How King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard Record: A Discussion with Engineer Casey Hartnett

Most bands would be considered prolific for maintaining a one–album–per–year release schedule, which is why the announcement that Melbourne’s King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard were planning to release five full–length LPs in 2017 alone was something of a shock — even by the band’s own standards.

Following the February release of Flying Microtonal Banana, and on the heels of a sold–out US tour, their new LP, Murder of the Universe, is due for release at the end of June. We sat down with engineer Casey Hartnett to discuss Murder’s genesis in–studio, as well as what lies in store for those remaining three LPs due by year’s end.

So how did you come to work with King Gizzard on this LP?

Photo by Jamie Wdzieonski

Growing up in Geelong, I’ve known Stu [Mackenzie], Lucas [Skinner], Ambrose [Kenny–Smith], and Cook [Craig] since school. Stu and I played football and basketball together, and the Geelong music scene was small enough that everyone played in bands together, and all the bands did shows together. And then I met Joe [Walker], Eric [Moore] and Michael [Cavanagh] when I moved to Melbourne.

So tracking this album, there was this realisation that I’ve basically known this group of people forever. And that sense of ease definitely made its way into the tracking environment.

Geelong was a pretty healthy environment to grow up in. Everyone just helped each other out, and there was no competition. Everyone was so supportive, I guess, out of necessity.

That sense of community has been something [King Gizzard] have always kept to. They’ve kept a lot of things super close to themselves, often working with the same group of people. Since day one, all of their recordings, artwork, video, management etc. has been kept within a really tight group of people they trust.

That’s pretty amazing stuff, given the scale of the band’s success. I guess it makes a pretty strong argument for how a band gets good and becomes successful — by knowing what works and not messing with the formula.

Right. They’ve just stayed in control of those things. And if they want to put out five albums in a year, well then, they can do it. I mean, I know a bunch of bands that have been in almost the opposite situation, where they’ve had several records finished, but then labels have rosters and they end up in a holding pattern.

It’s honestly pretty inspiring, just to be around how they work.

So, tell us about working with the band. How do they operate? Is it a largely democratic process?

Yeah, it’s hyper–focused. They’re so on–point with each other. As for being democratic, I think their methods are something that Stu has imposed, and the others have been okay with compromising their own tendencies. So when they’re in that mode with Stu, they can just get it done. I mean, they’re playing at a level now where they can easily match their ambitions.

For the Murder of the Universe record, there were sections that we got on the first take, and — you’ll hear when the record’s out — there’s stuff on there that’s really complex, polyrhythmic.

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard - Han-Tyumi & The Murder Of The Universe

How did you record the album? Was it all done live?

For the initial live sessions, there’s just Cav's drums, Stu and Joe playing guitar, and Lucas playing bass. The four of them tracked the whole record live, and then the whole second drum kit was recorded as an overdub.

Up to the point that I worked with them on MOTU, we just did a few of the additional guitars and some synths. From there, the band took the tracks and recorded all of the other parts themselves, and then Michael Badger — who mixed Nonagon Infinity — recorded some vocals and mixed the album.

Instrumentally, the whole thing was pretty on lock when we did the initial beds, but that record has totally transformed since they started fleshing it out.

And what about gear?

Murder of the Universe was tracked to Stu’s 38 8–track Tascam tape machine, so we were very limited with channels going in.

Because of the dual drum tracks, we recorded each kit in mono, with the foresight that each kit would be panned left and right in the stereo field in the mix, so a single Coles 4038 overhead, a Beyer M201 on the snare, a Shure SM7B on the Kick, and an RE20 on the Floor tom, paired with a Sennheiser 421 on the rack.

For the second kit, we didn’t mic the kick. We kept the common kick track from the other recording, but added a second track of everything else, just to keep it centered. We used the same mics for those tracks too, other than swapping the snare mic for a SM57.

The bass was DI’d through a Sebatron. On Joe’s guitar, we used an RE20, and on Stu’s I used another Coles 4038.

The kick, snare, and both tom channels were run using a Vintech 473 preamp, the guitar amps were both through a Gyraf G9 tube pre, and the overhead was run through a Tree Audio Branch. We ran from the pres into a small mixing desk, which gave some more control before hitting the tape — lots of gain stages in the process, pushing for pretty heavy tape saturation.

We trialled a few things for the kit, but because of the track limitations and available gear, everything else was done with what we had on hand.

There wasn’t a lot of time. Murder was done in three–and–a–half days: an evening’s setup, then three days of tracking. That’s it. If things weren’t working, it was just about figuring a workaround.

Recording set up for drums

The other King Gizzard album I’m working on right now… I’m going to say it’s a little more finessed, in the sense that I was more familiar with recording the band in their space, and there was perhaps a little bit more time in the setup and some extra channels to play with.

Though Stu’s tape machine has broken, so in true Gizzard style, we’ve just gone for the fastest and most practical workaround to get the music recorded and have tracked it straight into Pro Tools. There was no thought to delay the sessions, no discussion on sourcing another machine. It was just a matter of, “Here’s a solution, let’s go.”

Now I know you can’t say too much about it, but you’ve mentioned working on the beds for another LP at the moment, is that right? Is that album numbers two and three of this year you’ve worked on?

I think it may end up being either [numbers] two and four or two and five, actually. Number three was started around the same time as Murder of the Universe but has been a bit slower to come together, and I didn’t work on that one.

But yeah, we tracked the first half of this record before they went on tour. If Murder of the Universe is the heaviest thing they’ve produced to date, well, this one may turn out to be one of the most stripped–back. But it’s early days, and a lot can change once the band starts experimenting in the studio with overdubs and other processes. So far we have just tracked the live sessions as a three–piece. I’m super interested to see how it turns out!

Aside from King Gizzard, what else are you working on?

Well, I’m mid–way through records for three of the bands I play in.

Sleep Decade — which is the band I write and sing for — have been working on our second LP for the past couple of years, and that will be out this year. Love Migrate — a band that Joe from King Gizzard also plays in — has just finished a new LP that will be out later this year.

Sagamore has a debut LP coming out in a few months. And Mallee Songs are most of the way through a new album, too. Several of these records will be released on Dusky Tracks, a label recently started up by King Gizzard’s bassist, Lucas Skinner.

I’ve also been working with a songwriter named Jessie Warren. She’s putting together a really exciting record at the moment.

What do you think about the current state of the Australian recording community? Given the relative ease with which people can make records at home, do you think traditional recording studios are becoming obsolete?

I mean, I don’t think they’re obsolete in any functional sense, but often, they’re just not viable to operate. Excluding the possibility of outside wealth or investment, the idea of establishing and running a large–format studio with all the overhead costs, versus the money that’s likely to come in…

Photo by Jamie Wdzieonski

I think there are going to be a lot more people, like me, working in smaller spaces or on location. I think that’s going to open up a whole lot of new sonic avenues, though, even if it’s out of necessity, and I think that’s really exciting.

Obviously, the artist and the music have more to do with making good records than the studio or the gear does.

Murder of the Universe is out now. For more information on the band and to follow their tour schedule, check out their website here.

Lead photo by Lee Vincent Grubb

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