BANCO DE GAIA
Baltic Room, 206-624-4444, $10
9 p.m. Mon., Nov. 11
NOWADAYS, WITH EVERY swank brasserie and Travelodge from here to Poughkeepsie hawking its own customized mix CD of "chilled beats and abstract grooves," it's tough to remember that, not so long ago, superlative electronic music and upholstered furniture—let alone, say, braised quail on a bed of baby lettuce—were rarely found within the same four walls. Hell, walls were a luxury. My fondest memories of dancing in the '90s often involved venues that never were, and never will be, cool. Somehow, I just don't believe that whoever is in charge of marketing for the W Hotel chain ever hugged me at a Sputnik rave.
Which brings us to Club Dog. In 1995, I found myself in the middle of god-knows-where, England, for the four-day Phoenix Festival, the guest of the budding Planet Dog record label. Promoter Michael Dog, who had built his reputation by showcasing live electronic acts like Orbital at his traveling parties, pulled out the big guns for Phoenix—that weekend, the Club Dog tent would host Underworld, Chemical Brothers, and the Orb. But I was there, ostensibly, to do a piece on Planet Dog's flagship artist, Banco de Gaia, a.k.a. Toby Marks.
Alas, I wasn't exactly the poster child for responsible journalism on that trip. The first night, when Toby and I were scheduled to rendezvous, I decided the best way to counteract jet lag was by dropping acid. While the drugs did keep me awake, they also hindered my ability to perform simple tasks like walking or forming coherent sentences. So after watching Marks transform selections from his first two albums, Maya and Last Train to Lhasa, into a mesmerizing live odyssey full of global rhythms and timbres (check out the 1996 disc Live at Glastonbury for proof), I blew off our appointment and kept partying—under a circus tent in a muddy field—until daylight.
I spent the majority of the next four days at the Club Dog extravaganza, frolicking beneath the kaleidoscopic lights alongside human caterpillars, stilt walkers, and 4,000 other loons in body paint. All of it hopelessly uncool and immeasurably fun. By the time I finally sat down with Toby, sometime on Monday, a weekend of cavorting in the outdoors had reduced my orange hair to yellow straw, and I don't care to imagine how I must've smelled.
But Marks didn't give a rat's ass about cool, either, it turned out. His r鳵m頠 included adolescent metal bands and jazz combos. Unlike most of his Planet Dog peers, his background wasn't as a DJ at all, but a guitarist—he'd only turned to keyboards and computers as a means of translating the cross-cultural ideas in his head into finished tracks. Why spend 20 years learning to adapt Balinese or Indian music to the guitar, when sampling offered a quick shortcut to incorporating other cultures into his own compositions? His 1994 effort, Maya, rereleased earlier this year, still holds up beautifully. Shortsighted detractors unfairly lumped the results in with glorified Muzak like Deep Forest, but ultimately, Banco de Gaia's ability to marry distinctive sounds from around the planet with contemporary dance music, topped with a dash of prog rock, landed closer in character and quality to Loop Guru and Transglobal Underground.
"One thing I'm really pleased about is that, for whatever reason, I've avoided being fashionable," Marks observed in a 1998 interview. "That's made it very hard over the years—to get press, get attention, get stuff out there—but it also means that what I've done is write music, first and foremost, and worry about whether it's ambient or trance or whatever else afterwards. That means that 10 years down the line, it still sounds good, I hope. It doesn't date the way more fashion-conscious music does."
Toby Marks is still unconcerned with being trendy, as the new double-disc retrospective 10 Years (on Six Degrees Records), a 19-track anthology of album tracks, remixes, and rarities, attests. Here's a man unafraid to title a cut "I Love Baby Cheesy," or experiment with song lengths that rival Pink Floyd—"887 (Structure)," which ends with a curious monologue about cultivating potatoes in space, clocks in at nearly a quarter of an hour.
Alas, when Banco de Gaia rolls into town this week, to promote 10 Years with a special appearance at the Baltic Room, the Renaissance Fair refugees I partied with at the Phoenix Festival seven years ago will probably be in short supply. And although Banco's live show is always fantastic, and I encourage folks to check it out, it seems odd I'll be enjoying it in a tony bar with mahogany paneling and mohair booths. All the more reason to dance furiously, I reckon. After all, they say LSD gets stored in your fat cells forever.