Casey Rice: The Anti-Producer
He’s played a hand in local records by Aleks & The Ramps, The Dirty Three and Ben Lee, but American expat Casey Rice doesn’t consider himself a producer, more a creative facilitator, writes DOUG WALLEN.
As American expats go, Australia is lucky to have Casey Rice. Long based in Chicago, where he worked with everyone from Sunny Day Real Estate to Gastr del Sol, the seasoned engineer migrated to Melbourne in 2003 with then-wife Tania Bowers of Via Tania. He may still be best known in the States for his involvement with Tortoise – he’s credited as their “permanent soundman” – and his solo electronic music under the name Designer, but Rice has had a hand in a long, impressive list of Australian records. Those include Ground Components’ first two EPs, the second Bird Blobs album, The Dirty Three’s Cinder, and releases by Pikelet, Guy Blackman and Tic Toc Tokyo. He also worked on three of last year’s best albums: Songs’ self-titled debut, Mum Smokes’ Easy/House Music and Midnight Believer by Aleks and The Ramps.
Over lunch late last year, Rice recounted some of his experiences with recording and mixing bands in Australia. In the process he chipped away at the conventional idea of a record producer and observed how we don’t know how good we have it here.
When did you first come to Australia?
Ever? ’94. That was to record Ben Lee. His first album, Grandpa Would.
I thought that was recorded in Chicago.
Half of it was, and half of it was recorded in Bondi.
I like that album more than anything he’s done since.
There’s something very pure about it.
Yeah, his voice changing…
It was changing while we were recording it.
So you worked with Brad Wood on that?
Well, Brad asked me to work at this studio he started with Brian Deck, who went on to produce a lot of records. Then Brian bailed. He didn’t wanna do it anymore. Brad and I had mutual friends, and my band had recorded there.
What band was that?
Dog. It was like a rock’n’roll band. And our friend Bill Little was in this band Precious Wax Droppings that [Tortoise’s] John Herndon played drums for; this was the genesis of the whole Tortoise nexus. Bill suggested me, so [Wood] hired me. It didn’t even really pay. So I was just working and making records. Brad was doing really well, and then we did the Liz Phair record [Exile In Guyville] and Brad started doing all these major-label records. I stayed at the studio when he’d go and record all these [bigger] bands.
How did the Ben Lee thing happen?
Brad recorded half of it because he was buddies with the Grand Royal Records people. They wanted him to come to Australia and finish the record, but he had another commitment. So I did it. I wasn’t acting as Brad’s understudy in the opera or something. If you listen to the record, we have pretty distinctive approaches. Mine is more no-frills and Brad polished it up a bit more. I think he was headed in that direction as a record producer.
What did you think of Australia?
I thought it was amazing. It was beautiful. It was different then. The American dollar was worth two Australian dollars, and it was a little less crowded. The first place I ever experienced in Australia was Bondi Beach. I thought, “Wow, Australia is weirdly beachy and cosmopolitan at the same time. Everybody’s really good-looking and the food’s amazing.” I just recorded that and left. I didn’t have any time off.
When was your next visit?
With Tortoise, touring TNT. I was their touring engineer and ran videos. That’s when I met Tania [Bowers]. Tania was the ex-girlfriend of Adam Yee, the bass player in Smudge who also did Fellaheen Records, the label that did the Ben Lee record. They’d broken up and he introduced us during that trip. Me and Tania started seeing each other the next year . I came out to record another band, Adam Said Galore, in Perth. I did that and then we went to New South Wales and did some recording with Tania.
It’s quite a thing to fall into.
Australia’s beautiful, man. I don’t think they really appreciate how nice it is. Well, the ones who have traveled all around the world do know how nice they have it. People who have never left here think it’s shit because there’s that cultural inferiority complex that runs very deep in the Australian psyche. It’s not my observation, it’s a widely recognized phenomenon. In music you see it all the time.
A lot of Aussie bands work with American producers for that reason.
I wish they’d do it more often, because I don’t get that much work.
