A Conversation with Ryan Moore of Twilight Circus Sound System

2005’s ‘African Roots’ album, produced by a relative unknown named Ryan Moore and his Twilight Circus Sound System saw Michael Rose return to a vibe and riddim we haven’t heard since his departure in 1984 from “the hardest band in yard,” Black Uhuru.  Between 2005 and 2007, Twilight Circus released two studio albums featuring the vocals of Rose (‘African Roots,’ ‘Warrior’), followed by two brutal dub albums.  Now a seasoned producer and multi-instrumentalist, Ryan Moore is the go-to riddim king for many of the greats of yesterday and today.  Artists like Sly and Robbie, Dean Fraser, Luciano, Michael Rose (Black Uhuru ) Big Youth, Mikey General, Skully Simms, Vin Gordon (Bob Marley), Earl “Chinna” Smith (Bob Marley), Eddie ‘Tan Tan’ Thornton ( Aswad), Buttons Tenyue /Matics Horns (UB40), Ansel Collins, Style Scott (Dub Syndicate), Bobby Ellis ( Studio One), Admiral Tibet, Jah Stitch, Sugar Minott, Queen Ifrica, Lutan Fyah, Fred Locks, Gregory Isaacs, Mafia & Fluxy, Cevin Key ( Skinny Puppy), and DJ Spooky have all consulted Moore when they needed the heaviest sound around.  While many producers are relying on the economy and availability of digital programming, Moore bets on the use of live instruments and vintage recording equipment…and he wins every time.

I have known Moore and appreciated his work for some time now, and it was just great that he agreed to sit down for an interview.  And what an interview it is!

So when did you first hear reggae? Did it get at you immediately or did it take some time and maturing to appreciate it?

“I’d heard reggae, rock steady and other Jamaican music going back to the 70’s, but with dub it really was an almost cliché moment on ‘first contact’ in 1981 where the clouds parted and a voice drenched in reverb said ‘Ryan – this is your music!’. Time literally stood still!”

So tell us a little bit about your background. You grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia. I know in the US, the only way you get exposed to reggae as a kid growing up is that somebody you know has a Marley or Tosh or Spear album. We just didn’t hear it on the radio. I’m sure things in the Great White North are a little different that way.

“Canada is similar to the UK in that there was immigration from former British colonies, so that in the big cities you had an influx of people from the West Indies, including Jamaica. There’s a big Jamaican population in Toronto, similar to the case of London or Brooklyn. Up in Vancouver there were DJ’s operating on college and community radio who played reggae music on specialist shows, in particular one key figure, George Barrett (cousin of the famous Barrett brothers from Bob Marley & The Wailers), who has broadcasted locally since the mid-70’s. In fact, the Rosetta Stone of dub for me was a show of his which I taped on cassette & used to broadcast from my boombox while skateboarding around town. Those were the days!

In my case we had Jamaican neighbours in the 70’s who’d arrived direct from Kingston and I befriended their son. Undoubtedly the time spent over there being exposed to Jamaican culture and rock steady sounds primed me for a future in reggae music!

The first actual reggae album I ever got was Bob Marley ‘Natty Dread’, which was a present from some friends of my folks. I don’t think it left the turntable for probably several months.”

Were you involved in any scene up there?

“I got started playing in various local roots reggae outfits in the early and mid-80s, playing in clubs and even had some experience playing around the region, including down the US West Coast as far as Oregon.

A lot of the options that would nowadays be filled by disc jockeys were open to bands, so even as a locally-based outfit, we’d get bookings in clubs, private parties and the like.

One of the stranger gigs was being booked for an entire Summer doing a weekly reggae boat cruise playing on the deck of a yacht that would sail around English Bay in Vancouver.  In those days there was a strong alliance between the punk and reggae scenes so we’d often end up playing on the bill with punk bands of the day, on so-called hall gigs.

The whole DIY ethic of the punk scene had a definite influence on my outlook later on when it came to my own label and other activities.”

You are well known throughout the industry as a multi-instrumentalist. When did you first start playing? Did you receive proper training or are you self-taught?
When did you go from being a fan of reggae to actually playing it and creating your own music?

“I’m mainly self-taught, having spent countless hours woodshedding and playing along with records, but also did take some formal lessons early on. As well, especially in the early days, I had the good fortune of playing with musicians who were more advanced than me and would take the time to show me things about chords and theory.”

