Ryan Sullivan and his Triplefire Music label have been leading innovators from the South African underground electronic scene for the past decade. The multi-tasking Cape Town-based DJ/Producer/Engineer/Label Boss/Promoter also has his own monthly Frisky Radio show. Ryan’s first breakthrough came in 2005 when Glo-Tech Africa Records signed his first two records, and the resulting global attention led to a continuous stream of record releases on labels such as Lowbit Records, Baroque, Manual Music, Perc Trax, Golden Wings Music and, and the launch of his own Triplefire Music platform. Over the years, Ryan’s steadily increasing profile has given him the opportunity to remix some well known artists, including African artists such as Mafikizolo, Spikiri, Tucan Tucan and Afroboogie, as well as European artists such as V-Sag, Andrew K, Ingo Vogelmann, Peet, Indieveed and Antonio Citarella. His work also extends beyond dance music, having composed music for film and television and often being credited as recording, mixing and mastering engineer for artists and labels, as well as lecturing audio subjects at tertiary level. Ryan is most definitely a very exciting and enlightening person to talk to, so we thought you’d enjoy this in-depth chat we had with him, talking about his new projects, his formative years and the South African scene…
Ryan, a huge welcome to DMCWORLD and congratulations on the release of your long-awaited new single ‘Dusty’ / ‘Hole’, on your Triplefire Music label. The first thing we’ve got to ask is what’s the story behind the label?
Hello and thank you so much, it’s great to catch up with DMCWORLD. Triplefire Music came to be in 2010, after learning the ropes through a variety of labels and different endeavours since the late 1990’s. It’s essentially a home base for South African artists to get their music to the world and we cover the sonic area that stands between House and Techno music. Of course we also work with people from the rest of Africa and all around the world too, as we are primarily a musical link between South Africa and the rest of the world.
Talk us through the creative process in the making of ‘Dusty’ and ‘Hole’?
The idea was to achieve a palette of sounds that are a good representation of what I refer to as the sounds between House and Techno. I wanted a rough and raw analog feel and to impart some musicality as well as energetic drive. ‘Hole’ reflects the dreamy, emotional side and is quite musically shy, yet bold in terms of sound design, while ‘Dusty’ represents the energy and drive and is not so much musical as it is rhythmic.
I recorded loads of analog noise beds and rhythmic textures with the Korg MS-10, MS-20 and Monotrons, which are the foundation of the record. The main instruments in ‘Hole’ are my voice and an electric piano pre-set in Ableton. Synth stabs come from the PolyEvolver and stomp boxes and pads from the Virus TI. The drums are mostly sampled, except for some recorded percussion instruments, which I then cut up into sharp little samples and compress to make them snappy.
This is your first single release in a year, but we know you’ve been working on plenty of remix projects, so give us an insight into who you’ve been working with?
It’s been a pleasure to work on a batch of remixes, as it’s an entirely different creative approach. I’ve been fortunate to remix for artists such as Chris Micali, Lee Fraser and Stephen J Kroos, among others recently. One of my favourites to work on was ‘Simunye’ for Damian Yoko and Amy May Roux.
For anyone not already familiar with the music you create, how would you describe your style? Can you put your finger on the elements of your music that makes it so distinctive?
It’s generally labeled as Progressive House and my own interpretation of that is that it’s not one style but more of an overarching description. I love House music, some Techno, some Breaks and some emotive Electronica, as well Dub infusions of all of those sounds. The common thread is transcendental rhythm with emotive musical content.
Do you find it easy to express your emotions in your music, or is this something that finds an outlet only in certain, special tracks?
It’s not so easy to express, unless I let go, and that’s the desired outcome of any musical situation, both in studio and in the DJ booth. Letting go of control is how I gain control, if that makes sense? If a piece isn’t coming together comfortably, or doesn’t feel right, I just close it and move onto something else, so everything I finish is an expression.
Tell us something about the psychological effects of music that totally blows your mind?
There’s just so much! It will always fascinate me that infants have no control over their reaction to music – it’s an innate response up until a couple of years of age when reactions become decisive. The mere fact that humans respond to harmony and have an affinity towards consonance and an aversion to dissonance is the reason we have an emotional and even physical response to music. That’s the basis of tension and release right there, and birds or cats don’t care for it, just us.
Let’s rewind for a moment, what are your earliest musical memories?
I was probably around six or seven years old when I first remember music having an obvious effect on me. Certain songs would make me cry and I couldn’t control it. It’s hilarious now, of course. When I was left at home alone for a few moments when my parents went to the shops or something, I’d put on a record to purposefully conjure up those feelings. I don’t even know what the feeling was, or what the records were, but it would make me cry as a kid – I seem to remember ‘Chariots Of Fire’ being in my parents’ collection, maybe it was that?
How did your musical tastes develop? When did dance music come into your life?
Just before my teenage years, I started listening to the radio late at night and was opened up to a whole world of electronic music. Being radio, it meant a lot of hits, and it was the early nineties, so you can imagine – 2Unlimited, Dr. Alban, and so on… But that music prepared me for the day that I was handed a cassette of the Prodigy’s debut album ‘Experience’. That was it, everything changed, and I went down the rabbit hole. Hardcore, Jungle, Drum ‘n’ Bass, Breakbeat, Techno, House… I went through it all over the following years, until another album changed everything – Sasha and John Digweed’s ‘Northern Exposure’. That set me on the path I’m on today.
At what point did you get into producing and DJing?
