Ears of Experience

This past spring Chicagoan Casey Rice performed with legendary English guitar improviser Derek Bailey at the British music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties. The format was collaborative free improvisation, but while Bailey sat on the stage, Rice was hunkered down behind a mixing board, several laptops, and signal processing equipment in the back of the performance hall, simultaneously manipulating the guitarist’s amplified abstractions and injecting his own rapid-fire penetrating tones.

If you’ve never heard of Casey Rice, it’s probably because he’s been similarly obscured behind banks of equipment for most of the last decade. As a recording engineer, his recent credits include work by Joan of Arc, Isotope 217, the Eternals, the Nerves, Pan*American, and 8 Bold Souls, and as Brad Wood’s guy Friday in the 90s, he helmed or had a hand in records by half the “seminal” rock bands in Chicago. He’s been behind the board for nearly every live show Tortoise has ever played, sometimes contributing film accompaniment, and recently he was recruited to do sound for Sigur Ros. He’s put out a handful of records as the electronic artist Designer, but that’s a field where even the stars tend to be anonymous.

Rice had no intention of making a name in music when he moved to Chicago in the summer of 1988. “I came here to do visual art, not music,” he says. “I sold all of my records.” He’d studied political science and art off and on for several years at Ohio State University, but spent some of his most gratifying time there playing guitar in a primitive punk-rock band called Control and the Swans-like art-punk outfit IDF, which also featured future Nerves drummer Elliot Dicks, future Atavistic Records owner Kurt Kellison, and Kellison’s wife, filmmaker Paula Froehle. During his first year in Chicago, Rice mounted a show of paintings and several performance pieces. By the following year, however, he’d returned to music, forming a snotty punk band called Dog with fellow Columbus expats Dicks and Joaquin de la Puente (who still uses the name for various projects today).

Dog became the opening band of choice for other loud indie-rock acts. Rice befriended the movers and shakers of the early Wicker Park rock scene, including Precious Wax Drippings (with future Tortoise drummer John Herndon) and Friends of Betty (some of whom would go on to start Red Red Meat). When Red Red Meat drummer Brian Deck, who cofounded Idful studios with Brad Wood, pulled out of the business in 1992, Rice was offered an engineering position–even though his resume at the time consisted of one album for IDF and the first EP by Chicago punks Burnout. But he proved a quick study. “I was really interested in the physics of it,” he says. “It was a chance to get paid doing something related to music instead of banging nails or painting houses. I had an interest in the job as a career for a while–until I realized what it meant.”

As it happened, when Rice took the job at Idful, Liz Phair was recording Exile in Guyville there. She had no band of her own, and since Rice could play guitar, he was drafted into service. When the record hit big, he became a regular collaborator, playing on Phair’s second album and sometimes backing her live. Wicker Park was thrust into the national spotlight, touted as the “next Seattle,” and the music industry placed some of its biggest bets on young bands that recorded at Idful, including Veruca Salt. Rice didn’t like what he saw happening, and by 1996 he’d quit the studio.

“There’s this myth about record producers,” he says. “Here’s this magical guy who gets this magical sound with a magical formula, when it’s really about going to the right parties more than anything else. I didn’t really want to do engineering that much, and I didn’t want to play in a rock band. I was totally disgusted with all of the music industry horseshit after the Liz Phair thing. It made me feel like an ass. There were a ton of people hanging out all of the time, wanting to be your friend because you were the guy that played the second guitar parts.”

His distaste for the rock scene dovetailed with a new obsession: the burgeoning English drum ‘n’ bass movement. “I first heard it by accident, when I went to England [with Tortoise],” he says, “this original music that had never been made before coming out of these huge bass bins, Blade Runner-style. Going to those DJ gigs got me excited.” He began collecting the latest singles from England and sharing his discoveries with Chicago audiences as a participant in the Deadly Dragon Sound System, a DJ collective that for a time mixed dancehall, hip-hop, and drum ‘n’ bass every Sunday night at the Empty Bottle.

At the same time Rice began experimenting with electronic music at home. He made a few unsuccessful and unreleased stabs at drum ‘n’ bass, but the first singles he released as Designer, although beat driven, were more abstract, as were the beat experiments he recorded in 1998 with Eternals singer Damon Locks under the name Super E.S.P. That same year he contributed a brutal rhythm track to Playbacks, a project organized by New York music writer and Ui bassist Sasha Frere-Jones. Frere-Jones solicited tracks by a variety of post-rock and experimental-rock musicians, including Jim O’ Rourke and Henry Kaiser, and gave them to Derek Bailey to improvise over.

When the recording was released, Bailey singled out Rice’s work for praise in the British avant music magazine the Wire. “Fast as fuck and really shifting,” he marveled. “The old jazzers reckon that the one thing you can’t do with machines is make ’em swing, but some guys can make ’em swing, and Casey Rice does.” Bailey and Rice were supposed to play together at the Empty Bottle in the summer of 1999, but scheduling conflicts arose, so when the guitarist learned that Rice would be at All Tomorrow’s Parties to do Tortoise’s sound, he suggested they try again there. “I was really surprised,” says Rice. “The guy remembered this one thing I did for like the 800th record he made.”

In the last few years Rice hasn’t spent nearly as much time recording his own music as he has recording other people’s work, but he’s performed sets of beatless experimental electronics on tours with Tortoise, the Chicago Underground Duo, and Joan of Arc. He’s also working with his wife, Australian singer Tania Bowers, on her forthcoming album for Chocolate Industries. Next Thursday, November 1, at 8 PM he’ll manipulate video and collaborate with Bailey in a show presented in conjunction with “Audible Imagery: Sound and Photography,” an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College. The performance takes place in Columbia’s Getz Theater, 82 E. 11th. For more info call 312-663-5554.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Tania Bowers.