08 Apr An Interview With Sirkus Sirkuz
Hey Decky! Awesome to chat – it’s been cool watching your various incarnations over the years. You’ve had a prolific career – where did it all begin? Tell us about the Hedrock days through the Japstars era, through now!
I think my dance music fascination developed between two things.
My real entrance into this world of techno was in 1994, when I had saw the Prodigy live at a festival. It opened my eyes to how raw and great dance music was.
The first thing was that some of my mates used to go to raves a lot but I never really did back in the early 90s, as I was more into rock and hiphop, listening to Cypress Hill and Guns & Roses etc, so I sort of shunned the dance scene. But I did I try to emulate the music on my old Amiga 500 using mod trackers, but without any understanding of the actual music, just to try to prove how easy it was to make dance music. Basically to show them how mindless it all was and how rock and hiphop was better. I obviously failed at it miserably but I guess that was the start if I look back at things.
The second thing and the one which I think was my real entrance into this world of techno was in 1994, when I had saw the Prodigy live at a festival. It opened my eyes to how raw and great dance music was.
I had travelled something like 7 hours on a bus to a festival called Feile ‘94 which was in Tipperary in Ireland. It was my first ever festival and I was still a teenager at the time. The lineup was immense with iconic artists like Blur, Rage Against The Machine, Bjork, Crowed House, The Charlatans, Crashtest Dummies, Elvis Costello and loads more that I forget, and there is me doing my best to bounce between them all and see as many acts as possible (which I did!). Although, the actual main reason that I had wanted to go to this festival was to see House Of Pain and Cypress Hill perform, who I was a massive fan of at the time.
A few days before I was listening to the radio and heard a new track being dropped which turned out to be The Prodigy “Poison” and this made me think about going to see them live, since it was quite rock sounding and had hiphop styled beats. The Prodigy to me where always very much a “rave” act as they were known more for “Charly” or “Out Of Space” and I wasn’t aware of their change in style yet. Anyhow, I managed to drag my mates to see the Prodigy which was my turning point. The live electronic sounds, the aggression, the rock and hip hop influence just was like a welcome wall of freshness to my ears. I wanted to make music like this.
I was the first ever unsigned artists to get consecutive national daytime airplay on Radio 1, apparently!
From then I kept on writing music and managed to hook up with a local rave act called Aurora 7, after they heard some of my music. I toured a bit with them, just to take things in when they played out live, and I ended up becoming a dancer for them (yes, I had the moves back then). I learned about MIDI during this period and slowly started to build my own music studio. It lasted about a year and after I left Aurora 7, I kept on building my studio to the point where I launched myself as Hedrock Valley Beats. I had a nice little setup made up of a Yamaha SY85, A3000 sampler, JP8000 and a few other bits of kit. My music now being influenced by the Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, who was starting to make his name, launched me into the world of Big Beat and to kick things off, I had come 13th in the MOBO Unsigned Music Awards after sending them a demo, so had been asked to present my music live in the finals.[soundcloud id=’135818775′]
I asked a few mates to join me to give me a bit of confidence live, Foxy who played bass and Frankie Kane who was a scratch DJ, which also added a bit more “volume” and magic into a live performance. We then started to play out live as a trio, with our first gig being a local one which was run by Gary Curran (more on him later) and things kind of took off. I was asked to remix indie-rockers Ash and BBC Radio 1 had picked up on my sound playing lots of my unsigned music on various DJ shows. I was the first ever unsigned artists to get consecutive national daytime airplay on Radio 1, apparently! I signed then to Infectious Records after getting “courted” by a few big labels and I had also released a white label featuring two tracks that had perked up a lot of ears.
Radio 1 kept playing my music (which was still mostly unreleased at this time) on various shows as soundbeds or clips etc and things were going really great. I was even taken over to play Maida Vale by Steve Lamacq, at the time to play a live session on BBC Radio 1.
