Twilight Circus on the Origin of His Moniker and the Rise of Dub Music into the Mainstream

Categories: Hey, DJ!, Q&A

Many of your albums feature a variety of vocalists like Big Youth and Michael Rose. Do you have an idea of what kind of vocals/voice you want before making a track?

Mostly I come up with the track first and then think of which singer might be most appropriate for the tune. Though, when I was working with ex-Black Uhuru singer Michael Rose, I specifically wrote the music with him in mind for the Warrior album project. I was trying to capture the essence of Rose, who is one of my most favorite vocalists, not only in reggae but of all genres.

What's your recording process like? Do you incorporate the live instruments first or last?

I always record the live instruments first, starting with drums and building up from there, adding parts as needed by taste and intuition. It's a lot like cooking. One exception to my usual method was "No Burial," the first track I did with Michael Rose, where all I had to work with was a basic short loop, a demo fragment of the idea really, which I used as a guide to lay down the vocals. I then recorded all the musical parts later on, so it was kind of a reverse way of working.

That song was a funny one as when it got to the mixing stage, it suddenly hit me that I was working with the one of the all-time greatest reggae singers and I became too intimidated to lay down a mix. I ended up having it set up on the desk for about a week, pretty much as it sounds on the released version, before I finally dared to print the mix!

Has being a sound engineer allowed you to get more technical when producing tracks?

Years ago I was lucky enough to start picking up a lot of old analog studio gear which was getting dumped cheaply, but which comes with the Achilles' heel of requiring a lot of upkeep and maintenance. As I was off in the sticks, I ended up getting pretty immersed in performing maintenance, repair, and modification of the equipment on my own with guidance from certain mentors and whatever information I could glean from sources like the Internet and books. Through this process, I gained a much deeper understanding of how things were working, which took my comprehension level from seeing only mysterious boxes with knobs and colored lights on them to being able to visualize the signal path, circuitry, components under the hood, the flow of sound, and how everything is interacting.

It even gets into an almost mystical realm when you start to consider there's things going on like the transformation of energy, particles moving, electrons, waves -- it's quantum mechanics. There's a whole myriad of random elements, too, which can influence the sound, even things like the condition of tape heads, temperatures, and the state of metal alloys in audio transformers can change over the course of a session and subtly alter the tones. This randomness and complex interaction of parts I think helps add another element of magic to the analog way of working. So, I'd say that this voyage of technical discovery really helped to improve my engineering and mixing skills.

What do you think is so attractive about hearing bass drop and those reverberations that are so prominent in dub music? How would you describe the emotional connection of physically hearing deep bass?

The eureka moment for me was seeing Aston Family Man Barrett playing on the Wailers Legend tour in around 1984. This was the first time I'd really experienced massively powerful bass which had a deep physical effect. I realized at that point that reggae bass was a serious thing which could affect people physically, and their state of mind. I reasoned that if you played the right notes with a good feel and tone, this could have a positive effect on people, but also alternately, perhaps if you weren't careful with your choices, you could also make people feel ill. So, I've felt the weight of that responsibility ever since, and always bear this in mind when laying down lines. The main reference for people who were producing and listening to dub and reggae in Jamaica in the '70s was hearing the music played in the context of a sound system dance, with custom-made speaker boxes, amps, and preamps specifically designed to enhance the experience and provide bass tones which hit you like ocean waves of molasses.

A life-changing experience for me was going to see the U.K. sound system legend Jah Shaka play at one of his legendary Rocket Club sessions in London. Imagine a concert P.A.-magnitude stack of homemade speakers in each corner of the room, powered by massive amps with tubes that looked like coke bottles, a single vintage 1950's Garrard turntable seated next to an alien-looking homebrew preamp, all connected with what appeared to be the dodgiest of lamp cord wiring and gaffer tape. When things were up and running, it was like witnessing some kind of musical alchemy take place, the way a track could get tweaked and dubbed on the fly, sending parts into delay, dropping the tops and mids with kill switches and letting the bass rumble for minutes on end while he jammed away overtop with a Synare synth drum. Incredible! Once you've heard reggae and dub in a sound system session with an array of scoop bass bins, it all makes even more sense.
I really do think that with dub, the sheer physicality of the beats and bass tones affects the body of the listener, while the additional delays and reverbs can have the effect of sending the mind off on a psychedelic voyage. Judging by the enduring popularity of bass-heavy music, one has to suspect bass frequencies may have somewhat addictive properties!

Has your live DJ setup changed through your career?

The setup has gone through various stages over time, starting out in the '90s as a full backline complement with live drums. Then throughout the '00s I went from a hybrid DJ - live bass set up, to straight vinyl, then incorporating CDs, and now most recently, laptop-style using Traktor.

I visited a DJ shop in Soho, London, last Summer and when I saw some of the new external controllers, I knew this was the way to go for me as it takes laptop DJing out of the realm of being focused on a screen and provides a portable tactile interface which I find more relatable than scrolling with a touchpad. I just love to tweak knobs! I'm also very pleased with the sound of the Native Instruments soundcard I picked up at the same time. I'm using 24bit WAV audio files as much as possible, as I'd prefer to simplify my choices and go for hi-fidelity, rather than carrying around a massive library of tracks on the hard drive.

Do you still incorporate a lot of vinyl into your sets?

I miss a lot of things about vinyl, especially the visual and other sensory clues, but the fact is I'm getting too old to tote around a big sack of wax, and as well, many of the discs were so rare that it'd be devastating to experience loss or theft while traveling. To roll the dice of randomness, I'm still carrying around various external sound effects, noise generators, and samples, which I can fling in the mix at any time.

What projects do you have coming this year? Will there be another Twilight Circus album, or will you be producing sounds for other artists?

At the moment I've got a huge stockpile of potential releases in the works, something like about 14 albums worth. These are all under the Twilight Circus umbrella. This year I'd also like to turn on the flow of vinyl singles again as well. The perennial challenge right now is finding the funds to realize all these plans! I want to go back to the roots too and revisit the kind of crazy hand-made and time-consuming DIY packaging I used to do back in the early days. Be on the lookout this year for a number of collaborative dub projects in the works right now with McPullish from Austin, Bristol's dubstep champion RSD, and industrial music legend cEvin Key in LA. During this current tour I'll be hitting the studio in far-ranging locales ranging from L.A., Texas, Hawaii, to Mexico in the pursuance of these goals and the search for the deep bass tone. It's a never-ending musical journey!

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