibetan music at all apart from there are some Tibetan samples in a couple of tracks.” explains Toby Marks, better known as Banco de Gaia. “The album on whole had no concept, no plan. I just went in and wrote the individual tunes as I went along. 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? [The capital of Tibet] and I was like That’s cool, I like that. 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 didn’t want to write political songs or chant slogans but I thought the album cover would give me a chance to spread awareness and use the attention the album would get for a good cause. I was in the privileged position of having the attention of quite a large number of people so I wanted to point their attention to something that I felt was really important, and just might help the Tibetans’ cause a little.” Toby contacted the Tibetan Independence Movement and received a collage picture for the front cover and a text for the spread.

“I used to read a lot of books about Buddhism and mysticism and sort of magics and religions and so on,” recalled Toby. “Tibet always seemed to be portrayed as this really special, pure spiritual culture which to an extent may be idealized but as far as I could gather really was a very unique place.”

The Potala Palace, a Buddhist temple complex and a text about the situation of Tibet in modern China. From the album booklet

As if the sky met the earth, fragments of ancient songs met trendy synthesisers, combining ethnical and electronical. In the nineties, many others did something similar: Era, Sacred Spirit, Enigma, Deep Forest. But 30-year-old Toby Marks doesn’t like these comparisons. His music isn’t for meditation (“I’m very lazy for this”), it’s rather for the club, which was also being taken up by a new British generation: Loop Guru, Astralasia, and Transglobal Underground. There is even a name for it in the media—ethnotechno. Toby creates psychedelia by mixing straight beats, acid sequences, heavy breaks, dub and ambient with oriental percussion, samples from movies and the conversations of air traffic controllers.

“In the UK it was weird—the press reaction to the album when it first came out was good but not amazing. 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 weird thing is, I don’t actually think I’m part of a scene at all. There’s the techno scene, there’s the ambient scene, but I’ve never actually felt like I’m part of that at all, because what I’m doing doesn’t fit it so well. 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!”

Banco de Gaia

In his youth, Toby listened to metal, but, as he himself noted, the psychedelic rock of Jimi Hendrix and the experimental jazz of Miles Davis saved him from such a wasted life. Later came the grandiose conceptual albums of Pink Floyd. Toby transferred all the long transitions and intros of rock to electronic music. Last train to Lhasa is considered his best work, his magnum opus, where he fully realised the potential of Banco de Gaia. It’s even somewhat awkward to compare his later albums with this record. It’s all the more surprising that Toby’s best CD was recorded in just 10-12 days.

“What happened was that I went into the studio to record the album, which was basically 8 tunes,” Marks explains. “During the process of recording, we ended up recording the track as it was arranged and was written but then most days we‘d end up spending the end of the session just playing around doing live mixes and dub mixes and just messing about to see what would happen. We actually ended up at the end of 10 or 12 days with like 7,5 hours of mixes, a lot of which I thought were really, really good. Suddenly I had this dilemma because most of what’s on the first CD was supposed to be the album, but we ended up with these long mixes and other mixes which were just as good. And I thought, Oh shit, how am I going to work this one out? So I convinced the record company to let us do a double CD and triple vinyl, which meant we were able to get a lot of the other mixes on there. Even then, it was only 2 hours and there was still more stuff that I wanted to get on. So I convinced them to do a limited edition triple CD as well. Some of those mixes were like an hour, an hour and a half to start with. So I had to spend a lot of time just editing stuff down and sorting out the bits that worked and didn’t work, trying to make it fit on an album. It could have been a ten album boxed set.

I remember coming across a quote in a Chinese spiritual text stating that music is the bridge between the gods and the earth. I love that idea that music is reaching out beyond the mundane, and that you can transmit something much bigger through music. Robert Fripp once said something about, Music is always around us and the musician is just a channel for it... We don’t actually play music, music plays us. I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Once you tap into the other part of you, tap into the subconscious or whatever it is, then it just flows through you and it’s like knowing to stop thinking enough to let it happen.”