- 1 / 4 Producer/Engineer and Musician "John Castle"
- 2 / 4 "The Shed" studio where I Believe You Liar and Insomnia were recorded
- 3 / 4 Inside "The Shed"
- 4 / 4 "Holy Moses" (M.Washington)/Washington taken from Insomnia EP
Exclusive interview with INSOMNIA & I BELIEVE YOU LIAR producer JOHN CASTLE
Posted on 21 Oct 2011
Today Washington’s INSOMNIA EP is released in Australia. Whilst in Melbourne, we dropped into the now famous studio, "The Shed" and caught up with INSOMNIA producer John Castle . This fresh, eclectic producer has worked with artists such as DAN PARSONS, THE CAT EMPIRE, LIOR, THE BOAT PEOPLE, THE DRONES, THE BAMBOOS, SIMON NUGENT, ROSCOE JAMES IRWIN and recorded Washington’s debut album I BELIEVE YOU LIAR. (I Believe You Liar is released this week in the US, UK, France & Canada)
You worked on Megan’s first album “I Believe You Liar”, was it a similar approach when you came to do Insomnia?
After IBYL came out we were doing months of touring of the record and obviously playing the same songs over and over. Touring can be really hard work and it’s not a very creative process. For the hour you’re on stage it can be exhilarating, fun and satisfying but you’re really just playing the same thing day in day out. Washo was writing some different sorts of songs during that period and we were both looking forward to getting back into the studio and just being able to do something a little different. We never thought the songs from INSOMNIA as being for the big ‘2nd record’. Our intent for most of the songs was always going to be slower, darker and sonically richer, I guess. It was a chance for us to work as we did when we were putting together the very first songs like CLEMENTINE. There was a real freedom in recording these new songs. I know that Megan had these songs bubbling away for awhile and was getting pretty frustrated that we had no time to do anything with them.
Because there was not really a particular end point to these songs when we began recording them we just treated each song as its own work. There were certain sounds that we knew we both were interested in which could tie the songs together but our main concern was getting each song finished without any pressure and for its own sake.
Neither of us wanted a ‘Band’ sound on the record. We just wanted to layer up sections with synths, guitars and some old drum machines and see what happened. It was really a pretty quick process as we know each other pretty well by now and a lot of things don’t even need to be said.
As Washo had less and less time this year we would get in when we could and put down sketches of the songs and then often I would work on stuff by myself for a while. Then we would have a chat about it and talk about what the songs needed.
And when you listen back to ‘I Believe You Liar’?
I haven’t listened to it for a while but I’m proud of that record and it gave both Washo and I a lot of opportunities to travel and play great gigs in all sorts of places.
It’s interesting to listen back to the songs after you’ve been touring them for a long time.
By the time a band has played together for a couple of years the songs often morph into entirely different creatures – which I really enjoy. Coming back to listen to the record after a long break is great for me as I can listen through much more objectively and actually enjoy the music without over thinking all the individual parts that make up the song.
And with regards to players, was it a similar approach to I Believe You Liar, just you and Megan?
It was just Megan and I again as it was on IBYL except for a few additional string parts.
We had most of the main instruments recorded for all the songs before Megan went to NYC but at the last minute we added some cello played by the very talented Mel Robinson who also played on the new Bamboos record.
She’s also a great arranger and came up with some great parts. We pretty much let her do her thing except for on Sentimental Education which I had some specific parts for.
When Washo was OS I laid some more stuff down on a lot of the songs and then finished up the mixes.
There is definitely a lot of trust there between you and Megan.
Yes there is. We’ve known each other for a while now and have worked very closely together over the years. It’s really important for me that the people I work with in the studio trust me to help them bring out the best in their songs and I think Megan does. When we work together in the studio we are constantly talking through ideas and if one of us isn’t into it – it’s out.
I’m really glad we had the opportunity to do this project before Megan starts work on her second record. It was good to do something together again with less pressure, and after the long touring, it was good to get back in the studio.
When you came to mix the EP, was there a different approach?
Yes, I wanted this group of songs to feel denser, darker and warmer. In general I don’t really finish tracking of the songs and then start mixing, I’m always mixing as I go. That’s the real advantage of mixing in the box (on computer). You can start building your mix from the first day of recording and come back to it anytime and it will be exactly the same. It allows me to have some time with the mix and really think about what I want. Also Megan and I jump around from song to song a lot so working in the analog domain would be very time consuming for us.
So you’re not faders down, start again …
No way, by the first day of recording I have a pretty decent skeleton mix which is usually going to be very similar sonically to the finished mix. When it came time to finish up the tracks for IBYL most of the mixes were 90 percent there. This gives me the opportunity to get into the minute details that I’ve ignored up until this point to keep the work flow moving.
I do go deeply into the mix at the end in as far as the specific tonal qualities of instruments and how everything blends but the inherent ‘tone’ of the song is already there.
I have, in the past, taken all the treatment off the tracks at the mix time and started again, but I found that I was going back to exactly where I started. Once I have an idea about what I want each song to sound like I’ll strive to take them to that point. With some songs it’s easy and happens very quickly and others you can labour over for way too long and then decide that it was a terrible idea in the first place!
I feel that getting some sort of mix together even in the first few hours of recording really informs you of how everything sits and what needs to be added or subtracted throughout the process. It means making sonic decisions early.
That was the interesting thing about sending IBYL to Brauer to mix. Many of the parts I recorded were done really quickly without much thought to how ‘well’ they were recorded. I never have a problem with this come mix time when I mix the song as I know where and how they’ll sit in the mix when I’m recording them. I’m always trying to find new sounds that interest me and a lot of the time that comes from jumping in the studio with lots of mics open and just hitting things or playing instruments in ways they weren’t intended to be played. I guess if I knew that Brauer was going to be doing the US mix I may have recorded it differently. I’m glad I didn’t know or think about it in the beginning as I don’t think it would be the same record. If it sounds good and feels good, record it.