I’ve read that you were really taken by the dub sound in the early 80’s. So while everybody else was listening to Depeche Mode, The Smiths, and Killing Joke, you were obsessing over a sound developed in the slums of a tiny Caribbean island. Talk a bit about what it was like to be a dub reggae fan in the eighties. (I ask because this is my story too. I have never been able to explain why I connected with the sound and vibe of reggae as a kid, when everyone else was listening to pop music).

“The strange thing in the 80’s was pretty much no one was aware of dub’s Jamaican roots, yet dub mixes were in vogue as b-sides for 12 inches and there was a lot of dub influence creeping into modern music production, in particular thanks to new cutting edge producers exposed to the sound in New York and London, for example Adrian Sherwood.

So for many years I felt like a kind of lone voice in the wilderness, trying to promote the Jamaican connection with dub and also King Tubby’s legacy, by making mixtapes and spreading them around with other musicians and producers.

It wasn’t really until the arrival of the Blood And Fire reggae reissue label in the mid 90’s that dub’s influence on music production, its status as the ‘original remix’ form, and the towering role of King Tubby in the development of dub became more widely appreciated Worldwide, thanks to the PR clout of the label.”

You played bass and drums with the Legendary Pink Dots, an experimental post-punk Anglo-Dutch noise rock you-name-it outfit based in Amsterdam. How did this come about? How many years were you with them?

“Funnily enough there is a Jamaican connection to the whole story, as I once got talking on the subject at a New Year’s party in Vancouver with Skinny Puppy’s cEvin Key, who is the biggest fan of Jamaica I have ever met. This led to being invited to play bass on recordings with various Skinny Puppy side projects including the Tear Garden, which is where I met members of the Legendary Pink Dots. They asked me in ’91 to come over to Holland and work in the studio with them, which led to me ultimately joining the band.

What was planned as a two week stint in the studio led to about a 10 year long and frequently quite strange journey! Playing in the Legendary Pink Dots was an amazing experience and quite fulfilling as a musician. Through the other guys I also got exposed to a lot of influential European music traditions like electroacoustic music, cosmic rock and outfits like CAN.”

When did you decide to have a go at this dub reggae sound system thing?

“I wanted to try my hand at dub pretty much from the get go in the early 80’s. I always liked how dub featured my two favorite instruments – drum and bass, slathered with cavernous reverbs and psychedelic effects. The bar to even be able to record in those days was generally much higher than now as it usually involved buying expensive studio time at a professional studio, or otherwise decidedly low-fi options like recording on cassette. So, my early experiments tended to be fairly sporadic until the whole boom of affordable project studio equipment took place in the 90’s. Some of my early dub experiments from the mid-80’s can be heard on the Twilight Circus album ‘Dub From The Secret Vaults’ on the ROIR label.

So what is TWILIGHT CIRCUS? Where is the name from?

“A friend of mine, producer Darryl Neudorf, was running a project studio in Vancouver in the 90’s called the Miller Block which was located in a notorious run down inner-city area known as the Downtown Eastside. Pimps, junkies, hookers, drug dealers, ex-convicts and the seriously mentally ill roamed the streets below, while bathed in the neon light. Meanwhile Chinese organized crime triads were running a brothel downstairs. While holed up in the studio, it always felt like these outside forces were swirling around, trying to penetrate the studio through any crack in the defences.

Darryl was kind enough to support my dub vision by basically supplying me with the studio keys and letting me work during off hours, so I’d work the graveyard shift starting at midnight, until I was too tired to continue and would sleep at the studio. The combination of sleep deprivation, psychedelic echoes and the dynamic of all the surrounding forces coalesced into a state of mind in the wee hours that ‘Twilight Circus’ seemed to describe!”

Being that I live in the US, the first time I heard your work was 2005’s African Roots album featuring Michael Rose. How does this evolve?

“Working with Michael Rose was a great experience. I initially sought him out when he was playing in Amsterdam at the Melkweg. We recorded ‘No Burial’ which led to him coming to my studio at a later date for several days of sessions. We also did some additional voicing in London over at Junior Delgado’s studio. Voicing for the ‘Warrior’ album took place in Kingston, Jamaica & London.

