Neko Case: Thrice All American
photo: Erica Henderson
Born in Alexandria, Virginia and raised mainly in Tacoma, Washington, Neko Case left home at 15 and began playing drums in punk rock bands at 18. Around the time she began attending the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver (she graduated with a BFA in 1998), Case began singing country music. Her debut, 1997's The Virginian, attracted immediate notice, and three years later she appeared on not one but three albums: her own Furnace Room Lullaby, which featured her semi-theme song, "Thrice All American," a tribute to Tacoma ("I wanna tell you about my hometown/It's a dusty old jewel in the south Puget Sound"); the Corn Sisters' The Other Women, a mostly-covers album of duets with sharp-witted Vancouver singer-songwriter Carolyn Mark; and the insanely catchy Mass Romantic, by Vancouver sextet the New Pornographers, with whom Case is a featured vocalist.
Interview by Michaelangelo Matos
With the new Blacklisted, Case enters a new phase of solo work. Though the album is twangy enough to file under alt-country, it's also got a ghostly, noirish atmosphere that brings to mind a more down-home k.d. lang or an updated, David Lynch-ian Patsy Cline.
I met Case the day after she performed an industry showcase at the intimate Manhattan lounge, Joe's Pub. Some of the quotes below appear in a Time Out New York article I wrote for the release of Blacklisted, but the most interesting parts were the ones that didn't fit the dictates of a celebrity profile, particularly one written on short notice. As we began, she had just finished giving her bandmates directions to Castle Clinton, where she was to play a show that evening with Laura Cantrell.
NEKO CASE: I don't know New York that well, but I know this area really well because we've been lost here for the last couple days.
PSF: Has it felt kind of weird being in the area during the reconstruction of the World Trade Center?
CASE: No, because people aren't acting weird. I hope it doesn't sound rude to say this, but I don't think New Yorkers have ever been more engaging or more friendly---ever. I don't mean that it would affect them like, "We'd better be nice," but I mean, when I was here to play at the Knitting Factory and nobody was allowed to go down certain streets at that point. And I just remember the policemen and the National Guard were so jolly. They made us sing to them and stuff. It was really quite fun. Everybody was in really good spirits---I don't mean they were in really good spirits because... it's hard to say it without sounding like a dick, but I think that they realized that they lived beautiful lives in a beautiful place, and they kind of enjoyed that. I've never had a stereotypical New York experience, where people are really fucking rude to you. I've never been robbed. Everywhere you go, there's someone who owns a convenience store who's grumpy or a taxi driver who swears. But you know, it's not that different.
PSF: I moved here from Seattle myself a year and a half ago, right around the time you left. Did you live in Seattle proper or Tacoma?
CASE: I lived in Tacoma a lot of my life, but the last place I lived in Washington was Seattle proper.
PSF: Were you born there?
CASE: No, I was born in Virigina---my dad was in the air force. I moved to Chicago from Seattle in October '99.
PSF: How would you characterize the difference between those two cities?
CASE: Chicago is a lot friendlier, especially toward its artists. Seattle is very unfriendly toward artists. There's no artists' housing---they really like to use the arts community, but they don't like to put anything back into the arts community. I'm talking about the government and stuff like that, not the audiences who enjoy art. I would never want to insult those people, because Seattle actually has one of the best art-appreciating audiences in the whole country, especially people who go see shows. There's a lot of great clubs there, and people are very enthusiastic to go out and see music. I play there as much as possible.
PSF: There was a four-year gap between your first and second albums, and since then there's been something of an avalanche of stuff from various projects you've worked on. Is that stuff you had been working on already and it just happened to come out together?
CASE: Yeah. It was weird how the Corn Sisters and the [New] Pornographers and my record [2000's Furnace Room Lullaby] all came out at the same time, because we'd been working on those projects three years prior. People would probably make the mistake that I'm super-prolific, but I'd just been working on them for a long time.
PSF: You don't consider yourself a prolific songwriter?
CASE: I'm not super-slow, but I'm not super-prolific, either. Especially with the Pornographers, it's a lot easier, because I don't actually write the songs. [mock-announcer's voice] "There are a team of songwriters working around the clock in my absence!" They do all the songwriting, Dan [Bejar] and Carl [Newman], and then I come in and sing, which is a nice holiday for me. The Corn Sisters, we do a lot of old songs, a lot of covers, we do some songs we've written, some songs Carolyn has written herself. That's a very low-pressure band. We just played, of all places, Dawson City, Yukon, last weekend. Very exciting---I'd never been to the Yukon before. It's like a beautiful nature preserve. There's only 30,000 people in the entire territory, which means that everybody in the town can go to Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and watch a hockey game. Everybody there is totally amazing: most people have three different jobs and a PhD. We met this amazing lady named Glenda early in the day; she was in her park-ranger outfit. Later, we saw her dressed like a turn-of-the-century madam, leading a tour. And then later on, she was selling merch at the music festival booth, just because she's such an enthusiast.
