Despite spending most of his life in a DIY studio built within his parent’s backyard, producer John Castle is responsible for some of Australia’s most prominent records. A skim through his discography reveals he’s played an undeniable hand in what our country’s sound has become; counting Vance Joy, The Bamboos, Jack River, Cub Sport, Megan Washington and many more amongst his contemporaries.
We caught up in Melbourne to discuss learning on the run, staying malleable and whether or not there’s an Australian sound.
This article will appear in Happy Mag Issue 6. Grab your copy here.
Does Australian music have a distinct character? Few people are as equipped to answer that question as producer, engineer and multi-instrumentalist John Castle.
HAPPY: So you were in a session yesterday?
JOHN: Yeah, I was in a session on Wednesday. That was with Lance from The Bamboos, who I’ve done about 27 records with over the years, which is kind of mental. We started doing these guerilla records for The Bamboos, which is all on tape and just live, straight through. And we’ve done a lot of records that are a lot more complex, and some of their records have become a lot more involved. We do these ones for Freestyle, they’re this UK label. We get all the band in live, no one really knows what they’re going to play until they get there, there’s no rehearsals. And I’ve gotta play bass and record it.
HAPPY: Interesting. JOHN: It’s hard! Because I’ve got to think about record levels or what’s going on with the sounds and I’ve still got to play at the same time. But it’s really good fun.
HAPPY: That’s quite cool. They’re jam albums?
JOHN: Well actually these ones are kind of cover records. Because Lance is such an avid collector, he has amazing musical knowledge, he just picks these bizzarro 45s that maybe DJs play but they might only be two minutes long or the pressings really shitty, and he kind of redoes them. It’s for DJs, but for other people as well to listen to, and we redo them in the style or slightly different. And every song on the record, we put a different band name for every song so it looks like some weird old compilation you’ve never heard.
HAPPY: I like that, I do like people who fully buy into the 12 inch, DJ circuit.
JOHN: Exactly, and Lance has DJed for years, but it’s really fun from the musician’s perspective because there’s a lot of records I’ve done that are quite, you know, electro pop or take a long time, but these get mixed in a day. The whole thing’s done in two days.
HAPPY: That’s how you do 27 albums, huh?
JOHN: That’s right! Well, not all of them are like that but it’s just a great difference to how some other records are made. Makes it all fun again.
HAPPY: Going earlier in your career, was it always The Bamboos you were a recording artist with?
JOHN: Yeah probably. I started straight out of high school, just doing demos for people on a 4-track. My dad was a musician and had some mic at home so I pilfered those and just recorded people all over the place.
HAPPY: So you’ve always served as the inner-band producer?
JOHN: Yeah, and the weird thing is I was engineering at that point, but there was one band, May West who were mates from high school who I still hang out with. I think they were the first ones to ask me to, you know, have some creative input. We were all into Radiohead at the time, not that it sounds like that… it was cool. And then you get the trust levels between people.
HAPPY: I’ve found that about a few producers early on in their career. They use their music as, well advertising is a dirty word, but maybe as a means of broadcasting their talent?
JOHN: Because how else do you get your stuff out there? Unless you come out of the gates with some massive hit that everybody’s into, which does happen to some people, but most of the time the people involved in those songs have done a lot of work before that. It might not be the coolest work in the world, but that’s how you build up your skills.
HAPPY: Did you ever do any work in a conventional studio?
JOHN: You know what, I never did. And I built my little studio out the back without ever moving into one. So I set my studio up in, probably, a weird way but I had lots of good stuff. I think it was just really good for musicians to go in there. It’s cool, I’ve always done it myself. Not from an ego point of view, I just wanted to do it. I was probably too scared to go into anywhere else, anyway! ‘Cause you don’t know what you don’t know.
HAPPY: Like, what am I doing wrong?
JOHN: Exactly! You want to make mistakes on your own so you learn how to fix them up.
HAPPY: I’ve come across the ‘self-taught vs. classically trained’ argument in musicians a lot, but much less for producers.
JOHN: Well it depends on… I probably came from more of a traditional point, I was trained in woodwinds so I could read music from grade four and I knew how to play the bass, did all that stuff. So musically I had a lot of that side but for the studio, it was just trial and error. You know? I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about that side.
HAPPY: Often the best way to learn.
HAPPY: So that was the birth of the shed?
JOHN: That was the birth of the shed studio, and I was just doing bass gigs the whole time. Some terrible ones, as well as some decent ones, but as the money would come in I would slowly, slowly add parts to the studio.