When you heard the new mixes, was it a weird experience hearing it? Like, some of the guitars shouldn’t be there or that loud
Some of that definitely happened but all in all it was a positive experience. The thing with the Washington songs is that there a lot of instruments doing a lot of different things at the same time. Megan’s songs often don’t have a chorus that’s the same every time or a 2nd verse that is the same structure as the 1st and so on. Because of this and because of the way I put the tracks together, I think it’s more difficult for someone to mix tracks like these in one day without having heard the song before.
Brauer had the original stereo IBYL mixes synced with all the multitracks so that he could refer to my mixes. In the end I just sent him a whole lot of premixed stereo stems from my mixes to save time. This meant that he could use parts of the original mix then push up stuff he wanted to come out more. I think the mixes came out well. Some I like more than others. I’m not being bitchy but I created those songs a certain way and it’s always going to be hard to get used to new interpretations of them!
Was it the first time sending over to Grammy Award producers?
No, when I was working with The Boat People on their record, Dear Darkly, they sent one of their tracks over to an American mixer called John Potoker.(Peter Gabriel)
They didn’t end up using the mix but it was a similar experience to sending stuff to Brauer. It’s always interesting to hear what someone else will do with your work.
Some of the Washington songs, I think, really work with some of the darker elements and grit that we put into them and I was hoping that Brauer wouldn’t clean it up too much. I was glad he didn’t get rid of too much of that stuff.
I think that in Australia we can get away with tracks being a little more dirty and darker than in the States. Having said that, there’s an amazing amount of indie stuff coming out of America that is fantastic and sonically really interesting. I guess it always depends on which market your aiming for.
I would like to think that here in Australia we don’t always have to go OS to get ‘that’ sound that will supposedly guarantee global commercial success. There have been many horror stories of OS mixes coming back and being rejected by Australian Radio and of certain producers not delivering the goods from the States. Just because a producer or engineer has worked on a particular album it doesn’t mean that pairing them with another artist is going to produce the same results.
I think the fact that Australia is so isolated from the rest of the world leads musicians and artists from here to compete even harder with what is a much bigger and more populous global industry. I think that has created a really strong artistic culture here that shouldn’t be ignored.
What is your favourite song from the EP? Why?
I really love Sentimental Education. It’s a fantastic song and I think it came out really well. It was great to have the freedom to create a track that didn’t have to have a slamming chorus before the magic 1 minute mark, if you know what I mean. Like a lot of things that have ended up being kept on the Washington recordings the initial vocal take is something that I was adamant that we had to keep. The take was really just a quick guide and the plan was always to redo it. After living with the song for a while we tried to put some new vocals on but there was just something about the original delivery that was magic!
What are you working on?
I’ve just finished the new Bamboos record with Lance Ferguson. This is the fifth record that we’ve done together and this one’s a bit different to the last 4 records. There are some amazing guest singers that I can’t really talk about now but look out for it! Also Lance and I are working on tracks for our new project ‘The South Seas’. This is a more commercial project than we’ve worked on before and features the delightful Ella Thompson (Axolotl) on vocals. There’s a new record coming up for Roscoe James Irwin which I’m very excited about. He’s a super talented song-writer, arranger, trumpet player and singer. The last record we did was really fun to make and I think this new record will be even better! I’ve been playing drums for the new Kate Miller-Heidke record which is something I haven’t done much outside my own studio and it was hard work but good fun. I’m also in the middle of finishing an EP for The Cub Scouts from Brisbane who are a great young band. Their 1st single ‘Evie’ has been getting some great reviews already. Also a band, Axolotl, that I’ve been mixing is one to look out for, they’re doing some really interesting stuff. An album I’m really enjoying producing is the debut release from Sweet Jean, a duo consisting of Alice Keath and Sime Nugent. Both really great singer songwiters in their own right but together they create something very special.
So ‘The Shed’ …
Some crazy people used to live in the house where the Shed is located and it was just a run down old cement sheet backyard shed. Dad did a bit of work on it in the old days and then one fine day in my sixteenth year, I convinced him that it would be a great idea to get rid of the table tennis table and help me build a studio instead. Believe it or not, it worked. The space itself has been evolving for the last decade and if I get bored at any time I’ll head down to the hardware store, buy some timber, and change the rooms around a bit. In the late nineties I was doing a lot of gigs as a bass player around the place and every time I had some money saved up I’d blow it on some more studio gear. I guess it was better than gambling (others may disagree).
I’ve always been interested in weirder, cheap instruments. For one they’re cheap and the sounds you can get out of them are different to your run of the mill Les Paul/Strat/Hammond B3/Nord kind of thing. I still use those instruments but I get a lot of joy from my Japanese guitars and basses from the sixties as well as my Farfisa keyboards. They’re all kinda difficult to play but they look great! I like putting a crappy guitar into the hands of someone who’s not used to it and see what happens. Often on these instruments there are inbuilt limitations that can create some great ideas.
There are plans afoot at the moment to find a new space for the shed and I’m very excited about that prospect. I will, however, miss the place. I’ve had a lot of great times in there with some incredible musicians (and not so incredible!) and very funny people. I think most people instantly feel comfortable in the space. Even though it’s always a bit crowded and constantly needs to be vacuumed (thanks Megan) I’m very proud of the quality of work that we’ve managed to achieve over the years. I’m looking forward to creating a new space that isn’t too clinical in its design and feel and can crank out some hits for years to come.
WASHINGTON's INSOMNIA EP is out now in AUSTRALIA and I BELIEVE YOU LIAR LP now available in the US, UK, France, Canada and of course AUS