Everybody there is like that. They're amazing people. I was there for two days; I'm going back there as soon as I possibly can. I think I might play a bit because that'll pay for you to get in and out, but I'll probably stay a few extra days just because it's so magical there. Dawson City has a world-class art gallery, the Odd Gallery, there was an amazing project running while I was there that was all about the Northern Lights, and all the ways people thought the Northern Lights were made, just all these crazy gadgets that were projecting light into the sky. It's called the Odd Gallery because it's in the middle of the Oddfellows Hall there. Upstairs, they have this beautiful concert hall where they put on concerts. All the buildings are old; they don't tear down any of the buildings that are rotting. They just reinforce them, because they want people to see what buildings built during the gold rush look like. All the buildings eventually slant, kind of Tim Burton-y looking, because there's permafrost, which means the ground shifts all the time. During the time I was there the sun never went down because it's so far north---it just sort of ping-pongs back and forth across the horizon. There's no timber industry there, either, because the trees are too short. So there's hundreds of miles of virgin timber, and it looks fucking incredible. Dawson City is right where the Yukon River and the Klondike River come together, and the Klondike is clear and the Yukon is milky, so when you see them come together there's these ribbons of milky and clear water. It's the most incredible thing I've ever seen.
I played the Dawson City Music Festival. They only sell 1,000 tickets so the town doesn't get too crowded. The town is only 12 by eight blocks. Only 700 people live there. But at one time it was the third-largest city on the west coast; I think it had 3,000-some people. It was third after Seattle. People used up the gold and went onto Gnome, where I believe the next gold rush was.
PSF: You were talking about the preservation of the buildings; that's a major concern of yours, isn't it?
CASE: Yeah, I'm pretty heavily into architecture and what it does, its function, what it means for people's memories. There's a lot of things about its craftsmanship that are really important. Things are so stamped-out these days; you don't see stonemasons making beautiful archways, some kind of Irish vine design going down the side of them. It's nice to see those things stay. Plus, I think architecture holds a lot of memories and electricity that replays all the time.
PSF: Is being in New York alienating for you on that level?
CASE: It seems like maybe New York has a better chance of keeping stuff. Basically, it just seems like, by sheer numbers, New York has historical buildings everywhere. Hopefully people will slow down, especially because they're so well made. Vancouver's the worst for that---there's no old buildings left, it's all weird old glass and drywall and duct-tape buildings. But it has a reputation for being a beautiful city. I think it's the mountains that make it a beautiful city.
PSF: I saw you last night at Joe's Pub. I had liked the record before, but the show made me like the record more, because it makes the songs jump out more. If you don't mind my saying so, there was something Twin Peaks-ish about seeing you in a black pinstriped suit, singing "I'll Be Around."
CASE: I wanted to wear the suit because we were playing a fancy bar, and I'd never worn it before. I thought, "Well, this is supposed to be a showcase, maybe I should dress up." But I didn't really want to wear a dress, so I wore the suit. I guess I felt a little Twin Peaks-ish doing it, too. Dressing up, I just feel that way anyway. I'm kind of a little boy—kind of dirty, barefoot.
PSF: Where did you hear the song first? It's an amazing song.
CASE: My friend Andrew Berg was a fan of Ketty Lester, she had a hit with that song "Love Letters" a long time ago, and he had a best-of on CD. He made me a tape of it because he wanted me to hear "Love Letters." I would listen to the whole thing, and the music was really great---the orchestrations are really creepy and Christmassy in that Platters kind of way, and I totally got hooked on "I'll Be Around." It was covered by a lot of people back in the day, but nobody's covered it in a long time, so I thought now's the time.
PSF: Last night your show was about a 70-30 split between originals and covers. You seem like someone who hunts for songs.
CASE: I don't hunt, necessarily, but something will strike me and make me want to do it---it'll just seem like a fun thing to do. And those songs aren't meant to die. It's weird, people get strange about whether you've written your own songs, which seems really stupid considering that especially in country music, it's about oral tradition and passing things on, and the songs weren't meant to be played by one person and then forgotten.
PSF: How did you come to write "Lady Pilot"?
CASE: I was getting on a plane going to Tuscon, Arizona, to do some recording. I was really happy, and I thought, "My life is so good, this is gonna be the part when the plane crashes." [laughs] I was feeling ultra-superstitious. And then I got on the plane, and the pilot was a woman, and she was wearing a skirt, she had red hair, and she was foxy. And I thought, "Oh, cool, I've got a lady pilot. I'm not gonna die!"
PSF: How about "Deep Red Bells"?