During all this time I was signed to Infectious and building my studio bigger but the record label hit the problem with samples, as my music was very sample based and it became a long period of tracking down the rights to some of the older samples I had used. This was a long process which made releases get switched about due to the timeframe and ease of clearing various tracks. When I finally got to release “Coming thru (my stereo)” as my first single 10 months after signing to Infectious, I was dropped from the label 1 week before its actual release! We were all gutted and it was hard to accept how something like this could happen. But the track then went onto be go Top 30 in various random countries as an Import (as these had been sent out before my drop from the label) and it also was No.1 in the US National Airplay Chart which really just goes to show what could have been!
Anyhow, I kept writing and now had a backlog of unreleased tracks to release, so I started hooking up with other labels to get some of these out there. I also moved more into the Breakbeat sound which was evolving from Big Beat and started writing more Breaks influenced music. I release music on Freakaboom, Nerve, FAT! and a few other labels but it was then a few years later that I wrote a cross over track called “How Do You Feel” that actually went No.1 in Australia. I ended up doing 3 tours of Oz during my time as Hedrock Valley Beats which was amazing.
I even crossed into the comic book world with an issue of the GI Joe comic book, as two of the characters where arguing how one of them lost the others “Hedrock Valley Beats CD”
I got to play at Glastonbury Festival which was a dream of mine and I even crossed into the comic book world with an issue of the GI Joe comic book, as two of the characters where arguing how one of them lost the others “Hedrock Valley Beats CD” – I found out the writer of the comic was a fan!
Hedrock Valley Beats sort of slowed down due to various factors and it was a few years later that I was at a festival called Oxegen in Ireland again with Gary Curran (who had given HVB their first gig) and I decided I wanted to try it all again. I wanted to play this very festival next year!
The Japanese Popstars were born as two people (Gary and myself). I started out managing and promoting us using my experience and contacts from my days as HVB. Myspace was a great tool for this at the time too. It took about 8 months but we got together some music and one of the tracks had interest from a local promoter to come play it live in a club for them. So we needed to brush up on the live side of stuff now, since it was a few years since HVB and things had evolved somewhat. We called in Gareth Donoghue to work the live side of things, as he had some experience with Ableton which neither of us had at the time.
We crammed writing the live set into 3 weeks and had Gareth mixing it all on Ableton, Gary was working synths through Reason 4 (which we used to write the music) and then myself on external live keyboards and samples. The first gig was a massive success and things went through the roof from there! Actually, in fairness, it wasn’t until we signed to Gung-Ho Records that it all kicked off properly when we ended up compiling our first album and also getting massive radio support from Pete Tong. We got extremely busy after the first album with touring and remixing, as we where being asked to remix artists like Beyonce, Kylie, Depeche Mode, Groove Armada, Daft Punk and loads more!
The first album was critically acclaimed by the magazines and won various music awards, but we just continued on just doing what we where doing and simply writing more music, as it was all a bit overwhelming but we kept our feet on the ground by remaining in our hometowns and not paying much attention to it all.
The second album was starting to come together now too and we had asked various artists we liked to collaborate with us on some rough ideas we had written. All the people we had in mind for the tracks said “yes”. We where blown away with how things had come together. Our second album featured Jon Spencer (Blues Explosion), Morgan Kibby (M83), Green Velvet, Robert Smith (The Cure), Tom Smith (The Editors) and James Vincent McMorrow. Our label boss at the time at Gung-Ho! Records had the idea then to shop this album demo to some major labels, as he was very excited at how it was sounding. We had massive interest from every major label.
We ended up signing a 360 deal to Virgin/EMI which had previously just signed Deadmau5 and Swedish House Mafia as few weeks before, so we where in great company.
We ended up signing a 360 deal to Virgin/EMI which had previously just signed Deadmau5 and Swedish House Mafia as few weeks before, so we where in great company. But we where an underground dance act and not used to selling massive amounts of music like Deadmau5 or Swedish House Mafia. Nor where we getting large amounts of key radio plays other than what was heard on Pete Tongs’ show. So we were stuck now in this place where we needed something more radio friendly – as you would expect from a major label artist. We had never written a “radio track”, never mind a “radio hit”, and now we’re struggling to come up with the goods. The label pulled a few strings and we had a collaboration with the lead singer from Biffy Clyro in the bag.