HAPPY: I’ve recently found out that the shed studio…
JOHN: Doesn’t exist anymore?
HAPPY: It doesn’t exist anymore! But I still want to talk about it.
JOHN: It’s quite sad.
HAPPY: It was out the back of your parent’s house?
JOHN: Yes, it was.
HAPPY: Fantastic. Did anyone ever get weirded out by that?
JOHN: You know what, I was probably more paranoid the whole time that people would think that. Do you know what I mean? But when people actually got down there and started working, it seemed to be ok. I went through a bit of a period, especially when I started working with a lot of interstate artists and that, I felt a bit funny with that. But when they came in, I never really had a problem with that.
HAPPY: There are very, very few places more comfortable than home.
JOHN: Yeah, and I had set it up. It lacked in some facilities, there wasn’t a kitchen and stuff, but the thing is I do eight hour days, I don’t do the 40 hour sessions, let’s just get it done. It was comfortable enough for that.
HAPPY: Were you ever self-aware that you were essentially living out a stereotype?
JOHN: (laughs) Living at mum and dads? It’s weird, I tried to get out many times. But I was very, very lucky to be able to do it there, there are so many studios shutting down now and even then it was difficult. Look, sometimes I wanted to get out but then I’d do a record in there and I really liked it. I just started to think I could get good sounds there.
HAPPY: Feels like home?
JOHN: It was just so comfortable there, everything was set up. Drum kit was always mic’d up, piano was always mic’d up, it was ready to go. There was no, six hours setting up stuff.
HAPPY: How did you translate that over into the news space?
JOHN: Well it’s very similar. Roger and I, the guy who runs it, Union Street Studio it’s called, we’ve been mates for 20 years. Him and me, we always set up in the same way so the kit’s always there, the piano’s always there. He doesn’t want to muck around either, and if clients are paying you a certain amount of money, you don’t want to be setting up for hours. That’s boring for everyone, and the musicians get really bored. I do a lot of work one-on-one, and I’ll do things like get the musician to run the computer while I’m doing drums. It seems really ad hoc, but it seems to work. That’s the reason I haven’t really got any studio assistants either, because I’m just used to doing everything myself. I wouldn’t know what to tell them to do, you know?
HAPPY: Seems fairly unique.
JOHN: Well there’s definitely people doing it like that, but I’m lucky that I can rely on just playing lots of instruments over the years. I’m not saying I’m great at them, but it’s good to be able to play drums or bass guitar with people, and have them trust me for that.
HAPPY: The work that I started to see your name on, it’s a lot of stuff I would call Australiana or at least part of the Australian music zeitgeist. Do you think there’s an Australian sound at the moment, and is it something you aim for?
JOHN: That’s interesting. I mean the reason I started my studio, I’ll just backtrack here for a bit, in the late ‘90s when I was playing and people were recording stuff, a lot of it was being taken offshore. And that’s fine, that’s really cool but I felt that surely there could be a way of making really good quality recordings here, without having to go overseas. I’m not against going overseas, but I was really into that idea of trying to up the quality of stuff. In my little world, I wanted something that we could do good things with here. And I think we do have a sound. Spotify has changed things, and also the j’s.
HAPPY: I find that so interesting, it’s like as the world has become more able to access Australian music, it’s almost like we thought we had to sound a certain way.
JOHN: Exactly, and that’s what I think is so interesting now, is that people are finding it. Maybe it’s like Australian actors, you know? There’s lots of stuff in the arts world where people are just more used to it now. And I don’t know if it’s because Australians are just writing in a more general way, or that the production aesthetic is not so narrow-focused now. If you go through the stuff triple j has been playing for 20 years, it’s gone through a lot. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think back then we were just doing stuff in a way that was just a bit hokier. And that had a sound too! It was unique-ish.
HAPPY: So you worked on Jack River’s EP. I’m a big fan, personally.
JOHN: Yep I love Holly, she’s awesome.
HAPPY: But it does have this very Australian tint. A nationalistic thing almost, in a good way.
JOHN: I think that’s great! I certainly wouldn’t want Australians to lose that, and that’s the environment that we’re in, you can’t help but be influenced. I’m not sure it’s the sea, the sun and the surf or anything like that, or whatever. Anything that stamps the place you live in, I think is really interesting. And I’d like to keep that.
HAPPY: I noticed more recently, you’ve worked with a lot of women and LGBTQI artists. Was that a conscious thing, or did that happen as they came in?