While listening to the radio at first, I was already daydreaming of making the music I was hearing and never really consciously processed those thoughts. But as time went on and I journeyed through the underground sounds, I became more conscious of my desire to compose and produce music. I had no idea where to begin, but my interest led me to people who introduced me to some guys at a specialist record store. I became a DJ in my pursuit, which of course, led me to dance-floors, which led me to more people who showed me the ropes in Fast-Tracker 2 software and so on. As the network expanded, so did my knowledge and skill, which is still the case today, of course, and I finally released my first record in 2005, eight years after discovering the turntables.
In what ways do you think your particular journey through life has influenced the electronic music you make now?
It’s all very intertwined, as the music I make has also influenced my life journey. Each discovery and personal connection along the way is a huge influence. Even the discoveries that repel me have an influence in my musical direction. My world travels are all purely because of my music and at the same time, travelling influences my music. Of course, my home, South Africa, is a major influence. I moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town in 2009, which has shaped my sound as that move somehow took me back to my musical roots in a way. Our country’s massive appreciation for House music, our slow adoption of technology, our incredible weather and ability to celebrate, our diversity – all of these things shape me and my music, and I can only hope to impart some level of positive impact back through it all.
Have you worked with other African artists?
Yes, plenty. In terms of collaborations and remixes – Lazarusman, Matthew Loots, Nelson Moreira AKA Afroboogie, Damian Yoko, SecondNature, Steve Clarke, Helmut J, MPI Project, Seake and more. In terms of my studio work, I do loads of mixing and mastering with too many people to mention here, but have worked with artists such as DJ Mujava, Spoko, Oskido, Black Coffee, Jackie Queens, STAB Virus, Mafikizozlo, Revolution, Trancemicsoul and the list goes on.
Having witnessed the evolution of the underground scene in South Africa over the years, where are its roots? And, what have been some key moments in its development?
Our country is so diverse it would be wrong of me to even entertain the idea that I can speak on behalf of the nation in this regard, however, I will share from my own experience. When I began as a DJ, there was a clear mainstream and underground divide and this lasted quite some time, but with the advent of the information age and especially social media, I personally believe there isn’t a true underground scene anymore. There are interesting little pockets, but they bubble up to the surface super quickly, and at the very least, one has to admit that the divide between the underground and the mainstream is not so clear anymore. The Gqom sound out of KwaZulu Natal is a perfect example of how an underground movement can rise to the surface in such a short amount of time.
For me, House music forms the roots within electronic music on this side of the world. The famous artists and bands that influenced the Western world sure had a major impact here too, but it’s House music along with all of the sub-genres that really gripped the South African people, it’s something the people have made their own over time. All moments stretch along one long timeline, so I can’t pin-point single moments, but the early rave days of the 90’s were important for electronic music culture, as well as the fall of that huge rave scene, as it’s what led to people creating their own sounds and scenes. The global rise of Black Coffee, Culoe De Song and the like, are ground-breaking for the mentality of artists here, even the masses at large, they really show South African people the power of music. Watching people like Bruce Loko, Ryan Murgatroyd, Floyd Lavine, Thor Rixon, Aero Manyelo and many more explode after years and years of long and difficult journeys, are all key moments. I believe that every one success is everyone’s success, so it’s great to witness it all.
How do you view the current scene in South Africa? Is it healthy? What could improve things?
It’s very healthy, yet also quite fragmented. The great thing is that people are excited by and open to a new take on something. Deep House can be expanded upon, for example, and mixed up with some Dub Techno, and people are down with that. You couldn’t get away with that a few years back and the open-mindedness allows more artists to create more interesting art.
The business side of the music world has come a long way too, with labels, agencies and management all coming into play, something that was only viable in the mainstream with major labels in the past. Unity is the one thing lacking behind the scenes. Crews often see one another as competition, where in fact, by working together, everyone will move forward and achieve more. It’s evolving and improving all the time though.
If we make it down to your home city of Cape Town, what parties and which DJs do you recommend we check out?
To gain a good overview of the diversity here, Oppikoppi Festival would be a good start. In terms of my favourites – ‘Modular’ is a great club in Cape Town, Hans Zen and I run a monthly night there called ‘KONA’ and it’s just four walls and a sound system, love it! And ‘Club’ and ‘Truth’ in Johannesburg are both favourites too. A mix of my favourite DJs at the moment are Matthew Loots, Hans Zen, Trancemicsoul, Damian Yoko, Enoo Napa, Culoe De Song, Leighton Moody, SecondNature, G-Force, Vinny Da Vinci, STAB Virus, Jack’s CAB and Dix.
Since we’ve now arrived at the mid-point of yet another great year of music, how about you talk us through your Top 5 tracks of 2018 so far (by other artists)?
I’m going to break away from the South African scene for this selection, so in no particular order, these are tracks that I love to listen to and play in my sets at the moment…
Eitan Reiter – All That I Know (Guy J Remix)
Guy J – Airborne
Gui Boratto – Overload featuring Luciana Villanova
Nick Muir – Mirror Walk (Khen Remix)
Thyladomid – Places featuring Mahfoud
If you could remix any track by any artist (ever) what/who would be at the top of your wish list?
I would honestly prefer to collaborate with an artist rather than remix their work. To work in a studio with Guy J and Nick Muir will be amazing.
Best piece of advice you have ever been given?
To write down the first things that come to mind the moment I wake up every day. There are many days that I don’t do it but the process clarifies my mission, shows me what’s important to me and focuses my efforts and direction. It truly is a game changer for motivation and productivity.
What plans have you got for the rest of 2018?
I’ve got another original release lined up and a couple of remixes, also currently working with Audioglider and Matthew Loots on some upcoming projects, and super excited about playing in Kenya, Germany and Amsterdam in the coming months.
Ryan Sullivan – Dusty / Hole (Triplefire Music) TFMD082