So you want to exploit this quest for legitimacy?
Hell yeah. You guys want that American sound? Come to Casey.
So was your relationship with Tania long-distance at first?
Yeah. Then she came to Chicago. We got married and lived in Chicago until 2002, and then we came here. We split a couple years later. She went back [to America] and I stayed here.
And you played in her band?
Via Tania. She still does that. Good stuff.
Were you seeing many Aussie bands outside of work?
Well, they’re intertwined. I was mixing a lot of bands live. I definitely saw stuff. I have a hard time recalling those times now, because I have a baby.
When you do live sound, is that just for extra money?
Pretty much. That’s not my thing. I’ve done my share of that, thanks. It’s just hard work; thankless, boring and long hours. I mean, I’ll do it. I’m not opposed to it. It pays really badly here.
Do you ever do it for US bands touring here?
Once in a while. I’ll do it for Caribou when they come over. I always go on tour with them because we have fun hanging out. And I went on tour with Holy Fuck last year.
How did you go about setting up shop here?
I stopped working at [Wood’s studio] in 1996 or ’97. I just freelanced [after that]. I did a lot of live sound [in Australia, including] at the Footscray Community Arts Centre for a long time. I did whatever to make money. Then I started doing records. The whole recording cycle is really slow. You make a record, then a few months later it comes out, then a few months after people notice it. It takes a few rounds of that before people start to catch on. There’s also this misperception that I’m really expensive to work with. My whole existence is independent music. I don’t do any major label records. I’m totally affordable. I’ve talked to people who didn’t even call me because they thought I’d be too expensive, which really is frustrating.
“My whole existence is independent music. I don’t do any major label records. I’m totally affordable. I’ve talked to people who didn’t even call me because they thought I’d be too expensive, which really is frustrating.”
What’s your setup at the moment?
I have a room where I can mix stuff and edit. It’s my office. I don’t have a studio where I record bands. I don’t want to have a business like that. [Laughs] It’s a shocker.
So you record bands at different studios, like Headgap [in Melbourne]?
Or Sing Sing or Woodstock or Bakehouse. Or Big Jesus Burger in Sydney. I did this Modular band Ghostwood in Sydney too at Electric Avenue. Headgap’s a real Chicago-style, no-frills studio and caters to indie rock. Very well-equipped but not as centred on gear porn.
Was the Dirty Three’s Cinder your first big Australian record?
If you don’t count the Ben Lee record, I guess. Once you do a Dirty Three record, your stock goes up. They used to live in Chicago. I know Mick from Chicago. They were writing that record [Cinders] and rehearsing it on Phillip Island and thought they should just record it then. And I was available. We worked really quickly with really set hours. There was not a lot of sitting around hemming and hawing.
Was that partly your influence?
No. It was my influence maybe in the style of recording. But they’re a pretty autonomous outfit. They do what they want, definitely. [Laughs] It was really cool to work with them. No EQ on that record, we just used microphones and then mixed it by pushing faders up. There’s no real dialing in of sounds. It was mastered that way too. Mick wanted to try that, so we gave it a shot.
How was it doing the second Bird Blobs album?
They were good. They didn’t really last as a band though. Ian Wadley was in that band, and he’s been in about every band in Australia. Good musician, that guy. That was a Woodstock record. That used to be Joe Camilleri’s studio; the guy who used to be in Jo Jo Zep & the Falcons and The Black Sorrows.
To fast-forward a bit, the Songs album is really great.
I heard a lot of people really like that. Good band, I reckon. They’re not afraid to be a band and be different. Because they’re not Australian. They don’t have that cultural cringe, looking elsewhere for acceptance. Kiwis don’t give a fuck, they just do it.
The album’s a lot different from their first EP.
That cute, jangly sound is gone now. But the thing is, it’s not gone. It’s just different. The personality is still there. It’s a bit more serious. It’s a little less “ha ha” and a little more slightly dangerous. I thoroughly enjoyed making that record, actually.