The track we had wrote had was extremely commercial, not at all what we where about and I cringed every time I heard it. This ended up getting pulled by Biffy Clyro management randomly too.
As I mentioned, we had also signed a 360 deal which left us splitting everything 50/50 with the record label, then our agent, then our “new” manager (who was originally the label boss of Gung-Ho! Records who came up with the idea of signing to a major label). Now things became bigger, production became bigger, therefore costs became even bigger too. Wrong decisions were being made, we started losing money and tension started to develop between us since we where now stuck in this place where things needed to happen on a bigger scale and they were not.
We decided to start separate side projects to relieve the tension and allow us to be more creative as individuals. Each of us decided to have a “silent side project” which had no connection with The Japanese Popstars. I was a late bloomer in this idea but the other two guys had been making music under aliases without much movement on their own stuff. I was in the process of converting my garage to use as my studio at the side of the house, so I could work from home more; rather than go to Garys bedroom to work on music or travelling 2hrs on a bus to Belfast when we wanted to work in Gareths studio.
Once my studio was ready, I started to move on from Reason to use Ableton and learn more about that DAW instead. We had actually started to shift into Ableton from Reason 4 when writing the second album, so it made sense for me to get deeper into this now that I had my own studio. During this time I had some ideas that were not quite [appropriate] for The Japanese Popstars, as they were more underground and I think that’s where Sirkus Sirkuz starts.
Sirkus Sirkuz is your first solo project as far as I know? Do you find working solo makes things faster / easier or do you miss the collab days?
Technically Sirkus Sirkuz is my second solo project, as Hedrock Valley Beats was just me writing the music but two other guys (Frankie and Foxy) worked on the live side of things with me.
Back when I started things as Sirkuz, I had been asked to remix a track on US record label 9G Records for an artists called Crossfaders and this was to be my first proper release as Sirkus Sirkuz, which was still my “silent side project” at the time. I had also been working on a few collaborations ideas with a couple of artists (both Deci Gallen and March Against, which came out last year) and a track called “Rapier”, which was to be my debut solo release under this new guise. I always like to keep myself busy and I try to be prolific in writing, so I love to be constantly working and I tend to get lots done in a short periods of time. During this time Sirkus Sirkuz started attracting attention from other artists and labels, all whilst I was in the Japstars and it got to the point where I needed to step away from things there, as the tension in the group was growing larger now due to various factors.
Universal Records were taking over Virgin Records and I was aware that we were going to be caught up in that takeover and let go from the label due to our lack of sales or impact as The Japanese Popstars. All the signs were there, as I had seen this before. But this news from me was falling on deaf ears.
I stepped away from The Japanese Popstars and started writing properly as Sirkus Sirkuz and a few months later the band was dropped from Virgin and unable to release music as they got caught up in the red tape from the take over. Now Sirkus Sirkuz was no longer going to be my silent side project, as I decided to start completely fresh now and attempt to build this up properly as a solo act. It all became very exciting again!
The smaller things like “a big name DJ was playing my track”, which I had taken for granted being in The Japanese Popstars were making me happy again.
Things were happening now and my new releases were getting noticed. The smaller things like “a big name DJ was playing my track”, which I had taken for granted being in The Japanese Popstars were making me happy again. It was very invigorating seeing that the bigger DJs like Digitalism or Benny Benassi where playing out my new music. I was starting off small again and forgot how exciting that was as it builds up and grows.
Now that my studio was finished I can get up each morning, switch on Ableton and get straight to work. At first, it was a learning experience with Ableton but it was fun figuring out how to use the software better. I found it far faster and easier to work in than using a hardware based studio, as I can drag in samples and warp them in a seconds, obviously this takes a bit of time on a hardware sampler. I also have a plethora of new synths that are ready to use and don’t need to be setup or re-tuned like each time I want to use my hardware based studio. My eyes were opened, as I was so used to working with older hardware on a daily basis that this was now fun again and I was diving straight into writing as much as I could. I was just making and enjoying music!
