By Kerry DooleFrom go-go dancing punk rock drummer to a singer-songwriter of compelling artistry, the still-unfolding success story of Neko Case is indeed fascinating, and a heartening reminder that sheer talent and drive can still win the day. The fiercely independent Case has always done things her way, yet the phrase "works well with others" is surely etched into her report card. She gets to tour the world with her Canadian buddies in pure pop heroes the New Pornographers, while simultaneously seducing some of the best musicians and singers around into collaborations on her own albums. Once tagged a country noir diva, Case now simply exists outside any genre straitjackets. The potent combination of that ravishingly rich voice and daring lyrical imagination now finds full expression on her sixth album Middle Cyclone. Case is a force of nature, not unlike the cyclones and tornados she writes and sings about on that record. Call her Hurricane Neko.
1970 to 1992 Neko Case is born September 8, 1970 in Alexandria, Virginia, to parents of Ukrainian descent. Her father is stationed with the Air Force there, but her parents divorce by the time Case begins school. She spends a lot of time at her grandparents farm, and her grandmother imparts a love of country music. A nomadic childhood with her mother and stepfather, an archaeologist, sees her living in Western Massachusetts, Vermont, Oregon and Washington. She leaves home at 15 and while still in her teens and living in Tacoma, Washington, she begins drumming for such Northwest area punk bands as the Del Logs and the Propanes. Working in Tacoma punk club, the Community Western Theatre, exposes Case to the likes of early Nirvana, the Fastbacks, and emerging grunge bands.
Case's Propanes band-mate Laura Woods is a major influence. "She was really into collecting records and going to shows," Case will tell Chicago journalist Anders Smith Lindall in 2002. "She loaned me this record called Swing Down Sweet Chariot by Bessie Griffin and Her Gospel Pearls. I was 19, I was heavily into punk rock, and punk rock was really dogmatic and macho. But this record made me feel like these people are singing about something they really care about. It's like their voices were these crazy cannons or something, and they could just blow shit out of their way with them. I wanted to be able to sing like that, because I thought that must've felt really good."
One band prominent on the Tacoma scene are the still-active Girl Trouble, and Case becomes part of their orbit. Her free-spiritedness is immortalized on the song "Neko Loves Rock'N'Roll," which appears on Girl Trouble's 1990 album, Thrillsphere, released on Popllama. An important Canadian connection is forged at a 1991 Girl Trouble gig in Vancouver, as rocker/CBC Radio producer Grant Lawrence now recalls. "The first time I saw Neko Case, she was a go-go dancer for Girl Trouble, an incredible band in the rock'n'roll vein of the Sonics. I already knew their great song 'Neko Loves Rock'N'Roll,' about a girl who loves to go to shows and dance. I always thought it was a fictional character, but when Girl Trouble came to Vancouver, there was a girl go-go dancing onstage with them. They introduced her as Neko, and I realized 'this is the one.'"
Lawrence and Case becomes friends, and she organizes a gig by his band the Smugglers in Tacoma. "We drive down to Seattle and pick Neko up on a street corner. I'm with all of my band, and she's there waving at us. The first thing I thought when I saw her was 'What a buxom babe.' She hops into the front seat of the van, grabs a can from the cooler of beer for the gig that night, she pops it open, and goes 'let's hit the highway.'"
1993 to 1994 The Smugglers return to Tacoma for more shows, and Case's talents as a visual artist are put to good use when she designs the cover for the band's 1993 album, In The Hall Of Fame. A relationship develops between Case and Smugglers guitarist Dave Carswell, one termed by Lawrence as "a fateful moment that changed Neko's life in a big way. She moved in with Dave in Vancouver, and became immersed in an entirely different music scene than she was used to in the States. There, everyone was like ten years older and she was the young girl on the scene. In Vancouver, we were all around the same age and all just starting out."
Case meets another man who would have a huge impact on her life, Bill Baker. Along with Randy Iwata, he co-founded Vancouver-based independent record label Mint Records in 1991. The third band they signed was all-girl trio Cub, whose cute and melodic sound was later dubbed "cudddlecore." Case was not part of the original line-up that put out two seven-inch singles, "Pep" and "Hot Dog Day," on Mint in late '92 and early '93, but joins in to record the song "It's True" in Olympia, Washington, then tours with the group. "I'm pretty sure it was April 1993," recalls Baker in a recent interview with Exclaim! "The person playing drums for them then couldn't go on the tour and they found Neko. She was dating a guy we all mutually knew at the time [Carswell]. I just remember the night of meeting Neko. She's an extremely hilarious person, and with our repartee, sarcasm and rudeness, there was an immediate good kinship."