Do you create a set of riddims and then seek out the vocalist? Or does the vocalist seek you out based on what they’ve heard of your work.

“I usually try to match the riddim with vocalists who I think their style will fit the vibe of the track well. A lot of the tracks with Michael Rose were written with him in mind, in particular the ‘Warrior’ album.

When I had ‘No Burial’ set up on the mixing desk, it finally struck me here I was working with not only a towering legend of reggae music, but also one of my favourite singers from any genre! I had the mix set up for a week, pretty much as you hear it on the album before I dared to start recording passes of the mix!”

Now, I’ve told you before that when I heard African Roots for the very first time it just floored me. Being a Black Uhuru fan for as long as I can remember, I was fed up with the way Michael Rose was being produced. Weak, digital, synthesized riddims with no ass behind them and you’ve got the “Waterhouse Wailer” singing over these weak heart riddims? So to hear Rose singing over live instruments again…it just blew me away. I was like “somebody finally gets it.” How did you finally get it right with him?

“As a producer, working with Michael Rose, my objective was really to capture what I perceive to be the distilled ‘essence of Rose’ and present the artist in the best possible light according to what best represents their style, and in Michael Rose’s case, musical legacy. For me Michael Rose is the King of the minor key reality lyric which is also somewhat doom-laden!”

I could talk for hours upon hours about why ‘digital’ and ‘reggae’ should never be used in the same sentence. To me, a digital sound has no vibe, it is the antithesis of what the founding players of this music created. Reggae is about different musicians, each with a different style, technique, sound, etc. getting into a studio and vibing together as one cohesive unit to create deep, heavy, almost “living” riddims. Why do so many producers, sound systems, bands, etc. buy into digital riddims?

“On my first visit to Jamaica in the mid-80’s, King Tubby’s groundbreaking digital production ‘Tempo’ was the ruling track, blaring from the speakers of seemingly every shop and taxi. At that point in time it sounded really amazing, a totally new sound and incredibly futuristic direction. I think in Jamaica they have a tendency in the musical culture to be obsessed with the newest trends and always are on the lookout for a new sound, a new direction, a new fad. Live for today and don’t look back seems to be the prevailing ethos.

From an economic standpoint its not surprising that a more digital or electronic style of production has prevailed in Jamaica and elsewhere as its a lot more streamlined and cheaper way of working than incurring all the expense of hiring studio musicians, studio time and engineers.  The golden age of Jamaican music in the 60’s and 70’s where there was such a concentrated talent pool of skilled musicians, engineers, writers and producers on hand locally probably represents an era which can never again be recaptured, but at least there are the recorded documents which preserves these moments in time.

The big difference I see between the old way of working and the modern digital ‘DAW’ style of production is that it all used to revolve around capturing performances, whereas nowadays music production has become more about manipulating data. There is a digital punk rock element to it all though because it lowers the bar considerably to producing music so that countless bedroom producers are able to churn out tracks cheaply and easily using computers and some software.

Over here in Europe, the 80’s and 90’s digital sound has been experiencing something of a comeback of popularity and general reassessment among music fans and producers. As well, some current reissue outfits, like Brooklyn’s Digikillers have been doing a great job unearthing some real digital gems, rare one away roots tunes that escaped notice at the time and might have only seen a very limited release originally.”

So getting back to Black Uhuru, you must have been a massive fan. To me they were always the heaviest group in yard. However, Rose left in the early 80s, Sly and Robbie started developing the trend towards computer-assisted music and programming, and Uhuru decided to go the digital route for a bit. Did they have an influence on you in any way?

“I was definitely a huge fan and their sound was a big influence on me at the time in the early 80’s. When the albums were coming out new – they were amazing to hear, really cutting edge sounds with Sly & Robbie at an absolute peak, like Olympic gold medal athletes at the top of their game.

Needless to say, the whole run they had from the late 70’s up the mid 80’s produced some superb music that stands the test of time and in those days they really were tipped by pretty much everyone to be the next big thing in reggae music post-Marley.”

I guess you could say that Black Uhuru, beginning with the release of Anthem in 1983, led the way into the digital era. Would you agree?