Obviously, working as an individual I also no longer had to run things past everyone else and agree on which ideas to use, so my output was faster and I was getting asked to remix more acts that I had time for, as I wanted to release my own Sirkus Sirkuz tracks too.
I now starting to bounce my music off other producers for feedback and by working on collaborations with other producers, I was able to see how other musicians worked, learn from them and I was able to pick up new ways to process sound or discover new techniques in writing that I wouldn’t have used or thought of by myself.
A studio – even a modest home studio – used to be so gear-centric. Do you still write in this type of environment? Sounds like you’ve transitioned into the digital realm quite nicely.
I grew up in a world where you have to save your money up to have enough to buy a £1000+ synth. It took many months of saving your weekly paycheck and then once you bought it you had enough time to learn how to use the kit before you where able to afford to buy the next piece of hardware your studio. I was lucky that when I signed to Infectious Records they offered me a load of gear to make more music too, as part of my signing deal. So I had a means to kit out my studio and built up a nice little room where I still have all my hardware setup but unfortunately which now never really is turned on, as Ableton has replaced all that for me. But I actually do still use my 48 channel mixing desk even though technically only a few inputs are used now. Everything else runs through the computer.
I can download and setup new synths in a matter of minutes and jump right into using them. Its all so much faster now but it also feels so much more disposable.
I can download and setup new synths in a matter of minutes and jump right into using them. Its all so much faster now but it also feels so much more disposable. I think the reason I still keep my old hardware setup in the studio, as it makes it feel like a proper musicians environment when I’m working. I think I keep it around to remind me of what I am (a producer) and sort of what I have also achieved over the years. Plus a shitload of synths, MIDI FX boxes and a large mixing desk looks far cooler than just a laptop!
How has the internet influenced your workflow and growing your community of followers? It made a big big impact on me – what about you?
As I mentioned previously, I do love to be working on music, be it writing new music, live performance, social media, collaborating or even music promotion; technology has become an amazing tool for all of this. The Internet has helped so much. It amazes me that I can have a fanbase in places like Rio De Janeiro or Moscow when I never have actually been there. I think the likes of Soundcloud, Facebook, Myspace etc have helped this instant international reach. Social Media is one of the keys to building any musicians fanbase these days.
Also being able to lift a laptop with Ableton installed and take it on tour with you to write music or finish a remix whilst sitting in an airport or on a plane has really helped. Its allowed you to make time where there was no time before. Sending ideas to other collaborators using Dropbox or uploading stems for a remixer on WeTransfer.com instead of sending individual £30 DAT cassettes off using a next day courier or even just bouncing off my tracks to producers in different countries over Facebook in seconds are all amazing assets to have and be part of. We are now very lucky. God bless technology.
Since you’re mainly working in a software based environment, do you produce on the road now?
Definitely, when I am stuck for time I have to produced on the road. Actually, I remember vividly sitting in Singapore Airport remixing Beyonce a few years back whilst all these random people walked past looking over my shoulder to see what I was doing!
Actually, I remember vividly sitting in Singapore Airport remixing Beyonce a few years back whilst all these random people walked past looking over my shoulder to see what I was doing!
When you’re travelling a lot you need to make more time when you don’t have that much to spare, especially when dealing with remixes where the deadline involves a quick turn around. Having a laptop set up something similar to whats in your home studio is a good tool to travel with. You can throw together ideas, refine productions, make bootlegs, edit tracks for DJing or if your confident enough to do final mixdowns using just headphones when you’re sitting in your hotel room or even on a flight – you now can do this. Personally, I would normally wait until I’m back at home to mix anything down in my own studio but you can get a good sense of the track with a decent pair of headphones you trust.
Being able to road test your own music helps in a many ways too.