When an album has a lot of longer songs, like that one, does it make your job harder?
Not really. They’re just songs. That was a good combination of them and me, because I wasn’t trying to [change them]. A lot of people would have heard their band and gone, “Man, I need to make this good. I need to polish it up and take all the rough edges off and make it really sweet and perfect.” That person, in my opinion, doesn’t get it. It’s not about making it perfect. It’s about getting the feel and the tone of it, and helping them get what they want, as opposed to some svengali idea of the producer as the controller.
Yeah, I know Steve Albini actually avoids a producer credit.
Well, what does it even mean?
The terms producer and engineer are often used interchangeably.
The engineer is the technician, and the producer used to be the person who hired the studio, the engineer, the songwriter, the musicians, interfaced with the label, put all the budgets together and produced a set of recordings for the label. Then slowly, throughout the ’60s and ’70s, it evolved to mean this tastemaker who sat on a couch and said, “That sounds great” or “That sounds okay.” There’s a joke: “How many producers does it take to screw in a light bulb? I don’t know, what do you think?” That’s what producers do: sit around and create some kind of intense vibe.
Do you consider yourself an engineer then?
Well, I do the engineering, so I suppose so. I’d like to think of myself as a creative facilitator. I help bands make records. I think of myself as someone who’s facilitating their creativity, making it better.
Tell me about doing Aleks and The Ramps’ Midnight Believer.
I cut the basic tracks, which would have been everything they did live as a band. They did all the overdubs in the shed of their house.
And they brought an insane amount of tracks for mixing.
It was a lot. Up to a hundred on some songs, which would have been four 24-track tape machines synced together. That’s been made possible by computers. When I first looked at it, I thought, “Oh my god, what a fucking nightmare. I hate this.” Then I saw it as a technical challenge and it was really fun actually. But we mixed it during that really nasty heat wave last year. My studio is upstairs, and it was so fucking hot. It was outrageous. Aleks and I were sitting around in running shorts and flip-flops with no shirts. It took about a day and a half to mix each song. But I reckon it’s pretty cool. I really like the single on that record [‘Antique Limb’]. It’s so good.
What else have you been working on?
I mixed the Grand Salvo record [Soil Creatures]. I mixed Oliver Mann, who’s Grand Salvo’s brother. I mastered Mum Smokes’ [Easy/House Music]. I’ve been mastering a lot of indie and punk bands. There’s a need for it here. Ian Wadley’s brother does mastering for about a hundred bucks a record, which is nothing, and then there’s mastering places that are $1500 to $2000 per record. So there’s this big hole in the middle where people want to get something a bit better but they can’t spend a lot of money.
Do you do much music of your own?
Every now and again, yeah. I do computer music lately. Improvised music. But there’s been some discussion lately about playing some live music. I put out some electronicy music as Designer. I put out a record on Stereolab’s label, Duophonic, and one on Soul Static Sound. I did a record on Hefty with a friend of mine as Super E.S.P.
Do you record many electronic acts?
I used to do more different stuff in Chicago. I did jazz and improvised music and noise. I’m a little more narrow here. I guess I do a bit of that stuff, now that I think of it. Avant garde, experimental noise … I’m tangentially involved in some of that scene. I know quite a few of those people and help them out with mixing and mastering. I just mixed and mastered a record with Max Kohane and Anthony Pateras. It’s called Pivixki. That’s more like the music I play, so I have that connection with that. When I first moved here, I worked at [the late Melbourne record store] Synaesthesia one day a week for quite a while.
Who are you working with right now?
This band Wunderlust. They sound like Velvet Underground or Suicide or Chrome. Like primitive space rock. They’re kind of new, from Melbourne. A lot of potential there. We’re doing their album at Headgap and mixing it at my place. It’s pretty interesting, actually. I’m thinking it might turn out alright. What else? I’m working a little bit with Oren Ambarchi on his record. He’s a solo avant garde guy. He’s pretty well known. I don’t know, I can’t remember anything else. I’m too tired from the baby.