“Anthem saw Sly Dunbar getting heavily into the Simmons electronic drums which were played by hitting the pads in regular drumming fashion as opposed to being fully programmed beats.   I think the reggae music historians would point to King Jammy’s 1985 Sleng Teng production as being the track which kicked off the whole digital craze in Jamaica. I believe the basic riddim was actually a preset on a Casio keyboard!”

So you seem to work with the same stable of vocalists on many of your records. Guys like Big Youth, Luciano, Michael Rose. It seems to work great every time. How did you develop those relationships?

“I think the guys appreciate the direction and vibe of the productions, and as well I try to do things that most favorably represent their artistry.”

Do you guys work together in the studio or do you send them the riddims and they do the vocals separately?

“I always prepare the music first and voice the tracks later on. I’ve done sessions in situations ranging from top-flight studios to provisional set ups with a mic and laptop in some random spot. Whatever it takes!”

It has been my opinion for some time that you have the best sound in the game. Is this sound something you worked hard to achieve or does it just come easier when using live instruments?

“The sound I achieve really comes down the way I hear things which is strongly rooted in the golden age of reggae in Jamaica, which I managed to be exposed to as a listener at a young and impressionable age.   For me so far its definitely been an easier way of working, using live instrumentation, as my roots are in the whole experience of playing in bands and learning to play various instruments – but who knows, this could change in the future as situations and budgets change!”

Your sound and vibe has a certain”presence” that most others lack. Talk about the use of live instruments vs. computer-generated sounds. How important are live instruments to that Twilight Circus sound?

“Over the years I was involved in sessions at an old studio in Vancouver, Mushroom, which was kind of like a vintage studio relic. I ultimately became fascinated by the technical side of recording, how microphones and magic boxes with mysterious knobs and lights worked.   Later on I was lucky enough to have the means and opportunity to acquire some studio equipment myself, especially old vintage gear that was getting dumped in favour of digital systems, which included some amazing sound machines like professional reel to reel tape recorders. These secret weapons definitely helped to achieve the sound I was aiming for.

A big difference using live instrumentation sonically is there tends to be more of a sense of space around the instruments, a kind of 3-D element. So that’s definitely been a kind of trademark with the Twilight Circus productions.  I also like music that’s heavily electronic though, including techno artists like Jeff Mills and Berlin’s Basic Channel, electroacoustic music, Stockhausen, Morton Subotnick. The list goes on – pretty much all the way out into the furthest left field realms!”

You are known to issue new music on 10″ vinyl. Vinyl seems to be as popular as ever. Is this your preferred way of getting the music to the listeners? Do you prefer to listen to vinyl or CD/digital?

“I buy both vinyl and digital formats these days, including digital downloads.  The downloads I find are convenient and cost-effective but there’s no denying vinyl has a certain mojo and operates on a whole other level with your senses, including all the visual and tactile cues which are missing with a digital file. I am definitely not planning to get rid of my turntable anytime soon!  People love their vinyl and the format is still going strong. I would like to start up the flow of vinyl releases again. Like a lot of people I got smashed pretty hard with the whole economic meltdown, so a challenge right now is finding the funds to do this.”

I know your records are hard to come by as I have lost many ebay auctions trying to get at an LP. What is the best way our readers can find your releases?

“For physical releases like CD and vinyl the best bet is going to be Ernie B’s online reggae store and for digital, the entire M Records catalogue can be found on all the usual digital outfits like Itunes for Mp3 and Beatport for full broadcast WAV’s.”

Are you touring in 2013?

“I’m always trying to keep busy so the agenda is filling up with gigs right now around the globe.”

Are you planning any new releases in 2013?

“Yes – a lot of releases are in the works like an extended disco mix collection, an album of brand new dubs, some more collections of vinyl-release tracks. With a little luck 2013 might see the return of some of the music being issued on vinyl. As well, I have some collaborations in works with other producers like London’s Gaudi, LA’s cEvin Key, and McPullish over in Texas which are set to emerge in 2013. The magic of music!”

“Because you asked for it – impossibly heavy dub blasts set to drop in May 2013! ….. If it were 1977 these would have been the 12inch discs hot off the presses troubling the dancefloor of Studio 54 and Stur Gav in West Kingston….” – Ryan Moore, Twilight Circus Sound System

To preview and purchase the 5 outstanding Twilight Circus/Michael Rose albums:




To read more from the Midnight Raver please visit  http://midnightraverblog.com.

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