JOHN: I think I’ve just always listened to female artists? For years and years, and I don’t know what that is but I just gravitate towards it more naturally. As a kid even, I grew up on Fleetwood Mac and other people I’m not even going to mention. But I learnt a lot from that stuff, and I feel very comfortable there production-wise. I don’t know what it is, honestly. And I think with the LGBT thing, well with Cub Sport…
HAPPY: That’s a great record.
JOHN: Well I’ve been working with them for years, but I’m really proud of what we’ve done with this one. I was there when Timmy and Sam came out, I had a good little tear in my eye that night. I don’t know, I can’t believe what they had to have gone through. From a heterosexual point of view, for them for them to sit there for that long in that situation… anyway, it’s been amazing but I haven’t really been searching that out.
HAPPY: It’s still not necessarily reflected in the popular sphere, which is why I asked.
JOHN: Definitely. And there’s been a lot of chats, you know about female artists not being properly represented on triple j, and because I generally work with female artists and a lot of them are on triple j but I don’t necessarily know the details. And speaking about the nationalistic thing…
HAPPY: Yeah. It’s something that’s very ingrained in Australian culture.
JOHN: Really frustrating.
HAPPY: Your preference with female vocalists…
JOHN: I don’t want to make it creepy or anything!
HAPPY: Absolutely not! Sonically then, and with the kind of records you’ve worked on, the idea of a producer having a sound has always interested me. Again, comparing it to musicians people are very ok with the idea of a band having a sound but people are less ok with the idea that a producer can have a sound. Was your sound something you always had a sense of?
JOHN: I guess I’m a reactive producer in that I need the song, the song is the most important thing. It’s not my production skills, it’s the song and that’s the only way it can possibly work. I do some co-writing with artists, not much of it but if I’ve got the song there I’ll react to that and knowing the artist as much as I can, I guess production to me is just a bunch of all my experiences, and all the stuff I’ve listened to. Obviously I pick things out of thin air in some ways, if you’ve got someone with just an acoustic guitar and a vocal, you’ve got to create a whole world around that… it’s hard to work out what there is. There are friends of mine who say “oh did you do that track on the radio?”, they can recognise stuff. I can’t recognise it, but to them it’s obvious. It’s not something that I write notes about or anything, I’m just reacting to it.
HAPPY: Seems like the most natural way it could happen.
JOHN: And it doesn’t mean I’m always right! My studio’s not my way or the highway, it’s ‘let’s try this out and chat about it’. And if it’s completely wrong, we can scrap it.
HAPPY: Something I’ve never been able to put my finger on is, when a producer does have a sound, is it their preferences seeping in, or is it a situation where you do one record and…
JOHN: They come to you. That’s another thing, I guess post Vance Joy I had a few people come in with that sort of thing, I guess that happens. But a lot of these artists, they don’t necessarily want to sound like Vance Joy but maybe they just trust me because he’s done really well, or something. It’s all within the, sort of indie pop genre I guess, but within that there has been a lot of stuff where I can spread my wings in a different way. Because I do want to be as creative as I can, but I also want to make the song as best I can. I’m aware of the genres, and if I was just into ‘90s stuff, it wouldn’t work. I’ve got to be very malleable with people. But then it’s also hard to know sometimes with bands and producers, whether the producer has been the facilitator, which I’ve done in the past. And some records I’ve done everything… sometimes it’s hard to tell.
HAPPY: I’ve found some artists get quite reserved when I’m asking them about a producer. It’s never my intention, but I assume they’re thinking that I’m trying to pry in and say it’s not their record.
JOHN: Which I hate. I see it as a totally collaborative process, and I don’t want an artist, especially a younger artist… no one’s ever bragging that ‘oh I made this’ or whatever. Holly, Jack River, she’s incredible and she knows what she wants, and we’ve talked a lot about this concept of what production is, is she the producer? And she is. Those records are co-produced, all of her stuff. And Tim from Cub Sport is the same, that was co-produced as well. And a lot of the stuff he brought in, I didn’t even do anything to. He knew he wanted them as they were. I don’t like people taking too much credit as a producer, you know? It’s from the artist, and the whole point of them working with you is because they trust you.
HAPPY: It’s a weird thing that’s happened, where some producers have found it necessary to become more invisible and some have done the opposite.
JOHN: I think the good part about that is if someone has a win and a song goes well, I’m going to get a text from them saying congratulations, this is wild. To both of us. That’s the feeling that should be around, you know what I mean? The song is the most important thing. If that got out there and more people are hearing it, then great for everyone.
HAPPY: That’s the endgame?
This article will appear in Happy Mag Issue 6. Grab your copy here.