CASE: That has a lot to do with growing up in Washington state during the time when the Green River Killer was active, when I was in junior high. It's frightening. It has a lot to do with when you're a kid and you see that stuff on TV all the time---the news definitely made the distinction that these women were prostitutes, in fact they didn't talk about them like they were women much at all, which made me feel really bad for the women. Myself and many, many other young women that I knew at the time were very, very scared of the Green River Killer. It was very much a part of our psyche, and it still is, when you grow up with that kind of stuff. Washington had a lot of serial killers---a lot. The whole time I was growing up, there was Ted Bundy, or the guy in Spokane. And when I was in Vancouver, they finally caught the guy---all these prostitutes were disappearing from downtown, and nobody gave a shit about it. Actually, the people of Vancouver gave a shit about it, but the local government didn't, because a lot of them were prostitutes, some of them were drug addicts, so they figured they were lost anyway. I actually think there's a civil suit in Vancouver---you might want to check on the facts on that---because they could have figured out who this guy was a long time ago, and they didn't bother to do it. The government would make up these wild claims---"Well, we might think it might be a white slavery ring," blamed it on Asian gangs---it was really gross. Same thing with the Green River Killer: they knew who he was for a long time, but they couldn't bring him in on technicalities. I'm sure that it upset the people who had been looking for him that long just as much as the parents of the people he had killed. These women's lives just never seemed that important; they weren't really made that important on the news. It was all about fear. I guess the song is basically me just thinking, "What are their lives? What would their families do."
PSF: I know you started playing punk rock as a drummer, correct? I'm wondering if there might be some sort of link between that fear you described and the number of female punk musicians in the Pacific Northwest, if that kind of rage had anything to do with it. It's completely tangential....
CASE: I don't know if it's so much about that. I think it was more of a reaction to the fact that punk rock in the Northwest at the time was pretty macho and politically dogmatic---it seemed like a big boys' club. Plus, I think that people try to take a super-feminist standpoint on this stuff. I just think a lot of women wanted to play music because they were inspired, because it was an incredibly good time for music in the Northwest. There was a lot of clubs, a lot of bands, a lot of people coming through, a lot of all-ages stuff---it was a very exciting time to live there. I'm sure that some of it could be related to that, though---there are millions of reasons why people do things. People that we knew and loved were raped and murdered, and it was a big deal.
There's also things related to the way women are in the Northwest; I'm sure it has something to do with why they have the best health care for women in the country, the best sex education, the best Planned Parenthoods. And I totally took it for granted until I had to go to Planned Parenthood in New York once while I was on tour a couple years ago. I got treated like an animal. It was fucking awful---I've never felt so humiliated. Everything is run by state. I think everything here in New York is very shame-based. I hope that isn't true. The sex education I saw around the office was very much men and women not in the same responsibility category.
PSF: I want to talk about the milieu you came up in as a musician. You always sang, I have to assume.
CASE: In the house, when nobody was around. But I didn't start singing in front of anybody until I was 25 or 26. I'm 31. I started playing drums in punk bands as early as 17; I was shy, and drums are a good thing to hide behind. And it's really fun to play drums. I went to so many shows, and finally somebody suggested starting a band, and I was right there. There's a point where you just have to say, "If these other people are willing to look stupid, I'm willing to look stupid." And also getting older and having more confidence. I didn't really come from a place with a lot of confidence.
PSF: Were you still in high school or had you moved onto college?
CASE: I dropped out of high school. I went to junior college a bit when I was 19, but I wasn't ready and dropped out. I went back to college in Canada when I was 24 and got my BFA. If you're self-motivated enough to know what you want to do and how to do it, you don't have to go. That's why I haven't gone back for my MFA: my four years at school taught me how to research things and how to learn things for myself.
PSF: Do you have any ongoing research projects you're currently doing for yourself?
CASE: I do photography---I don't have as much time as I'd like to for that. I just spend time being really interested in things; it's going to culminate in some kind of project at some point, I'm sure. I don't know exactly where it's going, but I'm not worried about it, either.
PSF: Would it be music-based, or more generally culture- or arts-based?
CASE: Probably a mix of arts and music based.
PSF: Is there going to be another New Pornographers album?
CASE: We're finishing up recording at the end of August. It's slated to come out in February. It's a little different---you can't make the same record all the time, but I think the elements that I enjoyed are the same. Dan is still writing and recording with us even though he isn't going to tour with us, which makes me very happy, because I love my Dan Bejar, and Carl [Newman]'s written a lot of great songs. We've been playing together as a band more. We were kind of a collective of people who made a record before, but this time we're a band who've toured together---we're more of a streamlined unit than we were. Hopefully the spontaneity will be good spontaneity.
PSF: And is there going to be another Corn Sisters album?
CASE: Eventually. We're not planning it right now. Carolyn [Mark] is putting out a record; she's going to be incredibly busy with that. I'm putting out a record and I'm going to be busy with that. We do shows together when we can, and when we both get a lull, we're going to go back and do more stuff. We'll probably be in the Corn Sisters as long as we live. It's kind of our good-time vacation band. Plus, it's a really good excuse to spend time with my friend Carolyn, who's my one of my favorite people ever.
Michaelangelo Matos writes for Spin, Village Voice, Time Out New York, Stereo-Type, City Pages, Chicago Reader, Baltimore City Paper, Memphis Flyer, Cleveland Scene, Creative Loafing Atlanta, and maintains two weblogs, You Can't Wear Nail Polish to a Surgery and The Mix Project. He lives in Manhattan.
Also see our 2015 article about Neko Case
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