I will say that I’ve been a producer/live act before I was a DJ, and being able to test my tracks out on a loud club system was crucial to me producing better. I was able to listen to my new music during soundcheck and hear how it would be represented in a club environment. It gives me a better understanding of how things should sound outside my own studio. Being a DJ also allows me to drop in new material, that I’m working on when I’m playing in front of a crowd and I can gauge a reaction. I can work out if certain elements or arrangements need tweaked, if all the levels or frequencies are hitting in the correct places.
It also is a great inspiration, as you can form new ideas from other peoples music that you’re playing when you can see the reaction it has on a crowd. Gaining production ideas from a breakdown that creates a unique feeling of euphoria or even the mass hysteria that an impact has on a crowd in a dark sweaty club at 3am and then your able to watch the reaction of all these people, see the hands in the air, watching peoples faces explode when the music is inspirational. After a gig I tend to come up with new ideas based my own excitement from that show. When I get into the studio to write I’ll usually be bursting with ideas!
Actually, I remember Kissy Sellout once saying to me something along the lines of when you come off stage after a gig that no one knows all the feelings that are inside you at that point in time. Your mind is trying to process them all at once and having a moment to yourself to come down is sometimes essential to deal with it all.
He was right and I think this is part of the song writing experience especially for live performers, as you gauge the good and the bad, the reactions and highlights or your gig. It’s your muse.
Whats your most favourite current bit of kit?
At the minute, I would say its definitely the Lennar Digital Sylenth 1. I think everything I write uses that. It has so much power and all the sounds can be manipulated easily enough plus there are loads of tutorials online for the synth too. It has a very nice acid sound too and the strings can be tweaked to make some really nice lush pads. It’s a great all round synth for bass or lead noises and there are loads of extremely good home made presets that can be downloaded for free that other producers have created. I highly recommend it!
Honorary mention goes to my KRK Rokit 8s which are a great set of studio speakers, in my opinion! They hold the frequencies well and have a good bass representation also.
What things stand out at you as lifetime highlights from your career so far – you know, the things you’ll always remember?
That’s a tough one, as there has been a few milestones over the years but I never can really remember most of them without reading about them or someone reminding me, unfortunately! I think looking back my biggest milestone, which still amazes me today, is the fact that someone likes my music enough to actually pay for me to travel half way around the world to come to their country and play it for them in a club or festival. Its pretty mind-blowing when you actually think about it.
What still amazes me today is the fact that some one likes my music enough to actually pay for me to travel half way around the world to come to their country and play it for them in a club or festival.
I remember my first tour of Australia, I was standing on a bridge in Perth overlooking railroad tracks with the sun blazing down on my back. It was such a great day and I would never had been able to experience something like this normally. I mean, I had travelled to the other side of the world, had a chance to experience another country’s lifestyle and culture then it hit me how insane that someone had liked my music enough, that I wrote in my little bedroom back in Ireland, to want to bring me to Australia, treat me really well, wine and dine me and pay me, just so I can play my music for one hour for them. I think it pretty crazy when its put into perspective the power of producing music and what it can do for you.
What collab / gig / release has meant the most to you in personal terms and why?
I think the gig that has meant the most to be was Fuji Rock in Japan. It was one of the most perfect gigs. The tent was rammed and it went extremely well. I had always wanted to travel to Japan as the culture fascinated me so much (hence me naming The Japanese Popstars). I had watched highlights of Fuji Rock over the years on the likes of MTV (when it actually was a music channel), so this was high up on my “to do list” for many years.
I’ll never forget standing onstage staring out at the crowd of thousands of crazy Japanese ravers going completely mad to the music from start to finish. The buzz after the show was amazing too, we then even got asked impromptu to DJ in some little backwater stage at the festival whilst we watched the sun come up. Words cannot describe how great it all was.
Any parting words of wisdom for budding producers out there?
When you buy new kit learn to use it. Don’t think that you need the latest plug in or synth to make you sound better. It can indeed help but if you figure out how to use what you have effectively, spend time developing what you already have and own then you can make a successful career from it, you just need the passion.